Exploring Barriers to Innovation, Part II: Looking for Genius in all the Wrong Places

Whitney Dunlap-Fowler
10 min readSep 12, 2022


Outdated perceptions around creativity and inventiveness are blocking our opportunity to innovate more effectively.

Bottom: Moses West developed an atmospheric water system that can turn air into clean drinking water; Christian Smalls fought to unionize an Amazon warehouse, the first in the country and now strives to impact labor laws across the country; Kizzmekia Corbett lead the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Social scientists and scholars have been ruminating over the alleged decline of ingenuity and creativity in the US for more than a decade. Despite rising IQ scores in America, researchers have been concerned about declining test rates emerging from the Torrance Test, which measures creative abilities and predicts creative achievement on a global scale.

There are many multilayered factors to point to what may be causing this decline. In this three part series, Touch of Whit Creative’s Whitney Dunlap-Fowler explores barriers to innovation.

We are in the midst of a cultural reckoning.

The world has now become privy to the fact that the creative talents and inputs of marginalized groups have routinely been stolen, appropriated, stripped of historical accuracy and/or falsely claimed for years. Centuries of steeling and intentional erasure have worked to constantly position white men as society’s most innovative, pioneering visionaries. For people of color, especially Black Americans, these actions birthed and substantiated long held myths about their intellectual capabilities which still exist today.

Due to inequitable power paradigms and outdated perceptions of intelligence, innovation contributing to the forward movement of society is typically expected to occur at the hands of white men. Anyone existing outside of this expectation is either discounted, forgotten, or deemed invisible. This fact has fundamentally impacted the composition of innovation teams around the world- teams typically void of diversity, or that struggle to locate diverse prospects to join them.

Let’s explore how discrimination and warped views of innovative value have worked to contribute to this issue.

A Contradictory Innovation Formula

Creativity has often been born from the unmet needs of less fortunate groups seeking solutions to accommodate their lifestyles- ways of living often overlooked by wealthier, more advantaged members of society. This phenomenon has shown up numerous times throughout history, including the series of events following one of the most defining moments in American History: The Boston Tea Party.

Businesses have also integrated this concept into their methodologies for building effective innovation strategies. When seeking inspiration for example, it is common for research practitioners to seek out “emergent signals” indicating new trends and patterns of behavior occurring in niche groups that could potentially impact a product, category or reshape culture in a significant way. Perhaps not surprisingly, the communities these signals come from are commonly comprised of people of color. Trends, phrases, or cultural artifacts born from the creative intelligence of these communities often find their way into large corporations and are stripped of their historicity, origin stories and cultural significance. They are then commoditized and commercialized for big business, and labeled the next new “discovery” or innovation idea.

Black Entrepreneur Calls Balenciaga Out For Allegedly ‘Borrowing’ His Work And Selling It For 25x The Price Without Permission https://afrotech.com/lamont-tory-stapleton-struggle-is-common-balenciaga

A unique irony exists in the fact that a widely used formula for sourcing inspiration for innovation is one that looks towards communities of color, but does not recognize them as key contributors to societal growth. What’s more, the perception for who an innovator is, or can be, has continued to remain the same, despite shifts in diversity and the growing presence of a new, multicultural creator economy.

An outdated framework used to determine how innovation and creativity are measured and valued in society may be to blame.

Innovation’s Impact on Productivity: A Flawed System of Measurement

  1. The Holy Grail of Measuring Productivity, and its Limitations

While what we innovate has evolved, how we measure the impact of innovation has not. Gross domestic product or GDP is the leading system of measurement that determines a country’s economic health. It is the “total monetary or market value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period” and it determines our overall domestic production and economic growth.

Historically, innovations positioned as contributing the most to a country’s GDP have been technological in nature. Although the utilization of a GDP framework has added value to global economies since the 1940s, it has yet to accurately measure or consider the intangible contributions of other types of innovations proliferating the marketplace that may exist beyond the technological sphere.

If we go back 80 years, GDP and innovation probably were much more tightly linked, because innovations were producing things that generate a demand for themselves. You invent the refrigerator, and everybody goes through a wave of buying a refrigerator, which plays right into productivity statistics and GDP. But a lot of innovations today — are really about replacing…They’re not about creating a market or adding a product; they’re about replacing one or removing one… we need to maybe not have our optimism keyed off of measured productivity or measured GDP statistics necessarily. American Enterprise Institute

Social innovation, for example, defined as “a process, product or program that profoundly changes the way a given system operates” and “reduces the vulnerability of the people and the environment in that system” has no clear way of being measured or determined as of yet. Social innovations are typically designed to develop solutions around access and equality for underserved and overlooked populations. Our inability to measure such an important factor of social progress should automatically render our measuring system ineffective.

Though there is widespread recognition of the need for social innovation, there is no clear understanding of how social innovation leads to social change. Phenomena of social change are often looked at in connection mainly with technological innovation, but without paying sufficient attention to elements of social innovation.- We Forum

Lastly, it is very likely that the populations that gain the most from social innovations are the ones who are also developing them. However, as the next sections will reveal, there is a reason as to why those innovations may or may not make it into our history books.

2. Patents Determine Who an Innovator Is

Patents, established to protect the owner or creator of an original invention, are another key way we measure productivity based on innovation. However, in the US, the patent system has had an unfavorable history with inventors of color who “have been left behind for many reasons, including too few resources, a lack of access to capital, and a low level of awareness of the patenting system in general “— Bloomberg Law.

This originated in slavery and set the stage for how creative contributions of Black Americans would be treated for decades. Despite their conditions, Blacks ideated new inventions during and after slavery. Because they were not seen as American citizens (as determined by Dred Scott) their creativity often went unrewarded and unrecognized by the US government & US patent system. An individual with no nation could not legally claim to be the ideator of any new product or invention. It was instead common for slave owners to seek patents for their slaves’ inventions, claim them as their own and reap the financial benefits from the efforts of their slaves.

After slavery, access to the US patent system remained difficult for minorities. In a 2013 study, economist Lisa Cook measured how the impact of segregation laws, lynchings, and state-supported violence suppressed African American inventions in the 20th Century by tracking the patent filings of African American inventors from 1870–1940. Filings by Black inventors were on pace with those of Whites until 1900 when new laws and wide spread incidences of violence began to disproportionally impact the livelihood and safety of Black Americans, effectively slowing down their progress.

The pace of patent filings by Black inventors topped out in 1899 and didn’t exceed that year’s level until 2010… She estimates that in the absence of that violence, there might have been 1,100 more patents — roughly the number that might be filed in a medium-sized European country in the same time period. International Monetary Fund

The events of the past have deeply impacted the degree and rate in which patents are filed today. With the exception of Asian men, minorities & women are less often in patent-heavy career fields. They also often lack key resources or have limited knowledge of the patent process. Racial and gender disparities in patenting leaves white men to continue remaining the more prominent faces of innovation and inventiveness.

White men patent at nine times the rate of white women, while Hispanic men patent at five times the rate of Hispanic women, and African American men patent at 2.6 times the rate of African American women. However, with the exception of Asian men, who patent at nearly twice the rate of white men, white men patent at significantly higher rates than African American and Hispanic persons of both genders…only 18.8 percent of all U.S. patents in 2010 list one or more women as an inventor…at current rates of patenting, women will not reach parity with men until the year 2092. — Technology & Innovation

3. Value Hierarchy of Innovation - A Subjective Categorization of Societal Impact

A long held perspective in the field of innovation is that disadvantaged groups are incapable of innovating solutions for themselves, and therefore require members of the wealthy class to do it for them. Practically speaking, this sentiment rings true as scarcity and survival become central factors driving day to day priorities of groups in less than ideal circumstances. However, as demonstrated by the resilience of Black Americans, this is not necessarily true for all members of these groups.

The problem often lies in value that is attributed to white inventors vs. non-white innovators. In a recent “diversity-innovation paradox” study, researchers sought to understand why inequalities in scientific careers continued to exist between minority and majority groups. They found that the contributions of women and non-white scholars were frequently devalued and discounted when compared to that of white men.

We wanted to find out if there’s a link between the low numbers of women and racial minorities who hold professorships and have research careers and the rates at which they innovate. We went into this thinking there are two possibilities. One is that underrepresented genders and races, mostly women and racial minorities, innovate less. Another possibility is that diversity does breed innovation, but that diverse perspectives and ideas aren’t rewarded. Our evidence suggests it’s the latter.- Stanford Graduate School of Education

Because innovation is defined as something that is new and that people use often, it was common for innovations proposed by women and non-white scholars to be less appealing for majority groups, which marked their contributions as less innovative. Essentially, the fresh perspectives purported to be gained by diversity & inclusion are the same ones harming the career opportunities of women and nonwhite scholars whose ideas may not resonate with the majority (white men).

Science is a communal effort, and it conforms to the pattern of its social structure. It’s also possible that the fresh perspectives that women and nonwhite scholars bring are atypical and can sometimes be hard to grasp, so they get devalued by the majority. — Stanford Graduate School of Education

To arrive at these conclusions, researchers measured the impact of each innovation by counting how many times they were adopted in subsequent PhD dissertations. This is the same approached used by scholars in a different study that measured innovation by counting patents. At the Hoover Institution, three Stanford professors outlined their productivity measuring philosophy in which they analyzed patents and determined which innovations were “high-quality” based on the number of additional patents built off of them.

The first step… was to construct a measure of high-quality innovation. The researchers did so by comparing the texts of all the patents in the database and tabulating the occurrence of important words. If there was little overlap between the text of a patent and its predecessors, the patent was likely a novel innovation. If words in subsequent patents were similar, the subject patent was likely an important innovation that other patents had built upon. Patents meeting both criteria, i.e., novel and important, were considered “high quality”.- Stanford Business

The subjective value system of innovation hierarchies is one that, intentionally or unintentionally, continues to dismiss the contributions of Black and brown inventors. Minorities lucky enough to make it to the patent phase will have to face the fact that the impact of their contributions could be subjectively ranked lower than the contributions of others, rending their innovations as less meaningful. As determined by the Diversity Innovation Paradox Study, what continues to hold true is that underrepresented groups will have to innovate at higher levels, and likely ideate solutions that serve the majority before their innovations are seen as impactful to society.


Today, there is a multi-level effort to correct the misdeeds of the past by honoring the ingenuity of creators of color, and restoring recognition to inventors who were disregarded and overlooked in the past. Savvy social media users, for instance, are increasingly using their platforms to educate their followers on the past while calling out disparities in exposure and pay facing creators of color.

To help shift power structure perceptions and in culture, museums are also doing their part. The Met Museum has begun exploring the myth of whiteness in Greek mythology with a goal of establishing a more realistic picture of the racial make up of some of history’s most lauded heroes. And finally, European museums have begun giving back the cultural artifacts previously stolen from other countries. It is said that today, as much as 90% of Africa’s material cultural heritage is located in the West in major museum collections.

But this, as we know, is not enough to change how we perceive intelligence, and how we value or discount diversity in innovation. The systems we use to measure and quantify innovations are not only ill-equipped to keep up with how innovations are evolving, but they are also inherently biased and subjective in nature. While some groups are attempting to account for economic growth through alternative forms of innovation, there is still a need for 1) a more agile and comprehensive global system to measure productivity emerging from innovation more accurately; 2) consideration around who has traditionally been permitted to enter the sphere of innovation and who has perpetually been blocked from this space, and why; and 3) a reassessment for how the utility of innovations from non-majority groups is to be determined.

Without these changes, the full breadth of innovative possibility will never reach its true potential.

Be sure to check back for the third installment of this series which will focus on barriers to innovation in the market and research industry.



Whitney Dunlap-Fowler

A Cultural Strategist & Semiotician. I write about brand strategy, market research and life from my perspective. www.touchofwhit.com, www.insightsincolor.com