Talking up tangible engineering

With Christmas firmly behind us, it’s ironic that the Radio Times – a publication that for many is solely associated with the festive season – has triggered one of the first widely reported engineering debates of the New Year.

In an interview with the magazine – timed to trail the BBC’s “Genius of Invention” series which begins next week – the UK’s most famous living industrialist, James Dyson criticised the government for an obsession with “web fads and video gaming” at the expense of tangible technology.

It’s an interesting point – and no doubt one that will resonate with those predisposed to a more rose-tinted view of the UK’s industrial past. It’s also not entirely accurate.

The main target of Dyson’s criticism appears to be London’s so-called “Silicon-Roundabout”, the focus of a £50m government-funded project to turn Old Street Roundabout into a technology hub for digital entrepreneurs

Dyson’s not alone in his cynicism. “Tech City”, to give it its preferred name, is regularly rubbished as insubstantial and unlikely to make the same impact as, for instance, the technology cluster around Cambridge. Indeed, given the high volume of pretentious PR speak it seems to generate, it’s hard to completely shake off the suspicion that Tech City is awash with vertically-coiffed London hipsters conducting break-out sessions from the comfort of a space-hopper.

But whatever one’s opinion, it’s inaccurate to imply that it’s the defining feature of the UK’s technology landscape. Indeed, as we frequently argue the UK is awash with great examples of tangible engineering: from the success of firms like Jaguar Land Rover, to the exalted position of its civil aerospace sector, and the growth of exciting areas such as the low carbon vehicle and medical technology sectors. 

What’s more, the coming months are likely to see a growing momentum behind a host of once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure projects: from the UK’s critical nuclear new-build programme to some real progress on the development of commercial scale Carbon Capture and Storage technology. That’s all pretty tangible. And much of it is being driven along by a government that is at least giving lip-service to the idea that real engineering is important.

It would also be remiss not to add that the UK games industry  – which generates more than £1bn of global sales a year – makes a pretty useful contribution to the economy.

Many of the points made by Dyson ring true – particularly his comments on the skills crisis facing the sector. He claims the UK will face a shortage of 60,000 engineering graduates this year. His warning of a brain-drain – with 85 per cent of postgraduate engineering students reportedly leaving the UK on completing their studies –  is also pertinent.  Even if it will raise a wry eyebrow or two amongst critics of his 2003 decision to move his manufacturing to Malaysia.

The Genius of Invention begins next week on BBC2