Defining Creative Talents

Honorable Mention by the UCF Provost in an essay contest in which I define the creative talents in engineering.

4 minute read

Evolution has its own order much like engineering. First, there is randomness. Then, when randomness leads to failure, evolution slowly removes unnecessary engineering concepts. An engineer has to find his own randomness and creativity. Progress in a technological field requires experimentation even if the risk is wasted time or even obsolescence. This is the nature of creativity in engineering.

Regardless of how long the workday lasts, an engineer should enjoy his work. Aristotle once said, "Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work." Many engineers have created their inventions with the soul purpose of creation itself. Myself included, the feeling of creating something, however mundane, overpowers any notions of necessity. Bringing this spirit to the workplace is essential to a productive engineering career. This is how ideas for novel inventions are seeded.

For all the work put into product development--research, market sampling, trends, and general analysis--sometimes an original idea is only worth the value marketing research says it's worth. The roots of engineering start at home (even work) and sometimes the best ideas are kept down because of stifling market analysis. Like nature, engineering relies desperately upon randomness. No amount of research can predict the value of an engineer's idea.

A case in point is the work of Linus Torvalds, the creator of the operating system (OS) Linux. Not only did he recreate an existing idea (a spin-off to the operating system UNIX), he did something unprecedented. He gave away his work for free with only a few stipulations: he is the arbiter to any changes made the OS and changes can never be resold. Linux will always be free. The engineering aspects are shadowed by the method which he delivered his idea to the world. He took all his creative talents, put them into this project, and released it into an unknown void for all to use and modify. Necessity will be the final judgment of the Linux OS.

Creative ideas in engineering are not limited to tangible products. In the case of Torvalds the novelty was in giving away his idea to the world. Today, Linux has an enormous following not limited to independent engineers. Large corporations now see the value of Linux and "open source"--revealing the inner workings of an idea--for all to see and improve upon. The creative process is put into the hands of the world's engineers. Ideas now evolve on a global scale.

Another example of a creative process gone global is the wireless standard called Bluetooth. It is named after the Norsk explorer, Bluetooth, and a product of years of development by the Ericsson Corporation. The famous producer of cellular phones, Ericsson, is gaining recognition not only for the originality of the idea but the freely distributed standards on which Bluetooth is based.

Even the midnight engineers working in their garages and basements have an equal opportunity for presenting their ideas to the world. The Internet has broken down old communication barriers regarding information sharing. One man's ambition can become a statewide, national, or even global endeavor. With so many links forming between communities of engineers, a creative product can quickly develop. But equally possible, a novel idea can be dismissed and never seen again.

The Internet has brought this creative process to a head and given new meaning to an evolving idea. The Renaissance of modern times will not be published on the printing press. It will be cut, copied, pasted, and deleted on a Web site for the whole world to see. This will happen not over a period of months or years, rather hours and days. It's a natural selection of creative ideas taken to an extreme degree. The minutiae of one man's creativity can be visible to the entire Internet if he chooses.

The deep feeling of satisfaction and pride when an idea comes to fruition is hard to put on a Web page. No matter how well an idea is accepted, the fatherly (or motherly) feeling the creator has for his idea is hard to duplicate. This is the value and limitation of one person's idea turned into a global project. The creative, emotional value of an engineering project can get lost in our global Web. One person's project, into which he poured his heart and soul and risked possible failure, can lose its significance when it trades hands multiples times through a corporate engineering team or faceless names on the Internet.

The time-to-market factor is a big strain on the creative process. Wasting corporate time on a project which is (unknowingly) destined for the scrap heap is a horrible prospect many engineers face. As the project begins to take shape, market details or shifting technology trends might affect whether the project is completed. Inventing and creating a novel idea takes time. In many cases the first try might not be sufficient for success. Thomas Edison had many successes but his failures far outnumbered them. It took time for his ideas to evolve and he didn't let failure cut his ambitions short.

The dedicated engineer cannot let failure be a deterrent. The creative process falls apart when we, as engineers, worry too much about logistical details. Sometimes the randomness and unpredictability of our ideas form a practical solution to a problem. Other times creativity can yield a wonderful solution to no one's problem. This is the prospect engineers must face each day. A creative idea can be a windfall one month and the next, an obsolete token of technology. The engineer is left to contemplate whether such a time investment is really worthwhile.

With reckless regard for necessity we can act like children, eager to investigate and explore new ideas. As we grow older, failure becomes an overwhelming fear within us. As engineers we have to set aside this fear. The only failure for an engineer is the idea that is never acted upon or given a chance to succeed or evolve globally. This is the evolution of creativity in engineering.