Author: Sir John Parker GBE FREng, president, Royal Academy of Engineering
In today’s society, we are faced with a huge rebalancing task in our economy as North Sea oil and gas resources decline, and the recognition sinks in that there are clear limits to growth in our financial sector – the slack has to be taken up by ‘leveraging off’ good science and research via innovative engineering and technology that can create new products and new exportable services that will also compress our balance of payment deficits.
We cannot escape the crucial role that innovative engineering can and must play in our future growth in these Islands. In future, we will have to make increasing use of our intellectual horsepower and our creative talent. Hence, the Royal Academy of Engineering has over the last three years promoted the critical need for a modern industrial strategy to create tomorrow’s growth.
A key objection of any strategic plan in a corporate entity is to bring alignment across different departments and disciplines, so that there is collectively a focus on delivery of the plan’s goals and targets. We have lacked such an industrial framework for so many years as we have haphazardly reduced our industrial base.
For me, industrial activity is a broad church of applied research, excellence in product design creation of value-adding services, adapting leading manufacturing processes, and building long-term customer relationships. At the end of the day, it is about being recognised as the innovative and quality leader in your field – whether you are a country or a company.
Having pursued with government, from my earliest days as president, the critical need to adopt an industrial strategy, I am happy to say they have now embraced such a strategy focused on key sectors.
INDUSTRIAL STRATEGY FOR GROWTH
[caption id="attachment_13282" align="alignright" width="682"] Sir John Parker[/caption]
Our generation and those who follow us face some fundamental global challenges in supporting a global population of seven billion people – and rising. We are sharing a common environment and competing for common resources as never before. But in a world where such resources are finite, competition can only take us so far. We must also learn to co-operate. We need new ways of working.
The Irish Academy of Engineering’s excellent report on the future of manufacturing in Ireland summarises the serious challenges faced here. It states that “education, research and innovation practices are going through a seismic shift at global and European level”. I could not agree more.
The conventional view of manufacturing is evolving rapidly towards a concept of ‘making value’ – not simply making things or creating services. This involves the complete cycle of understanding customers, research, development, design, manufacturing and services. In a networked world innovation is no longer simply about making widgets. It can create entirely new industrial ecosystems in a matter of a few months.
Such a changing world requires a renewed focus from policymakers, so in addition to the UK government’s approach to a modern industrial strategy, we had Lord Heseltine’s 2012 report on UK competitiveness, entitled, ‘No stone unturned’. UK science minister David Willetts has followed this up with a research focus on ‘Eight Great Technologies’ that are seen as key areas for future development: big data, space, robotics and autonomous systems, synthetic biology, regenerative medicine, agri-science, advanced materials and energy.
The Royal Academy of Engineering is actively supporting these areas. For example, Dr Fleur Loveridge, a Research Fellow at the University of Southampton, is working on ground heat exchangers and ground source heat pumps, which can reduce energy consumption by up to 75%. She aims to develop foundations that can double as heat exchangers.
Dr Damien Coyle at the University of Ulster, one of our Leverhulme Fellows, has developed a game called Neurolympics to help patients who are unable to move or speak to communicate with their family and their doctors. A cap filled with electrodes passes signals from the brain’s motor cortex to a computer so that patients can directly control characters on a screen.
The Royal Academy of Engineering has embarked on a major new campaign called Engineering for Growth, in partnership with some of our major companies. We aim to highlight new models for growth and celebrate success wherever those precious green shoots are emerging.
Our new Academy Enterprise Hub has had over 80 of our Fellows, who are amongst the UK's top technology entrepreneurs and business professionals, volunteer at least one day a month to mentor researchers in start-ups to grow new small- and medium-sized enterprises.
An effective collaboration between industry and academia is vital to commercialise innovative ideas. The Northern Ireland Science Park is a shining example of what can be achieved, for example, by companies like Andor. Spun out from Queen's University in in 1989, it now employs over 400 people in 16 offices worldwide and distributes its products to 10,000 customers in 55 countries. Two years ago, Andor was shortlisted for the Royal Academy’s premier award for engineering innovation, the MacRobert Award.
The Irish Academy also identified in its report that co-ordination between government departments is essential for an innovative manufacturing strategy to succeed. Targets for growth are meaningless without buy-in from all the relevant government departments, including most crucially education.
In the words of the late Charles Vest, former president of the American Academy of Engineering: “Government is not going to do the things that are required for us to have a vibrant economy, health, security and quality of life.” He went on to say that applied equally to business and academia.
And he was right – neither government, business nor academia can or should do all these things on their own. He said: “The fact is that we have to have all hands on deck. Each of these sectors must play its proper role and forge an alliance to meet today’s challenges.”
To create and lead growth, companies require bold and imaginative leadership – the confidence to take on residual risk after you have wrestled with its mitigation.I am fortunate in my non-executive roles today, to be on the Boards of three major overseas companies that have truly exhibited significant growth and each has a strong UK presence as well.