Trying to solve a problem that everyone else finds impossible? Good.  Tweet This Quote

Trying to solve a problem that everyone else finds impossible? Good. These practical tips on embracing constraints can lead you to breakthrough solutions.

I feel like I was raised to believe that true creativity came from white space—from chaos and entirely liberated thinking. Over time, I’ve begun to believe nearly the opposite. “Open” thinking is only effective when first constrained. Our most innovative ideas are derived from environments with unrelenting constraints. If you refuse to compromise or settle, I think you will be shocked by what your mind thinks up.

Over and over again, I find that the that the fastest way to identify novel solutions is to give yourself incredibly difficult design requirements.  A few examples of useful parameters are:

  • financial (if you must generate $1M in two months, you will)
  • aesthetic (declaring your project the most beautiful widget on earth is the only way you’ll have a snowball’s chance in hell at getting it done)
  • time (things always take as long as you give them)
  • pricing (deciding something must be 100 times cheaper than any alternative is the only way to design for radical affordability)

There’s a pretty iconic company that illustrates the great results inspiring constraint can bring. This notable project was born from a student team in Stanford’s extreme affordability class, dedicated to creating solutions for development challenges. This particular group was called to design a low cost incubator for premature babies in Nepal. For statistical reference: Each year, roughly 20 million babies are born prematurely. The average person in Nepal lives on less than $2 a day, unable to afford the technology, expertise and electricity to run an incubator. Many premature infants die because of this gap.

To better understand their challenge and gain on-the-ground empathy, the students went to Nepal and partnered with a local organization to help guide their project. During this trip, they discovered that a radically disruptive and different type of incubator was required to work in the environments where it was most needed. Traditional incubators were of little help to villages in emerging markets. Instead of immediately devising a new solution, the Stanford team started by constraining their own realm of possibility.

They created a list of design constraints that included…

  • Their incubator had to perform without electricity
  • it couldn’t require a professional for safe operation
  • it had to keep the baby at a constant temperature of 98 degrees Fahrenheit
  • it needed to be easy to clean
  • and, most important, their design had to be ridiculously affordable. For useful access in Nepal, the team would have to reduce the average cost of an incubator from the market standard of $20,000 to less than $30.

By refusing to relent on these requirements, the class figured it out. A number of the students later formed a company called Embrace. Embrace now sells baby incubators for only $25 (800 times cheaper than market alternatives). Their incubators are simple and intuitive to use, easily sterilized and keep the baby consistently warm for 4-6 hours without electricity. Now, millions of infants born prematurely without access to major hospitals have access to a life-saving incubator. Watch this video to see how it works…

When you zoom out for a second, the achievement is rather incredible: A group of university students created technology that is effective in emerging markets and costs a fraction of the market alternative. How did they do it? I think that this worked for two major reasons. The first was that the students spent time in Nepal, on the ground, developing empathy. They listened more than they spoke. What they learned sparked the realization that a more efficient incubator wasn’t enough–they needed to rethink the entire product. Listening with both their ears and eyes led to the short-list of design constraints above. Second, the students were stubborn and refused to negotiate on any of the requirements. Even though many aspects would appear to be impossible. Ultimately, I believe it was the combination of persistence and empathy that led to the team’s creative solution. (Result: a widely disruptive technology that is solving a very difficult problem.)

Ultimately, I believe it was the combination of persistence and empathy that led to the team’s creative solution.  Tweet This Quote

Another example, is a company we are working with for Unreasonable at Sea. This team decided they needed to meet three core design constraints:

  1. Develop a technology that can give sight to a person with no eye-balls
  2. the solution must be non-invasive and non-surgical
  3. it must allow the blind person the ability to see both 3-D (i.e. reading) and 2-D (i.e. photographs and video) in real time.

Sounds impossible? I know. What’s remarkable is they built it! (click here for more). One more example I love is an Australian inventor who decided to create a functional bicycle made of only cardboard and that cost less than 10 dollars (click here to watch an inspiring video about the $8 cardboard bicycle).

At Unreasonable, our design constraints are always centered around our values.  Tweet This Quote

At Unreasonable, our design constraints are always centered around our values. For me personally, my new design constraint will be to only work on companies that are dedicated to having a dent on global issues (what I like to refer to as BFPS, or Big F***kin’ Problems) and that have billion dollar market opportunities. This constraint is not because I personally care about money. (Proof: I had to borrow 10k from friends last month just to make ends meet… thanks Teju and Glusty =). I stubbornly stick to this constraint because generating over $1 billion in revenue clearly speaks to the scale at which you are solving the aforementioned BFP. I don’t want to work on anything with less potential.

To sum it all up, it’s believed that Plato once said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I completely agree.


What is the one thing you didn’t say that you wish you had? After having spent 4 months running a program with the co-founder of Stanford’s, George Kembel, I’ve realized that I missed a big part of the pie with this post. Mainly, George’s philosophy and that of the is to focus on the innovator instead of the innovation. Then, as George would say, “the innovation becomes emergent.” I prefer this human centric approach that believes in the dormant and innate creative potential in all of us.

Daniel Epstein

Author Daniel Epstein

Daniel has an obsession. He believes to his core in the potential of entrepreneurship to solve the greatest challenges of this century and he has dedicated his life accordingly. He is the proud founder of the Unreasonable Group.

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