Do engineers have to be creative?

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There’s a lot of cultural stereotypes about engineers, some fair, others less so. The thought that engineering isn’t creative however is probably the biggest misconception of modern society. Although perhaps not as publicly creative in the same way as artists, writers and musicians are, engineers must demonstrate creativity in different ways across a broad range of disciplines.

Problem Solving

When defining engineering creativity, misconceptions can arise. The term ‘Engineering’ describes types of work ranging from mechanics to scientific research. Engineers employed in roles which involve routine, monotonous tasks such as pressing a series of buttons each day obviously will not be able to demonstrate the same level of creativity as engineers working on the development of cutting edge technology or processes.

There is however a problem-solving attitude to engineering shared across a broad range of roles and disciplines, each with their own unique challenges. Thinking about ways to solve problems is the most common example of creative engineering. For an engineer working in operations, they might have to creatively think about running a process when one of the machines breaks. A design engineer might have to creatively think about a way to minimise the effect of a corrosive liquid while keeping the cost of the system down. The problems engineers come across may have been previously unsolvable. Creative engineering is therefore key to the development of technology, society and business.

Examples of Creative Engineering

Examples of engineering creativity almost always come under the guise of engineering innovation. There’s plenty of different creative innovations over the last century. Renewable energy is one example, harnessing natural energy in the form of solar panels, wind turbines and hydro power. A more recent and upcoming innovation is driverless cars. You can find more examples of innovation by reading our list of the 5 greatest engineering innovations of 2016 here.

There are certain examples of ways in which engineers express their creativity. One such example is Biomimicry. This involves engineers looking to nature for inspiration in problem solving or otherwise. Early examples of this come from inventors such as Leonardo Da Vinci, getting the inspiration for his iconic flying machine on how birds fly by flapping their wings. A more modern example involves the climate control system as the Eastgate Building in Harare, Zimbabwe being inspired by the structure of termite mounds, which have great natural heat transfer abilities. This kind of engineering creativity is usually employed in giving more sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions to problems.

Termite Mound

Termite Mound © Wikipedia

How to Unlock Engineering Creativity

Using engineering creativity in the workplace, as mentioned before, depends on what you are doing. You may be working under the guidance of a strict set of standards or codes, so there’s a limit to how you could do things differently. However, an engineer’s prime interest should always be to improve and enhance. There are certain ways you can think about doing this.

A classic example of facilitating creativity is brainstorming. This can be a good way of generating ideas when a clearly defined objective or demand needs addressing. Using this too often however exhausts people, making coming up with useful or worthwhile ideas less likely. A better way of employing creativity is ‘synthetics’. This process combines brainstorming with a more structured process. More people, from different departments and backgrounds can get involved. Participants express ideas in the form of ‘I wish’ statements. Criticism of others ideas is not allowed, instead building upon others’ ideas.

A more individual approach involves manipulating your view of the world, questioning your own perspective and practices. Too often we become stuck in habits or company policies which can hinder creativity. Try instead to question practices and your own actions. Talk to other engineers, possibly from different companies and industries about how they do things. Keep an open mind and always look out for interesting developments. When working, always ask yourself “why am I working in this way” and “is there any way this process could be improved?”.

And how do you employ creativity at work? Share with us in the comments below!

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