Unboxing inventions and innovations

Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

It seems like there is hardly a person who didn’t hear the phrase “Thinking outside of the box”. As Wikipedia entry says it’s “a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective.” While it sounds good in theory, it is unclear what one should do to think unconventionally, differently, creatively etc. Only demanding from someone to think outside of the box, doesn’t provide clear guidance on how to achieve this goal.

The same issue happens in education, when a student is taught any subject that requires thinking beyond what was taught in a lesson or a lecture. There are people who can do better than others in such situations and we tend to label them as creative, smart and sometimes genius. But the psychological research into what makes experts experts, for example done by Anders K. Ericsson et al, shows that this has to do more with the way an expert practiced, and not the innate cognitive abilities.

So what makes us creative and can it be taught and learned? The short answer is yes and the rest of this post will try to justify this answer. The question of creative thinking is relevant in most fields of daily life where problems arise and when there is no obvious way of how to solve them. Here we go into realm of innovation and invention. There are many definitions of these two terms, so let me quote one from Merriam-Webster on the difference between invention and innovation

What is the difference between innovation and invention?
The words innovation and invention overlap semantically but are really quite distinct.

Invention can refer to a type of musical composition, a falsehood, a discovery, or any product of the imagination. The sense of invention most likely to be confused with innovation is “a device, contrivance, or process originated after study and experiment,” usually something which has not previously been in existence.

Innovation, for its part, can refer to something new or to a change made to an existing product, idea, or field. One might say that the first telephone was an invention, the first cellular telephone either an invention or an innovation, and the first smartphone an innovation.

Chuck Swoboda, in his The Innovator’s Spirit book also provides detentions for an innovation and an invention that will be discussed in this post and they are

An invention, by definition, is something new—something that’s never been seen before. An innovation, on the other hand, especially a disruptive one, is something new that also creates enormous value by addressing an important problem.

While I do not have any objection to his definition of an innovation, I don’t agree with the definition of an invention. Saying that invention “is something new that’s never been seen before” is too vague a definition to be practical. It takes a quick look into submitted patents to see that there are lots of similar, if not outright identical patents issued for inventions. Which means the definition of invention being something never seen before fails to capture this. Also by the same token invention “being something new” fails too.

But it turns out there is quite precise definition, that exits since 1956, of a technical invention, which was provided by Genrich Altshuller and Rafael Schapiro in a paper About the Psychology of Inventive Creativity (available in Russian) published in Psychology Issues, No. 6, 1956. – p. 37-49. In the paper they mentioned that as a technical system evolves there could arise contradictory requirements between parts of the system. For example, lots of people use mobile phones to browse the internet. To be able to comfortably see the content on the screen of the phone, the screen should be as big as possible, but this requirement clashes (contradicts) with the size of the mobile phone, which should be small enough to be able to hold it comfortably in a hand or carry it in a pocket.

Altshuller and Shapiro defined the invention as a resolution of the contradictory requirements between parts of the system, without having to trade off requirements to achieve the solution. This definition of invention allows to talk precisely about what can be thought as invention and what can’t. Generally speaking, contradictory requirements can be resolved in space, time or structure. For example, returning to the mobile phone example, to resolve the contradiction in structure of the phone, between the size of the screen and the size of the phone there is a functionality that was introduced in mobile phones that allows to screencast the video and audio from a phone to a TV screen using Wi-Fi radio signal. YouTube application on Android phones supports this functionality.

Altshuller wrote a number of books on the subject of creative thinking, particularly books that developed the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (abbreviated as TRIZ in Russian). In these books the ideas about a contradiction, an invention and an algorithmic approach (ARIZ) to how to invent by solving contradictions in technical problems are elaborated. To name just a few books in chronological order, written by Altshuller

  • How to learn to invent (“Как научиться изобретать”), 1961
  • Algorithm of Invention(“АЛГОРИТМ изобретения”), 1969
  • Creativity as an Exact Science: Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (“ТВОРЧЕСТВО как точная наука: Теория решения изобретательских задач”), 1979

What is important to mention about the books is that they contain systematic, detailed and step by step explanations of how to invent using an algorithm. Lots of examples and exercises for self-study included in them. The books by Altshuller somewhat resemble in their content and in a way of presenting the material books written by George Polya.

Polya being a productive mathematician was also interested in how to convey his ideas in a way that could be easily understood by other people. To this end he wrote a number of books directed to pupils, students, teachers and general audience.

For example, his book How To Solve it first published in 1945 is a step by step instruction set on how to approach mathematical problems in a systematic way, using heuristics that mathematicians accumulated doing math for thousands of years. It very much resembles to me the structure and approach taken in Altshuller’s How to learn to event. Later, Polya wrote two additional books on how mathematicians think and how they arrive to mathematical theories. Each of the books consist of two volumes and they are

What is interesting to mention is that the books written by Polya and Altshuller more than fifty years ago contained very insightful ideas and heuristics to tackle math and inventive problems. But today it’s still difficult to find a widespread adoption of these ideas in education, industry or elsewhere. For example, The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics book from 2015 mentions only a rudimentary number of math Tricks and Techniques in the chapter I, Introduction to Applied Mathematics, on pages 39-40, out of 1031 pages.

As well as the general ideas and principles described in
this article, applied mathematicians have at their disposal
their own bags of tricks and techniques, which
they bring into play when experience suggests they
might be useful. Some will work only on very specific
problems. Others might be nonrigorous but able to give
useful insight. George Pólya is quoted as saying, “A
trick used three times becomes a standard technique.”
Here are a few examples of tricks and techniques that
prove useful on many different occasions, along with a
very simple example in each case.

– Use symmetry…
– Add and subtract a term, or multiply and divide by a term….
– Consider special cases…
– Transform the problem…
– Proof by contradiction…
– Going into the complex plane…

As a summary, if you are curious whether it’s possible to learn how to be more creative, inventive or, in general, approach problems in a systematic way, then check the books by Genrich Altshuller and George Polya. They may provide you with just the tools that you were looking for, but didn’t know where to find.

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