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Driving innovation with emotional intelligence

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Driving innovation with emotional intelligence


The world watched in wonder in February as NASA’s robotic rover Perseverance successfully landed on the surface of Mars with the goal of searching for evidence of past life on the red planet. The technology itself was, of course, astounding. But what really captivated the public was the video taken by a couple of miniature cameras from consumer-grade smartphones that were attached to the landing module. The idea came from NASA deputy program manager Matt Wallace, who was inspired when his daughter showed him a video she made by attaching a camera to her body during gymnastics. “I felt for a moment I had a glimpse into what it would be like if I could do a back flip,” he told The New York Times.

With this simple idea, Wallace helped NASA captivate and inspire humanity.

EQ as a differentiator

Even as the world rapidly embraces more and more complex technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), it’s still the human connection that gets our attention. That makes emotional intelligence (EQ) more important than ever. In a world gone digital, it’s crucial to design products and lead people in the analog world, based on our humanity. Those who understand this will more effectively inspire and lead their staffs, please their customers, and spark more innovation. 

Emotional intelligence was developed as a psychological theory in the 1990s by Peter Salovey and John Mayer. In a series of books, journalist Daniel Goleman refined and popularized the idea, breaking it down into five characteristics:

  • Self-awareness: Recognizing and understanding your emotions, and how they affect others.
  • Self-regulation: Controlling your impulses and moods, especially to pause and think before acting.
  • Internal motivation: Being driven by something other than external rewards like money.
  • Empathy: Understanding how other people feel.
  • Social skills: Knowing how to build and manage good relationships.  

EQ is increasingly recognized as a competitive advantage, according to a survey by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. It found that emotionally intelligent organizations get an innovation premium. These organizations reported more creativity, higher levels of productivity and employee engagement, significantly stronger customer experiences, and higher levels of customer loyalty, advocacy, and profitability. Organizations that did not focus on emotional intelligence had “significant consequences, including low productivity, lukewarm innovation, and an uninspired workforce,” said the report.

With the recent crisis of a worldwide pandemic, EQ has become even more important in leadership. Verizon surveyed senior business leaders both before and after covid-19. Before the pandemic, less than 20% of respondents said EQ would be an important skill for the future. But since covid, EI increased in significance for 69% of respondents.

The emotional appeal of Perseverance

NASA’s Perseverance exemplifies the application of EQ in many ways. The complex technology came not only from NASA rocket scientists, but also from a variety of U.S. small businesses identified, nurtured, and funded through two programs: the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer program (STTR). Together they award some $200 million a year to small businesses to develop technology for NASA.

Gynelle Steele, deputy program executive of these programs, says EQ is key to her job on several levels, including how she leads her staff and how the programs nurture small business. As a leader, she needs to be perceptive in terms of what type of innovation NASA needs, how small businesses may provide it, and how she can bring them together. Like the manager who put the smartphone cameras on the Perseverance, Steele and her staff try to stay open to new ideas and perspectives.

“A sure way to stifle innovation is to not have the emotional maturity to recognize that innovation and creativity can come from many sources,” says Steele. “I think that our agency has hugely benefited from research institutes, large businesses, small businesses, and individual contributors.” She continues, “The capacity to recognize untapped sources of innovation, then bringing them together in a system, is a great ability to have.”

Perseverance incorporates technology from several of the small businesses that are or were once part of Steele’s programs. For example, small businesses developed the rover’s seven-foot robotic arm, which will drill Martian rock to collect and analyze core samples, as well as a dust mitigation tool and lithium ion rechargeable batteries.

Integrating these contributions into the larger NASA design is like conducting an orchestra in a symphony. “Pulling all these technologies together into the bigger mission becomes very poetic,” she says.

The end result is something that appeals to us on a human level: it’s satisfying for Steele as a leader and for the NASA staff—feeding their internal motivation of advancing humanity’s exploration of the Final Frontier. And it reinforces a strong emotional bond with the American public, which is NASA’s ultimate “customer.” Everyone feels inspired and experiences a sense of higher purpose. “This feeling of being an explorer­­—of constantly pushing the boundaries—is something that even as kids most of us appreciate,” says Steele.

Bringing EQ benefits down to earth

Although NASA is a universal example, EQ is just as important in design and leadership in terrestrial vehicles as well. Americans already tend to bond emotionally with their cars, for example. One of the latest models from Lexus illustrates how that company infuses EQ into its design.

As a brand, Lexus uses omotenashi, a Japanese concept that embodies a spirit of hospitality that anticipates and fulfills people’s needs, from the design of the car to the showroom floor. Lexus dealers are known for treating customers like guests in their homes, trying to make them comfortable in many ways on many levels. Lexus dealers consistently rank very highly for helpfulness, attitude, high standards, and technical knowledge. In design, the automaker uses what it calls “L-finesse,” which it describes as leading-edge design applied with finesse. It includes anticipating the customer’s needs and making even the most complex technology simple and joyfully intuitive for the customer to use, which the company calls “incisive simplicity.” It also strives for “intriguing elegance,” a design that captures and holds people’s attention, drawing them to the car.

The LS has been the flagship sedan for Lexus since the brand launched. “Flagships are leaders pointing the way forward, embodying values that will always guide us,” says the company. In the LS, Lexus employs these concepts to bring customers emotional satisfaction through technology that embodies the human touch. This includes features such as comforting ambient lighting inspired by andon paper lanterns and an available internal climate control system that senses the surface temperatures of passengers and automatically adjusts to their comfort levels. It even incorporates Japanese shiatsu massage technology in the seating in some packages.

And while Lexus uses cutting-edge technology, it leads with EQ, says the company. It wants to demonstrate the power of the intangible world by keeping an emotional understanding of its customers at the core of what it does. It uses EQ to achieve the highest levels of design and customer experience. This strengthens a bond with customers at a human level, inspiring owners and feeding their sense of purpose.

Like Steele and NASA, the Lexus LS uses EQ to captivate the imagination. It feeds people’s emotional need to explore and inspires them to push boundaries.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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