As faculty in a design department, I am often asked if creativity can be learned. In short, the answer is yes, but it is something gained through an individual’s capacity to critically challenge conceptions of what is possible, what is right, what is wrong and what lies in between.

Rendering from a design studio course examining the future management of the Maury Island Marine Park. Image: B. Helen Perry

Rendering from a design studio course examining the future management of the Maury Island Marine Park. Image: B. Helen Perry

Often this challenge emerges from a recognized disjunction between what is known from a scientific perspective and what is experienced in the world around us. In this regard, I appreciate the metaphor that relates the flash of a light bulb to the realization of a good idea. It is in this instant when transformation occurs, perspective shifts and the capacity for creativity and insight is ripe. We all experience this moment when a complex idea that was discombobulated becomes clear. This clarity leads to innovation for it is at such times when people craft the most interesting things—things that change our experienced worlds, capture our most vivid moments and guide us through the grind of the everyday. Derived from the Latin verb innovare, meaning to reform, to innovate is to initiate a process of renewal and change. It differs from invention in that it refers to an idea or method that is novel but not new. It is the reappropriation of existing knowledge to address complex issues and meet contemporary needs.

Trained as an ecologist and landscape architect, I seek innovative strategies and design concepts that have the potential to foster healthy and sustainable communities through the engagement of the arts and sciences. Ecologically-based design is a diverse, dynamic and constantly emerging practice, often two steps ahead of public understanding and one step behind public need; developing good models for incorporating new strategies into the design of built environments is therefore critical. It builds on the structured approach of science that relies on empirical verification to generate understanding, while also utilizing the less syllogistic methods of design to test those ideas through speculation and improvisation, and, among other things, engage the emotive and aesthetic qualities of place. In short, ecological design is a strategy that builds from an experimental approach that draws on science to inform design and design to challenge scientific understanding.

A collaborative studio course I recently taught integrated students from the sciences and landscape architecture to link core ecological concepts, creative forays and technology to encourage an experimental design focus for envisioning the community and recreational potential for the Maury Island Gravel Mine Park, a 236-acre area of land adjacent to the largest marine reserve on the shores of Washington’s Puget Sound. The site, physically altered from decades of surface mining, and with soils made toxic from the airborne effluent plume created by a nearby smelter, offered a remarkable chance to explore how we might improve environmental conditions and recreational opportunities at the same time. The students struggled to embed scientific understanding and site design strategies into their proposed design and management program. They wanted to build a platform for modeling collaboration between scientists, designers, planners and community members. When informed by community input, the students responded in an innovative manner, prioritizing land reclamation practices in a phased approach that reengages natural processes over time in ways that would improve on-site conditions, as well as surrounding terrestrial and marine environments. What was truly innovative in their work was the careful integration of community involvement and education in the generation and analysis of scientific information to inform the management process.

EnVitrum’s structural masonry, made from 95% recycled glass, supports plant growth by enabling the movement of water through capillary action. Photo: EnVitrum

EnVitrum’s structural masonry, made from 95% recycled glass, supports plant growth by enabling the movement of water through capillary action. Photo: EnVitrum

A more material response to the integration of science and design is seen in the novel process-technology developed by two scientists at EnVitrum that utilizes up to 95% waste glass to create a structural masonry product exceeding the performance capacity of traditional materials. Innovative in its reuse of materials, this product also has an internal structure containing a diffuse network of interconnected micropores that enables the movement of water through capillary action. This material can cool buildings through evaporation of collected water, while also serving as a medium for plant growth, opening new pathways for integrating green roof and wall technologies into everyday building. While the creation of the material is important, innovative potential emerges from the ways in which architects and designers will use it to extend the exploration of green building technologies and the making of places for people.

When positioned as two agents within a single system of inquiry, science and design create a syncretic approach to clarifying reason, generating perspective and challenging intellectual stasis. Together they promote innovative thinking and action, building complementary and iterative processes that shape productivity and have the capacity to reframe social perspectives. It is in these moments of clarity, between on and off, that we must embrace the flash that ignites innovative ideas and work to develop solutions that strengthen our resolve to accept change and build resilience within our communities.