Creativity and Problem Solving

E-mail Melanie Martella

Engineers are creative; I don't think it's possible to be a problem solver without being creative. So I was very intrigued by a recent video of Clay Shirky, discussing what he's learned about creativity and the people who express it during his time at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at the Tisch School of the Arts. You can find the full video here, and I think it's worth watching.

A couple of his comments really leapt out at me—the first comes at about 9:00 minutes into the video when he describes a student project to speed up the information capture process for Unicef's Family Tracing and Reunification program. The students took advantage of existing technology to streamline how field workers collected and disseminated the photos of, and information on, the families and children who had been separated by catastrophe. Shirky says, "Technology isn't just a new way of doing things. Technology is a new way of seeing things. It gives you some sense of which parts of the world present tractable problems." Technology can change the kinds of problems that you can solve. Take cameras in cars, for example. Cameras and cars have been around for a long time. But the combination of high-quality, robust digital camera chips, fast and powerful processing, and drive-by-wire cars is enabling back-up cameras, cars that can park themselves, and a slew of other camera-based driver safety systems that are truly novel. Similarly, moisture sensors exist and radios exist, but the idea of combining them to aid in more efficient irrigation in agriculture? That's new. People find new ways to use existing sensors all the time. While Internet of Things projects may get the most airtime at the moment, engineers throughout the various manufacturing industries continue to creatively apply existing technologies to solve particular (and to that point intractable) problems.

The second of his comments that really resonated comes at about the 12.57-minute mark where he says, "Combining things is making things." If ever there were an industry that understood this, it's the sensor industry. In addition to vendors selling to end-users, it's not unusual for vendors to sell to other vendors and end-users sell to other end-users. (I'll also add that this characteristic tends to confuse people new to the industry and trying to understand its complexities.) Sensors are used in every industry vertical you can think of. The array of building blocks—sensors, hardware, software, and existing infrastructure—is the richest it's ever been. As we instrument our world, we're tying together existing and new systems and technologies to help us better understand and manage what we do and how we live.

Towards the end of his talk, Shirky says that the main rule of creativity is that there are no rules. His exposure to the creative folks at ITP taught him that you can't make creativity but you can give it a welcoming environment and nurture it. What do you think? What do you wish more people understood about technical creativity? Drop me a line and let me know.