Are Engineers Creative?

Are we creative, we engineers and programmers? I think fewer of us are than we think, but more of us need to be than are (although it’s not essential that we all are).

It’s probably useful to define creativity, because it could be argued that engineers — people who “engineer” things — are creative by definition. I don’t think so. Creativity is the ability to make something, change something, or do something that creates positive surprise in one’s peers. It goes above and beyond just “the new”. It must elicit, from those who appreciate and understand your field, an appreciative “Huh!?”

Now it’s arguable I’m describing mere Regular Creativity, the kind that pretty much all of us could achieve if we wanted to. I accept that there may be a High Creativity, such as that of van Gogh, which is, by it’s nature, so surprising that even the peers of a High Creative (pun not entirely unintended) will not recognize the merits of the new work until long after its birth. But if you genuinely feel you may be a legend as yet unrecognized in your own lifetime, I haven’t much in the way of advice for you. I’ll just wish you well, and offer only the observation that the reason many of those who live their lives unrecognized as legends is simply that they aren’t.

To the rest of us, we need to understand that there’s a difference between copying and creating, and to accept that for many if not most of us what we do is the former. It’s tempting to think that because every day we sit down in front of our editors and produce code that no one else has written, that we are creating. But really, where did that code come from? Sure, we don’t copy it word for word, line by line, or even function by function. But it didn’t really come from us. Legally, we — or more likely the corporation that employs us — can stake a claim to ownership, but that’s not the kind of novelty we need if we want to call ourselves creative. The law doesn’t get to decide if we are are or aren’t. Other creatives do. And they do it by kudos — by a fist bumping, high fiving, noddingly approving “Kewl!”  If that’s missing, then so are we with respect to our creative mark.

Of course, creativity doesn’t have to be entirely new. Most creation is the combining, or building onto of prior art. That’s one of the major downsides of the tough “intellectual property” system we see arising all around us, where such combining and building upon is heavily restricted. But where it’s possible, there’s no shame in taking (while acknowledging) the work of several others, and then combining in a new way that produces new value. As I say, it may not be the higher form of creativity; it’s partly in an attempt to cultivate that higher form that schools such as SCAD spend the first year or so tearing down new students’ preconceived ideas about what constitutes art. Only once they have unlearned to colour within one set of lines are the developing creatives able to see that there needn’t be any lines, or to ask “What is a line anyway?” But even modestly, quietly, and incrementally; we can still create. It doesn’t have to rock the entire world. Besides, modest, quiet, and incremental changes may in themselves be part of the path to the creative heights.

But why is this important? Because if we, we engineers and programmers, want to create — to produce the “Huh!?” — there are things we can and should do to make it happen. For a start, we can learn from those who more commonly receive the name “creatives”: artists, writers, composers; also, designers beyond our regular “chip design” sense — those who close their eyes, open them, and then create artefacts that can, if we are careful, enhance lives. Read about them, learn from them and see that, ultimately, we and they are the same people. At our heart, we build because we love to build, the best of us code because they are poets. Whether it’s sunflowers in an old pot, or charges crossing a precisely constructed semiconductor junction, we first envisage, then mould a world.

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