“It always seems impossible until it is done.” – Nelson Mandela

How do we bring equity into the innovation sector? It requires going beyond a charity model and leading with social justice, diversity, and the environment. It necessitates creating new systems of inclusive innovation that have triple bottom line benefits – social, environmental, profit.

Last month I made the case for prioritizing equity and sustainability in research and technology innovation. Here are seven building blocks that support a research and innovation sector that innovates for the benefit of all communities and the environment we inhabit.

Clear Priorities | Innovators and researchers should set bold and actionable priorities that include equity and sustainability in all facets of work. Stakeholders must set these priorities early and with meaningful input from the communities affected by the research. As an example, as part of the CalSEED Initiative, our first task was to develop a project-specific Equity Framework. This Equity Framework includes an equity commitment and guiding principles that will ensure that project activities benefit all of California’s diverse communities and leave no one behind.

Strong Relationships |The creative, brilliant minds innovating and engineering our future need to meet the passionate brilliant minds fighting for a more equitable and sustainable world. We need relationship building and strong communication between research communities, equity advocates, and the government. We see a growing number of collaborations, both formal and informal, bringing together stakeholders with a common interest in innovation equity. The Global Research Alliance and the Inclusive Innovation Hub are two examples of successful collaborations putting equity and sustainability at the forefront.

Leadership Buy-in | There must be explicit leadership buy-in within the innovation sector (including funders) to prioritize equity and sustainability. This commitment should be clearly articulated throughout all governing policy documents, with a system of accountability in place. In California, the primary agency funding clean technology innovation has made a clear commitment to lead with an equity and diversity lens. In Silicon Valley, senior leadership at 33 tech companies signed on to a tech inclusion pledge, demonstrating a bold commitment to increasing the diversity of their workforce.

Diverse and Equity-Driven Staff | It is critical that innovators and research institutions have staff that understand equity and are required to prioritize it in their work. Separate but related is the issue of diversity. Our experiences inform our intellect but also limit it. So to effectively innovate and research equitable solutions at a large scale, it becomes critical to have diversity in both thought and experience, ideally representing the target “end-user” of your work. For a good example, look at Data and Society, a predominantly female and people of color-led research institute focused on the intersection between technology and social justice.

Benchmarking and Gap Analysis | To develop and realize an equity vision, project leaders need to dedicate resources and time toward an upfront analysis identifying where business as usual is failing and what opportunities exist for bringing equity and sustainability to the forefront of research and innovation projects. This analysis should be done in close coordination with and input from impacted communities. The state of California is currently conducting two such studies that identify opportunities to increase access to clean energy and clean transportation technologies in low-income communities and communities of color.

Targeted Resources | We need to identify resources that support and prioritize equity within clean energy and sustainability research and innovation. The CalSEED Initiative discussed above is one successful example of funding that leads with both equity and sustainability. The California Energy Commission’s EPIC program and the India Innovation Lab for Green Finance showcase powerful examples of funding partnerships that promote equity and clean energy access. In 2015, over 40 venture capital firms with more than $100 billion under management made a commitment at the White House to prioritize diversity and inclusion in an innovation ecosystem.

Transparency and Accountability | Just as corporations file hundreds of pages of financial data, so too should there be rigorous disclosure and tracking of qualitative and quantitative social and environmental impacts within the research and innovation sector. The tech inclusion pledge discussed above includes a commitment to annually publish data and track metrics for staff diversity. This level of transparency in tech should happen across all equity metrics in addition to diversity and inclusion. These metrics should also include a system of accountability to ensure equity priorities are met.

Metrics should measure equity priorities such as:

  • Diversity of innovators and researchers
  • Accessibility of the innovation to marginalized communities
  • Input received during the innovation from impacted communities
  • Economic and health benefits to marginalized communities as a result of the innovation

Let’s get it done!

This may seem like an impossible task, but as Nelson Mandela reminded us, “It always seems impossible until it is done.” We already have the tools, now let’s move forward together and create an equitable and sustainable innovation sector one building block at a time.