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Thinking about Thinking

From the editor in chief
February 1, 2004

Creative thought is the lifeblood of innovation. Only it’s hard to think creatively in the middle of the daily grind. Individuals and companies have grappled with this conundrum for ages: IBM was famous for the “Think” signs that once permeated its offices. But the dilemma seems more pronounced than ever in today’s era of e-mail, cell phones, and general 24/7 blur. When I do have time to think, I often think about how to think better.

In the mid-1980s, I reported a Time cover story on the idea that asteroids or comets hitting the earth had created a global dust storm that choked off sunlight and disrupted the food chain, ultimately causing the dinosaurs’ extinction. The theory’s chief originator was the late Nobel Prizewinning physicist Luis Alvarez. Alvarez was not just a great scientist but a National Inventors Hall of Fame inductee whose inventions included an aircraft blind-landing system, which saved many lives by providing pilots a radar-guided path in poor-visibility conditions, and a photographic lens that became standard in Polaroid cameras.

Alvarez’s trademark was a unique ability to combine his imagination with the facts. In the dinosaurs’ case, Alvarez’s insights led to the discovery of a worldwide layer of the element iridium that formed at about the time of the beasts’ extinction. Some theorized it came from volcanic eruptions, others a supernova. But Alvarez ruled these out, showing that a comet or asteroid was far more likely.

How did he get that way? Well, obviously, Alvarez had great natural gifts. But his father also played a role. A physician and medical researcher who missed out on his own Nobel Prize because he had not taken time to think carefully about his work and its progress, the elder Alvarez raised his son to devote a half-hour every day to pondering what he knew and what its implications might be.

As we prepared to unveil our annual selection of “10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change Your World,” I asked some of the innovators profiled how they do their best thinking. But while I did get some intriguing responses that hold insights and reminders for us all, I found myself even more curious about the implications of what I got back.

John Rogers of the University of Illinois, who’s developing microfluidic optical fibers, likes the “Open Road” strategy. Says Rogers, “I occasionally arrange to fly back in to Chicago rather than all the way to Champaign. The drive is about two hours-straight, flat driving. This provides a great opportunity to think without too many distractions.” Don Arnone of TeraView, a leader in the hot field of t-rays, finds the same escape in his hour-long commute to and from his London offices. He calls it “an inadvertent bonus of the realities of modern life.”

Both Rogers and Stanford University’s Daphne Koller-an expert in probabilistic machine learning-cite the perspectives provided by students as spurs to creative thought. “Interactions with my graduate students, where we really brainstorm about a problem, are the most productive times that I have,” Koller says. Rogers extols the benefits of having to relate his ideas to a diverse group. “Explain-ing concepts in many cases requires one to think about a problem in different ways, in order to find the most effective way of communicating a thought,” he says.

These are important points, because poor communication is a huge barrier to creativity and the successful implementation of ideas. People often need to say the same things in different ways, depending on whom they are speaking with-and that change in mindset can spur other good ideas. When, as frequently happens, people don’t bother searching for different ways to communicate an idea and instead expect their listeners or readers to just “get it,” creativity is stifled.

Sometimes creativity can be orchestrated: designing open spaces to stimulate interaction is a hallmark of corporate and university labs. Many scoff at such attempts. But Christian Rehtanz, who is developing methods for real-time control of the power grid at ABB, finds them useful. “In the research center of ABB, we had the slogan coffee break patents,’” he says. The break room boasts comfortable chairs, a nice view, and some interactive games, like Lego blocks. “Frequently, people came together and started a not-very-serious discussion on crazy things to be patented,” he says. “Most of that was not useful for ABB, but a lot of these ideas are doing now a good business.”

Perhaps more telling is that despite being at the forefront of technology, nobody cites technology as a tool for thinking better. I’m going to think about that.

A Brighter TR
Beginning with this issue, Technology Review is being printed on UPM Satin paper. It’s a whiter, brighter, slightly glossier stock than our previous Choctaw Matte, which we think enhances the new design unveiled in October. We hope it makes reading TR even more enjoyable.

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