May 19, 2021

Why creativity thrives when it’s challenged

In Cuba, locals have a common saying: resolver. It roughly translates to: solve, get by, or make do. Resolver is how Cubans describe solving problems ranging from the everyday to the complex on an island with few resources. It’s how they’ve managed to keep cars built in the 1940s running for nearly eight decades without ever having access to spare parts from the manufacturers. Or how they’ve learned to make electric bikes using motors from water pumps and military tanks. Being physically, politically, and economically isolated from much of the world has given birth to a nation of DIY engineers, designers, and inventors.

Examples like this one fly into the face of our commonly-held assumptions on how innovation and creativity happen. We associate creativity and innovation with abundant resources and opportunities. Silicon Valley’s never-ending flow of venture capital, universities with large budgets, and Tony Stark types with millions to burn on passion projects are some of the examples that come to mind. But look closer, and you’ll see that some of the most incredible feats of human creativity and innovation have come to life under pretty restricted conditions.

Michelangelo worked within stylistic conventions that most artists today would balk at. Stravinsky waxed poetic about how self-imposed constraints set his creativity free. More recently, covid-19 has gotten the entire planet into the spirit of resolver. Teachers have figured out how to continue classes using Zoom. Entire companies have gone remote. And the threat of a rapidly worsening pandemic pushed scientists to develop highly effective vaccines using novel technology in record time.

Creativity thrives when it’s challenged. You can’t learn to think outside of the box if you don’t have one in the first place.

Why you need the box

The human brain is an optimizer. It likes to follow the path of least resistance and find the easiest way to complete tasks. Once it learns to solve a problem without too much effort, it gets complacent and fixed on those limited solutions. This is an excellent tool for survival but not so for creative thinking.

On the other hand, challenges force us to get creative, iterate multiple solutions, and learn to be variable. Constraints promote high variability by making tasks more difficult and forcing us to narrow our focus. They compel us to make do with what we have and see possibilities that we would’ve overlooked in more abundant circumstances.

Cubans have learned to be highly variable. They see possibilities in objects that most people could never envision. “People think beyond the normal capacities of an object and try to surpass the limitations that it imposes on itself,” explains Ernesto Oraza. This mindset marks the difference between seeing a broken washing machine or an old car as treasure troves of raw materials instead of useless trash.

Zipline: Innovating in extreme conditions

Developing devices that can operate cheaply and effectively in extreme conditions has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of what is possible with limited resources in the healthcare sector. Zipline, a drone developer, made leaps in aircraft technology, AI, and navigation systems while trying to help deliver blood and medicines to rural villages in Rwanda using its aircraft.

Finding a solution to a life-or-death situation in a resource-strained environment using novel technology posed some serious challenges. Zipline’s drones would have to perform safe and speedy deliveries of fragile cargo over long distances in Rwanda’s unpredictable weather and mountainous terrain. They would also have to fly close to the ground in rain and wind to airdrop packages without landing. This would keep the aircraft light and reduce risks for humans and equipment. It would also allow Zipline to serve more places without needing trained staff at the drop-off locations to re-launch vehicles.

The engineering team sought out NASA’s input for their drones’ design. They tried to use their weather models to program the automated navigation systems. But neither the designs nor the weather models worked out for what they were trying to do. “Nobody flies near the ground in storms. It’s just not done,” explains Keenan Wyobrek, CTO of the company. It’s considered too dangerous for crewed aircraft and too risky for fragile drones worth millions of dollars. Zipline, however, wouldn’t have the luxury of waiting for the weather to calm down. And neither would the people who needed the life-saving supplies that they were transporting.

This long list of challenges became the source of some of Zipline's drones' most innovative features. Zips, as the company calls them, can fly faster and farther than any other commercially available drone. An automated navigation system combining NASA’s models with Zipline’s own data guides the aircraft through nearly every terrain and weather condition. They’re also cheap and easy to operate in places where fuel and electricity are scarce. Long-lasting rechargeable batteries power each drone for up to 1,500 flights. Launch sites need only an electrical generator to operate and recharge them.

Zips feature a unique design that allows them to fly in multiple weather conditions and airdrop packages containing fragile cargo. Image source: Zipline

Before this, there had never been a compelling reason to optimize drones for sensitive deliveries in first-world nations. Reliable roads, state-of-the-art hospitals, and regular mail service made technology like this redundant. Most of the applications that had been envisioned for commercial drones were limited to airdropping Amazon packages and Chipotle burritos at people’s doorsteps — hardly life-changing feats.

Flirtey, another drone developer, had already experimented with using drones for medical deliveries in 2015. But stringent regulations made the technology expensive and complicated operations for companies trying to innovate in the sector. Covid-19 has changed this. There is now a serious need for quick deliveries of PPE and medicines to rural hospitals. This pushed the FAA to finally give Zipline and similar operators permission to fly in the US in December of 2020. The company can now bring its innovation home and help deliver medicines to rural America at a time when it’s badly needed.

The sweet spot

Some constraints can be highly beneficial to the creative process. Add too many, however, and they’ll stifle it. An inverted U-shaped curve best illustrates this relationship. An absence of limitations is associated with low creativity levels. As obstacles start to appear, individuals get more ingenious at working out how to solve them. However, once the box gets too tight and people don’t have enough resources to break out of it, they give up, and creativity levels dip.

There is a sweet spot where constraints feed our creativity. Source: Open Learn

Cubans have many limitations. But they also have resources that similar nations don’t have. The revolution left them uniquely blessed with a large number of unemployed engineers and other science professionals. These individuals were able to kickstart Cuba’s DIY culture and pass on their technical know-how to others. For all their ingenuity, however, Cubans are severely restricted in the types of devices that they can fashion from the few materials available to them. Building motorized bikes with water pump motors requires fewer resources and technical skills than building an operational aircraft, for example.

Conclusion

Challenges are catalysts for innovation. And there is perhaps no better time to make friends with our constraints than right now. One of the few silver linings to covid-19 has been how it’s boosted innovation. It’s created a moment of social, scientific, and technological experimentation that would’ve not been possible otherwise. People have found ways to live their lives and help each other while socially distancing. Healthcare has been revolutionized. Governments and organizations were pressed to adopt technologies they had been reluctant to integrate for years.

Even Cuba stands to win something from the pandemic. The island nation got to work on developing its own vaccine after it realized it couldn’t afford to purchase foreign ones. They have few resources and plenty of odds against them. But if there’s something that Cubans know well is that innovation thrives within constraints, but it truly shines in times of crisis.

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