Engineering is a creative art. Well, at least, it should be.
It has often been said that engineering education dulls the creative mind. That is demonstrably untrue, just look around you, but like many generalities, it has an element of truth. Occasionally, serendipity puts something in your hands which you want to pass on. This week it was Karen Armstrong on Creativity takes Time. If you have any interest in Teaching or creativity in any form, read it. You will probably want to pass it on too.
But what does it have to say about engineering, and about engineering education in particular?
Engineering is a place where creativity places great demands. A creative engineer needs the free thinking part of the brain fully functional, but also needs the analytical side to be trained, fit and ready to go. Starting from there, and given the time and peace Karen demands, fresh ideas can be produced and tested before being implemented. The trouble with that is we tend to separate the idea of creativity from the analytical process. The best students eventually see the limitations of the eductaion and set out to develop themselves further. that insight may come early (There are courses in engineering and architecture in various mixes) or later (Calatrava studied architecture, realised the limitations it imposed and went straight into engineering research). It probably has to be explicitly recognised before it is any use.
Possibly the best way to develop is to sit alongside people from different disciplines. The interaction of Renzo Piano and Peter Rice (or here)might be taken as a good example, though I am sure there are others.
What I want to pick up on particularly is the time element. (My wife thinks peace is more important but that is another issue). We owe it to our children to build good structures. That means not just good to look at, but good to use and good to keep. Good to look at is often seen as the creative part, but buildable and maintainable structures are a mass of complex details, all of which must work together. Analysing the potential problems is all very well, but first you must spot them. In 1976, David Smith wrote on bridge failures that it was almost unheard of for a bridge to fail because someone had done the calculations wrong. Much more common is the failure where a particular modeof failure has not been considered at all. Thinking of potential problems is a sleeping time, not a desk time issue. Good design is not a matter of manhours onthe desk but of man-months with the job around the office. Fast track design and construction will inevitably lead to poor quality. We may not see the cost, but our children will.