Can a paperclip save the world?

Can a paperclip save the world? Probably not.. but wait a minute…

Perhaps it’s because the paperclip is such a simple and yet ingenious, ubiquitous artefact that it’s used as a trigger to start thinking more creatively (well, by me anyway).

The first patent for a bent wire paperclip was awarded in the United States to Samuel B. Fay, in 1867. This clip was originally intended primarily for attaching tickets to fabric. His doesn’t resemble the familiar object we know today. That was invented in the 1870s in Britain by the Gem Manufacturing Company (and is still known technically as the Gem Paperclip) although no patent was filed, leading to many later claims and variation on the classic design.

So here’s the task:

How many non-uses of a paper-clip can you think of? Things you cannot use a paperclip for.

Most people find this quite hard which shows they are not fluid at activating the right side of their brain. This is a lateral thinking task because you have to get off the track of thinking of actual uses of a paper-clip. This tests how random you can be.

The task is actually quite easy since there are actually very few sensible uses of a paper-clip. You can use one to clip paper together (obviously) and you can use one to eject stuck CDs from computers. But not much else. So almost anything else will do, except people find it so, so difficult.

Here are a few examples:

You can’t fly to the moon on a paper-clip. You can’t marry a paper-clip. You can’t use a paper-clip to teach snails quantum physics.

One of the reasons people freeze up and can’t think of anything, especially in groups, is that someone has said something clever, witty or particlularly good so now they have to compete with that. This doesn’t help. When generating ideas you do not and can not compete with anyone, it’ll modify how you think and shut down your creative process. The point is not to outdo one another or try to be funny or clever. The point is to come up with ideas. You ned to be influenced and riff off what others come up with because ideas comes from other ideas.

So what else?

You cannot use a paper-clip to solve world poverty…. hang on, perhaps you can. If we do this…. and this… and suddenly a brave new idea has been found that changes the world. And all because judgemental thinking such as ‘that won’t work, that’s stupid’ has been turned off. Try it yourself.

Ayd works with people and businesses to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation.

Book Ayd to speak about the Power of ‘What If?’ and Inspiration for Innovation at your conference, or in your business. A great way to open your event or as an after lunch energiser.

For more interesting info see:

2 comments on “Can a paperclip save the world?

  1. I don’t know why this article made me think of a totally unrelated science fiction novel, except that little things can make a bigger difference than we think they can at first glance. Your question is a great one–“what non-uses” really opens up the mind to new possibilities. Even if they don’t work, they’ve stretched me into thinking in new directions. Great fun!

    As for that book…. You really should read it if you can find it. Isaac Asimov’s THE END OF ETERNITY. Knowing you as I think I do, I think the whole premise of the novel would intrigue you. It is definitely a “What if…” story–and one that makes you look at all the little things in your life that could be catalysts for “what ifs”.

    Thanks for the article!


  2. ” ‘Goodness, yer workin’ late tonight, sir.’

    ‘Oh, good evening, Gladys. Yes. Top secret Defence exercise. All desk work, really. You can carry on with the cleaning, though.’

    ‘Fank you, sir. It’s just the dustin’ tonight. D’you know, these days there’s ‘ardly any waste paper in this entire buildin’. Not even shredded.

    ‘Actually, that’s intentional. The Computer Age. We’ll save the rain forest yet.’

    ‘Oh, that’ll be nice. Well, excuse me a mo’ an’ I’ll just buff up yer desktop. An’ you could do wiv a bit more light in ‘ere, too. I’ll just switch on yer lamp . . . oh, bovver, it ain’t workin’ – one o’ them old bulbs musta blown.’

    ‘What? Good grief, that’s not the lamp switch! It’s my console unit! What have you done?’

    ‘I only turned it on. I was finkin’ you could see more better, sir, an’ then . . . hey, there’s speakin’ comin’ from the box now, sir . . .’


    ‘I don’t believe this! The system’s gone into automatic mode!. The controls are not responding! I can’t stop it!

    ’45 SECONDS!’

    ‘This is a bovver, innit sir? Never mind, I’m sure you’ll find a way to fix it.’

    ‘Fix it? Gladys, this is highly advanced state-of-the-art technology. You can’t just . . . Wait! Of course, there’ll be a manual reset option . . . here it is, on the side!’

    ’30 SECONDS!’

    ‘There, I knew you would find a way, sir. You can reset it now,’

    ‘Oh, no,no,no! There’s just a tiny hole! It goes right down into the unit. I don’t have any kind of tool to get down into it and suppress the mechanism!’

    ‘Well, ‘ow about this, sir. It’s a paper clip. I use it to reset me modem at ‘ome when it goes wonky. One end’s stretched out, nice an’ straight.’

    ’15 SECONDS!’

    ‘That might work! Give it here, quickly! It’s going in . . .I can feel a spring . . . it’s yielding!’

    ‘I fink its stopped, sir. Fank goodness! What a racket it made! I won’t be touchin’ that again! Are you all right, sir?’

    ‘Yes. Yes, thank you, Gladys. You can be going home now. I think you’ve earned an early night.’

    ‘ Righto, then sir. Er, just one fing . . .’


    ‘Can I ‘ave me paper clip back?’


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