Join the innovation debate

As we reported earlier this week, the Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering didn’t quite engage the wider media as it’s organisers might have hoped. It wasn’t helped, perhaps, by the column hogging events in Cyprus, the budget build-up and the coverage of the new press charter, but the announcement deserved more than the short articles that were buried in the national newspapers.

Nevertheless, the prize – which went to the inventors of the internet and the world wide web –  has certainly triggered plenty of  discussion within the engineering and scientific communities, not least on the perennial subject of how to boost the profile of engineering.

Any debate along these lines is always welcome. But as one reader pointed out this week, if this momentum is to be translated into anything meaningful,  it’s now up to engineers to take the debate out into the wider world: to the pub, the family meal, the football match, and the playground. That, dear reader, is your mission for the weekend. 

While you’re at it, if you’re in the mood for championing British innovation, there’s still time to pick your top British Innovation from the past 100 years, as well as the technology most likely to shape the future, over at the Great British Innovation vote, an initiative set up by, amongst others, the Science Museum,  The Royal Academy of Engineering, and The Royal Society.

The list of past innovations is a particularly striking – if somewhat random – reminder of Britain’s impressive track-record: with the jet engine, Turing’s “universal machine”, the invention of antibiotics, DNA fingerprinting, and QE-prize winner the world wide web amongst the huge number of world-changing UK innovations slugging it out for the top spot.

Indeed, it’s so impressive that, when viewed alongside the list of “future” technologies, it risks stoking the conviction of those prone to a bit of industrial nostalgia that we don’t innovate like we used to. For instance, It’s difficult to imagine graphene, or  indeed the Rapsberry Pi (which is currently leading the field of future innovations) having the same impact as the invention of antibiotics, or the world wide web.

But it’s unfair to compare the known past with the unknowable future, and whilst sceptics might bemoan a lost age of innovation, the list of UK success stories actually gives us plenty of reasons to be positive. 

For a start, many of the most transformative innovations of the past are not huge shiny chunks of engineering – which we are incidentally still good at (Crossrail springs to mind) but unglamorous, intangible, and relatively recent technologies – the world wide web, the invention of fibre optic communications, even antibiotics – that have underpinned and given birth to entirely new sectors. And the pace of innovation in those sectors is perhaps faster today than at any point in the past.

It’s hard to pick a winner, and impossible to predict the future, but what both the QE prize and the Great Innovation Vote remind us is that there’s no shortage of inspiring British engineering stories.

So back to my earlier point. Get down the pub, and start talking.

And while you’re at it, why not let us know your favourite UK innovation?