Is innovation child’s play?

John Hilton John Hilton
Bridges & Civil Structures Capability Leader
15 February 2016
4 min read

The ‘Spaghetti Tower Marshmallow Challenge’ is a popular exercise in which teams are given eighteen minutes to design and build the tallest free-standing structure possible out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one metre of tape, one metre of string, and one marshmallow, which has to be on top. Similarly, during Aurecon’s annual bridge building competitions held country-wide for school-aged students across Australia and New Zealand, teams design and build their own bridges from balsa wood, glue, string and cardboard. The bridges are load tested to find out which school’s bridge can withstand the heaviest load before collapse.

Astonishingly, when it comes to the first challenge, preschoolers, children, and students repeatedly outperform business school graduates and engineers; while the bridge that has supported the greatest mass of all the bridges designed and constructed by both bridge engineers and students across Australia and New Zealand in the last 12 years was designed and constructed by three 14 year-old school students.

Could seeing our problem through the eyes of a child allow us to achieve better innovation?

Why do the seemingly ‘inexperienced’ and ‘untechnical’ (unqualified even) consistently outperform their ‘experienced’, ‘technical’ counterparts?

Lesson 1: Learn along the way!

Business students, engineers and adults are trained to find a single successful plan, quickly, and then execute that plan. They collaborate, they plan, they carefully build the structure, and then put the marshmallow on top last. Unfortunately, these are usually very slender structures, and often the extra mass of the marshmallow is sufficient to cause the structure to buckle and collapse. Now they have run short of time and the situation quickly turns into a crisis, when decisions have to be made quickly.

Preschoolers, on the other hand, usually start with the marshmallow, and then build prototype after prototype, always keeping the marshmallow on top and allowing themselves time to improve continually. This learning-driven approach doesn’t wait for a crisis – it incorporates ongoing improvement into its approach from the onset.

Lesson 2: Beware of hidden assumptions

Both of these challenges help participants identify hidden assumptions such as “marshmallows are light and spaghetti sticks would easily support them”; or “balsa wood pieces are straight, so the bridge must comprise straight lines”. In reality, marshmallows aren’t so light when you try to build a structure from spaghetti and balsa wood, cut into smaller pieces and bonded, can form a curved arch.

It’s essential that we identify hidden assumptions in our projects on a continual basis. This means questioning what the real end-users needs are in relation to cost, time, flexibility of function, uniqueness, quality, and durability, and accepting the challenges involved in implementation and reviewing these assumptions on an ongoing basis.

Lesson 3: Don’t be afraid to fail!

Another reason children often outperform adults could also be because they don’t have an innate fear of failure and are open to ideas and suggestions from others. When the students’ bridges are about to be tested in front of several hundred people and their peers, they invariably exude excitement and enthusiasm and view the experience as an opportunity for learning.

Lesson 4: Don’t look backwards – look forward!

In real life, the first thing bridge engineers often do in designing a new bridge is to look back at a recent one they designed and modify that design.

Many of the students aim for the direct opposite. In constructing their bridges, the students sometimes impart a deliberate and apparently random flair such as a flash of red paint applied to on one of the members, or one truss member moved slightly off centre. The results from these small tweaks have earned many students extra points in the aesthetics department and proven that design, or solutions, shouldn’t only be based on the past. Where infrastructure is concerned: A distinctive solution can often be created through an almost insignificant increase in cost.

Lesson 5: Teamwork is key…

It may sound obvious, but children are less likely to jostle for position or rank than more senior participants; they focus on the task at hand and consider the perspective and feedback from their peers with unequivocal acceptance. This makes room for diverse perspectives in arriving at a solution which has conquered a multitude of assumptions.

Most of all, it’s important to pause for a moment and ponder how these lessons might apply not only to the smaller problems we face in the business world but to some of the biggest problems facing the modern human – such as a lack of universal access to clean water, growing congestion in cities and ongoing power shortages.

There is a very clear call to action to be gained from these two microcosms: that of starting to see our problem through the eyes of a child. This will allow us to begin to see some of the solutions and opportunities we don't see as adults. The infrastructure we build today will be inherited by the children of today and, as such, what might they say if we asked them: "Where should we place a greater emphasis?” Those answers would probably be markedly different to the ones we would get from adults.

If more of us asked this – just imagine the results.

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John Hilton
Written by
John Hilton

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