Creativity Is Vital to Engineering
Throughout history, a key factor in human development has been our ability to solve problems. Those problems take a variety of forms, but many of the most critical ones have been problems that are highly amenable to the application of engineering in the sense defined by the U.S. Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) – that is, solutions that, at their core, make use of the “materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind”. Thus, the problem of warmth and shelter was solved by mankind's ability to create structures from stone, wood and other materials. The problem of feeding large numbers of people was tackled by the development of the plough and irrigation. Problems of health were solved by the creation of systems for removing and processing waste. Our success at solving these problems through the application of engineering has resulted in rapid growth and development.
It is important to note, however, that this process of problem solving for human development is highly dynamic in nature. We are all too familiar with the fact that each solution that is developed contains the seeds of new problems. The solutions developed and applied since the industrial revolution – for example, steam engines, the use of coal as a fuel, the development of internal combustion engines, the exploitation of oil – have provided many benefits, but they also have given rise to new problems that themselves must be addressed. Pollution and climate change, for example, are by-products of earlier solutions that now stimulate both a drive to replace those older technologies with better and more efficient solutions, as well as a push to mitigate the undesirable effects of earlier systems.
Where does creativity come into play in this process of engineering solutions for the needs of mankind? The cycle of problem–solution–problem–solution has one distinct characteristic that explains why creativity is so vital to engineering, and therefore to society. Every time a new problem emerges – one that is unprecedented or has never been seen before – it is axiomatic that previous solutions will not be suitable.