On the Edge of Superdiversity
Diversity discussions took center stage in 2020.
The article below, initially a speech, I presented in 2015 to discuss diversity during a UNGA event in New York.
I thought it was important to first put this speech into perspective. At the time of writing, diversity was still a seldom topic. It has now taken an entirely new dimension approached from various angles. As I continue to expand on the concept of Environmental Intelligence, I keep finding essential clues in nature—clues that help us live better and in harmony if we mimic the intelligence of nature and our environment.
Tree Diversity, for example, is a crucial driver of forest health; it guarantees and optimizes functional tree composition, forest structure, climate, and soil. Tree diversity ensures the richness and functionality of its ecosystem. In nature, diversity isn’t just important; it’s vital.
As humans, we are a part of nature, and diversity is a vital element of our functional structures, including our economies, our communities, and our cultures. Diversity guarantees and ensures balance and provides a rich and fertile soil’ for our lives. Diversity is essential to our development and our perspective.
Let’s hope that we use every opportunity to celebrate the world’s diversity this year and new decade.
Beyond human diversity, I believe we are entering the age of superdiversity. This idea needs further exploration collectively with the belief that embracing diversity will help us transition more harmoniously into superdiversity.
AI and technology are giving us a new definition of diversity, so superdiversity needs our attention. With the introduction and prevalence of machines and robots in our lives, we need to harness and recognize what diversity is: one of the greatest tool and assets to our newly formed perspective of what the ‘other’ really means and how superdiversity is an opportunity to better ourselves, grow and thrive.
Diversity is such a broad word and concept; in Hindi, diversity means noticeable heterogeneity.
My understanding of diversity started very early. I am a Canadian, born in France, but my roots and ancestry are part of the Amazigh ethnic group. Amazigh are Indigenous people of North Africa.
The Berbers live in scattered communities across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania. They speak various Amazigh languages belonging to the Afro-Asiatic family related to ancient Egyptian.
Of the few summers I spent in North Africa, I fondly remember my mother’s outfits when she went out to several social events and weddings. I loved one outfit, called a Karako, also called L’Algerois in French, which means Algiers’ dweller. This outfit made of red or black velvet and ornate with gold embroidery in the forms of arabesques and flowers represented all the tradition and grandeur of that time. The Karako, inspired by the Ottoman Empire, was given as a wedding gift to the bride and often passed on to the first-born daughter.
In 1981, WWD featured an article on Yves Saint Laurent naming him the king of Parisian Couture. Yves Saint Laurent was born in Algeria and was exposed to the social and cultural north African reverence and rich celebratory protocols. He has featured countless versions of the Karako and various other North African traditional wear. His spin and genius eye for detail made these ancestral pieces all the more appealing for the couture market, but these designs were intrinsically Algerian, African. His signature color known as “Bleu Majorelle” was inspired by the Berber villa Saint Laurent had purchased in Marrakech. Art nouveau Painter Jacques Majorelle formerly owned the Villa.
One of Yves Saint Laurent’s most defining attributes is this Berber blue, the iconic color that has been seen in several of his creations. In this context, would it be fair to say that YSL was instead a prince of North African Couture in his designs? He impacted his African-inspired designs and diversity as a genius branding tool and by setting himself apart from other couture houses.
Yves Saint Laurent moved to Paris, at the tender age of 18 to join the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. His inspirations, his designs were always very loyal to the continent where he lived as a child; his safari collections are also a testament to his love and affection for African rich sensibility and profound beauty. He saw the advantage of noticeable heterogeneity in his designs and the runway with his muses, first with Rebecca Ayoko from Togo, who was the first black model to walk the runway, then with the stunning Katoucha from Guiney.
In an interview, Naomi Campbell illustrates how Saint Laurent generously launched her career. Campbell recalls: “My first Vogue cover ever was because of this man, because when I said to him ‘Yves, they won’t give me a French Vogue cover, they won’t put a black girl on the cover,’ and he was like ‘I’ll take care of that,’ and he did.” In August 1988, Naomi Campbell became the first black model to land the cover of French Vogue. As I often refer to presidents and executives within the Who Cares Chronicles initiative, Yves Cared. He knew that the rich variety of humanity would make his brand appealing to all markets and all customers, not just one segment of the market.
Saint Laurent regularly featured his designs in black magazines; a practice considered a precarious marketing risk at the time. In particular, he showcased his designs in Ebony Magazine’s pages and the related Ebony Traveling Fashion Show. He often reached out to Eunice Johnson for advice and guidance. Johnson was the producer of the Traveling Fashion Show and known as the reputable “black matriarch” of publishing.
Historically, this model proved successful for the House of Saint Laurent, so it’s more than puzzling to have seen (over the years) that most of the influential fashion houses showed an utter lack of responsibility when it came to choosing people that represent the rich diversity of our world.
It is a responsibility and a pivotal component of what makes a company current and relevant. Sadly, this issue is not prone to the fashion industry; it exists in the media, in the arts, in academia, in business, and even in the health industry.
A frightening fact found in the US maternal health: African American women, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, are four times more likely to die of childbirth-related issues.
Yves Saint Laurent was a pioneer in embracing diversity; he understood that diversity is an asset. Because of its visibility, the fashion industry needs to breed a whole different way of thinking. We desperately need more diverse people working in all facets of the sector… (all industries).
Season after season, the number one criticism hurled at the fashion industry concerns the runways’ lack of diversity.
Though it’s an issue raised every year, few designers have made changes to their lineups. In recent years, most models that walked the shows were white. It’s those kinds of statistics that make Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain campaigns that much more exciting and impactful.
His ads feature several models from all ethnicities. Olivier Rousteing was the first to make a statement with his campaigns. Insistent about speaking to his generation, the designer said showing ‘the beauty of different ethnicities‘ reflects the reality of modern cities like Paris and his boundary-breaking situation: being, (I quote) “a black boy in a really important French fashion house.”
For the better part of the world’s history, one could predict the leadership group’s race, gender, and educational background. Visible manifestations helped sort out who would decide and who would lead. Skin color, ethnic origin, country of birth, gender, accent, sexual orientation, religion, and last name were the common bonds, the glue of prestige and power that held the leadership structure of industries and countries together.
It is a new time; it is a new era. In a world defined by globalization and technology, we are now entering superdiversity. We can learn from avant-garde designers such as Saint Laurent, who paved the way for Olivier Rousteing. Olivier Rousteing, with his current Balmain designs, and its richly embroidered fabrics, is known for his ability to use social media most cleverly, always conveying a message. A Balmain Nation is one of his most telling hashtags. Used profusely by Olivier Rousteing, it opens a new dialogue. The Balmain nation campaign represents this superdiversity. With this campaign, Olivier Rousteing addresses diversity and speaks of symbols of togetherness. Social media, travel, and modern living allow us to understand these symbols of togetherness. Almost at every point of our day, we are immersed in cultural diversity: faces, clothes, smell, attitudes, values, traditions, behaviors, beliefs, and rituals.
In this new era, we all have the responsibility to speak and share symbols of togetherness and diversity. Its benefit is our communities, our cities, our schools, our industries, and our countries. These symbols are available in our history and should be celebrated today.
Emma Lazarus ‘the Colossus poem’ is engraved on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty. One of the poem’s sentences is the most symbolic of diversity as an asset and a great symbol of togetherness;
“Mother of Exiles, from her beacon hand, glows world-wide welcome.”
Worldwide Welcome is a profound symbol of diversity, acceptance, and celebration of noticeable heterogeneity. In today’s modern culture, we can make this era an era of newfound acceptance. We can all be symbols of diversity. Having designers such as Saint Laurent, Alaia, or Rousteing that see beyond the design can see the impact and the importance of addressing all community segments. Our children are already living in a world where superdiversity is accepted. We find the same genius and beauty in all places; diversity believes in the human spirit and its vast, rich potential. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
While the word superdiversity further specifies the singularities of diversity, I use this word in an entirely different context. Superdiversity as seen in the context of the integration of tech’ species.’ As robots and technology become prevalent, we have failed to acknowledge the diverse society of robots and machines being “conceived.” Machines and robots are genuinely distinct in their interactions and purpose, yet, they are about to become important components of our society.
Their importance and prevalence have little to do with robots’ pre-disposition for the human ephemera. They surpass it. While we upload hundreds of hours’ worth of images, beliefs, and perceived emotions to give these robots a semblance of human foundation, we fail to grasp the diversity we are entering.
Robot’s diversity criterion is happenstance. While we still argue and find ways to divide humanity, non-human species are entering the room. We fail to understand that while we have not yet grasped and celebrated our rich human diversity, robots expose a superdiversity that has yet to be evaluated, let alone integrated. Or has it? Recent work by MIT scientist Kate Darling demonstrates that we can fall in love with robots. In China, an AI Chatbot named Xiaoice is becoming a popular girlfriend for China’s lonely men. One user reported that the chatbot’s EQ is higher than that of a human. But before humans fall in love with robots, let’s hope they unlearn some of their embedded divisive databases and integrate that diversity in nature is the only way nature survives.