Notes on Engineering Health, July 2022

On Creativity

In order to capture the awe-inspiring photographs recently taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA scientists and engineers spent 30 years and $10 billion figuring out how to tightly pack dozens of mechanical limbs and instruments into a package that could be safely delivered to the second Lagrange Point, almost one million miles from the Earth in the exact opposite direction from the sun, and then carefully unfolded and deployed. This effort included a complex origami structure for a 21-foot-wide array of 18 gold-plated mirrors designed to bounce light from the cosmos into the telescope’s ultra-sensitive infrared sensors, as well as a tennis court-sized sunshield made up of five layers of a thin foil-like plastic folded tightly together. The flawless deployment of this complex set of systems was required in order to capture light emitted 13.7 billion years ago, just 100 million years following the Big Bang itself. This astounding engineering feat and the stirring beauty of the resulting pictures blur the line between rational and creative thinking.

How can we describe creative processes? How should we encourage them to take place? And how do they play a role at the intersection of science and engineering?

More than 60 different definitions of creativity can be found in the psychological literature. Perhaps the most widespread conception of creativity in the scholarly literature is that creativity is found in the production of a creative work (for example, a new work of art or a scientific hypothesis) that is both "novel" and "useful."

Graham Wallas, in his work Art of Thought, published in 1926, delineated one of the first models of the creative process. Wallas thought creativity was a legacy of the evolutionary process that allowed humans to quickly adapt to rapidly changing environments. In the Wallas stage model, creative insights may be explained by a process consisting of five stages:

Preparatory work on a problem that focuses the individual's mind on the problem and explores the problem's dimensions,

The problem is internalized into the subconscious mind and nothing appears externally to be happening,

The problem solver gets a "feeling" that a solution is on its way,

Illumination or Insight
The creative idea moves from its subconscious processing into conscious awareness; and

The idea is consciously verified, elaborated, and then applied.

Building on work related to the idea of divergent production, Ellis Paul Torrance developed the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking in 1974 in which he described four types of cognitive aptitudes:

The total number of interpretable, meaningful, and relevant ideas generated in response to the stimulus,

The number of different categories of relevant responses,

The statistical rarity of such responses), and

The amount of detail in such responses.

An additional meta-cognitive trait, which is often underrated, is the ability to allow oneself to transgress rules thereby imagining out-of-the-box ideas. 

Neither Wallas’ process, nor Torrance’s aptitudes are in any way innate. Instead, they can be learned, enhanced, or tempered. 

A recent study conducted by researchers at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology discovered that rewarding first-time producers of successful novel ideas with an award or recognition can significantly decrease the likelihood that they will produce future creative work. Through both a retrospective analysis and a prospective study, they discovered that awards tended to fix the creators’ identity in the “creative type,” which put additional pressure on the awardee to maintain their status as a brilliant creator. In response, the awardees more frequently self-censured their ideas for fear of never matching the quality of their first, award-winning opus.

The Olin researchers conclude their paper by suggesting rules for awards that would foster repeated creative behavior rather than blocking it:

  1. Ensure the award recognizes both the outcome and the process,
  2. Reward both success and learning from failure, and
  3. Glorify repeated instances of creative work rather than one occurrence

It is no coincidence that the James Webb Space Telescope was a government-driven project, and, although there were pressures around time and budget, NASA successfully played the role of the greater fool, adopting a view long enough to allow room for the enormous creativity necessary to achieve the launch and deployment of the system. Whether it is about packing mirrors into a rocket ship, writing a rule-breaking novel, integrating decentralized networks and renewable energy production systems to prevent further climate disasters, or designing new tools to interrogate the genome or create new chemistries, creativity is a skill and a mindset that needs to be taught and fostered much the same way we teach and support its rational counterpart through STEM courses and degrees. How to support these endeavors while balancing the requirements and goals of private enterprises is the difficult line our industry works on every day.  

Jonathan Friedlander, PhD & Geoffrey W. Smith