By Charles James, Director of the D!Lab

Photo by Miles Burke on Unsplash

During the COVID19 pandemic, the essential element oxygen became a much sought after commodity. In many countries, due to lack of clinic beds for treating COVID-19 patients, families were forced purchase oxygen tanks for family members with breathing issues, often standing in long lines in order to refill the tanks and paying exorbitant prices for the oxygen. Thanks to some ingenuity and opposite thinking, the problem possessed a unique solution.  

Opposite thinking is the practice of exploiting the contradictions of problems and attacking them from unexpected and sometimes contrarian perspectives. One notable aspect of creative thinking is the ability to juxtapose opposite elements of a problem in the mind and work towards potential solutions from two directions. In this example, many sought solutions for increasing oxygen production, but others tackled the problem from a different perspective

The non-obvious solution to the oxygen shortage started as a question among three inventors, Peter L. Bliss, Charles Atlas and Scott Halperin. They considered not how to create more oxygen, but rather, why produce oxygen at all? The Earth’s atmosphere contains only about 20% oxygen and 80% nitrogen. In that ratio lay the answer. Instead of trying to put more oxygen into a volume of air, three inventors designed small machines that removed nitrogen from the air and thereby concentrated the oxygen. No need to make it, just concentrate it! Instead of putting oxygen into the air, the inventors realized that the solution was to take nitrogen out. Instead of focusing on oxygen, they did the opposite. They focused on nitrogen instead.

Oxygen concentrators contain a filter bed full of Zeolite (an aluminum-based mineral) that captures nitrogen as air moves through. What remains is 90-95% per oxygen. Instead of seeing the problem as a lack of oxygen, opposite thinking revealed another way to view the problem. For COVID-19 patients, concentrators not only solved the lack of oxygen, but solved the problem of lugging heavy tanks, waiting in lines, and paying high prices.

Reversing the starting point of a problem creates a potentially new perspective. Consider these two questions: What drugs can effectively fight smallpox? Or, can one “pox” (cowpox) fight another “pox” (smallpox) inside the body? These are opposite approaches to fighting a deadly disease. The latter, and at the time, counterintuitive question is what Edward Jenner considered in 1796. His methodology upended conventional thinking and created the basis for modern day vaccinations. While it would be a hundred years more before viruses were actually identified by Dmitri Ivanovsky, the use of opposite thinking inspired Jenner’s idea to inject cowpox into people to fight smallpox. Infecting people to save people. Quite the opposite thinking.

In the fight against many viruses, including COVID-19, the mindset to use viruses as a vector against a virus utilizes the discoveries of Jenner. In some cases, scientists inject the modified mRNA of the SARS-COV2 protein into the body and thereby trigger an immune response to COVID-19. Jenner’s mindset is alive and well.

This year, in addition to COVID-19, western forest fires destroyed thousands of homes and tens of thousands of acres of forest. Just like Jenner’s creative “virus to fight a virus” approach, innovative firefighting approaches do the same. Fighting fire with fire is another example of opposite thinking and practice. When fighting a major blaze, a small controlled fire known as a backburn is set downwind of a large blaze. The new blaze is pushed back toward the main fire. The logic is to use the set burn to destroy the fuel all the way to the main blaze and in essence burn both fires out. Imagine being the person who first suggested setting fires in order to fight fires.

The time-honored practice of reverse engineering is another example of opposite thinking that allows you to see elements of design solutions not revealed previously. Recently, students in my Engineering, Design, and Innovation class were reverse engineering a pair of scissors in CAD software to print in the 3D printer. As they were working, a student remarked, “I never noticed all of the curves in the handle of the scissors to make them more comfortable. I wonder why other tools don’t have such curves in their handles?” For this student, working backwards revealed elements of design that would be undiscovered if I had just asked students to create a pair of scissors. Working from the opposite side of a problem is revealing. Approaching a solution from the opposite direction requires our brain to shift perspective and thereby be more imaginative. In every discipline, opposite thinking creates an unconventional starting place. Sometimes these starting points are brilliantly contrarian.

In the 1960s, as leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr., (like Mahatma Gandhi) realized that the necessary response to the violence used by law enforcement against civil rights protestors required the opposite response: a nonviolent protest. By taking the opposite approach, King’s methods were contrasted with the brutal tactics of law enforcement. It worked. The decisive public backlash against law enforcement’s use of dogs and water cannons against peaceful civil rights protestors was immediate. King acted opposite to what many people counseled.

Even the physics of sports demonstrates innovation based on opposite approaches to solving problems. During my high school years, high jumpers approached the bar with their arched back to the bar. At the time, this was a fairly new approach. Prior to the 1970’s, as high jumpers jumped, they would bring their body parallel to the high bar and roll over the bar.  Dick Fosbury did the opposite. By turning his back to the bar and arching it and keeping much of his body below the bar as he did, he created a higher jump technique used by jumpers ever since.

Researchers even suggest the value of building in contrarian opinions to education and decision-making processes. For group work, assigning someone to be purposefully contrarian helps broaden the thinking of the group. Initial research suggests that raising oppositional views raises the level of thinking and avoids complacency in the process.

Contrarian solutions that use opposite approaches to problem solving allow creative thinkers to clear higher bars of innovation. While not every problem can be solved through the contradictions they present, becoming comfortable with contrarian solutions is another tool in the mindset of design thinking. The past provides us rich examples of innovators who were comfortable with thinking opposite in order to solve a pressing problem. Each example affirms Winston Churchill’s sentiment, “the farther backward you look, the farther forward you can see.” Looking back, we see a useful tool for innovating the future.