We seem to mention driving quite a bit here (the jury may refer to Exhibit A and Exhibit B). Partly this is just irony – I can drive, but by and large don’t – but I suspect the larger part is explained by the power of metaphor. Metaphors help us grasp something by explaining it terms of something we already understand. And driving is an interesting ‘human beings in the work environment/mindset’ metaphor: we each have some degree of autonomy, but our progress is ultimately determined by complex patterns of interplay. And, of course, by the outcomes of the work of road and town planners (the HR of personal transportation?) Our little accidents can affect more than just ourselves: we’ve mentioned airbags before, and I wasn’t expecting to mention them twice, but I found a blind spot that might be worth sharing …

If this was stand-up comedy rather than blogging, I might have expected a pantomime audience hiss to rise up at the mention of ‘planners’. Not just “the HR of personal transportation” in the public imagination – you will turn right here, and parking where you’ve done happily for n years will now result in clamping, etc. – they are also the traffic wardens of the urban landscape. I live in a “New Town”: don’t get me started. At that generic level we sometimes allow ourselves to operate in – because it’s really just the path of least resistance – the ‘concensus’ is that planners are to be looked on with scorn (even if they don’t make the Top Ten Most Hated Professions list). Considering that their work is quite heavily focused on ensuring easy movement for the rest of us, and that travel is supposed to broaden our minds, the lesson for humanity here would seem to be either ‘learn to be grateful more often’ or ‘these knee-jerk dismissals of entire disciplines have got to stop’. (Although in the interests of fairness, “Town planners do it with their eyes shut” was a witty bumper sticker.)

So why the airbags again? Well, imagine you’re heading off down the main traffic artery in the Business Park, and someone driving on it or one of its tributaries (we’re not playing blame games here …) fails to pay sufficient attention, misreads another driver’s intentions or just steps on the wrong pedal for a second. We’re human, accidents do happen. You don’t necessarily notice the metallic crunch, as your ears are probably popping slightly from the noise as your airbag deploys. In the following days, you will discover the truth behind all those ads for car insurance and the excellence of their customer service, but you’re fine: the worst that probably happened is either minor coiffure distress or bent spectacle frames.

So which discipline do you have to thank for sparing you from intensive care? Pneumatics? Mechanical Engineering? Materials Science? They probably all played a part, but as guesses go they illustrate our tendency to the knee-jerk and/or the blindly obvious. Another answer – and airbag design is only one of its recent applications, along with space telescopes, maps, tin cans and water bottles – will confront your expectations. You have probably sub-consciously already declared it a charming – but only charming – traditional craft. Yep, origami.

Even Edison had his blinkered moments, and one of his most famous quotes might be one of them:

Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

As the work of the Mathematics of Origami Engineering research group of the Japan Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (founded in 2003) shows, application should be part of the recipe. (Besides, paper is hygroscopic: exposing it to that amount of perspiration could be catastrophic.)

To be fair to Edison, he later paraphrased his quote to mean:

I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident. They came by work.”

Like the work of the new origamist engineers, they came by work –– but that implies something else too. They came by outlook, by attitude and behaviour – from a position that didn’t look at a traditional Japanese craft, decide that it was a lovely hobby and no more. The outlook was more like ‘this is a discipline that involves complex maths, materials, folding, intelligent use of materials and rather a lot more: what else can we do with this that we haven’t so far’.

The outlook also embraced the idea – as Roger van Oech has implied in his blog post about Lang –  that lessons can be transferable: we shouldn’t dismiss them because they start in something that we have labelled as a ‘hobby’. There was a reason we used to put ‘hobbies and interests’ on our cvs and our university application forms: they say things about us, what interests and motivates us (we do our hobbies for free, after all). We’re also told we only use a tiny percentage of our brains: it seems the same is true of our pastimes too, as the Far Outliers blog noted when it contemplated unexpected applications of origami:

In fact, origami as therapy has its proponents: in 1991, at the Conference on Origami in Education and Therapy, a mental-health professional presented a paper detailing her origami work with prisoners. “The most rewarding of experiences,” she wrote, “was that of observing the effect that Origami had on psychopathic killers.”

Robert Lang – a former NASA physicist who holds over forty patents in lasers and optoelectronics, and who now explores the mathematical outer reaches of origami applications (including airbag design) – has a similar mindset (for more, read a longer article at the New Yorker that I found utterly fascinating):

It’s like math. It’s just out there waiting to be discovered.”

Lang’s lesson – and that of the others exploring origami as a branch of applied mathematics – isn’t just one about scientific application. It’s one that says that, faced with a need to innovate, documenting our assumptions and past practices isn’t necessarily the start of the solution. Of course, we can write them down and then fold the document into new configurations, but that’s not really about using the assumptions. Sometimes, you need to start with a blank sheet of paper – and realise that the medium really can be the message.

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