Patterns of Innovation: Origami

Micaela Tam

“The secret to productivity is letting dead people do your work for you.” — Robert Lang

Well said. An American physicist and now a full-time origami artist and consultant, Lang merges mathematics and origami to make seemingly impossible origami designs.

Though origami is an ancient craft that came to be hundreds of years ago, until the mid-20th century, designs were limited in number and relatively simple. New techniques in the last century have catapulted origami from just a simple craft to a complex and creative living art that serves not only aesthetic, but also practical uses. It all started with Akira Yoshizawa, considered the grandfather of modern origami. He pioneered many origami techniques and contributed to standardising a system of notations and diagrams to fold certain patterns. His designs and system gave way to a new era of origami that reached global proportions. But the real game-changer was that mathematicians began to take notice of the relationship of paper folding patterns with mathematical notions. They applied geometry, graphing, algebra and calculus — mathematical theories already advanced by many ‘dead’ people before — to discover the laws and patterns of origami.

Source : An insect by Robert Lang with one uncut piece of paper

The application of mathematical theories, in combination with development of computer designing software and laser-cutting technology (which can precisely cut more durable alternatives to paper), have widened the boundaries of origami. On the flipside, origami is helping unfold (ha ha) answers to real world problems in many fields. This intersection between origami, mathematics and many scientific fields of study including engineering, biology and astronomy, yields great potential for multi-disciplinary innovation.

For example, researchers at MIT and elsewhere have developed a miniscule self-assembling origami robot that may have important applications in health care. The robot, once ingested, unfolds itself from its capsule and can be remote controlled to unclog clots, patch wounds, etc.

Or just look into Robert Lang’s work as an origami consultant, a job that would have sounded silly just decades ago. In collaboration with other innovators, Lang helped develop a solar array for NASA inspired by an origami fold called the Miura fold. Folded up, the 25 meter prototype shrinks down to just 2.7 meters, which is a big step forward in making the easy transportation of solar arrays to space a reality. Another project Lang has worked on is the development of a computer algorithm that allowed airbag engineers to fold and flatten airbags in simulations. We are seeing many scientists apply origami to solve practical problems.

Often times we think of science and mathematics as formulaic subjects, completely unconnected to the creativity associated with arts. In reality, they’re actually two sides of the same coin. Once experts saw the interconnection between origami, mathematics and science, the possibility of progress and innovation in each discipline expanded. Mathematics and science allow for discoveries of new patterns and folds, and applications of origami help prove mathematical theories and provide solutions to scientific problems. In the context of multi-sector partnerships, each discipline, which operates autonomously and with different insights provided by many ‘dead’ (and living) experts, provides unique perspectives and solutions that are combined to solve a new problem. The pool of knowledge that can be taken from past innovators becomes exponentially bigger, and we are thus able to transcend past previous limits.

It’s possible to combine knowledge, to engage with many seemingly unrelated sectors or disciplines, as long as someone is perceptive enough to connect the dots. Today’s example of the multi-disciplinary intersections between origami, mathematics and science displays patterns of innovation and proves this point. In the wise words of Professor Joy Fitzgibbon, “knowledge is not a scarce resource, and through engagement, it builds.” Think of how much knowledge we can build upon, how many opportunities we can seize, and then the list of possibilities become endless. We end today’s article with yet another quote, this time by Albert Einstein, who once termed innovation as “combinatorial play”: “once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.”


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