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Tools for Innovation I: Normal psychology and economic recovery

Arthur B. Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. His new book, with Kristin L. Wood, is Tools For Innovation which looks at the practical methods that support innovation and creative design, from different ways of thinking and conceptualizing to computer-based tools. In the post below, which originally appeared on Markman’s Psychology Today blog, we learn about how goals drive behavior.

Business magazines like Forbes, newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, and economic forecasters are united in their belief that economic growth in the US will be driven by innovation. That is, the US and other major economic players will not grow by developing new products and key refinements of existing products that will drive new consumption. This is not news, really. Bringing new ideas to market has long been a centerpiece of economic growth. And that means that Psychology is crucial to the economy.

That’s right. Psychology.

Innovation is driven by new ideas. That means that creativity is at the heart of innovation, and so creativity will drive the economy.

Creativity seems mysterious. We love stories about mad geniuses striving alone in dark labs. We create myths about flashes of superhuman insight that lead to the solutions to difficult problems. We give credit for inventions to single individuals like Edison, Bell, and Marconi.

If creativity is mysterious, then we should be worried about the state of the economy. How can we count on creativity to create growth if it is mysterious and requires heroic figures to occur?

Happily, creativity is not a mystery. The creation of new ideas results from basic psychological mechanisms. Because those mechanisms are well-studied by psychologists, there is much that we can do to teach others how to become more creative. In addition, this knowledge provides us with ways to create tools to support that creativity.

In July of 2009, the book Tools for Innovation came out. I edited this book with my colleague Kris Wood, who is a mechanical engineer. We brought together psychologists, engineers, computer scientists, and people in business to write chapters about basic research that helps us to understand creativity and the tools that can be developed based on that research. In the next few posts, I’ll describe a few of the lessons from this book.

The first lesson comes from a chapter by Robert Weisberg from Temple University. He analyzes a number of examples of creativity, such as Edison’s creation of the kinetoscope (a precursor to the movie projector), Picasso’s creation of the painting Guernica, and the Wright brother’s development of the airplane. He uses these examples to break down a number of myths about innovation.
For example, we tend to give credit to a single individual for an invention. We all know, for example, that the Wright brothers invented the airplane. However, they were working within a larger world community of people who were all working on flying machines. They took note of other people’s failures, such as the death of inventor Otto Lilienthal, who was killed when his flying machine was caught in a gust of wind. This failure led the Wrights to assume that the pilot needed to be able to control the flight of the airplane.

The Wrights were bicycle makers before they started to make airplanes. So they had extensive experience with complicated mechanical devices. This expertise was important as they began to put together an actual device for flying.

Finally, the Wrights looked to the world around them for help in developing the control system for the airplane. Many groups focused on using what was known about steering boats to help steer a plane (that is why the fin on the back of a plane is called a ‘rudder’), but the Wrights read extensively about what was known about bird flight. They decided to have the control system of the plane warp the wings by analogy to what was known about the way that birds fly.

So, the Wright brothers were smart, and persistent, and diligent. They tested their designs carefully. Their invention helped pave the way toward a multibillion dollar industry. But this innovation did not come about because they did things that were beyond the grasp of mere mortals…

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