A Framework for the Discussion of Creativity in Technology

Rainer Fischbach

Contributed to

Signatures of Knowledge Societies,
Joint Meeting of the
European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST)
and the
Society for the Social Studies of Science
Bielefeld, October 10--13, 1996.

Author's address:

Rainer Fischbach
Mobilfon +49 171 4141 570


  1. Abstract
  2. Characterizations of creativity: from essentialist to system-theoretical
  3. The role of creativity in engineering methodology
  4. Reframing creativity
  5. Fostering creativity
  6. References

1. Abstract

There is little controversy about the constituents of creative achievement: Both, novelty and acceptance by some audience are required for scientific findings, technological inventions and works of art, if they shall count as creative accomplishments. Less clarity exists about their causes: Concepts of creativity - the ability to bring about creative work - range from essentialist, hypostasizing it as a mental or organic force, to system-theoretical, equating it with the performance of a wide class of systems in response to specific challenges, modeled e. g. by Klondike spaces.

Starting from a system-theoretical point of view, the following contribution undertakes to establish a wider framework for the discussion of creativity in technology than traditional system-theoretical approaches do. Whereas a model like Klondike space helped to identify critical traits of creativity, its pictorial nature seduced many into taking the existence of all its features for granted, e. g. that design space had manifold topology, and viability of solutions could be measured by the values of a static scalar field defined on it.

By the creation and use of artifacts mankind affects its internal environment not less than the external one: Problem perception and the very criteria by which solutions are evaluated are subject to change too. While creativity studies of all brands - from essentialist to system-theoretical - focused on solution space, the significance of problem space was overlooked. An invention not only represents a point in solution space: there exists a corresponding set of points - with a cardinality typically greater than one - in problem space as well.

There are many technological innovations (paradigms appear in the following) - and strong arguments indicate that these are the more significant ones - which don't figure prominently as well-engineered solutions but excel as paradigms of problem reframing and reformulation or the identification of new kinds of problems: To formulate a problem in a new way or to identify a new problem is no less a creative achievement than solving an already recognized one. Profound innovations often experience a period where they figure more as icons of new desires than as working solutions.

A more complete model of creativity which accounts for the significance of problem formulation, reframing and reformulation, promises a way out of the fruitless confrontation between a deterministic, one-dimensional idea of technological progress and Technikfeindschaft. Programs attempting to gear technology to social ends, won't succeed by imposing finalization on a basically unchanged process but only by opening new dimensions of technological creativity. There is no choice between technology and non-technology, only between more and less enlightened technology.

2. Characterizations of creativity: from essentialist to system-theoretical

Creativity matters

According to a view shared by many of its inhabitants, technological innovation is a driving force of economic progress, and therefore of vital importance for modern societies. Technological innovation means to conceive of and establish new products, services and ways to produce and deliver them. The ability to do this is one of the many facets of the human capability called creativity.

The apparent neglect for the subject of creativity in science and technology studies forms a sharp contrast to the widespread perception of its importance. The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies [Jasanov 1995] published recently not only doesn't contain an article dealing with it: its index - covering 33 pages of the 820 page volume - doesn't list the term creativity at all!

Attempts to influence or even control technological development will remain fruitless as long as they don't have any impact on the gestalt of technological creativity. In order to gear technology to social ends, a change in the way in and the extent to which creativity intervenes in the making of technology is required.

Until recently the study of creativity has been the domain of psychologists, predominantly trying to trace it back to some mental or organic feature of the individual. Whereas there is no doubt about the existence of necessary mental and organic conditions of creativity on the side of the individual, the very notion of creativity excludes their sufficiency.

Constituents of creative achievement

We encounter phenomenons of creativity in all fields of human activity: in art, in science, in organization, politics, sex and crime. Technological creativity is just one of them. Whereas novelty of achievement is considered a decisive criterium of creativity, it is by no means sufficient. The product of the creative act has to conform with certain constraints: E. g. a new artistic style needs acceptance by the public. It can take a while until an innovation will succeed, i. e. until the public will consider it as belonging to art, constituting feasible technology, etc. Creative actions are always risky and take some courage! So there are three recognizable factors that constitute creative technological achievement:

  1. It is firmly grounded in the state of the art - at least negatively by not emulating it, e. g. by not reinventing the wheel!
  2. It adds something to the state of the art and, by doing so, surpasses and advances it.
  3. It succeeds in convincing some relevant audience to accept it as a solution to some perceived problem.

Creativity is not reducible to some psychological substance, but involves individual, mental aspects as well as organizational and social ones. The combination of the three factors and the three aspects gives rise to a quadratic scheme of nine fields containing potential choices of behavior and policy. I do not pretend to give an exhaustive exposition of all the fields. The table below gives merely a sketch of a situation comforting creativity.

Table: Individual, organizational and social Aspects of creativity

Individual Organization Society/Public
State of the art Knowledge and technical skills Information Infrastructure, education and open communication Transparency of practice and access to information
Variation/Innovation Phantasy and Courage Open search and tollerance for dissenting views and uncommon solutions Ecological niches for dissentious views and ways
Acceptance Communicative skills Critique and systematic evaluation of suggested views and solutions, open information policy Debate and deliberated choice

Of course, many of the contents of the society/public column apply equally well to organization as part of society. At the level of the organization, the cells should be bipartite: A policy of creativity should include a posture against the individual within the organization and a posture against society and public.

The criteria of acceptability are different in different fields and they are subject to change. Whereas normally creativity results in new or at least slightly improved items of already known kinds or brings about a new solution of an old problem, the highest creative achievement is the introduction of a new kind, the establishment of new criteria, the realization of a new problem along with some means to solve it: The pioneers of modern art managed to redefine art by shifting the publics perception; the inventors of the automobile didn't build very successful vehicles but rather created a new desire; the personal computer was not constructed as a new means to a recognized end, but rather emerged as the icon of a new way of computing serving before unknown purposes.

Klondike space

Because creativity always involves social factors, attempts to identify its universal psychological essence are doomed to failure. Are there alternative ways to give a universal characterization of creativity?

System-theoretical approaches to creativity try to avoid the essentialist questions, by characterizing it as a specific form of behavior: Systems built from completely different components, interacting by mechanisms that have nothing in common, e. g. biological evolution, language development, or technological problem solving, may display the behavior equated with creativity. The Klondike space model [Perkins 1994] identifies four critical challenges every creative system has to meet:

  1. the rarity problem: nuggets (feasible problem solutions, viable designs, etc.) are rare,
  2. the isolation problem: promising regions in solution space are separated by wide distances,
  3. the oasis problem: the comfort with existing solutions discourages ventures that leave the known, recognized paths,
  4. the plateau problem: in the vast dessert of non-solutions, non-designs, etc. there is no gradient indicating the direction to rewarding regions.

A system that deals successfully with these challenges is considered creative. Probably that is too general a concept of creativity. Can we identify attitudes of mind, social and organizational settings, methods of inquiry and rules of practice that facilitate or bring about the pattern of behaviour equated with creativity? In order to do that, we have to look at the systematic places, where creativity makes a difference.

3. The role of creativity in engineering methodology

The role of design

What is the systematic role of creativity in engineering? The engineering activity where creativity matters eminently is design. Subject to the latter aren't exclusively artifacts, but also processes, organizational structures and arrangements necessary to design, produce and employ technological solutions.

The occurrence of creativity is not constrained to design in its narrower meaning, or, to put it differently: Design takes place in many activities normally not considered as design. The use of technology gives rise to many forms of ad hoc design: Someone who makes a text processor a database, using the search functions for data retrieval, has found a solution to a problem, simply by employing available technology in a creative way.

There is no absolute distinction between creation and use of technology: Innovative technology usually employs existing technology: nothing is completely new. New technology very often is the establishment of a new way to employ existing technology in the form of a procedure or type of artifact. On the other hand, every non-evident, purposeful use of existing technology, although not taking the form of a new type of artifact or new standard procedure, involves creativity.

In order to determine the role of creativity in technology we have to explore the places and ways within engineering methodology, where and in which creativity matters. This is the approach of an integral engineering science. It may lead to suggestions on how to improve creativity in a systematic way, directly linked to the process of engineering.

Systems approach to problem analysis

Engineering methodology is about the analysis of problems, the systematic search for solutions and their evaluation [Zwicky 1989] [Rittel 1992a]. Analyzing a problem means to

  1. identify its performance, environment and design variables,
  2. set up system boundaries by defining the value range of the environment variables to be covered by the system,
  3. formulate utility measures and constraints on the performance variables.

Systematic search for solutions shall lead to the exploration of the solution space defined by those values of the design variables that - given appropriate values of the environment varibles - lead to at least acceptable values of the performance variables. This involves identification and evaluation of possible solutions. In the simplest case there are only two possible outcomes of evaluation: acceptable or not acceptable. In other cases their may exist some measure which yield degrees of acceptability or utility.

There is a lot of popular talk about optimization in engineering. But optimization rests on three prerequisites: We must

  1. agree on some utility scale with a total ordering,
  2. accept a valuation method, and
  3. dispose over a method which allows to valuate all elements of the solution space, at least comparatively.

Limits of the systems approach

To assume that these prerequisites are always given, is false. Most engineers conceive of their task as the solution of problems given to them by their clients or superiors. They believe that every problem has an unambiguous formulation which will allow only one correct, »optimal« solution. Neither is true, and this is - as we will see shortly - the point where creativity enters the stage. Otherwise, engineering would mean: just follow the rules. There are two distinct domains where the influence of creativity may become realizable:

  1. problem space, and
  2. solution space.

Traditional design methodology focuses on solution space. A solution which combines components (values of design variables) in a innovative way or a solution built from new components (not contained in the domains, where variables take their values from, until now), is considered creative.

Exhaustive and careful consideration of solution space seems decisive to creative achievements. This means to determine the range of every design variable and to test even unconventional combinations of values. Here the engineer faces the problem of combinatorial explosion: Ten variables with ten allowable values each make up for ten billion combinations! Most of them might be scrap, but there may remain to many valuable ones to consider individually.

The ability to determine comprehensively the value range of critical design variables and to study, i. e. to identify, model, analyze and evaluate a large number of solution candidates seems vital to creative engineering. Modern information technology in the form of computer based technology information systems and modelling can contribute to this end, if its beneficial effects are not compensated or even overcompensated by increased pressure for quick delivery of results or cuts in human resources. This points to social and organizational conditions of creativity.

Technology information systems contain descriptions of problems, solutions, and components. Their utility depends on those formulating the descriptions and those seeking for information speaking the same language, i. e. using the same terms for the same things. But generally, this is not the case. Something which is described as part of a solution or problem A might as well work as part of a solution for problem B.

Beyond all methodological and technological aids available to the end of enhancing creativity, social and individual capabilities are still essential or even gain importance: Because the solution space is of tremendous complexity, experience and the force of imagination are required to pick out relevant combinations. The widespread misconception of engineering as applied physical science and the dominance of mathematics and physical science in the polytechnic tradition of engineering education has hindered creativity. Imagination and intuition are of vital importance in engineering [Ferguson 1992].

4. Reframing creativity

Contrary to the suppositions underlying the traditional design methods, most problems don't have a unique formulation. Problem analysis is not a deterministic process leading always to the same outcome. Two engineers doing the same job of analysis may end up with different sets of performance and design variables, requirements, constraints, and system boundaries. I'll discuss briefly four cases:

  1. High speed rail traffic,
  2. the 3-l-car,
  3. programming language design
  4. personal computing.

High speed rail traffic

A good illustration for critical role of the conceived design and performance variables is the problem of high speed rail traffic. At this time, there exist two principal solutions: The tilting train (Pendolino/X2000) [Chalmers Railway Engineering], and, what I call the ruled-track train (ICE/TGV).

What accounts for the differences between these technological solutions? Different sets of design and performance variables! Whereas the ruled-track builders accepted the known mechanical principles for the joining of suspension and body as a design constant and made the rail network a variable, the developers of the tilting train chose to change roles: they considered the existing rail network a design constant and the technology for the joining of body and suspension a variable.

If we add the value of the existing rail network as a performance variable to the system, we can make a further observation: The tilting train increases this value, whereas the ruled-track train decreases it.

In a 1987 presentation of the Neubaustrecken project, written mostly by high officials and leading engineers of the Deutsche Bundesbahn [Reimers/Linkerhägner 1987] a 7 km radius of curvature still figured as a law of nature for high speed tracks. Deutsche Bundesbahn invested Billions in concrete and digging holes, while Italian and Swedish rails had made a creative leap which opened a far cheaper way to high speed traffic, by the introduction of a new design variable.

The history of the German ICE-system confirms a specific pattern of non-creative problem solving identified by Lucius Burckhardt [Burckhardt 1991]: »Ein Problem wird ein Bau«. Bureaucracies convert organizational and social problems into building tasks.

The 3l-car

A similar case forms the problem of the 3-l-car (a small car with a mean fuel consumption of 3l/100km). The big motor companies assert - or only pretend - they could not build it. The design of the WENKO-motor that powers the Greenpeace Twingo Smile prototype challenges the common assumption that minimal piston displacement were a constant for each class of cars, e. g. 1l for a small car of the Twingo class, by reducing it to approximately one third of this value. It achieves high efficiency at low power output, while a turbocharger offers some power reserve [WENKO].

Programming language design

A particularly contrived example of progress by the introduction of new performance and - ensuing - design variables represents the history of programming languages. The fundamental paradox about programming languages is, they are all the same from a functional point of view, as notations for algorithms. Given algorithmically complete languages A and B, every algorithm codable in A is also codable in B. So, there doesn't seem to exist a reason for the some thousand programming languages that are with us, and neither for any kind of evolution in programming languages.

But considered as intellectual tools of modeling, programming languages are not the same at all. Many of the decisive steps in the evolution of programming languages where taken by rearranging and abstracting the data and control constructs of earlier languages into new patterns conforming with new performance and design variables. What happens here, is not the recombination of known elements by their assignment to a given set of variables but the identification of new set of variables expressing a new compositional structure through the aggregation of elements into new patterns. A paradigm for this forms the emergence of object-oriented programming from a long history of trials. An excellent recollection of this process by one of its participants appears in [Kay 1996].

Personal computing

Likewise the invention of personal computing involved the organization of known and emerging technological components in a new type of structure, the development of new patterns of computer use, along with the identification of new performance variables and measures. The PC is not understandable as the product of a linear evolution of computers and electronics.

Moreover, it emerged from the trials of dispersed groups and individuals outside the traditional computer and electronics industries maintaining rather sparse links of communication. The explosion of the PC market happened only after a certain critical assembly of unconventional efforts and new demands grew out of this constellation [Fischbach 1995].

The five creative interventions

Scrutinizing the system theoretical scheme for design, and mindful of the above cases, we identify five major ways in which creativity may intervene in the design process:

  1. Find a new combination of assignments from the known value domains to the design variables within the given problem formulation.
  2. Extend the domains from which design variables take their values.
  3. Introduce new design variables.
  4. Conceive of new performance variables.
  5. Relieve or tighten constraints or change performance measures.

5. Fostering creativity?

How do the five creative interventions relate to the Klondike space model of creativity? Yes, they may indeed be seen as methods to deal with the challenges that make up Klondike space. Of course, there is no general method for dealing with rarity, besides acquisition of broad knowledge and frequency of probes. But they may help in approaching the isolation, oasis and plateau problems.

Careful analysis shows that three of the five interventions have the power to surpass Klondike space: Whereas the first two stay within the model, the last three force to restructure it. New sets of design and performance variables, new constraints, new measures of acceptability or utility create a different kind of space. A more appropriate picture would involve a bundle of spaces instead of a single one!

Design education of engineers has a tendency to enforce the barriers of Klondike space. It mostly takes place by cases. Students learn from the successful ones. But real progress always involves learning from failure and trial of still unprobed steps. Overcoming the isolation and plateau problems takes the courage to fail. The list of strategems above should be read as a guide for learning from failure.

The hurdle probably the hardest to overcome, is posed by the oasis problem. Having learned design from cases, many engineers are trapped into the comfortable believe, problem breakdown were always given in advance. But genuine design problems are singular. They always demand a fresh breakdown and very often, the participants can't agree on a single one. There are no paradigms in design - if there were paradigms, it wouldn't be design any more! Design problems are mostly wicked problems in the sense of [Rittel/Webber 1973].

The very principles of engineering seduce into staying within the oasis, when taken as principles of process! These are:

  1. purposefulness
  2. security
  3. parsimony
  4. simplicity

But these are principles of interpretation and judgement, not principles able to guide an open search process! We cannot draw up a search process that automatically homes in on solutions that fulfill the principles. Traditional thinking about invention and design has always emphasized finalization: the guidance of search by purpose and the overarching principles of engineering. But direct guidance precludes openness. and assures the result to stay within the oasis!

If reflection on the five creative interventions could lead to a reevaluation of current design education and practice, they would indeed acquire creative force! Thank you.

6. References

[Bergin/Gibson 1996]
Thomas J. Bergin, Richard G. Gibson: History of Programming Languages - II. New York, NY: ACM Press, 1996.
[Boden 1994]
Margaret A. Boden (ed.): Dimensions of Creativity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.
[Budnick 1991]
Gislind Budnick (ed.): Entwurfs- und Planungswissenschaft: in memoriam Horst W. J. Rittel. Stuttgart: Universität, Institut fülr Grundlagen der Planung, 1991.
[Burckhardt 1991]
Lucius Burckhardt: »Ein Problem wird ein Bau - das übliche politisch-fachliche Entscheidungsverfahren«. [Budnick 1991] pp 39-43.
[Chalmers Railway Engineering]
[Ferguson 1992]
Eugene S. Ferguson: Engineering and the Minds Eye. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.
[Fischbach 1995]
Rainer Fischbach: »Informationstechnik - Mikroelektronik? Vom Wert und Unwert sogenannter Schlüssel- und Zukunftstechnologien«. Wege zum Wirtschaftsstandort Deutschland: Wissens-, Personen und Institutionentransfer. Wissenschaftliche Tagung der Johann Beckmann-Gesellschaft, Dresden,12.-13. Mai 1995. [http://www.ba-stuttgart.de/~rf/texte/schluessel-technologie.ps.gz]
[Jasanov 1995]
Sheila Jasanoff, Gerald E. Markle, James C. Persen, Trevor Pinch: Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Thausand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995.
[Kay 1996]
Alan C. Kay: »The Early History of Smalltalk«. [Bergin/Gibson 1996] pp 511-579.
[Perkins 1994]
David N. Perkins: »Creativity: Beyond the Darwinian Paradigm«. [Boden 1994] pp 119-142.
[Reimers/Linkerhägner 1987]
Knut Reimers, Wilhelm Linkerhägner (eds.): Wege in die Zukunft: Neubau- und Ausbaustrecken der Deutschen Bundesbahn. Darmstadt: Hestra, 1987.
[Rittel 1992]
Horst W. J. Rittel: Planen, Entwerfen, Design: Ausgewählte schriften zu Theorie und Methodik. Stuttgart:Kohlhammer, 1992.
[Rittel 1992a]
Horst W. J. Rittel: »Der Planungsprozeß als iterativer Vorgang von Veriationserzeugung und Variationseinschränkung«. [Rittel 1992] pp 75-92.
[Rittel/Webber 1973]
Horst W. J. Rittel, Melvin M. Webber: »Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning«. Policy Sciences 4 (1973), pp 155--169.
[Zwicky 1989]
Fritz Zwicky: Entdecken, Erfinden, Forschen im morphologischen Weltbild. 2nd ed., Glarus: Baeschlin, 1989.