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A recent TV programme about creativity – part of the BBC’s popular science documentary series Horizon – offered an intriguing look into how our brains work at those ‘Eureka’ moments, where a new idea suddenly pops into your head. It revealed some interesting studies about the areas of your brain that are stimulated during such moments and attempted to identify the activities that promote or allow such thinking.

The hypothesis presented was that in order to allow these moments to occur, you have to connect elements of knowledge that you’d not linked before, and shut out other concepts momentarily that suppress the creativity.

These moments need four key ingredients: a need; underlying knowledge; a stimulus; and the right environment to allow those connections to become apparent. Each of these elements can be developed individually.

Getting the ‘need’ right is at the heart of innovation. We spend a lot of effort at the start of projects making sure we really understand our end users, both through collecting articulated needs and using analysis to find unmet needs. Involvement in this process gives the design team a deep understanding of these needs going into the creative phase of the project.

‘Knowledge’ comes next. This can stem from an innovator’s curiosity to understand everything around them, from reading about new principle discoveries, keeping in touch with latest trends and products to taking things apart and questioning why everything is as it is. It also helps to work somewhere like CDP where you’re talking to a colleague over lunch in the canteen who can add insights from seemingly unrelated projects or skill-sets.

Next you need a stimulus, according to the scientists. The stimulus for design can come from external inputs such as conferences or general interests outside of work. Or they can be triggered more formally using catalysts in processes and exercises specifically to create a series of potential stimuli. These are then developed and used to fast-track the brainstorm process.

The final element, according to Horizon, is the environment. This can be fostered by a culture that helps to breed creativity and inspire different thinking, something that we at Cambridge Design Partnership encourage. But interestingly, sometimes the best ideas are generated outside the work environment, away from the micro-detail of the lab or your desk. The need, knowledge and stimulus are present, but it can be a different environment that completes the circuit.

A great example happened a year or so ago. I’d been stuck on a problem for some time and was in the lab running a prototype machine trying hard to make it work. The deadline was looming and it had become one of those projects that could wake me up at 3am! I understood all the elements of the problem but I could not yet formulate a reliable solution. One day, a colleague on a coffee break wandered into the lab and started asking questions. The questions and ideas kept going round my head and that night I went to play football and let off some steam. When I was driving home in my Mini and my mind was wandering through previous projects and the problem at hand, suddenly, out of nowhere, an idea appeared! (Unfortunately that night I still couldn’t sleep because my mind was now busy putting the solution together!).

Early to work the next morning, and straight to 3D CAD where I worked up the potential solution. By lunchtime I had a 3D print and could prove the idea was working; by the afternoon the new part was on the machine and working 99% of the time. Within a week, a couple more iterations had improved the reliability and the problem was solved and the patent drafted.

What this example provided, I now see, were the optimum elements for constructing an idea. We’ve optimised the environment at CDP to make these ‘Eureka’ moments happen more often. Years of expertise in innovation and a passion for new ideas has ingrained this into the way we work and who we are. But remember, when stuck on some detail, it can be doing something completely different – be that taking a coffee break, playing football, or flying a plane – that frees your mind to allow the Eureka moment to appear!

by Jez Clements, Partner

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