How Creative Constraints Drive Innovation and Discovery
“Imagine you’re asked to invent something new,” begins a recent TED-Ed lesson by advertising account manager Brandon Rodriguez. “It could be whatever you want, made from anything you choose, in any shape or size.”
While having the freedom to explore your imagination to come up with an invention of your choice might seem liberating, Rodriguez said most people are, in fact, paralyzed when faced with such a challenge. Without any limitations to guide you, it can be nearly impossible to get started.
“As it turns out, boundless freedom isn’t always helpful,” Rodriguez said.
Restrictions like cost, available materials, and even the “unbreakable laws of physics” are some of the creative constraints that need to be dealt with in order to achieve a goal. According to Rodriguez, these kinds of constraints can be found in a wide range of professions, including architects, artists, writers, engineers, and even scientists.
“During the scientific process, in particular, constraints are an essential part of experimental design,” he said. “In engineering, constraints have us apply our scientific discoveries to invent something new and useful.”
When the surface of Mars was visited by the landers Viking 1 and 2, scientists realized that the thrusters used to help guide the probes left foreign chemicals on the ground – contaminating soil samples collected from the planet. With a new constraint to address, engineers had to implement a different system.
“The next Pathfinder mission used an airbag system to allow the rover to bounce and roll to a halt without burning contaminating fuel,” Rodriguez said. “Years later, we wanted to send a much larger rover – Curiosity. However, it was too large for the airbag design, so another constraint was defined.”
This time, engineers came up with a skycrane, designed to function almost like the claw machine at toy stores – lowering the rover from above the planet’s surface. Each of these new inventions, Rodriguez said, shows how scientific thinking requires that solutions fall within the limitations of available technology, in order to advance it.
“Here’s another Mars problem yet to be solved,” Rodriguez added. “Say we want to send astronauts who will need water. They’d rely on a filtration system that keeps the water very clean and enables 100 per cent recovery.”
Rodriguez admitted that we don’t have technology for this now – but as scientists and engineers and other creative thinkers aim to meet these needs, doors are opened for other possible applications of the potential inventions that may result. An innovative water filtration system could be used by farmers struggling to grow crops during a drought, or municipal water could be cleaned in cities with high levels of pollution.
“In fact, many scientific advances have occurred when serendipitous failures in one field address the constraints of another,” Rodriguez said, naming examples like penicillin, synthetic dye, plastic, and gunpowder – all of which were created by mistake.
“Understanding constraints guides scientific progress, and what’s true in science is also true in many other fields,” he added. “Constraints aren’t the boundaries of creativity, but the foundation of it.”