Engineering might seem like a logical career path dominated by mathematics and science, and to a certain degree it is, but there is also an element of creativity which is required for an engineer to reach their full potential.
To explore this concept further let’s first examine what creativity is, before linking it to engineering and how it has been part of the engineering process.
What is creativity?
When people think of creativity their thoughts tend to immediately turn towards the arts; music, painting, sculpture, theatre, and so on. This is a somewhat limited view of what human creativity is and doesn’t reflect the numerous areas where it can be seen. More accurately, creativity is the human ability to create something new, turning imaginative and innovative ideas into reality.
Creativity can be reflected in a number of different human endeavours, including the arts, education, engineering, technology and medicine. It can result in the creation of something tangible, such as an invention or painting, or intangible, such as a joke or piece of music.
Creativity and engineering
It is true that engineers generally need to be able to think logically and analytically and have an interest in science and mathematics. But they also need to be excellent problem solvers, and this is where creativity comes into play.
By thinking creatively people can come up with new ways to solve problems that meet the criteria and constraints of the issue at hand. They might find a new way to use a known material, design a significant improvement to an existing system or create a new product that hasn’t been seen before.
If engineers are unable to think creatively, they will struggle to solve the problems they encounter in their daily work, keeping in mind that these could be problems that have no form of a solution yet due to the rapid changes in modern society and technology.
Throughout recent history there are many examples of where creative thinking was necessary for engineers to create innovative solutions and to solve problems.
Saturn V Rocket
On the 25th of May 1961, President John F Kennedy stood in front of the Congress of the United States of America and vowed that man would land on the Moon by the end of the decade.
It was just over a month earlier that Yuri Gagarin had become the first man to go to space, so there was a significant amount of technological development needed to reach the Moon. Despite the challenges, teams of engineers and scientists were able to imagine, design and build the Saturn V rocket, one of the largest and most powerful spacecraft to date.
Today, engineers working on space travel continue to pave the way forward, creating solutions for one of the harshest environments known to mankind. They need to think creatively about design, materials, potential problems and how to mitigate those problems in order to create the technologies that will one day send humans to Mars and beyond.
Osaka Kansai Airport
The third largest city in Japan, Osaka is home to well over 2.5 million people. Back in the 1980’s it became evident that the airport was a problem; there were too many passengers and not enough terminals.
The decision was made to build a new airport but it quickly became evident that there was not enough land to do so. Applying principles of the engineering design process, the civil engineers involved developed a solution that at first would have seemed bizarre. They proposed building the new airport in the sea.
Over the course of seven years an artificial island was built in Osaka Bay, along with a seawall around the island to protect the airport and three kilometre bridge that connected it to the mainland. In this instance creative problem solving led to an innovative approach and the development of an airport that is still in use almost 30 years later.
The development of the automobile is a fine example of creativity in engineering as there are many developments that are straight out of the imagination. Starting at the beginning, there would have been people wondering what if a steam powered cart could be used instead of a horse?
This line of thought was developed and in 1886 the Benz Patent-Motor Car was released, a vehicle regarded as the world’s first practical automobile.
Since then, many engineers and developers have looked at cars and let their imaginations run wild, coming up with their own questions and unique ideas.
- What if the car could be started with electricity, instead of the hand crank?
- Could we make a car that goes so fast it breaks the sound barrier?
- What can we change to make our car faster than a Ferrari at Le Mans?
- Is a flying car or aquatic car possible?
- Can we build a car that runs solely on electricity?
Today one of the greatest advancements happening in the commercial car market is the development of self-driving cars. What was once considered the imaginings of science fiction is now becoming possible, in part due to the creative thinking of the engineers who are figuring out how to do it in a safe and useful manner.
How to improve your engineering creativity?
Humans are all born with the innate ability for creativity, but there’s evidence that it can be developed, honed and directed over time. Here are a few ways to practise and enhance the kind of creative thinking that is useful to engineers.
Doodling might seem childish, but it is a great way to free the mind and start thinking creatively. This method of visual thinking can be used to express and explore solutions without being hindered by the need to draw meticulously or explain it carefully in words.
Play engineering puzzle games.
When you need a break from work or are looking for a way to pass the time that also requires you to think, engineering puzzle games can be a great solution. Examples of these types of games include Truss Me, make it True – Solve the Circuit, Minecraft, Industrialist, Portal and the Civilization series.
While it may not seem overly creative, solving a Sudoku requires someone to think ahead, visualize and find patterns. As an added bonus, Sudoku also improves memory and concentration.
In the workforce, most projects are determined by management, rather than the engineers. To help boost creativity it doesn’t hurt to work on side projects about things that are of personal interest. This could be on company time for the benefit of the company, something Google has had great success with, or in personal time working on something more private.
Engage in discussions about hypothetical situations.
Discussing hypothetical scenarios and the possible solutions can help to foster creative thinking. Examples of the types of hypotheticals that could be discussed are “What would be needed to live on an asteroid?”, “How could a car be made to fly?” and “With unlimited resources how could we make global energy cleaner?”