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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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How the idea of a “transgender contagion” went viral—and caused untold harm

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How the idea of a “transgender contagion” went viral—and caused untold harm


The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it arrived at exactly the time people with bad intentions were looking for science to buoy their opinions.

The results were in line with what one might expect given those sources: 76.5% of parents surveyed “believed their child was incorrect in their belief of being transgender.” More than 85% said their child had increased their internet use and/or had trans friends before identifying as trans. The youths themselves had no say in the study, and there’s no telling if they had simply kept their parents in the dark for months or years before coming out. (Littman acknowledges that “parent-child conflict may also explain some of the findings.”) 

Arjee Restar, now an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, didn’t mince words in her 2020 methodological critique of the paper. Restar noted that Littman chose to describe the “social and peer contagion” hypothesis in the consent document she shared with parents, opening the door for biases in who chose to respond to the survey and how they did so. She also highlighted that Littman asked parents to offer “diagnoses” of their child’s gender dysphoria, which they were unqualified to do without professional training. It’s even possible that Littman’s data could contain multiple responses from the same parent, Restar wrote. Littman told MIT Technology Review that “targeted recruitment [to studies] is a really common practice.” She also called attention to the corrected ROGD paper, which notes that a pro-gender-­affirming parents’ Facebook group with 8,000 members posted the study’s recruitment information on its page—although Littman’s study was not designed to be able to discern whether any of them responded.

But politics is blind to nuances in methodology. And the paper was quickly seized by those who were already pushing back against increasing acceptance of trans people. In 2014, a few years before Littman published her ROGD paper, Time magazine had put Laverne Cox, the trans actress from Orange Is the New Black, on its cover and declared a “transgender tipping point.” By 2016, bills across the country that aimed to bar trans people from bathrooms that fit their gender identity failed, and one that succeeded, in North Carolina, cost its Republican governor, Pat McCrory, his job.  

Yet by 2018 a renewed backlash was well underway—one that zeroed in on trans youth. The debate about trans youth competing in sports went national, as did a heavily publicized Texas custody battle between a mother who supported her trans child and a father who didn’t. Groups working to further marginalize trans people, like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, began “printing off bills and introducing them to state legislators,” says Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it arrived at exactly the time people with bad intentions were looking for science to buoy their opinions. The paper “laundered what had previously been the rantings of online conspiracy theorists and gave it the resemblance of serious scientific study,” Branstetter says. She believes that if Littman’s paper had not been published, a similar argument would have been made by someone else. Despite its limitations, it has become a crucial weapon in the fight against trans people, largely through online dissemination. “It is astonishing that such a blatantly bad-faith effort has been taken so seriously,” Branstetter says.

Littman plainly rejects that characterization, saying her goal was simply to “find out what’s going on.” “This was a very good-faith attempt,” she says. “As a person I am liberal; I’m pro-LGBT. I saw a phenomenon with my own eyes and I investigated, found that it was different than what was in the scientific literature.” 

One reason for the success of Littman’s paper is that it validates the idea that trans kids are new. But Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins and author of Histories of the Transgender Child, says that is “empirically untrue.” Trans children have only recently started to be discussed in mainstream media, so people assume they weren’t around before, she says, but “there have been children transitioning for as long as there has been transition-related medical technology,” and children were socially transitioning—living as a different gender without any medical or legal interventions—long before that.

Many trans people are young children when they first observe a dissonance between how they are identified and how they identify. The process of transitioning is never simple, but the explanation of their identity might be.

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Inside the software that will become the next battle front in US-China chip war

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screenshot of KiCad software for circuit board design and prototyping


EDA software is a small but mighty part of the semiconductor supply chain, and it’s mostly controlled by three Western companies. That gives the US a powerful point of leverage, similar to the way it wanted to restrict access to lithography machines—another crucial tool for chipmaking—last month. So how has the industry become so American-centric, and why can’t China just develop its own alternative software? 

What is EDA?

Electronic design automation (also known as electronic computer-aided design, or ECAD) is the specialized software used in chipmaking. It’s like the CAD software that architects use, except it’s more sophisticated, since it deals with billions of minuscule transistors on an integrated circuit.

Screenshot of KiCad, a free EDA software.

JON NEAL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

There’s no single dominant software program that represents the best in the industry. Instead, a series of software modules are often used throughout the whole design flow: logic design, debugging, component placement, wire routing, optimization of time and power consumption, verification, and more. Because modern-day chips are so complex, each step requires a different software tool. 

How important is EDA to chipmaking?

Although the global EDA market was valued at only around $10 billion in 2021, making it a small fraction of the $595 billion semiconductor market, it’s of unique importance to the entire supply chain.

The semiconductor ecosystem today can be seen as a triangle, says Mike Demler, a consultant who has been in the chip design and EDA industry for over 40 years. On one corner are the foundries, or chip manufacturers like TSMC; on another corner are intellectual-property companies like ARM, which make and sell reusable design units or layouts; and on the third corner are the EDA tools. All three together make sure the supply chain moves smoothly.

From the name, it may sound as if EDA tools are only important to chip design firms, but they are also used by chip manufacturers to verify that a design is feasible before production. There’s no way for a foundry to make a single chip as a prototype; it has to invest in months of time and production, and each time, hundreds of chips are fabricated on the same semiconductor base. It would be an enormous waste if they were found to have design flaws. Therefore, manufacturers rely on a special type of EDA tool to do their own validation. 

What are the leading companies in the EDA industry?

There are only a few companies that sell software for each step of the chipmaking process, and they have dominated this market for decades. The top three companies—Cadence (American), Synopsys (American), and Mentor Graphics (American but acquired by the German company Siemens in 2017)—control about 70% of the global EDA market. Their dominance is so strong that many EDA startups specialize in one niche use and then sell themselves to one of these three companies, further cementing the oligopoly. 

What is the US government doing to restrict EDA exports to China?

US companies’ outsize influence on the EDA industry makes it easy for the US government to squeeze China’s access. In its latest announcement, it pledged to add certain EDA tools to its list of technologies banned from export. The US will coordinate with 41 other countries, including Germany, to implement these restrictions. 

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Bright LEDs could spell the end of dark skies

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a satellite view of Earth on the hemisphere away from the sun with city lights visible


A global view of Earth assembled from data acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite.

NASA

Specifications in the current proposal provide a starting point for planning, including a color temperature cutoff of 3,000 K in line with Pittsburgh’s dark-sky ordinance, which passed last fall. However, Martinez says that is the maximum, and as they look for consultants, they’ll be taking into account which ones show dark-sky expertise. The city is also considering—budget and infrastructure permitting—a “network lighting management system,” a kind of “smart” lighting that would allow them to control lighting levels and know when there is an outage. 

Martinez says there will be citywide engagement and updates on the status as critical milestones are reached. “We’re in the evaluation period right now,” she says, adding that the next milestone is authorization of a new contract. She acknowledges there is some “passionate interest in street lighting,” and that she too is anxious to see the project come to fruition: “Just because things seem to go quiet doesn’t mean work is not being done.”

While they aren’t meeting with light pollution experts right now, Martinez says the ones they met with during the last proposal round—Stephen Quick and Diane Turnshek of CMU— were “instrumental” in adopting the dark-sky ordinance.


In recent months, Zielinska-Dabkowska says, her “baby” has been the first Responsible Outdoor Light at Night Conference, an international gathering of more than 300 lighting professionals and light pollution researchers held virtually in May. Barentine was among the speakers. “It’s a sign that all of this is really coming along, both as a research subject but also something that attracts the interest of practitioners in outdoor lighting,” he says of the conference.

There is more work to be done, though. The IDA recently released a report summarizing the current state of light pollution research. The 18-page report includes a list of knowledge gaps to be addressed in several areas, including the overall effectiveness of government policies on light pollution. Another is how much light pollution comes from sources other than city streetlights, which a 2020 study found accounted for only 13% of Tucson’s light pollution. It is not clear what makes up the rest, but Barentine suspects the next biggest source in the US and Europe is commercial lighting, such as flashy outdoor LED signs and parking lot lighting. 

Working with companies to reduce light emissions can be challenging, says Clayton Trevillyan, Tucson’s chief building officer. “If there is a source of light inside the building, technically it’s not regulated by the outdoor lighting code, even if it is emitting light outside,” Trevillyan says. In some cases, he says, in order to get around the city’s restrictions, businesses have suspended illuminated signs inside buildings but aimed them outside. 

Light pollution experts generally say there is no substantial evidence that more light amounts to greater safety.

For cities trying to implement a lighting ordinance, Trevillyan says, the biggest roadblocks they’ll face are “irrelevant” arguments, specifically claims that reducing the brightness of outdoor lighting will cut down on advertising revenue and make the city more vulnerable to crime. The key to successfully enforcing the dark-sky rules, he says, is to educate the public and refuse to give in to people seeking exceptions or exploiting loopholes. 

Light pollution experts generally say there is no substantial evidence that more light amounts to greater safety. In Tucson, for example, Barentine says, neither traffic accidents nor crime appeared to increase after the city started dimming its streetlights at night and restricting outdoor lighting in 2017. Last year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed crime rates alongside 300,000 streetlight outages over an eight-year period. They concluded there is “little evidence” of any impact on crime rates on the affected streets—in fact, perpetrators seemed to seek out better-lit adjacent streets. Barentine says there is some evidence that “strategically placed lighting” can help decrease traffic collisions. “Beyond that, things get murky pretty quickly,” he says.

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