Scarcity: the Fountain of Creativity

The other day I came across some beautiful paintings done by an artist with no arms. He uses his feet and mouth to paint. He lost both his arms in an accident when he was still a child. But, this did not deter him from painting, something that he always wanted to do. He has proven that life knows no boundaries – he found ways to paint – arms or no arms!

Time and again, scarcity has worked as a source of creativity. Consider the story of Honda motorcycles. In 1946, Japan was struggling to rebuild itself after World War II. Gasoline was scarce and very expensive. Transportation had become difficult, people were forced either to walk or use bicycles. Soichiro Honda built a tiny engine and attached it to his bicycle. His neighbors wanted similar bicycles which led him to make motorized bicycles. The rest as they say is history. Today Honda is a multi-billion dollar company.

Transition from Bronze to Iron Age is another historical example. Prior to Iron Age, bronze was used to make tools and weapons. In fact during that period, iron was considered precious; it was rare and highly prized. In 1300 BC, there was shortage of tin due to trade disruptions in the Mediterranean region. Tin was used in making bronze, thus bronze become scarce. This scarcity nudged artisans to look for ways to extract metallic iron from iron rich materials. This led to discovery of smelting process which caused the price of iron to drop significantly. Thus, even when tin became available again, iron was cheaper, stronger, and lighter, and forged iron implements superseded cast bronze tools permanently

In contrast during times of abundance, complacency may creep in. It’s hard to break away from what’s working; and working well.  For businesses, it may mean inefficiency and growth of unwanted layers. Unless organizations are careful, during such times new products may get added whether customers want them or not; customers may get added whether or not they contribute to profit; project team sizes balloon and more people participate in decision making resulting in delayed decisions. In the end, the excess resources may end up stifling creativity.

To curb this risk, it may be worthwhile to introduce some self-imposed constraints. Nature is a wonderful example of self-imposed constraint. 95% of every living thing is made out of just four elements: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. It’s almost incredible. There are over 90 naturally occurring elements in periodic table. But, nature has restricted itself to four elements. It has built millions of diverse species, despite or rather through this constraint.

The question that arises is how does scarcity promote creativity? The answer lies in the focus scarcity brings in. When there is scarcity and the problem is there to solve, we are forced to adopt a focused approach to solve it in a creative manner.  We simply have to do it; there is no other way out!

However, it’s important to differentiate between artificial scarcity and self-imposed scarcity. Artificial scarcity is something created and imposed by someone else. And it may end up de-motivating teams or people; which in turn would reduce creativity. In contrast, self-imposed creativity is imposed by the individual or team which is working on the problem. This challenges the individual or team to take up scarcity head on and come up with creative solutions.

One such example is the all terrain wheelchair made by Amos Winter and his team from MIT. They call it Leveraged Freedom Chair.* It provides answer to millions of people in developing countries. It is maneuverable in all terrains, costs under $200 and can be repaired easily, even in rural communities where resources are scarce. Amos Winter has addressed the scarcity by developing a wheelchair that uses arm-powered levers that yield surprisingly simple, highly effective mechanical results.

Creative solutions are surprisingly simple; scarcity can help stimulate our brain in that direction.

*Get more details about Leveraged Freedom Chair and listen to Amos Winter through the URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5b4RNgU46vw

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