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The Levels of Creation

How do we create new things?

'How do we create new things?' is a very powerful question. It is the question that is at the core of all our creation and any planning for our future. It is also such a fundamental question that it strikes at the heart of what it is to be a human being.

To begin to distinguish the various levels at which we create things, we have developed a models that suggests four distinct levels of creation:
1 Conception
2 Invention
3 Design
4 Use

What is Conception?

Archimedes is said to have been sitting in his bath and cried 'Eureka' when the water flowed over the edge and fell to the ground below. Archimedes had just created an idea. More specifically, Archimedes had distinguished an important new idea that would change the way he saw the world.

We've all had ideas like that. Like the time we realized what career we were going to undertake. Like the time you knew you were in love and that guy you were in love with was the one that you were going to spend the rest of your life with.

These are the types of ideas that fall under the umbrella of new conceptions. These are the ideas that are so significant they change our future.

If you extend this a little further, conception inside this model of 'conception, invention, design and use' is about ideas so powerful, so important, that they change the future of civilization and the way that generations forever more think about the world.

Perhaps the best example is the realization that the Earth is not flat. We may laugh now but at the time it was serious business. This is a conception that literally challenged and changed our worldview.

Other key conceptions that have changed the way we view the world include:
  • Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
  • Darwin’s Theory of Evolution
  • Copernicus who established that the Sun does not rotate around the Earth
  • Newton’s description of gravity
  • Picasso and Braque with the creation of Cubism
Levels of CreationConception at this level is the most powerful and influential type of thinking that exists. Very few people engage in this level of thinking and very few people go down in history as having altered the worldview of the planet. Einstein, Darwin, Newton, Copernicus and Picasso are among a select few that have altered the course of thinking on the planet through creating a new conception of the world.

What is Invention?

In 1899, Charles H. Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents, in a report to President McKinley argued that the Patents Office should be abolished. He based his argument on the premise that "Everything that can be invented has been invented." (Source: G. Dryden and Dr. J. Vos, "The Learning Revolution", Profile Books, Auckland, 1993, Page 188.)

This seemingly indefeatable argument is justified by saying, "If there is anything left to invent, show me now or forever hold your peace!"

That is the conundrum of invention and the scourge of creativity. Prior to anything being invented, it is impossible to imagine it and once it has been invented it is the most obvious thing in the world and we wonder why it wasn't thought of earlier.

Invention is the creation of an object that is not of a type that we already have and it does not necessarily solve any immediate problem.

Examples of inventions include:
  • Charles Babbage and his difference engine, a forerunner to the modern computer
  • Johannes Gutenberg is credited with creation of the moveable type printing press
  • Alexander Graham Bell was awarded a patent for developing the telephone
  • John Bardee, Walter Brattain and William Shockley of Bell Laboratories were awarded the Nobel Prize for inventing the transistor – a critical piece in the development of computers

Conception and Invention

Albert Einstein's contribution to physics has been so fundamental that it has not only shaped the thinking of his own field of study, it has shaped the thinking of the whole planet.

Now, that may occur like a rather outlandish statement. For most of us, we don't even know how to balance our cheque books let alone understand what Einstein was talking about. E=mc2? What is that? It doesn't even sound like mathematics because it doesn't even have any normal numbers. The power of what Einstein created was a way of looking at the world. In very simple terms, in fact, to totally dilute what I believe Einstein has given the 20th century is the thought that 'Everything is relative'.

Now, back to our original question… what is the difference between 'conception' and 'invention'? Einstein's field of study was physics and the language of physics is mathematics. For the sake of this example, Einstein's contribution to the world is essentially a mathematical formula. He did not create a physical thing, he created a concept. Not just any concept… a concept so powerful, so fundamental, so useful in how we live in the world that he altered the thinking of the whole planet.

In contrast, an invention, in the context of this model, is a tangible thing. It has form, it has shape, it has dimensions that can be measured. In this model, new technology is developed from a new conception of the world.

Albert Einstein was very disappointed by the birth of the atomic bomb. Whilst he did not directly work on its development, he was widely considered to be the father of the project through his conception of his Theory of Relativity. From his conception of the world, a new technology previously unlike anything else in the world was created. That is the shift from 'conception' to 'technology'.

What is Design?

Design is the creation of an object that is based upon similar types that already exist. Alternatively speaking, it is based upon the idea of solving a specific problem in our daily living.

For example: house, car, shirt. Whilst all houses are not alike, there are many characteristics of 'house' that has many different looking houses be recognized as a 'house'. For example, features of the type we know as 'house' include: walls, floors, entry points known as 'doors', light admitting access points called 'windows' that may be part of the wall, etc.

Design creates new things inside an existing set of 'types'. In this example, 'house' is a type.

Invention and Design

A great way to distinguish the difference between Invention and Design is to discuss the creation of a design object. In this case we use the humble toaster.

If I asked you to design a 'toaster' you'd probably think to yourself, "Mmmm, a toaster… I've got a rough idea about what a toaster is… I need somewhere to put the bread… somewhere to generate enough heat to brown the bread… some way of being able to control the heat so can I choose what colour my toast is… and it could be made out of plastic or metal or… and I'd need an electric cord to plug into the wall as well."

More or less, we'd all have some idea about how to go about designing a toaster based upon our previous experience of toasters in our lives. That's design - even though we don't know what the product will look until we've finished designing it, we are clear of the framework of what we're designing and what we're not. For instance, we're clear when we're designing toasters that we're not going to be flying to the moon on it.

In contrast, one of the defining qualities of an invention is that what we are creating we don't even have a model for what it is.

To go back to the toaster example, we have a model of what a toaster is. Alternatively, if I asked you to design the appliances that will be sitting on our kitchen benchtops in 20 years time then that's a completely different question. (particularly when you consider we may not have benchtops or kitchens given the trend in the US to design apartments without kitchens because so many meals are eaten out, taken away or prepared with such ease we simply need a machine like a microwave oven that simply requires a couple of buttons to be pressed and voila, instant meal.)

This is why the thought of closing the Patents Office was raised. No one can say what hasn't been invented yet.

What is Use?

What is 'use' may be summed up by that often spoken last gasp of resignation, "what's the use!"

"What's the use!" really is asking 'what's the point?' What value does it have? There must be some purpose to it, or it doesn't have any use. It must provide some advantage to me or it is for all intents and purposes 'useless'.

Design and Use

The simple distinction between 'design' and 'use' can be summed up by considering the example of an architect sitting in a house designing another house.

The architect uses the existing house literally in that she sits in it as a suitable environment out of the wind and the rain to think clearly and delineate and describe another house that doesn't currently exist and may be built in the near future someplace else.

The existing house may also be used as a conceptual framework for the new house. For example, the architect may say to herself, 'If only that window faced the sun rather than that brick wall. In the new house, I will make sure there are no windows facing onto other brick walls.' This becomes a design decision that then shapes the creation of a new house.

Another good example of how we create things inside the 'use' level of creation is the preparation of a meal. We may use a recipe (a design for a meal) and the designs of others through using a knife, a kitchen bench, an oven, a cooking dish, etc. Whilst we are creating something new, a meal in all its uniqueness due to the specific ingredients we use, we are not designing something new. In this context if we wanted to design something afresh, it would be at the level of creating a recipe for a new meal.
Other Articles in this series:
Inventing Creation: The link between biotechnology and the Age of Creation
The Creation Pyramid: Representing the Levels of Creation as a 3D model
Longitude: Four articles based upon Dava Sobel's book 'Longitude' telling the story of John Harrison, inventor of the chronometer.


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