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A Gripping Tale: Abstraction as Our Friend (and Foe!)

Igniting new ideas through analogies

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Neely via Wikimedia Commons
Creativity is often an ongoing tug-of-war with abstraction.
Source: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Neely via Wikimedia Commons

Lifting and moving 100-pound sacks of coffee beans is back-breaking work. Repeatedly grasping, hoisting, and piling the sacks ­­— heavy and awkward with their shifting contents — is a significant health issue for workers. How might the unloading of these and similar sorts of cargo be made automatic, and ease the burden on workers lugging such heavy loads?

Joining up with a colleague in an interdepartmental research center, researchers in civil and industrial engineering at the University of Pisa in Italy decided to take up this challenging problem. Specifically, they set themselves the task of developing a "gripper" that could grasp coffee sacks made of a porous material (jute), ranging in weight from 50 pounds to 170 pounds. The gripper needed to work quickly (grasping or releasing in less than 3 seconds), and without excessively tearing or damaging the jute material.

But the enterprising researchers weren't just on the quest of a new gripper: they were using this challenge to test-drive a new "creativity support" method they were developing. Meant to help designers reach into unexplored idea territory, the multi-step method provides a structured guide for using abstraction and analogy to more effectively generate innovative design concepts.

Analogy and abstraction as our friends

A crucial first step in the researcher's creativity support method involves re-stating or re-characterizing the main desired function into more abstract terms.

But how can we describe a gripper abstractly? At a very high level of abstraction, we could think about all the different ways something can come into contact with something else, changing how it can move or rotate.

From these jumping off points, the researchers used analogy to generate all kinds of living and nonliving things that (in this broad sense) "grasp objects" ­— even if they are not typically considered grippers. The intriguing list of things they generated ranged from various sorts of systems that provide adhesion (magnets, velcro) to things that allow grasping and handling (parachutes, screw-caps), to objects that involve pinching (pliers, brakes) or even punching (corkscrews, sewing machines).

Among the entirely new grippers that they created, and tested, each successfully meeting their problem constraints, was an ingenious new "sewing gripper." An electric motor sews (and then un-stitches) a helical metallic wire along the outside of a coffee bean type sack. Other innovative devices included an inflatable gripper and a reverse scissor gripper that changed shape when inserted and later extracted from an object.

So where's the foe?

Describing something at a higher level of abstraction can be tricky — and can even backfire. If the new (more abstract) description makes it too difficult to understand an analogy, then it can throw overboard all of the benefits of concreteness and connections to prior knowledge that are at the heart of analogical thinking.

Consider what happened when a team of mechanical and industrial engineering researchers at the University of Toronto posed engineering problems to students, and asked them to use analogies from biology to conjure up new possible solutions.

For example, in one experiment, fourth-year engineering students in a mechanical design course were asked to think of new ways to reduce drag on ships, to make them more fuel-efficient. They were told:

"Traditionally, naval engineers have tried to optimize the size and shape of ships to reduce form drag (or profile drag). An alternate approach is to reduce the contact between water and ships. Develop new solutions to reduce drag on ships."

One group of students read descriptions of a possibly related biological phenomena using concrete nouns such as "ferns," "leaf surface," "hairs," and "wax." They learned how aquatic ferns have a leaf surface with hairs coated with water-repellent wax, except for their tips, which are attracted to water. So the tips hold water and the surface below traps a layer of air, allowing the ferns to freely float.

Another group of students read a similar description except that all the concrete nouns had been replaced with more abstract "place holders" (called hypernyms). Instead of reading about ferns they read about "organism-A," and its parts.

"Organism-A’s have surface characteristics adapted to living on water. The organ-A surface contains a series of tissue-A's that are mostly coated with hydrophobic molecule-A except on the tips that are hydrophilic. This results in the tips holding water while a layer of air is trapped below. The air layer enables organism-A’s to float freely on water."

Students in the second group struggled to understand what they were reading. And because the students couldn't even understand the intended analogy, the analogy just never got off the ground, leading to errors and confusion.

An ongoing tug-of-war with abstraction

In striving to be as creative as possible, we can find ourselves in an ongoing tug-of-war with abstraction.

On the one hand, if the problem is spelled out in terms that are too abstract and too distant from our experiences and knowledge, then there's no resisting counter-pull because we can't even get any initial grip on anything connected to the new idea that we'd like to pull into our problem-space.

On the other hand, if the problem is cast in terms that are too concrete, there may again be no resisting counter-pull: now the idea may come easily flying over to our side. Now, though, the newly arrived idea may be of little value because it is couched in terms so literal and so close to the initial example that we can't extract from it any essential newness for our creative problem.

In our tug-of-war with abstraction there needs to be some resistance... but neither too much nor too little.

Tools can help us here. Just as in the coffee bean sack example, we can find or create helpful databases or visual aids to use as stairs or stepping stones to assist us to mentally climb up to explore more abstracted relations or step down in concreteness. Or, as in the ship design example, we can try to pitch our problem to avoid over-abstraction. Analogies are already abstractions, so although we want to avoid irrelevant distracting details, we don't want to "throw the baby out with the bath water."

To think about:

  • What tools do you have at the ready — or what tools could you or your team creatively develop — to help you more productively navigate up, down, and around in abstraction space?
  • How are you using analogies in your creative endeavors? Do you stay with potentially promising analogies long enough to fully abstract and explore new directions?
  • What are good "go-to sources" for helping you move from a general and vaguely promising idea to then concretely spelling it out, so that it can either be further refined (if still promising) or jettisoned for an alternative (if no longer promising)?
  • How do you best get — and keep — a grip on abstraction in your creative and thinking endeavors?

For more on abstraction and alternative ways we can "detail step" to enhance our creativity, see especially Chapter 2, "Seeing the forest and the trees: Varying our levels of abstraction" in my book Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change.