As published in the Engineering News-Record (ENR) on July 6, 2016
As our infrastructure ages, engineers are busy helping to build new bridges, highways, water systems and airports—a need that fuels the demand for civil engineers and other construction professionals. While employers favor applicants with graduate degrees and hands-on experience, those who hire also should look for evidence that an engineer knows how to apply his or her knowledge in novel ways.
When I started in this field, aspiring engineers needed a love of logic, a penchant for precision and a delight in differential equations. We solved narrowly defined problems. Over time, some of us began to function more as technicians than engineers.
Today, people considering a career in engineering must embrace their creative side and relish the opportunity to confront diverse, cross-disciplinary challenges. Not-so-young people already in the profession should do the same.
Creativity is an attribute most of us associate with writers, musicians and artists—people who work in the right-brain realm of imagination and inspiration. As the world’s problems become more complex, our society needs more creative engineers who can employ a whole-brain approach. Linear thinking—the kind that can be automated—will not cut it.
Authors Stuart Walesh, Tomasz Arciszewski and Daniel Pink predict that the knowledge era will be replaced by an age of opportunity and conception.
Engineering creativity—the ability to generate useful, feasible, patentable and often surprising concepts—will be a defining competitive advantage.
Futurist Richard Florida identified the “creative class” as a key driver of economic vitality. Interestingly, he included scientists, engineers and architects in this group and made a compelling argument that creativity is essential to our staple industries and emerging sectors alike.
Most people are flattered to have that descriptor attached to their profession. While Florida’s assessment may be true, creativity is not yet a hallmark of our professional culture.
Walesh recalls how one engineering CEO said his firm was simply too busy and didn’t “have time for philosophical, academic and theoretical stuff like that.”
It’s true that creativity comes at a price. As business professor Barry Staw observes, creative people tend to be risk-takers. They are persistent to the point of burnout, and their contrarian ways can throw a monkey wrench into well-oiled decision-making systems. Companies that employ creative people usually have a high tolerance for trial and error.
That said, even the most rational engineers typically admire creativity in some form. We’re drawn to beautiful paintings and sing along to our favorite songs at the stoplight, hoping nobody notices.
Taking sides in the nature-nurture argument, most of us assume that the artist and the lyricist were born with these talents and ignore that they may have been developed intentionally. Like all good things, creativity can result from nature or nurturing. To nurture it, teachers and mentors must know what to look for.
Walesh observes common characteristics of creative people, who tend to be studious, introverted, experimental, empathetic, collaborative, persistent and passionate. Educators who notice these characteristics in their students should try to reinforce them.
Creativity in the engineering profession can and should be proactively developed. For example, we can welcome diverse perspectives in the classroom. We should reward experimentation and risk-taking without necessarily tolerating risky behavior. We can embrace a new paradigm that allows for a mix of contemporary knowledge, skills and styles, without sacrificing one iota of scientific or professional credibility.
In practice, engineers should be given more open-ended problems that invite creative approaches—opportunities for engineering to lend a perspective to real-world issues.
Creativity also can be fostered by going back to basics. Pick up a No. 2 pencil and do freehand sketches. Listen to music while you work, and don’t be embarrassed if your toes start tapping. Write for the sake of writing. Meditate, paint, dance.
These and other strategies should be more intentionally welcomed in both the classroom and the workplace. Leaders should model creative behavior, no matter how uncomfortable it might feel.
To provide engineering leadership for tomorrow, we must build more creative capacity today. Building something durable requires considerable time and effort, so let us begin.