The Natural Science of Creativity

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. – Steve Jobs, Entrepreneur and Inventor

You’re on a cruise ship right in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.

While you’re walking on deck, you fall overboard with no one around to help. 

How do you survive?

Here’s a lifeline: you can also have the natural abilities of any one animal to help you. Which do you pick? 

There’s a range of possible answers to this question. A dolphin to swim back to shore. An Albatross to fly back. An ape so you can try climbing back up the side of the ship. 

But how about a mussel, so you can cling to the hull of the ship and cruise effortlessly back to port? Mussels’ ability to stick to things underwater is so impressive that in 2015 researchers used them as inspiration for one of the most effective underwater adhesives ever invented.

There are multiple right answers to most problems. A lot of the time that problem has already been solved somewhere in nature. In technology we often forget that there’s a natural world of inspiration all around us. We just need to unplug and connect with it.

Lately I’ve been working with a number of companies on projects that involve using technology and the internet of things to further connect their brands to their customers. It got me thinking: if I looked in the same places for inspiration as my clients’ competitors, I would probably come up with the same ideas.

It reminded me of this JFK quote:

All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea - whether it is to sail or to watch it - we are going back from whence we came. – John F. Kennedy

What if instead of reading the latest copy of Harvard Business Review, MIT Press, or doing a quirky brainstorming exercise, I could look to one of the world’s greatest examples of an iteratively-designed connected ecosystem - nature? It was then that I discovered the concept of biomimicry through my good friend Cate Johnson.

Biomimicry and the Science of Creative Inspiration

Biomimicry is the design and creation of materials and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes.

The application of biomimicry isn’t new. Leonardo da Vinci famously observed birds for inspiration for his flying machine, sketching their anatomies and movements. The Wright brothers, who successfully flew the first heavier-than-air aircraft, allegedly examined pigeons in flight for inspiration. 

In 1912, photochemist Giacomo Luigi Ciamician published one of the first recorded calls for switching to renewable energies, using plants as inspiration:

"On the arid lands there will spring up industrial colonies without smoke and without smokestacks…  inside of these will take place the photochemical processes that hitherto have been the guarded secret of the plants... for nature is not in a hurry and mankind is.”

Ciamician didn’t employ connected thinking to improve upon an existing energy source - He used it to discover an entirely new one. He started a conversation that we’re still having today.

Connected Systems Thinking: Finding What Business, Nature, and Design Have in Common

It’s this notion of connected systems thinking that’s inspiring breakthrough innovation and outcomes by design in business today.

Elon Musk, for example, is able to unlock value-chain entrepreneurship because of his unique approach to consuming and applying information from novel places. Building off of the thought leadership of visionaries like Ciamician, Musk has connected industries and technologies in ways that allowed several major innovations to arise simultaneously. 

Musk’s focus on protecting the environment led him to found Tesla. The batteries necessitated by electric cars led to the founding of the Gigafactory battery company. The need to charge these batteries led to solar-powered charging stations, as well as the company that produces the solar panels, creating a self-sustaining business loop. And if Musk had never looked outside of earth for an alternative solution to environmental dangers, he wouldn’t have created SpaceX. 

Without connected systems thinking, Musk may have just built an electric car and stopped there. Instead, he disconnected from the “car brand” label, and looked elsewhere. I believe designers, engineers, and visionary entrepreneurs can seek new forms of inspiration on how to connect, by disconnecting themselves from their standard input sources.

What if we could get ideas for new products, services, experiences, and marketplaces simply by disconnecting?

What if the answers we were seeking to some of the worlds greatest problems were out there one nature walk away?

The root of great design is and has always been based on observation. Whether you practice design thinking, systems thinking, or any other unique way to think by design it all starts with observation and reflection. True creativity happens in silence. It’s why some of the greatest innovators and visionaries of our time have solved problems in solitude.

Finding Creative and Business Inspiration the Scientific Way

When it comes to inspiration, people think of science and creativity as being different worlds. If you see things as separate, you’ll get separated thinking. If you’re trying to draw inspiration from biology or creativity, you need to engage in connected thinking. It’s a means of finding creative parallels between biology, business, creativity, and everything in between.

Connected thinking is being able to take a line of thought, and find interconnectivity between it and other apparently separate things. To apply connected thinking to biology and creativity, or biology and business, you have to look at the intersection of function, form, and growth. If any one of these elements is subpar, the entire design will eventually fail.

In this way, evolution is iterative design. It’s the lifecycle of your business. The principles found in nature are universally applicable across contexts. They’ve been refined by evolution for millions of years - and throughout that entire expanse of time, the rule set that controls their environment, physics, has remained unchanged. 

Just like running a business focused on innovation, by observing this gradual hard-won change in a changeless set of circumstances, we can extrapolate which variables change gracefully, which are fundamental, and which must be discarded.

Design, like evolution, requires purpose and deliberation behind its creation. Creativity for the sake of being creative can produce attractive outputs, but it will never achieve the same outcomes as deliberate design. When you connect your creative efforts to your business goals, and you unlock inspiration by observing the world around you, you tap into something that transcends siloed thinking.

The Connected Company of the Future Demands Different Minds at the Top

Today’s customers are connected like never before. Access to information, reviews, brands, and each other is all at their fingertips. Your brand needs to connect with them at every possible channel and touchpoint of connectivity. Accomplishing this requires creativity. For your creative innovation to beat the competition you need to look where your competitors haven’t even considered looking. 

Creativity doesn’t happen around a conference table. It happens when we least expect it. But that doesn’t mean we have to sit around waiting for it. 

Take a walk. Allow yourself to stare out the window and lose track of time. Absorb the natural world and take note of how, and why, everything around you works the way it does. Whatever problem you’re grappling with, chances are nature has already solved it. You just need to know how to look for it.

Have you ever drawn creative inspiration from the natural world around you? Tweet me some examples @petesena