One of the key ways is to connect and combine ideas. Most inventions in the world, most innovations come from putting things together that haven’t been there together before, often in really unusual and surprising ways. One of my favorite ways to practice this is with the Japanese art of Chindogu. Chindogu is the art of creating un-useless inventions. They are not useful. They are not useless. They are un-useless. And what they really are is a way of saying there might be something here, but I’m not quite sure. So in this example, with the umbrellas on the shoes, well, gee, it might not be very practical, but it unlocks some really, really interesting ideas.
Speaking of shoes, here’s another Chindogu. OK. Little dustpans. Again, it might not be practical, but you know what, there is an interesting idea there. Again, you can use jokes for inspiration every single day. One of my favorite things, whenever I get the New Yorker, and I’m sure anyone who reads the New Yorker knows, the first thing you do is to open up the back cover and you look at the cartoon caption contest. The cartoon caption contest always puts things together that are not obvious. Often they exert out of scale, or things that would be very, very surprising to have in a same frame. And your job is to come up with a really creative way to connect these things in really interesting and surprising ways.
So here’s a caption for this cartoon. It is, “We’ll start you out here, then give you more responsibilities as you gain experience.” Now of course, you can come up with an endless number of other solutions. So there are two ways for you to increase your imagination but there is another that I want to bring up today. And that is challenging assumptions. One of the biggest problems we have is that we ask people questions and give them problems, they come up with the first right answer. So we are getting really incremental solutions.
So what we do in our creativity class is we give problems that are really surprising where there is not one right answer. So here is an example of one I just gave recently. This is the exact design brief. And I gave this actually to the group of students at the Osaka University, and their challenge was — to create as much value as possible, value measured in any way they wanted, starting with the contents of one trashcan. They had two hours to do it. How do you like to do that?
One of the interesting things about this assignment, and I put a lot of thoughts into framing the problem beforehand, is that trash actually has a negative value, right? We have to pay people to take it away. So what happened is these students ended up spending quite a bit of time and advanced diving into the project, thinking about what value meant for them. They thought about friendship and community and health and financial security. All sorts of things ended up in forming the way. They thought about the trashcan that they were going to use to create some value.
To raise the bar even further, I gave them a little bit more of a challenge. I told them that I had sent a note out, which I did, to my colleagues around the world, and invited their students to participate at the same time. So there were students in Europe, in Asia, in the US and in Latin America, all doing the same project at the same time. So let me show you a couple of the things that resulted from this.
A group in Ecuador started out with a garbage can filled with yard waste. Yard waste? I probably wouldn’t have them picked about a trashcan but look at how amazing thing they did. They turned it into a beautiful mural. Or a girl in Ireland, her mom had just gone through her brother’s sock drawer and at a whole trashcan of old holy socks, you know what she did, there were all different colors black, white, grey, she cut them out and sew them together and made this sweater. Pretty cool. I hope some of you will go through your socks drawer later today.
So these are three things you can do to increase your imagination, right? Framing and re-framing problems, connecting and combining ideas and challenging assumptions. But unfortunately, this is not enough. You need to look at the other pieces of the innovation engine. And one of the next pieces on the inside is your knowledge.
Your knowledge is the toolbox for your imagination. Today we heard all about medical breakthroughs and about autonomous vehicles and why, how could they make this? These folks needed a depth of knowledge about medicine or about engineering to bring these ideas to life.
Now, of course you can learn things by going to school, by reading books. But one of the most powerful ways to learn things and to gain knowledge is by paying attention. Most of us do not pay attention to the world around us. Not only do we miss opportunities to see problems we can solve but we also miss the solutions that might be in front of us. And one of my favorite ways to teach students is to send them out to a location they’ve been to many times before and get them to look at them with a fresh eyes.
But I’m not the only one who does it. I want to tell you a quick story about a friend of mine Bob Siegel, who is a professor here at Stanford, who taught a Stanford sophomore seminar for two weeks and it was called the Stanford Safari. And the students basically over two weeks acted as if they were naturalists as if they were just like Darwin in the Galapagos but they were in the Stanford campus. And they talked to everyone they could to give a different point of view and perspective about Stanford. From the groundskeepers and the pest-controllers to the librarians and the organists and all the living Stanford presidents. They walked away not just with a deep understanding of Stanford, but an incredible appreciation for how important it is to pay attention.