Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Thinking in the box

The winners of the Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition didn’t 'think outside the box.' They just chose the right box to think in.


When discussing design theory, one of the most quoted case studies is the design challenge faced by NASA when President Kennedy on 25 May 1961 so boldly declared that the USA would land a man on the moon by 1970.  They did.  But, arguably, the lessons of that monumental effort have been poorly learned, and rarely discussed in the context of our much greater challenge, keeping the Earth habitable for humankind.

To be fair, the distinctive importance of design as the key to solving future problems has been consistently championed  by no less than Edward de Bono, but he has often seemed like a lone voice.  If I sound a bit cryptic, it's because what I say seems counter-intuitive in this world swamped by popular fascination with design as the love child of life style.  One has to understand that I am talking about the most fundamental conception of design as a goal oriented activity, not all that other wooly, self indulgent fashion stuff.
And so it was that what otherwise may have been a trivial bit of news struck me as the most forceful re-statement in a half-century, of the purpose and methods of design.  
A team of Canadian enthusiasts recently won the American Helicopter Society’s Igor I. Sikorsky Human-Powered Helicopter Competition.  The challenge has stood since 1980, and represents the third largest monetary prize in aviation history. The monumental feat requires a human to hover to an altitude of 3 meters under his/her own power, and to remain aloft for at least 1 minute.  It had defeated the best aviation minds in the world.

"Until a few weeks ago, the people who literally wrote the book on the helicopter said that this problem is too hard - that this is actually physically impossible," says Cameron Robertson, the team’s chief structural engineer, before describing the crucial difference of their approach. The team undertook initial feasibility and design studies for the “Atlas” in January of 2012, and made the successful flight eighteen months later.  To quote from Robertson's interview with John Pavlus at Co.Design:
This kind of innovation strategy often goes by clich├ęd names like "lateral thinking" or "thinking outside the box." But according to Robertson, "the box" was actually the key to succeeding where 33 years’ worth of other designs had failed. Atlas won the Sikorsky prize by zeroing in on the right box to think inside - and then rigorously, intensely, and persistently analyzing it. "Achieving the so-called 'impossible,'" he says, "is a matter of removing unnecessary constraints, and understanding what’s in the box."  
In this case 'the box' happened to be more than just a metaphor, but you can read about that elsewhere.  What matters to me is the conclusion Pavlus draws.  I quote him shamelessly, because I could not put it better:
It’s often said that solving tough design problems isn’t about bashing your way to a difficult solution as much as it’s about bashing your way to the right question. Atlas is indeed a Rube Goldberg machine--not much good for anything but winning the Sikorsky Prize. But as a proof of concept for an innovation strategy, Atlas’s example can apply to problems far more serious than hovering a furiously pedaling human being in midair.
"We don’t have 50 years to reevaluate our infrastructure, address climate change, or deal with other 'impossible’ problems," Robertson asserts. "Getting 2% improvement is no longer acceptable as the right answer. We all need to start really questioning the state that we’re in and how to move beyond it at a much more rapid pace than ever before, and this approach of removing artificial or unnecessary constraints is one way to do that. We knew nothing about helicopters, but we were able to do the impossible. Everybody can become better problem solvers and global citizens by inhabiting that state of mind."
Read the whole article here.
It does a very good job of describing the important aspects of this extraordinary design effort.

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