What it takes to be a modern inventor
Dr. Gerald Hohenbichler is a physicist, engineer and inventor, responsible for spearheading multiple groundbreaking technologies. He has over 300 patents to his name and his innovations in the steel industry saw him honored as “Inventor Of The Year” by Siemens. Now the Global Head of Innovation at Primetals Technologies, SPECTRA member Dr. Thomas Widter spoke with Dr. Hohenbichler to discuss the creative processes that drive innovation.
In your view, where does creativity come from? Is it something we are born with, can it be fostered through education, or does it come through cooperation?
I think that creativity is strongly connected to curiosity and is something that can only be taught to a limited extent. While it’s true that talent can be something you are born with, allowing it to blossom requires support from your family as well as from the society you live in. I believe that the right environment is vital for creativity to flourish. Creative ideas are sometimes viewed as crazy and dismissed, even when they could actually be very useful. It is only when you find yourself in what I call a “creativity-prone environment” where you take inspiration from others that new ideas can be brought to fruition.
In your experience, are ideas and innovations the product of persistence, or does chance and serendipity play a role?
In fact, it’s quite a systematic approach. That does not mean that inventions come about automatically if you simply follow certain rules. There is no magic formula to innovation, but generally, it is essential to ask the right questions and to stay curious, particularly if the answers you are given are contradictory. In the beginning, the most important thing is to “hear the challenge,” to listen out for what’s really at the core of the problem.
Is there any place where you personally have found that new ideas come to you particularly easily? Some people says it’s the shower, others talk about so-called “bathroom inspiration.” Others say it’s their car. What’s yours?
I found that I’m the guy who usually gets interesting ideas or solutions in the morning, in dreams, or when getting up. I am not sure if it’s when I’m half-dreaming or half-awake, but I have found it useful over the years to have a notepad next to my bed to jot down ideas that come to me.
Do your ideas arise when you have to deal with finding a solution to a specific problem, or do they mostly come “out of the blue?”
Normally, good ideas just never come out of the blue [smiles]. However, it has happened to me a number of times that I was suddenly struck by an idea that did not fit into the environment I was in at the time, but it was a potential solution to a problem I was working on elsewhere.
Do you think someone can be highly creative but also a successful manager?
Yes, I firmly believe this is possible, because the required skill set is surprisingly similar. For example, two core qualities that define creativity are divergent thinking, which is thinking beyond normal Boundaries, and cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to restructure ideas and see connections that others miss. Hence, you sometimes go beyond what is safe and familiar, even though it may damage your reputation. It’s important that you draw the line between these roles when you’re involved with both, and you always have to find the right place and the right time to perform each of these functions well.
Is there a particular inventor or scientist from the past that you particularly admire or who has been an inspiration for you?
Thomas Alva Edison! Not only was he a great inventor, but he was also capable of implementing his ideas on a very large scale. He was able to attract sufficient attention and support from politicians and investors to fund his laboratories and concepts. Edison got his innovations “to the market” resourcefully and successfully.
This interview originated in Primetals Technologies' Metals Magazine