We are engineers, what are we doing?

Irrigation reservoirs/ocean plastic cleanup robot/fingerprint recognition keyfinder/light-up bicycle/anti-drinkdrive steering/air-conditioned tie/plant-based academic gradebooster… a maelstrom technology, ideas and solutions proposed by school children who made the final of the Primary Engineerand Secondary Engineer Leaders Award.

In this competition, children interview a practising engineer to find out about problem-finding, problem-solving and creativity in engineering. They then go home, find a problem of their own to solve, and create solutions, answering the question, if you were an engineer, what would you do?’ An astonishing 37,000 pupils entered the competition, from as young as recetpion-age. Continue reading “We are engineers, what are we doing?”

My neighbours don’t like bees

We planted a hedge of lavender on our estate to revitalise a barren patch of soil near our front door. This sunny morning, the enthusastic lavender stems were bobbing up and down laden with bees. There must have been between 20 and 30. I went to count, as part of the Great British Bee Count. And so it was that I had conversations with several of my neighbours about bees, and I was depressed by what I heard.

  • One complemented me on the lavender, but said the only problem with lavender is that it attracts bees.
  • A second reported hatred for bees, having been repeatedly stung by that very flower bed, before conceding they had been wasps.
  • The third, having been complementary about the flowers, reported a bee had dive bombed from twenty metres above delibrately to sting him and concluded they must be evil.

Embodied perception and the Bristol Swing Festival

Bristol Swing Festival is unique among swing dancing festivals because it offers the chance to learn circus skills alongside learning to dance. One of the things that I love about coming to Bristol for the swing festival every year is the way it makes me feel grounded in myself and the connection it gives me to other people and the world around me. In the past, I haven’t had a philosophical framework to help me interpret these experiences. But this year I think I found it in Matthew Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head. Reading the second chapter, ‘Embodied Perception’, I recognise many of the phenomena that he describes in my experiences here at the festival.
The key idea Crawford introduces is that we think through our bodies: our bodies are an integral part of our thinking process and thinking doesn’t occur just within the confines of our skulls. Before I think about the consequences of this idea I want to first relate the pieces of evidence that he puts forward for this notion of embodied perception to the experiences I have here at the festival. Before we go on I should just say a little more about what goes on at this festival. As the name suggests people coming to this festival to learn to swing dance but what what makes it unusual is that you also learn circus skills alongside those dance skills. On a typical day you’ll spend the morning and early afternoon learning dance steps and then the rest of the afternoon trying out different circus techniques such as tumbling, handstands, tight rope walking, juggling and clowning. It is therefore a very physical environment and one in which you make a lots of physical and mental contact with other people.
The first piece of evidence that Crawford sites in support of embodied perception is what happens when we use a stick held in the hand to explore a space we can’t see. When we use the stick to rummage around in the unseen space, we are aware of the stick jostling around in our hand as the other end moves over the contours of the hidden space; however, after a while we stop noticing the stick’s pressure against our hands changing and focus instead on what is happening at the tip of the stick. As he describes, it is as if we see through the stick right to the tip. Our awareness has shifted from our hands and is focused instead on what is happening at the tip of the stick. To use his words the probe itself has become transparent – it disappears. He goes on that the crucial fact that makes this integration of the prosthetic possible is it there is a closed loop between action and perception: “what you perceive is determined by what do you, just as when we make use of our own hands.
You can see this happening as people start to develop dancing and circus skills. The stiltwalkers are initially very aware of the contraptions they have strapped to their legs but as they gain confidence and familiarity with the sensations they receive through these prosthetics about their relationship to the physical world on the ground it is as if the stilts disappear from view. They have become incorporated into the body from an attentional perspective and what the stiltwalker senses is the ground at the at the bottom of the stilts and not the stilts themselves. I think the same can be said of the sensations that two people feel when they learn to dance with one another. When they begin they are very aware of all the places where their two bodies touch: the connection between their arms, between the sides of their bodies. To beginners this connection with the other dancer is something that they think about a lot. But as the familiarity with this dance hold increases it is if the notion that there are two separate bodies holding onto each other disappears and they experience the dance as one conjoined unit. To re-emphasise Crawford’s words this integration of the stilt or the other dancer into our own bodies is only possible because there is a feedback loop between action and perception. The sensory information we receive when we are dancing with someone is that associated with a four-legged organism with a centre of gravity that exists at some imaginary point between the two dancers’ ribcages and so based on this sensory information we no longer perceive ourselves to be two separate beings but rather one entity.
So that was the first piece of evidence in support of extended perception:tThe way we integrate tools and prosthetics and even other people into our bodies. The second set of evidence relates to how we interpret the world around us based on sensory information. He explains that the traditional model of perception has it that our eyes supply our brains with a two dimensional representations of the world. When I look at the beer can in front of me what I see is a 2-D representation. But from memory I have images of the can from other perspectives. What my brain does is a sort of three-dimensional rendering in order to create a 3-D model of the can in front of me. This model seems to imply a great deal of processing happens in the head whenever we wish to perceive a 3-D object.  That model however, as Crawford explains is being challenged by and alternative approach. That approach takes as its starting point the fact that our eyes are located in eye sockets in which they can swivel. Those eye sockets are located in a head seated up on a neck that can look from left to right up and down. Those eyes, head and neck are attached to a body that is connected to legs that can propel the body forwards, backwards, left and right and up-and-down. To repeat the quote that Crawford uses, vision is not the purely mental processing of sensory inputs but rather the way in which we use our body to extract invariants from the stimulus flux. In other words, we explore and understand the world around us by moving through it and seeing things from different perspectives and critically this allows us to identify things that remain the same from different perspectives. Movement through the world is therefore critical to understanding it.
Here at the festival we learn lots about movement and moving in different ways, so it is possible that this altered locomotion offers us new perspectives on the world. In the handstand classes we spent time moving around on all fours and connecting our hands to the ground. In solo jazz we learn to slide, hop and skip through a space, filling it in new ways. In tumbling classes we run, we jump and we fall (gracefully). All of these activities reveal the world to us from new perspectives, and remind us how narrowly we perceive the environments that we commonly inhabit.
When I look out of the window from the cafe at which I am writing this post at the streams of people walking to work, walking the same direction as each other, walking the same way as each other, to go and sit in office environments that are probably very similar to one another. If we move through (or rather remain sedentary) in very similar ways, what does that say about diversity of thought?
Crawford concludes this part of the chapter with a reflection on how toddlers learn to walk. When they are learning they are experimenting to see what movements of their bodies produce what effects. Initially this takes lots of concentration, but eventually the commands can be carried out with thinking about them. The child’s attention shifts away from the body toward the world that can now be explored through movement. Through mastering a new skill, their world has grown, and their attention and perception reaches out beyond the body. Invoking Nietzsche, Crawford says that joy is the sense of one’s power increasing. As we master a new physical skill, frustration gives way – their attention shifts from their body to the world beyond – and they feel a sense of joy.
So what do I take from all of this? Why does going to the Swing Festival feel so good. I think that there are four things at play here:
The first is that for many, myself included, our primary stimuli during the day are visual and audio – all from the head and little from the body. At the festival, the stimuli are much more physical. This gives our brains a break, and perhaps puts us back into a sensory environment to which are perhaps better evolutionarily suited.
The second is that many of the skills we learn at the festival allow us to move through the world in new ways, giving us new ways of perceiving it and understanding it. Turning upside down may seem a trivial thing to do, but when we do so much of our thinking the right way round, flipping things provides a refreshing change.
A third thing I’ve noticed is that spending a few hours a day doing bodily-focused classes seems to make people more physically playful outside those classes. It’s as if we are given permission to rediscover our world through physical play, to rediscover that intrinsic joy that children find when they run around, swing from branches, balance on walls, wrestle with one another or just give each other hugs.
And finally, the festival gives us a tiny taste of the power we could feel if we could master a circus skill: when we might one day stop looking at our hands and watch the juggling balls dancing in front of us; when we might one day feel the lightness that comes with the perfect handstand.
To conclude with one of Crawford’s phrases, ‘we think through our bodies’. Bristol Swing Festival gives me new ways to think through my body, and that’s why I enjoy being there so much.

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9 Ways to Build Creativity in your Organisation

Creative Systems Model

Creativity doesn’t happen on its own, it happens in a social context. So if we want to build creativity in organisations, we need to focus not only on the individual but also on the overall system within which creativity takes place. So argues leading creative thinking psychologist Mihally Csiskzentmihalyi in his article ‘The Implications of a Systems Perspective for the Study of Creativity’, which appears in Robert Sternberg’s Handbook of Creativity. I’ve been working on a longer post in which I extend his systems model to explore design as a whole. That post is becoming a bit theoretical, and so I offer up this post as a series of practical suggestions that can be applied by anyone who would like their organisations to benefit from more creative thinking.

The systems model of creativity contains three elements: the creative individual; the domain, which is the pool of existing ideas; and the field, which is the people who decide whether or not an idea is a good one. Using this model, the individual creates new things by adapting ideas that have gone before (things in the domain). These novel outcomes are then judged to be acceptable or not by a third party (the field), say colleagues, a client, a design jury etc. If the idea is judged to be good then it enters the domain – that is, it becomes recorded somehow and can then become the seed of another idea.

This model is useful from an organisational development perspective because it offers three areas to focus on for stimulating more creative outputs. I have seen that in practise, certainly in engineering, Csikszentmihalyi’s terms ‘domain’ and ‘field’ can be confusing, so I propose ‘database’ and ‘audience’, respectively.

The following is a series of practical suggestions for how to develop each of these components of the creative system in organisations.

Building the creative database

1) Seek out innovation

If you want to your organisation to be at the creative forefront of a particular domain, then make sure your people have ready access to the latest thinking in that domain. Contact with the existing thinking on a topic can promote thinking about the next iteration.

I recently vistied a school where the principal wanted to encourage his staff to start thinking creatively about how to furnish their classrooms. To seed their thinking, he ordered in some innovative new chairs designed to improve the way children study in classrooms. He just put them out in his office. When members of staff asked about them he said try them out. Staff members then started experimenting with these chairs in different configurations. In the end, they ended up using completely different models that they’d researched in configurations that suited their own needs. This creative thought had been stimulated by allowing them to dip their toes into the domain of chair design – which then prompted them to dive in.

2) Become a hub for different ideas and ways of thinking

As Csikszentmihalyi points out in his paper, cities that have been trade hubs have commonly been centres of innovation because ideas and ways of thinking from completely different domains can come together.

Find ways to turn your organisation into a hub for different ways of thinking. Invite people in with completely different backgrounds and areas of expertise to talk about their work, what innovation is in their domain, and how they approach problems. Doing so will widen the available categories in your database from which ideas can be drawn.

3) Record your existing ideas

It’s hard to make a change to something which isn’t already described.

For example, so much of what we do in organisations, particular in knowledge-based organisations, is not written down. Doing so doesn’t feel very creative. But doing so is a necessary starting point for creating new approaches to how we might work.

Recently I was worried that I wasn’t being very imaginative about the way I spent time with my daughter. So I started by writing down all the things that we already do together that we particularly enjoy, and quickly, starting from this list, I was able to create a load of new suggestions.

Get the existing thinking down on paper so that it can seed the next creative iteration.

Building creative individuals

4) Collate

This is about the creative individual engaging with the database; about building a palette from which they can paint their ideas. Song-writers collect lyrics and interesting chord progressions. Chefs collect recipes.

I collect facilitation techniques by always asking people I know after they’ve attended a workshop what techniques they enjoyed. I write them down in Evernote, and refer to this list when I am designing a workshop.

The thing about the process of collation is that it requires attention, more than just a passive engagement with the content. I believe this attention makes it easier to recall useful information in the moment of creation.

Identify the area in which you want to be creative, and build your scrapbook.

5) Create distraction-free time

There are times when we need to focus our attention on generating ideas. There are other times when we let our mind wander, when the subconscious chews on the problem, and then the idea spits up. Both of these thought processes can be jeopardised by distraction. But in the modern workplace, distraction is everywhere: from notifications on every screen we use, to the interruptions that ensue from open-plan offices.

In the coaching conversations I have with people about developing design skills, the lack of distraction-free time is one of the commonest barriers to creative thinking.

For individuals, creating this time has two components. The first is mastering the technological distractions, getting rid of the notifications that keep us flitting from one place to the next. The second component is identifying and persuing activities that let your mind wander.

Organisations that want to create distraction-free time for their staff should consider developing work processes that don’t rely on staff being permanently plugged in. They should also allow their staff to work at the time and places in which they are most creative.

6) Generate and communicate

The creative process works through interaction between the creative individual and the audience. It is a dynamic relationship.

To start with, the individual needs to be creating ideas. There are a range of techniques for stimulating this divergent thinking, which will be the subject of another blog post.

But having the ideas alone is not enough, they need to be effectively communicated to the field. Draw ideas, write them down, pin them up where they will be seen, talk to people about what you are thinking, and you will give your ideas the chance to grow.

Building the creative audience

7) Produce surplus energy

This comes straight from Csikszentmihalyi. If a group of people are spending all their energy fighting for survival then they don’t have the energy for creative activity.

Most organisations could probably prioritise their activities in such a way as to make more energy (time, money) available for creative thinking. Creativity is a social affair: everyone has a role to play, either as the conceiver of ideas, or as the audience. Therefore it is important that everyone feels there is enough fuel in the tank to justify time spent on creative pursuits.

8) Build a culture of listening

It is through dialogue with the relevant audiences that the creative individual can assess the merit of their ideas.

As Nancy Kline describes in her book ‘Time to Think‘, we often do our best thinking in conversation with others, but this requires careful attention on the part of the listener, letting them develop their thoughts without interruption.

Talking about ideas should be a hallmark of creative organisations.

9) Build a culture of challenge

There is a lot of evidence for intrinsic motivation supporting creative thought (a summary of this to come in a future blog post, no doubt).

One way to build intrinsic motivation is through identifying in conversation challenges that need addressing. If the challenge feels like their challenge then they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated towards tackling it.

Another technique for building intrinsic motivation is to challenge individuals to reach further in their thinking, and helping them to remove hurdles which may have been holding them back.

To conclude, creativity doesn’t happen in isolation in people’s heads, it happens in a context. To create more creative organisations, we need to work on the context as well as the individual.

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