Innovation is putting creativity to work

So far human ingenuity is valued, but in future machines will also join in.



By Shalini Verma

Published: Tue 26 Mar 2019, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 26 Mar 2019, 9:42 PM

Ever since our forefathers learnt to walk, we have been creating things and crafting ideologies and organisations that have had a profound impact on our lives. Creativity is the fervent pursuit of self-expression and excellence to produce something of value. In the world of technology, creativity means the generation of new ideas and approaches, whereas the end result of all this is innovation. Innovation is putting creativity to work. We innovate because we are applauded, and we become more efficient, and richer. But mostly we innovate because we enjoy the creative process. Look at the myriad of startups dotting our market landscape.
Ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates have tried to frame the creative process but in a rather narrow paradigm of art. They understood creativity as a form of divine inspiration to a chosen few. But as science and technology joined the creative club, innovation became more accessible to all. Today, we can all try to be innovative. The important question is, can creativity and innovation be learnt? Is there science underlying a 'Eureka' moment? Can we grow the creative fibre in us?
At a fundamental level, there are proven ways to be creative. For instance, reflection plays a pivotal role in creative inspiration. This is especially true when creative geniuses work alone. Most of Einstein's ground-breaking physics theories were constructed in his mind through visualised thought experiments that began in his youth when he imagined chasing a beam of light. In this day and age, the power of quiet reflection and inquiry is not exploited enough because of our daily struggles.
We must set aside some time to ask 'what if' questions. We need to think more broadly to question conventional wisdom by starting with unquestionable principles called first principles. Elon Musk has famously used first principles to rethink modern transportation, which gave birth to the idea of hyper-loop. Sometimes reflection allows us to combine existing ideas to produce something entirely new. Sticky notes that are so central to the creative thinking process were created when a 3M scientist created a glue that was too weak as aircraft adhesive. His colleague found it handy to stick his bookmark in his hymnbook at church. Thus Post-it notes were invented. Today many innovations happen through multidisciplinary team collaboration that involves Design Thinking. Americans who tinkered with machines in their garages eventually realised that collaborating with others was more productive. Computer software and the Internet were almost entirely created by teams of inventors. Workspaces are increasingly designed to forge 5-8 persons' nest groups that work on a specific problem. My company's office is designed as an open workspace to allow for a free flow of ideas and with walls to scribble ideas on.
Creative people are driven by a purpose. Wartime innovation was fuelled by existential necessities. Alan Turing and his team of cryptographers' success in deciphering intercepted coded Nazi messages was driven by a deep desire to save the lives of Allied soldiers and citizens. Their work saved an estimated 14 million lives. Recent innovation in India, be it a product or a service, has been motivated by scarcity of re-sources. A shoestring budget forced Indian space scientists to use a small payload and a slingshot launch method for the Mars mission.
Purpose alone may not be enough. Creativity requires us to get out of our comfort zones; to combine our inherent qualities with skills we consciously hone. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of poet Lord Byron who separated from her mother. Ada's mother was bitter about the separation, and so ensured that Ada was schooled in mathematics and logic. Ada evidently inherited her father's poetic sensibilities. She was the first to posit that a computing machine could be useful beyond calculations. She published the first algorithm for such a machine and is considered the first computer programer. Her prescience could be attributed to her ability to combine liberal arts with math, which she called a "poetical science" approach.
The cricket genius Sachin Tendulkar is left handed, but he chose to play as a right-handed batter. This winning combination is considered a factor in making him the world's greatest batter of his time. When he stood at the crease waiting for the bowler coming at him from the other end at incredible speed, his dominant (left) eye faced the bowler, which meant that he could see the ball extremely well. This helped the cricketing legend redefine performance benchmarks, and transform sports in India, while inspiring millions to play the game.
The software developers in my company are encouraged to inculcate a strong empathy for users, a quality that is traditionally associated with marketing specialists. Similarly, specialists who are focused on design and experience must understand technology to challenge conventional paradigms. 
So far humanity alone has been the engine of innovation. We have mastered the planet by studiously crafting our own version of life. In future, we will seek outside help as we approach singularity through human and machine synthesis. This will unlock innovations at exponential levels, but humans alone will not innovate, machines will also join in.
Shalini Verma is the CEO of PIVOT technologies


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