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Innovation and Creativity: Can They Be Learned?

Posted by Richard K. Miller on Jun 28, 2016 11:44:48 AM

RKM-New_Photo.jpgInnovation and creativity are nearly always mentioned today as key to the future. Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity and innovation, has a definition of creativity that really resonates for me - creativity is the process of generating original ideas and insights that have value. He and other psychologists note that all humans have multiple capacities for creativity. Furthermore, creativity is less about genetic inheritance than it is about appropriate environment. While some individuals may seem to have a greater genetic capacity than others, most people have a degree of creative capacity in several areas. Finally, any individual can be creative in one environment, but not in another. Environmental factors (fear of failure, perfectionism, need for peer acceptance, resource limitations, time pressure, etc.) may play an important role in enhancing or suppressing creative behavior.

While creativity is essential to achieving an innovation, it is not enough. Innovation requires the intersection of three factors - feasibility, viability and desirability. A familiar mental framework for learning the art of product design is the observation that all successful innovations are simultaneously feasible (because nothing happens in the real world that isn’t consistent with the laws of nature), and viable (because unless it is available at an attractive price it won’t sell), and also desirable (because unless people choose it freely among available alternatives, it won’t be accepted). There are many examples of innovative ideas that are feasible, but not viable; other examples are feasible and viable, but not desirable, etc. Only when all three occur simultaneously will an innovation take hold and spread.

A really profound Innovation changes the way people live so profoundly that few people can remember life before it was introduced. This is the level of innovation we are going to need in the 21st Century to grapple with unprecedented population growth in a complex and dangerous world with limited natural resources.

I used to believe that profound innovations only came from inventors with the type of technical background you might gain from an engineering degree. Water purification, electricity, the automobile, space flight and the computer are all examples of innovations created by the engineering process. But lately it has occurred to me that the credit card profoundly changed the way we purchase and pay for goods, and that was really a business innovation. Furthermore, Facebook, which now boasts a higher market value than Exxon, was invented around the notion that people have a deep and compelling need to share their personal stories with others, a concept more in line with those from a liberal arts background.

So innovation can happen anywhere, but can it be taught? To answer that question I turned to a person who has been an inspiration to me and an innovation guru to the world, Tina Seelig, the professor of practice at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. Tina teaches innovation. As she says in her book inGenuius, A Crash Course on Creativity, “We are all inventors of our own future, and creativity is at the heart of invention.” Tina has inspired and advised thousands of students and companies on how to generate creative ideas that will lead to innovations that transform the world. She is most practical in her approach and there is no way to walk away from an encounter with Tina without feeling more creative.

Download Tina's Top 5 Tips for Teaching Innovation & Creativity.

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Topics: culture of innovation, innovation economy, engineering education

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Insights from Olin's Educational Laboratory

Ideas, methodologies and experiments designed to further the revolution in engineering education. Posts will feature ideas and topics that are forward-thinking and top of mind for Olin College of Engineering President, Richard Miller, our alumni and several of our faculty members.

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