Remember when you were a child and built entire worlds out of just your imagination and some LEGO® bricks, sticks, rocks, or whatever you could lay your hands on? You knew you were building something, but often, at the very beginning, you didn’t know exactly how it was going to turn out. Sure, LEGO bricks often come with instructions for a specific thing, but if you were anything like most kids, you’d build that thing then wreck it all and build something completely made up, and then you’d do it again and again.
I once offered my friend’s 7 year old a boxed LEGO set of a model car, ready to be built, she looked at me and shook her head. What was this? I thought, her mum had insisted she loved LEGO. I tried again. This time, I offered her the big tub of random LEGO bricks accumulated over the years my now older son had been mad about the stuff. Her face lit up and she set to digging through the massive tub, picking out pieces that looked ‘good’. She had no idea what she was going to build with them yet, but that didn’t matter; she was free to create whatever weird and wonderful models she wanted. In that moment she had the freedom of thought to create, to devise things out of other things.
The word engineer according to my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology is;
‘borrowed from the Old French engigneor, from enginier, to contrive, build, from engin meaning skill, cleverness.’
Skill and cleverness. In other words, practical know-how and cognitive ability are intrinsic to the definition of what an engineer is. Without an understanding of the physical world around you and the laws that govern it, how could you possibly create anything that works? From the wheel to the aeroplane, the steamship to the locomotive, all this required the cognitive ability to understand aerodynamics, fluid dynamics, friction, etc., and the skill to translate that understanding into physical reality.
My young friend above created all sorts of things with those random LEGO bricks. The LEGO bricks could well have been some pebbles or sticks and the setting might have been a riverside, many, many civilisations ago. She might have been watching a pebble rolling down a slope and marvelled at the ease and speed with which this smooth round pebble got to the bottom of the slope.
As she went down to retrieve the pebble to examine it, she might have stepped on a fallen tree branch and found herself briefly rolling down that hill with little effort. Those experiences might have led her to realise that something about round shapes affected how well they could move down slopes, and with this realisation she might have gone on to create a proto-wheel of some kind. And all without the cognitive ability to articulate neither Newton’s 3rd law nor the law of the lever. In a similar way, my modern-day young friend’s LEGO brick creations were fantastic and did not fall apart, despite her lack of structural engineering know-how or skill.
Most definitions of engineers talk of ‘a person whose job it is to design and build ...’ and then invariably, something about bridges and machinery, etc.
But there’s something missing in all these definitions, a mention of the very thing that precedes all the designing and building of anything, the answer to; why do some people create things?
It’s simple of course; creativity. Without it there is no engineering to speak of– skill and cleverness are nothing without creativity.
This is not a new idea; the observation has been made endlessly, for millennia. But in the world of simulation engineering, do we ‘live’ this principle?
In a recent webinar on designer-oriented simulation, one of the panellists, Mark Hindsbo suggests we might not, and that ‘we need to learn to be more reckless.’ Before you raise a concerned eyebrow, Mark is aware of the provocative nature of that statement and qualifies it by pointing out that, of course, this does not mean the kind of recklessness that would see an engineer design an airplane that falls apart mid-air, for example.
During the discussion, there is also an emphasis on the crucial nature of rigorous testing and validation in the later stages of the design process. However, the key word here is ‘later’. At the beginning of the design process, creativity is what is essential. The world of simulation engineering has a particular advantage here. With the availability of tools that enable the construction and modification of digital models, the restriction of physical material costs is significantly reduced. As Mark puts it, ‘It is now extremely cheap to break stuff and explore stuff digitally. So, go break some stuff.’
Call it recklessness, educated risk-taking, or whatever you like, but it all comes down to connecting with your creativity, because without that, nothing new happens.
So, what are you waiting for? go break some (digital) stuff!
Need a little more encouragement? Click here and listen to the whole webinar.