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People need to be more ingenious in order to innovate within their slashed budgets, according to a pamphlet published by the RSA.

How to be Ingenious argues that with cuts to local government budgets and an increasingly volatile and complex business world, ingenuity is an essential capability for public servants, community activists and private sector workers alike.

View the How to be Ingenious report

Ingenious people have an ability to combine the resources available to them in a surprising way that solves a practical problem. The pamphlet says ingenuity has three distinct characteristics:

  • It uses the resources at hand

  • It involves surprising combinations

  • It solves a pre-existing practical problem.

The report distinguishes ingenuity from creativity (which is too broadly defined and makes no requirement for solutions or thriftiness) and innovation (which is more concerned with the execution of new ideas).

The report outlines several principles that individuals and teams must adopt in order to thrive under resource-constrained situations. These are:

  • Don't rely on brainstorming; instead use more structured approaches to generate new ideas

  • Form teams of diverse people that can transfer their knowledge between fields

  • Frame your objective in a way that is clear and exciting to the people working on it

  • Develop your team's sense of cohesion and camaraderie 

  • Develop your team's sense of their own ability to perform

Author of the report, Jamie Young, said:

"Everyone - in private, public and third sector - is looking for ways to do more with less. This pamphlet suggests specific principles which teams and individuals could use to turn a lack of resource from an affliction into an advantage."

Chief executive of the RSA, Matthew Taylor, said:

"Not only are ingenious solutions clever but by being frugal they are particularly suited to challenges such as austerity and sustainability. But most of all they have a power to fascinate and delight us which goes way beyond the latest new gizmo from Apple or product from Tesco."

How to be Ingenious details case studies of some of these ingenious individuals and their acheivements, and contains interviews with an improvisational comedian, an engineer and a survival instructor. It combines insights from these interviews with academic literature to advance principles and specific methods that anyone could use to enhance their ingenuity.

Example 1:

Towards the end of the second world war, Germany and the US competed for more powerful airplane jet-engines. More powerful jets fail more frequently; the higher temperature causes material fatigue in critical parts. The German teams had little funding and were isolated from new alloys that could cope with the heat, but the US had near limitless resources. However it was the German solution — to hollow out parts so that cooling air could flow through them — that became the standard in modern jet engines.

Example 2:

Mr. Raghuvanshi is a science teacher in a rural school in Madhya Pradesh. In his school the rooms are small — 12 by 18 feet for 47 students — and contain just a blackboard and a few chalk pieces. Working within these constraints, Mr. Raghuvanshi uses students’ experience with electrical farm machinery to show the difference between direct and alternating current. For example he improvised an electrochemical cell from a lota (a copper container used for Hindu rituals), a water purification candle and chemicals, demonstrating that current flowed by placing a magnetic needle close to the circuit and showing the students that it twitched.

Example 3:

People are fascinated by ingenious solutions, as demonstrated by the popularity of two cult television shows. Each episode of the A-Team showed the outlawed protagonists trapped in seemingly hopeless situations by an enemy, only to triumphantly defeat or escape by assembling vehicles, weapons or tools from their surroundings. Though the A-Team ended in 1987, jury-rigging action heroes lived on in MacGyver, a series in which a scientist turned secret agent displays his ability to solve any problem with duct tape and a Swiss army knife. From using an old fridge’s refrigerant gas to freeze and shatter a door lock, to replacing a blown fuse with chewing gum foil, the ability to solve any problem with materials to hand became widely known as a MacGyverism.

View the How to be Ingenious report


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