Fostering More Creativity in Chemical Engineering Are Chemical Engineers Creative Enough?

Ivana Lukec, Ph.D.
Fostering More Creativity in Chemical Engineering

The question of creativity in chemical engineering came to me through the process of witnessing more and more new businesses emerging in many fields and professions, bringing out all kinds of ideas and solutions. While at the same time, there is less activity and not that many new businesses developing in the field of chemical engineering. What is the reason?

After thinking about it for some time and doing my own research, I came to some answers and even more questions.

What creativity stands for? How does it relate to chemical engineering?

Wikipedia defines creativity as a “phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed. The created item may be intangible or a physical object.” That is, a novel, musical composition, painting, idea, or invention are examples of the result of creative endeavors.

Ok, cool – so that totally has to do with chemical engineers, right? The world needs as many as possible – new ideas for improved environmental protection, innovations in optimal waste management, improved solutions for optimal and efficient energy use, reduced emissions, sustainable development of technologies and products and many more…
There are projects, ideas, research, but not even close enough to how much they are needed. So, where are chemical engineers and what they are doing?

In my research for thoughts on creativity in chemical engineering, I ran into some articles and interviews by professor Richard Zare that caught my attention. Prof. Zare, known for his enthusiasm for science and a strong advocate for women in science made a couple of definitions that correspond with me totally: 

„Creativity is the process of forming original ideas.”
„Creativity is not about talent, not about skill, and not about intelligence. It is not about doing something better than someone else.”
„Creativity is about thinking, risk taking, exploring, discovering, and imagining.”

Are we scared to take risks, explore, discover? Did we lose our imagination chasing our 9 to 5 jobs and paying our expenses? Have we lost our confidence?



High creativity in research, development, or production implies that a positive outcome is anything but assured. That is, truly innovative approaches often walk a fine line between producing something novel and failure and lost time and effort.

Are we afraid to fail?

Are we afraid to succeed?

How does a leader promote and achieve extensive creativity while avoiding inefficiency?
These novel or original ideas include a discovery, a new interpretation of existing information, or the identification of previously unrecognized relationships among apparently unrelated areas. These possible outcomes arise because leaders or employees think “outside the box,” are curious, and driven.
However, certain organizational structures and attitudes inhibit creativity. For instance, bureaucratic approaches that require rule and procedure standardization or centralized decision making for the organization irrespective of the unique responsibilities of the different groups, restrict flexibility and thus options available to address problems. When individual departments are treated as separate entities that are responsible and interactive only unto themselves, synergy and information sharing is hindered, and decisions are made with less information than is available. When a leader prejudges ideas because he/she has decided that the individual making the suggestion never has good ideas, is not willing to take sufficient risk to try something that deviates from the status quo, does not want to admit that he/she might not have all the answers or could be wrong, or clearly conveys the attitude that only positive results are acceptable, subordinates are greatly inhibited from expressing or practicing creativity.

Can you teach creativity?

According to prof. Zare, the creativity involves the intersection of three things: the capacity to think outside the box and put together existing ideas into new combinations; the knowledge, expertise, and information you have, without which you have nothing to put together; and your motivation to think about something different—that is, your intensity and willingness to accept change. Creativity requires passion, resources, and the daring to play with ideas and accept the risk that what you are doing might completely fail.

How to foster creativity?

Some individuals have higher propensity for this type of activity than do others. However, all of us can improve our creativity by conducting ourselves in certain ways. For instance, we can read broadly in diverse technical and nontechnical areas to expand our knowledge base and redirect our thought process, restate the problem in a different way to alter an existing viewpoint, challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom, embark on new activities such as hobbies or sports, and speak and collaborate with a variety of individuals on important problems and issues to obtain different perspectives. We can play more, imagine more...

Creativity comes into play when you care about some problem passionately and you become actively involved in finding its solution. You search for possible connections, keep your mind open to different possibilities, and bring your broad knowledge to bear on ways of approaching the problem. A combination of passion, persistence, and playfulness is a powerful means of turning accidental discoveries into breakthroughs. And once you have this frame of mind, you can go on to solve all types of problems.

Two key ingredients seem essential for creativity to occur. The first prerequisite is confidence: You believe that you can solve your problem. The second is passion: You believe that trying to solve this problem is one of the most important things you are doing in your life.

The confidence comes only from practice in solving other problems and finding that you can. No one learned to play a musical instrument by reading a book or attending a lecture on how to play a musical instrument. The learning involves practice and hard work.

Although the team approach to creativity is widely accepted and practiced, the “lone” or shy and inhibited person often makes important discoveries because they are not biased by others’ ideas and concerns, which allows new directions and concepts to be pursued freely. This approach was promoted by Nikola Tesla, who stated:

"Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born."

I am not sure whether it can be fully taught, but I do believe it can be fostered. It certainly requires the right environment.

Alone or with the team, give yourself a chance to explore that problem, take that challenge, calculate that unit, find out all the details about that construction, build a business plan, build an application - stay playful, take an adventure and create!