Engineers, be bold - Britain needs grander designs

A dearth of real engineering ambition is holding back the sector. Big, ambitious projects are needed to put us back on track.



Last week the Royal Academy of Engineering published a report Jobs and growth: the importance of engineering skills to the UK economy that claimed "engineers underpin the economy" but concluded with the gloomy news that they are in short supply and that the UK does not produce enough of them to make a difference. To help make a difference, James Dyson, arguably the UK’s most high profile entrepreneur and engineer, recently opened the new Dyson Building at the Royal College of Art’s Battersea campus.

At the opening, Dyson used the opportunity to bemoan the government’s favouring of investment in digital technologies over hardware manufacturing. He has a point: the government has made much of the potential in East London’s ‘Silicon roundabout’ – even encouraging companies such as Google to set-up offices there. Software, he said, is a much easier option for governments to invest in: it doesn’t need so much large-scale capital investment and, unlike engineering, can provide a quicker return on investment.

However, if hardware engineering and design are to become an attractive prospect for growth, the problem runs much deeper than that of working out how to attract the right kind of investment and in how to attract the right kinds of people to the engineering professions. Engineering, if it is ever going to be taken seriously (again), needs to be at the forefront of big, ambitious projects. Only then can it expect to be noticed, influence government policy, and encourage new investment.

To understand this gulf more easily, look at the projects on show at numerous design school graduate shows around the country – including at Dyson’s own RCA campus in Battersea. It is in these shows that graduates compete with one another, demonstrating their curiosity, radicalism, and of course, their employability. After his interview with Dyson, Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology correspondent, picked out two student projects that he felt illustrated Dyson’s point about the impact engineering can make in society.

Only meagre levels of ambition are apparent among design school students and in engineering departments

Perhaps ironically the projects Cellan-Jones picked out unwittingly helped undo some of Dyson’s argument. One project was a waterless toilet and another was a sliding screen to aid patient’s privacy in hospital wards. These ideas are innovative at a certain level, offering sometimes clever, even fun solutions to many everyday problems. But let’s face it they are hardly likely to transform the world. Instead, they highlight the problem with contemporary engineering and manufacturing: the tendency to reinforce widespread orthodoxies such as sustainability and short-termism rather than rigorously challenging and questioning much bigger assumptions.

It is not that there are no exciting engineering developments taking place both in and outside of colleges. But the reality is that much work goes on under the radar, either because it is too difficult to understand, too costly, or is hindered by government that exhibits a sense of ambivalence toward ground-breaking technology that sits outside of its own agenda.

Take for example, a project called Skylon. It is a concept for a single stage reusable spacecraft and is based upon a truly revolutionary propulsion system called SABRE. Developed by a team lead by Alan Bond, a mechanical engineer now in his late 60s. Central to its function is a heat exchanger based pre-cooler to collect oxygen whilst still in the earth’s atmosphere.  At lower altitudes the engine operates as a normal air-breathing jet engine. This, combined with the collection of a significant proportion of the fuel payload (in the form of oxygen) on the journey up, means only a single stage vehicle is required. The end effect of this is that it will significantly reduce the cost of getting a kilogram of matter into space, by a factor of around 10.

The implication of Bond’s technology is enormous. It could kick-start as yet undreamed of industries, while helping existing sectors develop, including satellites and telecommunications. On the other hand, it could all come to nothing. Why? Because despite the government’s repeated words of recognition of the UK’s world-class aerospace sector, the overall tendency remains in favouring existing competencies and worse still, ‘respecting' resources. Take what the government-backed Technology Strategy Board said, together with the Royal Society for the Arts, in their recent initiative: The Great Recovery – redesigning the future . For them, the key concern is to focus on "circular systems" of resource usage and to protect us from risks "to our supply chains". Having such a risk-averse standpoint does little to encourage early-stage technologies like Skylon and SABRE, especially when their benefits are only just being understood.

Perhaps this is the real reason why only meagre levels of ambition are apparent among design school students and in engineering departments. Design is being stifled by orthodoxies such as sustainability and resource reuse. Constraints can produce innovation, but compared to the potential of benefits brought about by ambitious technologies such as SABRE, in the long term these pale into insignificance. But that will only happen if we have the ambition, resilience and self-belief to transcend the naysayers so we can argue against the dogma of limits.

Paul Reeves is a design consultant and Martyn Perks is the director of Thinking Apart. They are convenors of the Making It in the 21 Century strand at the Battle of Ideas on Saturday 20 October

Independent Voices is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest articles from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas