How to Foster More Creativity in Chemical Engineering

The World Desperately Needs More Chemical Engineers Who Create

Has chemical engineering lost its strive to support, praise and value creativity in all its forms?
Has the constant struggle to fulfill monthly, quarterly, yearly sales plans, reduce costs and stick to strict structure totally wiped out the growth potential that rises out of creativity?
To make great ideas a reality, we must act, experiment, fail, adapt, and learn on a daily basis.

To make it, one has to dedicate focused time, resources and devotion. This is hard to make possible while at the same time maintaining the 9 – 5 routine?

What do Dropbox, Nest, Uber, and Airbnb all have in common? Each began as a two-or three-man start-up operation that has been transformed from a small idea into a serious multibillion-dollar business.

The question of creativity in chemical engineering came to me exactly through the process of witnessing more and more new businesses emerging in many fields and professions, bringing out all kinds of ideas and solutions.

Where are new businesses in chemical engineering? There are far fewer! What is the reason?

After thinking about it for some time and doing my own research, I came to some answers and even more questions.

One answer is certain: The world desperately needs more Chemical Engineers Who Create!

What does creativity stand for? 

Wikipedia defines creativity as a “phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed. The created item may be intangible or a physical object.” That is, a novel, musical composition, painting, idea, or invention are examples of the result of creative endeavors.

Prof. Zare, known for his enthusiasm for science and a strong advocate for women in science made a couple of definitions that I like: 
„Creativity is the process of forming original ideas.”
„Creativity is not about talent, not about skill, and not about intelligence. It is not about doing something better than someone else.”

„Creativity is about thinking, risk taking, exploring, discovering, and imagining.”

Ok, cool – so that totally has to do with chemical engineers, right? The world at the moment desperately needs as many as possible – new ideas for improved environmental protection, CO2 reduction solutions, innovations in optimal waste management, improved solutions for optimal and efficient energy use, reduced emissions, sustainable development of technologies and products, improved services and so much more…

Projects, ideas, services, research do exist, but the number of them is not even close enough to how the number that the world needs. 

Chemical engineering also needs those enthusiasts as are founders of Dropbox, Uber, Arbnb. It needs start-up operations to act, experiment, fail, adapt, learn and eventually succeed with breakthrough ideas, innovations and solutions.

Are we too scared to take risks, explore, discover? Did we lose our imagination chasing our 9 to 5 jobs and paying our expenses? Have we lost our confidence?

Possible.

Probable.

High creativity in research, development, or production implies that a positive outcome is anything but assured. That is, truly innovative approaches often walk a fine line between producing something novel and failure and lost time and effort.

Creativity is also about channeling, packaging, and delivering your talent for others to consume it. It’s also about scaling your talent for more people to benefit from it. With creativity comes a drive to succeed. To be able to do this, we need to dare, dare to lead (Brene Brown), dare to accept our failures and still dare to do it. 

How to encourage creativity?

According to prof. Zare, creativity involves the intersection of three things:

  • the capacity to think outside the box and put together existing ideas into new combinations;
  • the knowledge, expertise, and information you have, without which you have nothing to put together;
  • and your motivation to think about something different—that is, your intensity and willingness to accept change.

Creativity requires passion, resources, and the daring to play with ideas and accept the risk that what you are doing might completely fail.

What are highly innovative, visionary companies doing differently?

What’s different about these companies that have grown from start-ups to a successful business is that they are lean learning machines. They have an intense bias to action and a high tolerance for risk, expressed through frequent experimentation and relentless product iteration. They hack together products and services, test them, and improve them, while their legacy competition edits project plans in PowerPoint. They are obsessed with company culture and top-tier talent, with an emphasis on employees that can imagine, build, and test their own ideas. They are hypersensitive to friction—in their daily operations and their user experiences. They are comfortable with the unknown; business models and customer value are revealed over time. And most importantly, they are driven by a purpose greater than just profit; each is explicit about how they intend to change the world in some small, or utterly massive, way.

Legacy businesses tend to focus on commercial outcomes: to be the number one player in a market or hit an earnings target. Success is about business performance. But for responsive visionary companies, vision and impact are paramount. 

Bureaucratic approaches that require rule and procedure standardization or centralized decision making for the organization irrespective of the unique responsibilities of the different groups, restrict flexibility and thus options available to address problems. 

So, how to foster more creativity?

Some individuals have higher propensity for this type of activity than do others. However, all of us can improve our creativity by conducting ourselves in certain ways. For instance, we can read broadly in diverse technical and nontechnical areas to expand our knowledge base and redirect our thought process, restate the problem in a different way to alter an existing viewpoint, challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom, embark on new activities such as hobbies or sports, and speak and collaborate with a variety of individuals on important problems and issues to obtain different perspectives. We can play more, imagine more…

Creativity comes into play when you care about some problem passionately and you become actively involved in finding its solution.

You search for possible connections, keep your mind open to different possibilities, and bring your broad knowledge to bear on ways of approaching the problem. A combination of passion, persistence, and playfulness is a powerful means of turning accidental discoveries into breakthroughs. And once you have this frame of mind, you can go on to solve all types of problems.

If you want to get inspired to work on new projects, solutions or applications, follow the content that can help you create more and connect with individuals just as you, join this FB group Chemical Engineers Who Create.

Two key ingredients seem essential for creativity to occur.

The first prerequisite is confidence: You believe that you can solve your problem. The second is passion: You believe that trying to solve this problem is one of the most important things you are doing in your life.

The confidence comes only from practice in solving other problems and finding that you can. No one learned to play a musical instrument by reading a book or attending a lecture on how to play a musical instrument. Learning involves practice and hard work.
Although the team approach to creativity is widely accepted and practiced, the “lone” or shy and inhibited person often makes important discoveries because they are not biased by others’ ideas and concerns, which allows new directions and concepts to be pursued freely. This approach was promoted by Nikola Tesla, who stated:
Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.

Alone or with the team, give yourself a chance to explore that problem, take that challenge, calculate all that options, find out all the details about that construction, build a business plan, build an application – stay playful, take an adventure and create!

More literature to spark the creative flame:

  1. Fostering Creativity, By Richard N. Zare
  2. Dare to Lead, Brene Brown
  3. Make Your Mark: the creative’s guide to building a business with impact, Jocelyn K. Glei
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