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The Art of Engineering Innovation

The Art of Engineering Innovation

“The human foot is a masterpiece of innovative engineering and art.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci is often referred to as the most diversely talented person to have lived. His talents earned him the perpetual handle “Renaissance Man” — and for good reason: his deep curiosity and insatiable imagination influenced his life as a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, innovator, botanist and writer. He epitomized the humanist ideal of his times, and his legacy represents a standard for human achievement and artistic beauty.

As an artist, da Vinci was rivaled only by his contemporary Michelangelo. Revered as a painter, da Vinci also excelled as an innovative engineer. He is credited with conceiving the engineering concepts applied to flying machines, solar power, military weaponry, hydraulic pumps and bridges. Da Vinci was recognized for combining superior problem-solving abilities with creative artistic mastery in everything he did, and he leveraged his genius so brilliantly and so widely that all problems he encountered were said to have been studied and solved with superhuman ease.

 

The Gift of Self

In his book “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?,” business guru Seth Godin writes that artists are people who change the world for the better. According to Godin, to be an artist is to give the gift of self; by artist, he refers not only to those who paint, sing, dance, act or play musical instruments but to those who give of themselves so that others can benefit. Godin’s “artists” are those who put their heart and soul into their work.

I believe innovators meet the definition of Godin’s “artists” because of their ability to work at a high emotional level. Successful innovators are able to align their left- and right-brain abilities to produce creative solutions and innovations. Their left brain solves the problem, while their right brain applies the creative touches that make the solution appealing, usable and refined.

I believe innovators meet the definition of Godin’s “artists” because of their ability to work at a high emotional level.

How is this possible?

 

The Intersection of Art and Engineering

I asked Lucinda Lavelli, dean of the University of Florida’s College of Fine Arts, to share her thoughts on what occurs at the intersection of art and engineering: “An artist, engineer or scientist acquires habits of mind from their discipline-specific training. Just like cross-training muscles in sports, an interdisciplinary team’s approach to problem-solving or invention from multiple perspectives yields game-changing results.”

Therefore, the interdisciplinary approach that da Vinci used as both artist and engineer still applies today: the habits of the mind combined with discipline-specific training produce game-changing results.

Dean Lavelli’s insights fueled my curiosity, which led me to a colleague of mine, Elif Akcali, in the UF College of Engineering. She is an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering, as well as the creative scholar-in-residence at the UF School of Theater and Dance. I asked her why combining art with engineering produces such game-changing innovations.

“Artists are creators but so are engineers. Engineers are problem-solvers but so are artists. In engineering, the creative process and its outcome are often expressed in logical, mathematical forms of intelligence. In art, however, the creative process and its outcome are often expressed in emotional-creative forms of intelligence.”

“Regardless of our educational background or our occupation, every one of us is an artist and every one of us is an engineer, by the very nature of the human experience. That’s because creativity and problem solving are defining characteristics that make us human.”

Regardless of our educational background or our occupation, every one of us is an artist and every one of us is an engineer, by the very nature of the human experience.

It always was obvious to me that the human element was present in art, because I saw artistic expression reflected in the artist’s empathy for the human; but, until I reflected on Akcali’s comments, I didn’t fully appreciate how the human element is an integral part of successful innovative engineering outcomes.

 

Left Brain/Right Brain

The concept of an innovating engineer as an artist led me to Diana Alarcon, who is a talented artist and ambitious engineer enrolled in the UF College of Engineering. I know her from her artistic creations, which she has previously exhibited at the College of Engineering’s annual Art and Engineering show at the Harn Museum.

Alarcon pursues both her careers with passion, ambition and skill. Her performance in the classroom is stellar, but what really stands out is her ability to apply artistic creativity to her engineering projects.

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“When I’m in engineering mode, I’m analytical, detail-oriented and structured; it’s all about measurements, angles and math-based results,” Alarcon said. “But, when I’m in art mode, I’m creative, boundless, colorful and unrestricted; then, it’s all about aesthetics and emotionally-oriented outcomes.”

I asked if aligning her right- and left-brain thinking lead to successful innovations.

“What creates game-changing innovations is the brain’s ability to mesh these two modes; doing so produces incredibly creative, boundless and imaginative solutions to analytical challenges and to structured problems,” Alarcon said. ”This analytical, unsystematic construct is what drives my successful, valuable innovations.”

Pretty heady stuff, especially given that she has yet to graduate from UF.

Regardless of the time period, from the Italian Renaissance to the 21st century, the art of engineering innovation remains as timeless as a da Vinci masterpiece.

 

David Whitney serves as the Entrepreneur in Residence in the University of Florida’s College of Engineering. Whitney teaches a course, Engineering Innovation, to both undergraduate and graduate students at UF. In addition, Whitney is the founding Managing Director of Energent Ventures, a Gainesville-based investor in innovation-driven companies.  

 

 

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