Inventing the Future
What links the Bayer diabetes kit, percussive paper, discovering the inner workings of a laptop with kids, superpowers and some comfy blue sofas?
23rd June 2014 was the first Women in Engineering (WES)’s National Women in Engineering Day #NWED, with some 200 events around the country, to celebrate WES’ 95th birthday and to raise the profile of, and celebrate, the achievements of women in engineering. And so we gathered in the Makespace front room on Mill Lane to do our little bit of celebrating and discovering what makes four Cambridge inventors and engineers tick. And not a Caractacus Potts character (read loner, eccentric, inventor) in sight!
Tanya kicked off with a short introduction talking about how the technology trends around algorithms, hardware, chips/devices and computing, are changing the world, by no means least in Cambridge itself. She was infectious in her enthusiasm that we are in a truly “golden age of inventions”.
We heard how Laura James is driven by Open Knowledge’s http://www.okfn.org “A world where knowledge creates power for the many, not the few” so that anyone, anywhere in the world, is then free to use that knowledge and power for innovation and invention. Makespace http://makespace.org/ is a community workshop that supports businesses, both new and established, helps more and more people learn hands on practical STEM skills and finally is a place for the people in the community to get together and learn from each other.
Tim Minshall’s introduction covered lots of diverse points, all grouped in magic threes. He was really pleased to be standing in IfM’s old lecture theatre, now Makespace’s front room, and while entertainingly explaining his role at the IfM to link technology, management and policy; looking at STEM education and teaching research, and echoing Laura’s views on collaboration opening up routes to innovation and invention. I could relate to his stories of getting 8 year olds to draw pictures of what an engineer does – invariably lots of similar images of a man with a spanner fixing a car!
Anne Miller has some 39 patents under her name, but talked about working with others (a familiar theme throughout the evening). She has drawn on her own experiences for her book and told us about the 4 Stages of Resistance to new ideas – she asked us not to forget that when we are pitching an idea, we assume that our audience is at Stage 3 (already interested) when in fact we might be facing the 1st or 2nd stages ie blind to the idea, or frozen (not sufficiently motivated to be interested). Her tip was to frame the idea with something your audience is interested in, empathise, emphasise the benefits and prove there is very little risk…. And then, people will care about it enough to be interested and listen to your ideas.
Kate Stone is an advocate of renaming STEM to STEAM, introducing the A for Art: that you can’t have science, engineering, tech, maths without the art and design element as well. I heard an echo of my voice telling my science club children and customers that exact same thing. Kate’s company Novalia http://www.novalia.co.uk/ seems to embody her approach of using herself and “just what’s around, familiar local resources” (which includes the team and people in her network) “for mischief” aka for good. Kate cites her granny’s wise words, learning to herd sheep in Australia and doing her PhD herding electrons around, as the basis of her advice to gently change the environment around the object you want to move, don’t spend energy trying to move the thing itself. A thought that fits in well with Anne Miller’s experiences.
Tanya kicked off questions with “How do you define invention?” – what a toughie, but the panellists agreed with each other that it’s the application of ideas (not necessarily new ones) to solve a problem or an opportunity, plus it’s the execution that is as important as the creative idea. To which a fellow Cambridge AWiSE member asked whether the old adage “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” still held, and someone else, why was the wheel invented in the first place, anyway? “A little before my time,” Anne commented, drily.
Our panellists didn’t all have Aha! Moments, getting inspired to become and engineer or inventor; some took longer wigglier paths but are all people who are curious, like to play with ideas to solve problems. At this point, I was thinking these people have something amazing in them and I asked, “Are you born or made an inventor?” which rolled into the next question about encouraging young people to invent and create. We talked about nurturing creativity, getting kids back into playing with things, seeing how they work, changing the system so that children aren’t taught in such a way that creativity is crushed. Kate suggested we would all learn lots of ideas from letting children loose on a problem that needs to be solved. Hours of fun and discovery can be had from helping children dismantle a computer – and consider dropping the parts off afterwards, into Makespace’s treasure trove to maybe inspire the next project!
One of the attendees, with a success story at Makespace, asked how to make a sustainable business over an open source product. Laura, whose Open Knowledge movement does just that, suggested working out where the flow of value for the product goes and to be mindful that the business plan could get complicated before the answers start coming out. There was much discussion about intellectual property, the pros and cons of patents – and the different approach to those from investors.
Tanya threw in a good question about the Longitude Prize – with a £10 million prize fund to encourage invention over six topics: Flight, Dementia, Ford, Paralysis, Water, Antibiotics – what would our panellists choose as the 7th? We also talked about the importance of a good network; all our panellists agreed that you don’t invent from start to finish on your own: that it’s vital to pull in people with different technical and life skills and backgrounds.
The hour was already getting late when the panellists were asked how and why projects get stuck, so our inventors reminded us what to do when you do get stuck, which you will! – be open-minded and stand back if you can, invent a new environment, and use your team.
We were all so engrossed in the discussion that the fantastic canapés provided by Mathworks were largely left uneaten until the networking session at the end. There was a tour around the Makespace facilities too. Find an excuse to drop in yourself and discover how the community can help.
This evening’s event in execution, was indeed how it started in its planning stages: a true collaboration between Cambridge AWiSE, Mathworks, Makespace, WES, our inventor and engineer panellists, and the interesting collection of people attending. That makes us all inventors of the event’s creation, which feels very pleasing!
Laura surely gets the award for great sentiment of the week: “Engineering is a superpower. Engineers have a duty to use it for good”. Well then, grab the people in your network, work with each other’s strengths and let’s get out there and start doing just that.
Azu Hatch CEng MIMechE AMIOA #IAmAnEngineer