The Real Outliers

More

What if the solutions to many of the world's, and America's, challenges of health, education, and productivity already exist and are waiting to be multiplied? That's the premise of a new approach to innovation described by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow in "The Power of Positive Deviants." 

Instead of imposing solutions from without, the method [of Positive Deviance] identifies outliers in a community who, despite having no special advantages, are doing exceptionally well. By respecting local ingenuity, proponents say, the approach galvanizes community members and is often more effective and sustainable than imported blueprints.

There are hidden innovators everywhere, from rice farmers in Vietnam to patient transporters in New England hospitals. Sometimes neighbors and coworkers copy them spontaneously, but often custom and top-down management limit the spread of their ideas. Agencies and philanthropies can promote nutrition and health by helping lower the barriers and spread the word. 

The optimistic essay omits a sad fact of innovation--that some of the greatest outliers have lacked the personal and political skills to spread their ideas against entrenched opposition of their peers. Think of the hero and martyr of medical antisepsis, the Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis

In the countryside, positive deviance can encounter other kinds of obstacles, including dietary habits and cultivation systems. John Reader, in his recent book "Potato," points out that seventeenth-century German peasants desperate to preserve their food sources from marauding troops became the pioneers of planting the still-mistrusted New World tuber. Even so, eighteenth-century rulers like Frederick the Great had to threaten draconian punishments to encourage a partial shift from grain. French peasants resisted the potato at least until the food crises of the 1790s, though the royal enthusiasts Louis XVI (said to have worn a potato flower on his coat) and Marie Antoinette did their best until the end. The greatest ally of positive deviance is sometimes not enlightened encouragement but desperation.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In