As The Engineer announces the finalists for this year’s C2I awards Neil McDougall, Managing Director of headline sponsor Frazer-Nash Consultancy, explores how our curiosity and creativity are helping us rise to the challenge of COVID-19.
As humans, we are blessed with enquiring minds. Every toddler goes through the stage of asking ‘why?’: ‘why is the sky blue?’; ‘why is water wet?’; ‘why does the sun go in at night?’ Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. This inquisitive nature takes root in many of us and grows, and that desire to understand the world around us becomes a way of life. And when that questioning takes us to the edge of knowledge, a desire to broaden those horizons, to increase our collective understanding kicks in. I think it is a deeply engrained part of us.
The viral enemy we are facing means our innovation needs to be flexible and adaptable. Fast-moving problems need equally fast-moving solutions, and this is helping to accelerate innovation
We are also social beings. COVID-19 has reminded us all of this. We feel sadness for those who have lost loved ones, and we realise more than ever the importance of social interaction, of caring for, and of concern for the wellbeing of others. The pandemic has challenged us all in so many ways, but one of the big things we are all missing is casual interaction, with colleagues, family, or even the person at the checkout in the supermarket. It’s somehow not quite the same when we have to wear face masks and discussion takes place through a Perspex screen, often with our facial expressions partially obscured. The challenge of meeting, let alone collaborating, during the pandemic cannot be underestimated.
But what has happened globally in the face of this situation, in a short space of time, can give us all real cause for optimism for the future. We have responded. Innovators are striving to find solutions to every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic – equipment that protects carers and key workers, treatments that aid patients’ recovery and vaccines that may reduce the virus’s spread. Companies with no experience of building ventilators, for example, have come together to produce working prototypes at pace. They have worked tirelessly, been creative, resourceful and imaginative, taking existing components from non-medical products and putting them together in a novel way – showing that innovation is often hidden in plain sight. We have embraced new technologies. The teams designing and building the ventilators have made use of the many tools that we now have at our disposal: telephones, email, Zoom, Teams, and a whole new way of working together is springing up. It seems what works for an online Yoga class also works for technical and scientific collaboration.
As a problem, COVID-19 is a bit different. Our understanding of the virus is developing, this isn’t a fixed problem, it is dynamic. The viral enemy we are facing means our innovation needs to be flexible and adaptable. Fast-moving problems need equally fast-moving solutions, and this is helping to accelerate innovation. We are a match for challenges like this. Each of the entrants to this year’s Collaborate to Innovate have had to demonstrate this agility – questioning existing norms and ways of doing things, and responding in a fast, flexible way to changes and technical issues. The entry chosen for our ‘Future Thinking’ award will also show how the rapid speed at which ground-breaking technologies and solutions are emerging, can offer us a glimpse of their potential to address society’s challenges – now, and in the future.
Against the dark skies of COVID-19, over the past year I believe we have also seen the best of humanity, with individuals and organisations stepping up to support others and change lives for the better. People care: they want to do something, to make a difference, to give back to society. The inquisitive nature we developed in our early years is still burning brightly. It offers real optimism for the future that, under the pressure of the pandemic, we are seeing humanity’s best qualities shine through.