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What we understand about Creativity
No Creativity no Progress

By Dr. Asghar S. Nasir
Former UNDP staff member
Now Independent Development Consultant
for Developing Countries

During my visits to a number of engineering institutions in Pakistan, I have noticed the lack of inventive approaches and creative solutions to problems. Subsequently, there is a paucity of new and useful products. However, once Pakistan takes to an inventive and a creative way of thinking, the country's products will have a much greater chance to enter international market. Pakistan's industrial sectors need institutions for designers for design support for new products with quality to guide and assist the industrial sector. This support should start first for the small industrial sector and for those industries that have expert market in hand.

This paper is reproduced form authorís report on ďCreativity and ProgressĒ in 1985.

Creativity Ė what is it?

Creativity is an exasperating proposition, difficult to come to grips with. It makes us uneasy to try to deal with something that is often described as a divinely bestowed gift that some persons have and others donít. We get impatient while reading abstract philosophical treatises on the nature of the sudden flash on inspiration that seems to be creative pay-off. Some writers tell us that creative people are non-conformists, but itís hard to believe that whiskers and sandals mark the good designer. It is difficult, too, not to be a little skeptical of some of the schemes that have been proposed foe measuring creativity-to accept, for example, that a fellow who can remember five ways of converting linear to rotary motions is more creative than one who can recall only three, or that a creative person is necessarily one who is adept at getting quick answers to algebraic puzzles.

Engineers are presumable specialists in reducing the theoretical to the practical, and notable for having guts enough to tackle any difficulty that comes along. Why not have a try at boiling down creativity so that its essence can be used in our daily work?

We can begin by making a simplifying assumption. Letís define engineering creativity by equating it with inventive ability, the knack for producing the new and useful. If we do this, we are in a position to evaluate its results in terms of patens and profits. Letís also recognize that there is more to process of invention than just the solution of am problem; a necessary preliminary consists of being able to see that one exists and to formulate it in precise terms.

A Problem-Spotting Technique

Taking off from this point, it would appear that the first thing we need is a recipe for problem recognition. So that we can write one, letís look at some problem-recognition situations.

The highest type for creativity is characterized by an ability to perceive technical challenges for which no present solution may exist. The Neolithic goatherd who lay on his back observing the birds was the first of us to wonder why he couldnít fly, too, was being creative. The science-fiction writer who points out that only a backward people would live on the surface of its planet-exposed to weather, housed in temporary shelters, and limit to nation and expansion in essentially two dimensions-is creative in calling attention to a possible need.

A second sort of creative problem recognition involves extrapolation backward from a solution. Once in a while a smart technologist will produce something by accident, or stumble over a result of antherís work, for which in a burst of inside he envisions a practical application. For instance, it was truly creative to be able to see billiard balls, combs, and celluloid collars in a puddle of cellulose nitrate spilled on a laboratory bench. Our power industry got its real start when a certain man noticed the lid popping up and down on the teakettle and pondered the possibility of making the steam work for him.

Having committed ourselves to a down-to-earth approach, though, letís rule out consideration of creative problem recognition that necessitates genius-level imagination and colossal luck. Weíll concern ourselves with a third common garden variety, which should be exercised in devising new solutions to old difficulties, the everyday work of the design engineer.

Perhaps it is too harsh a judgement, but designers, particularly those responsible for new products, often seem to be afflicted with an inability to discover problem areas in which they ought to exercise their talents. Too often they wait for necessity, in the form of a demand from the sales force, to be the mother of invention. A good designer should be on the look out for puzzles to solve; they shouldnít have to be brought to him.

He can be assured that there are plenty of them. It has been pointed out more than a few times that nearly all the appurtenances of our civilization are not the results of recent invention, but are the clumsy end products of a process of evolution. Or, the Neanderthal, established the basic configuration of many of the things we use. For example, he should be credited with accomplishing the fundamental R&D on beds when he threw together a pile of skins and brush to sleep on; over the centuries we have prettied up his creation a little, but heíd recognize its modern form.



Early inventors applied contemporary technology to the solution of their problems; instead of warming over these old schemes, why canít we ferret out the problems they present and focus our up-to-date know-how on developing basically better solutions? Let the designer who has trouble spotting problem areas mull over our Rule NO. 1:

1. Every existing man-made object, device, system, process, or procedure must be viewed as a vastly imperfect solution to a design difficulty.

Things are not things, they problems. You are dressed in an impractical (and probably uncomfortable) array of problems, you are sitting in a problem as you read this, and the paper on which it is printed is a problem-ad infinitum. The world is awash with technical problems, which cry out for the attention of the design engineer.

Avoiding a Snare

Inventing new solutions to old problems is difficult, however, because we have trouble seeing past a piece of hardware and discerning the real problem it was intended to solve.

Preoccupation with an existing solution is a double hazard. It can lead us to a design that is a quick-fix routine modification of an old device. What is worse, it can blind us to the fact that an ideal design should do more things than the old one was capable of, not just the same things in a slightly different or better way. This pitfall can be safely got around if in setting up design criteria we keep Rule  No. 2 in mind: 

2. Donít think the things in terms of what they are, but in terms of what they should do.

If it set out to design a valve, my mind is immediately filled with recollections of valves I have seen. Almost without willing to do so, I select a likely looking valve configuration from my metal design file and proceed to tinker with it until it will serve the application. On the other hand, if I force myself to think of the things as a flow-interrupter-and-controller, my intellect is not clogged up with preconceived notions. I can let my thoughts freewheel, examine all the facets of the problem, lay down my design objectives without bias, and stand a good chance of comming up with something new, unusual, and desirable.

Defining the Problem

It takes a great strength of character to do proper job of lining out good, definitive set of design requirements. We tend to grudge the time it requires. Engineers are conscientious, industrious creatures who like to give their employers full measures in return for a salary check, and most of us donít feel we are earning our money if we are not busily punching a calculator or shoving a pencil over a sketch pad.  Design to us means sizing parts selecting materials, and so on. However, time devoted to grinding out a complete statement of the technical. Economic, and political-psychological-sociological requirements that a design must satisfy is time well-spent-a good case can be made for asserting that at least 25 percent of the total effort allowed for a design should be given over to establishment of objectives. This is real meat-and-potatoes work, absolutely essential to the success of a design undertaking. Which brings us to Rule No. 3:

3. Spend more time than you think is necessary in deciding exactly what functional and other criteria the design must meet.

It is vital in the course of creativity that the designer resists his natural inclination to invent while listing design criteria. Donít think hardware at this stage of the game; concentrate on your goals. If a hot solution to your problem occurs to you, thrust it firmly aside-forget it. Should you not do so, you will be almost as bad off as if you disregarded Rule NO. 2 and started out with an old solution in mind. Your list of criteria may degenerate to one describing the characteristics you premature brainchild must have Ėyou may even find yourself listing its capabilities instead of outlining those the ideal device should possess. Donít allow yourself to think about solutions new or old while working out design requirements.

Another word of counsel with regard to design criteria: Avoid vagueness-make them specific and quantitative. Donít say a thing ďmust be cheap.Ē Put a price tag on it. There are ways of determining what the cost should be. Donít say it ďshould be easily maintained.Ē Think out what you mean by easy maintenance-if your conclusion is that the operator should be able to make daily adjustments on your invention by hitting it with a rock, say so.

We can summarize all this in Rule No. 4, a sort of omnibus admonition.

4. Make design criteria specific. And donít write them in terms of possible solutions to the problem-think goals, not hardware.

Once the design requirements are drafted, they can be made, more useful if they are ranked in order of their relative importance. Quite often this can be done by eye and instinct. If the list is long, there are some fairly simple operations-analysis techniques that the designer can dredge up from the literature to help him in this task.

Solving the Problem

When the design requirements have been set up in careful, workmanlike fashion so that they reflect the characteristics the invention is to have, the designer is almost ready to set about conjuring up solutions. There is one thing to do though, before going into a creative trance-to trigger the intellect and catalyze the synthesis of new schemes, nothing is better than a list of words and phrases that suggest ways of doing things. With the aid of a centre for creativity with list of design requirements, the inventor stands a good chance of being able to think of novel means of solving his problems. 

The object of the game is to dream up new solutions-several of them-to the problem at hand, and a bit of brainstorming may be in order. System and method can be applied to this phase of the inventive process, too.

First of all, it is important that the inventor labour to produce many different solutions to the problem; using short notes and quick sketches, put down idea after idea until your imagination is wrung dry. Donít pause to think deeply about them. You may be tempted to evaluate possibilities as you go along, and once you think deeply about them. You may be tempted to evaluate possibilities as you go along, and you think you hit on a likely looking scheme you might feel the urge to set about immediately whipping it into shape. Be aware, however, if you succumb, the creative process will drop into compound low gear or even grind to a halt. Detailing a design berry-picker work, not invention, and at this stage of the enterprise we want to invent-to dream up innovations, new ways of doing things. A miner doesnít stop digging when he uncovers a nugget-finding it tells him that there must be more and possibly bigger ones in the vein he is working. Follow Rule No. 5:

5. Think up lots of solutions, the more the better and donít evaluate or try to refine any of them until the well of inspiration are utterly dry.

Another important precept is this: In thinking up solutions to the problem, donít lean over backward to make them practical. Remember that you are groping for rough ideas; so put them all down Ėno matter how farfetched they may seem-as long as they show any promise of satisfying your design requirements. It is a matter of historical record that many important inventions were originally screwball pipe-dreams, and you may likely overlook some good bets if you donít include in them all the long-shots. Think loosely and irresponsibly. Donít include in your collection of possible solutions any that presently exist, or even any superficial modifications of existing hardware. Our last Rule No. 6, summarize all this

6. Abhor the conventional in devising solutions; Try to think of possibilities, not practicalities.

From here on in, it is routine. Sift through your hoard and pick out the gems. Examine each one in detail-can it be made to work?  Explore the possibility of combining some of your solutions. Compare them with each other, and (at last) with any existing devices. Decide which of them is best. Detail it, make it, and try it out; if you are in luck, it might work.


Looking back over formula for carrying out creative design, it appears that the whole recipe can be can be concentrated in a few sentences: Recognize that every work of man represents an imperfect solution to a problem. Dig deep, and define the problem in strictly functional terms: Donít describe what some thing is, but what it ought to do. Bring the resources of modern technology to bear and think up many new solutions to the problem. Choose the best one, and carry it out!

This attempt to reduce creativity to a ritual may be a colossal piece of impertinence. But as a first approximation, the six maxims seem to be consistent with what is known about the inventive process. Reconstruct, in slow nation, the steps, which led to your last good design idea. Donít they more or less fit the pattern?

Courtesy: The Global South @www

The views expressed in this column are the author's own, not necessarily of The Global South @ www. Dr. Nasir's E-Mail address is