Thursday 3rd August 2017
Brits make the best engineers, I was told that when I started my degree. There might have been some arrogance behind the certainty of the declaration but it’s not entirely unfounded - The industrial revolution started here, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Alexander Graham Bell, think Tim Berners-Lee and his gift of the world wide web, Crick & Watson nailing the double helix (in a pub!) - these were world changing. Not the large brands with large R&D budgets, but groups of individuals that are just a bit geeky about their subject and a bit clever with it.
Theory says you need constraints to drive innovation, otherwise there is no problem to solve, no need for creativity, no reason to break out into something new, and no driver to get through the first rounds of failure. Just a cheque book and a get out of prison free card. You could argue that recent times have seen this independent thinking, stubborn, self denying nation get a bit flabby and downtrodden as a culture. Or is this a symptom of the erosion of autonomy and the growth of a nanny state. I hear the creak of Pandora’s box being opened.
Just to pick up on one point - autonomy - because there is a such a strong correlation to innovation. However you voted during the referendum, autonomy was one of the undeniable arguments of the leave campaign. We’re leaving, and yes we’ll be dealing with a few constraints and pressures. So in my glass at least two thirds full world we have an opportunity ahead of us, to allow innovation to flourish and be the best engineers (read problem solvers) again.
Post Brexit vote, manufacturing is experiencing a boost. You could argue (rightly) that it’s only because the weak pound has boosted exports, but I retained some knowledge from my degree, and that was around momentum. I now know not to stand in front of things that are travelling at speed. And whilst the weak pound may have overcome some inertia within British Manufacturing, here’s hoping it is now entering a genuine, unstoppable, renaissance.
And now the government’s industrial strategy is underway, demonstrating a commitment to ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’. Expressions such as ‘world leader’ and ‘global player’ have been uttered. There is the network of Catapult centres across the UK driving innovation in specific sectors. The iMET strategy has been announced to increase skills in these areas and the Advanced Manufacturing Centres are being built to train them (and provide facilities and consult with local SMEs doing R&D). STEM subjects, girls in STEM, we’re not short of an initiative or two. My glass is positively brimming.
But (you’ll note my use of this word excludes me from the tribe of delusional optimist), I have a nag. We talked about the geeky individuals rather than the big brands - why are there no Googles or Facebooks in our equivalent to Silicon Valley - Silicon Fen. Time and again I read of unicorn start ups with amazing products, impressive performance and a bright future being bought up by some overseas companies. This is celebrated, yippee someone has validated our work. Why don’t we have the drive? skills? strength? interest? to take these companies forward on our own? Yes, Brits make great engineers, but do we make good businessmen?