Breaking down barriers

Senior reporter

Let it never be said that engineers aren’t a lively, inquisitive bunch; that they’d rather quietly get on with their technical projects than engage with the wider questions in society.

Before this week’s special Battle of Ideas debate held at Jaguar Land Rover’s design centre in Coventry, myself and the other panellists were warned that the audience – made up of 150 JLR employees – were not very likely to raise their hands and make points or ask questions and that we’d probably have to do most of the talking.

As it transpired, I barely had a chance to say anything, such was the volume of contributions from the floor, and the conversations continued well beyond the official end of the debate.

The topic up for discussion was the barriers to innovation and the broader context of how we could better use innovation to improve life in the UK and address the economic, social and environmental challenges facing the world.

The answers we came up with ranged from fear and misunderstanding of risk, to lack of ambition and lack of money. But perhaps a less obvious point that came up was whether innovation is hampered by ways of thinking that create too many constraints.

To take the current hot topic of rising energy bills as an example, one of the responses is the roll-out of smart meters that enable customers to more easily see how much energy they are consuming and when, supposedly making them more likely to use less, or at least less at peak times.

The argument against this is that it focuses on the wrong problem: instead of trying to change people’s behaviour in a way that effectively lowers their standard of living, we should be concentrating on ways to produce energy more cheaply; that this solution is an example of innovation halting human progress as opposed to furthering it.

There’s something worth considering in this view. It rather feels like we’re avoiding the problem rather than really trying to solve it. I also think trying to encourage behavioural changes like this isn’t just inconvenient, it’s ultimately ineffective.

However good some people’s intentions, the reality is that most people will use the washing machine when it’s convenient rather than plan their week around peak energy times (unless they genuinely don’t have the money to top up their pre-pay meter).

But that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying to improve energy efficiency or reduce the amount of electricity we use as a whole. Smart meters don’t just give information to householders – they also help grid operators manage supply and demand in real time.

And with even cleverer technology we can cut our energy use without lifting a finger or realising it’s happening, for example with intelligent demand systems that turn off appliances such as fridges for short periods of time without making them less effective. Other technology such as energy storage systems could allow us to save off-peak or surplus renewable energy for later use, smoothing out demand on the grid and ultimately reducing our total consumption.

The context of this point in the Battle of Ideas event came as someone asked why on earth we would oppose fracking when we needed to get our energy bills down. One sensible audience member pointed out there was no guarantee fracking would lead to cheaper energy bills. But I think more importantly because it once again avoids a problem rather than trying to solve it.

The issue isn’t just making energy cheaper: it’s finding a way that the entire world can have access to sufficient energy for a decent standard of living without destroying the planet in the process.

If we don’t tackle this problem then energy prices are only going to increase as the developing world gets richer and competition for resources increases (and they probably will anyway because a solution isn’t yet within our grasp).

And even if we could produce enough fossil fuels etc. to theoretically support a Western quality of life for 7 billion people, the resulting environmental damage would likely make such living standards impossible anyway.

To return to innovation, putting constraints on ourselves that don’t actually produce long-term benefit is foolish and prevents us from innovating to solve the bigger problem.

But constraints in themselves aren’t necessarily a barrier to innovation. Indeed, the job of engineers is to take a basic idea or fundamental research and make it work in the real world, to make something cheaper, greener, more robust or more efficient. It’s often when the situation seems trickiest that engineers have their best ideas.