The “Problem” with Immigrants

Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking

This is my new favourite book: Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking. It highlights everything I have ever thought about Diversity and Inclusion and backs it up with empirical evidence.

It came to my attention after listening to this excellent programme: Start the Week on BBC Radio 4, Monday 7th October. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000935s

I recommend you get a copy of the book immediately and enjoy the insight and clarity Syed brings to the arena. It’s 11 hours well spent listening to as an audio book too.

As you will, no doubt, be aware, immigration has been the subject of some of the most vitriolic exchanges in the political narrative recently – across the world.

The problems that immigration causes. The issues immigration raises. The concerns immigration leaves.

As the child of immigrants who did nothing but contribute to the society in which we live, indeed my mum must have saved thousands of lives in her 41 years with the NHS, and my father was proactive in saving the diminishing trade of bespoke tailoring in the UK training and employing scores of people, and my being married to an immigrant, I know the above narrative to be a hurtful fallacy.

I wish to share the following extracts of Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas as they’re rooted in research and academia and put to bed some of the myths around immigration.

First of all, a definition from the book. The term ‘recombination’ refers to the smashing together of disparate ideas to give birth to innovation.

A study published in December 2017 revealed that 43 percent of companies in the Fortune 500 were founded or co-founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants, rising to 57 percent in the top thirty-five companies. These companies produced $5.3 trillion in global revenue and employed 12.1 million workers worldwide in everything from tech to retail and finance to insurance. This is not an isolated finding. Immigrants make disproportionate contributions to technology, to patent production and to academic science. A 2016 paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives showed that US-based researchers had been awarded 65 percent of Nobel Prizes over the preceding few decades. Who were these innovators? More than half were born abroad.

[Immigrants] have experienced a different culture, a different way of doing things. When they see the business ideas in a new country, or a particular technology, they do not see something immutable. Irrevocable. Set in stone. They see something that could potentially be changed. Reformed. Amended, adapted, or subject to recombination. The very experience of seeing different place seems to offer psychological latitude to question conventions and assumptions. Let us call this the outsider mindset. Immigrants are not outsiders in the literal sense of physically standing outside a particular convention or paradigm. Rather, they are outsiders in the conceptual sense of being able to reframe the paradigm. To see it with fresh eye. This provides them with the latitude to come up with rebel ideas.

Immigrants have another advantage, too, inextricably linked with the notion of recombination. They have experience of two cultures so have greater scope to bring ideas together. They act as bridges, facilitators for ‘idea sex’. If the outsider perspective confers the ability to question the status quo, diversity of experience helps to provide the recombinant answers.

This is why the outsider mindset is set to become such a powerful asset. That is not to say that we don’t need insider expertise; quite the reverse. We need both conceptual depth and conceptual distance. We need to be insiders and outsiders, conceptual natives and recombinant immigrants. We need to be able to understand the status quo, but also to question it. We need to be strategically rebellious. To return to immigrants, there are doubtless additional reasons to explain their outsize contribution to innovation. The kinds of people who choose to migrate are likely to be comfortable with risk-taking. Given the barriers they often face, they are likely to develop resilience. But while these traits are important, they should not obscure the significance of being able to question the status quo and step beyond convention.

Those passages are taken from Chapter 4: Innovation, between pages 137- 143, and all claims are referenced in the book’s notes.

Immigrants are part of the solution, however, the impact of being a person of colour, and – likely – an immigrant or child of an immigrant, is that often, when we do point out issues with organisations and we try to work on them and push for accountability, the organisation turns on us and we then are termed the problem. This is the issue where diversity of thought – the rebel ideas – exists, but that is not, actually, welcomed.

Some organisations want to look diverse, but not take on the challenge and opportunity of doing so – so where does that leave immigrants?

Fighting for Diversity and Inclusion, or putting up and shutting up. And that’s the sadness of it.

More about Matthew Syed here: https://www.matthewsyed.co.uk/