Taking a rigorous approach to creativity in civil engineering

Henry David Thoreau once said, “The world is but a canvas to the imagination.”

If that’s the case, then civil engineers are the artists. They are responsible for creating the built environment around us. Therefore, engineers must expand their vision of the world to discover innovative solutions and build structures that will advance society.

But how can civil engineers integrate more creativity into their work?

Oliver Broadbent takes a rigorous approach to enhancing creativity in civil engineering. He believes that creative thinking is just as critical to the profession’s success as analytical and technical thinking.

Broadbent, director at Constructivist Ltd, is determined to help engineers and architects build creativity and develop innovative approaches to engineering education. He will serve as the keynote speaker at the Structures Virtual 2021 Conference, held June 2-4.

He spoke recently with the Civil Engineering Source about his work:

Civil Engineering Source: What role does innovation and creativity play in civil engineering?

Broadbent: I think creativity is the overlooked part of the civil engineering process. Quite a lot of our time in training is dedicated to thinking about how to deliver ideas. Things like analysis, construction and logistics, material properties and how to reach the performance requirement, and how to do things safely, are what I would call “convergent areas of thinking,” or “convergent activities.”

But what I think is important is before you can build something, you need to know what to build. And there is a whole series of thought processes that go into that first divergent part – the bit where we try to work out what the brief could and should be. That is the creative thinking that’s important in whatever it is we’re building. And it’s often that part which is missed in our education and missed in the processes of a lot of civil engineering projects.

Now just because our work might not always be the most glamorous, doesn’t mean the work doesn’t need creativity. Creativity is about developing solutions in response to a particular stimulus.

Every project is a stimulus. We could just deliver each project in the way we’ve done it before. But if we want to tackle new problems, such as climate crisis and the ecological crisis, we need to think of new ways to do things. Each problem we’re going to face gives us an opportunity to think about it differently, and that’s where we need creative thought. We know that we can’t use the old solutions to provide the civil engineering infrastructure that we had before. We need new thinking, and it’s going to be creative tools that enable us to get to those.

So, creativity and innovation have an absolutely important part to play in civil engineering. But I should also say that it’s not just at the blank canvas end of the project. It could be any time there’s a new aspect of the project to deliver. We could be looking at it and thinking, “How could we do this differently? How could we do this in a way that meets the deliverables but maybe meets them in a better way?”

Source: Why should engineers prioritize creative thinking as much as technical and analytical thinking?

Broadbent: I should start by saying technical thinking is, remains, and will always be a very important part of what civil engineers do. It’s important that what we build is robust and safe. It’s important that what we build is resilient, and it’s well built and is an efficient use of our resources. All those things are important to the analytical processes, technical processes, and technical considerations.

But I go back to this point – before we think about how to build something, we need to decide what to build. We are entering a time of unprecedented change in our built environment. 

The construction and built environment sector is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases, and the use of resources has a huge impact on our ecological footprint. We need to think creatively about how we meet our needs as humans and how we meet our obligation to help nature regenerate after we’ve done so much to deplete it. We need to raise that challenge by developing new ideas and to think creatively about how we could use old ideas.

The formulation I use is that an idea is really a connection between two existing elements that we already understand. So, creative thinking could be as much about taking something from one context and applying it in another, as it is about coming up with something that is completely new.

But there are a lot of factors limiting our thinking as humans. We have biases that get us to prioritize and prefer the thing we understand rather than the things that we don’t know. There is the phenom of cognitive ease, as described by Daniel Kahneman in the book Thinking Fast and Slow, where the brain prefers to think about things it already understands.

If we imagine the transformation of infrastructure or cities, it’s quite hard for us to think about a better world, even though a better world would be possible. Even though healthier streets, healthier neighborhoods, more resilient communities should be possible, because we are so used to seeing what’s around us, it’s quite hard to imagine what a difference could be. That is why we need creative tools to lift us out of that space, lift us out of that familiar, and enable us to start experimenting. 

Source: Why do you think integrating creative practices in civil engineering can be a challenge?

Broadbent: I think there are three reasons: our training, the culture of project management, and the idea of creative surplus and our lack of it. 

First, we’re not formally trained as engineers to think creatively. We spend a lot of time doing analysis, but we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to develop an idea and what might be the rationale for what makes it a good or bad idea.

This contrasts from architects, who spend a lot of time being trained in how to formulate an idea, how to justify their thinking, how to make a case for it out of a vast array of possibilities, and why their particular idea is the right one. They’re trained in how to develop a philosophy around the idea and how to convince others of it. We don’t have that in engineering so that’s one of the barriers. 

Second is the culture of project management, which is very good for the delivery of projects because we’re focused on external motivators, like time and budgets. But research shows that is not conducive to creative thinking. Creative thinking needs more intrinsic motivation and interest in the problem. We need to create time in the project space that is not managed on project management terms but on creative thinking terms.

The third is the concept of creative surplus. Like financial surplus, creative surplus is the kind of excess energy that we can invest in thinking creatively. For me, there are two components of creative surplus: attention and time.

I think not just in civil engineering, but across many professions, we have a deficit of attention because of all the distractions – meetings, popups on our phones, constant news, constant inputs. These distract us, and we don’t have as much opportunity to focus on a problem.

As for time, we are not a very profitable sector. In the U.K., a 2% to 3% profit on annual turnover is what the engineering companies or construction industry can expect to make.

When we hear about industries, for example, Google and its famous 10% – when Google engineers are given 10% time to develop their own projects – we don’t have that level of surplus in our industry. So, it’s quite difficult for people to make time to think creatively.

Source: What inspires your focus on fostering creativity within the profession?

Broadbent: The potential for civil engineering to continue to transform and improve the quality of life of humans across the world at the same time as supporting and regenerating our ecosystems has never been greater. And I think there’s a huge amount in our profession that we could achieve, but we need to be able to break free from our existing thinking and start to imagine what could be done.

How could we create a town’s infrastructure, transport, and buildings that would work within our ecological parameters? How can we work with the materials that we know, the materials we haven’t discovered yet, and the materials we’ve forgotten about, to imagine new structures, new buildings, new ways of living? How can we conceive towns that are healthy and improve our quality of life when we live in them?

All that requires creative thinking because it’s new. It’s not what we have already. We must imagine something different. There’s never been a more important time for engineers to have those creative thinking tools. And there’s never been a more important time for us to actually think about how to build our capacity to think creatively in our profession. That’s what keeps me coming back to it day in, day out.

I’d also like to add that creative thinking is fun. It’s a “yes” space where we say, “what if” or “what could we do.” We, as engineers, spend a lot of time thinking about whether something is achievable or not. But when you’re in that creative space, you’re opening up possibilities, you allow new things in, and see what could be done. And that’s an exciting space. It’s an inspiration. It’s an uplifting space to be in and work in.

Learn more about the Structures Virtual 2021 Conference and register today.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. I think another important factor that inhibits creativity in civil engineering is an absence of good decision making processes and constructs – likely from lack of awareness. For instance, use of constructs like Decision Quality can help to overcome cognitive biases and provide a vehicle for civil engineers to develop creative solutions; as well as a vehicle for bringing their clients along on the creative journey.

  2. I heartily agree that creativity is the “overlooked part of the civil engineering process” and that the overlooking begins with CE education.

    I must add this: If we want CEs and others to be more creative, we should teach them the basics of how their brain work. This is “Neuroscience 101,” not neurosurgeon knowledge.

    My book, Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers (Pearson) does that. Chapter 2 is titled “The Brain: A Primer” and subsequent chapters describe 20 creative thinking tools that build on brain basics.

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