Battle in Print: Real innovation should not be forced

Dr Paul Reeves, 29 October 2010

Today it seems we must reconcile economic growth with ‘doing our bit’ to reduce our footprint on the planet. A choice is offered between growth and restraint. Consequently, many engineers and professional engineering institutions tend to make a virtue out of low impact growth. However, in the long-term. this apparently attractive move could in fact reduce innovation in projects, products and processes throughout engineering and technology.

From hero to zero


Historically, civil engineering strived to make an impressive and positive impact on society. Today however, at least in the UK, its aim has become narrowed to replacing or patching up antiquated infrastructure such as sewage works or railways. Following a spurt of motorway building in the 1960s and 90s, today’s road infrastructure comprises maintenance, widening at pinch points and tinkering around at junctions (1). To excuse the lack of any increased or improved capacity for travel, railways are considered only insofar as they discourage driving. In line with the UK’s so-called ‘planning’ system, there’s a reluctance to develop over green fields, let alone green belts. Even though the roads into Britain’s cities are generally too small or twisty, we shouldn’t hold our breath for High Speed Two. When it comes to new runways – or, God forbid, new airports – forget it!

In the mechanical and aeronautical sectors, engineers working on a project are in principle driven by efficiency. In this context, engineering becomes equated with using materials efficiently and producing a product with maximum energy efficiency. This is balanced by other parameters, such as design and development and sometimes aesthetic considerations, but the aim is generally ‘efficient design’.  Through the application of ‘lean’ principles over the past 20 or so years, together with ‘cradle to grave’ lifecycle management, many argue being more efficient is already a reality, and anyway common sense. For some environmentalists, the pressure to reduce energy and materials has even become fetishised through the badge of ‘sustainability’.  This reflects an underlying drive towards the ‘sustainable innovation’ of increasingly ‘sustainable products’ which, it’s assumed, will drive ‘sustainable’ economic growth.

Some commentators suggest this kind of innovation is ‘a race to the bottom’. Suppliers and employees are squeezed and similar products converge. Others say things like electrical and hybrid vehicles driven by environmental concerns represent genuine engineering design and infrastructure innovations. These tend to fall under the ‘Green Tech’ or ‘Clean Tech’ labels.

The Tesla electric sports car is often given as an example of how a fresh look at existing technologies can produce a modern, desirable vehicle which can potentially outperform the more traditional alternative (2). Browsing the Greentech, Smartplanet or Engineer websites reminds us that sensible product innovations are central to engineering discourse and making it to production (3). Even low-brow technologies (until recently considered a waste of innovation effort), such as lampposts powered by the methane generated from ‘dog doo’ are seriously discussed and can be produced (4). On a grander scale, geoengineering projects driven by concerns over climate change are being funded by governments and private industry.

Many ‘reformed’ greens, such as eco-guru Stuart Brand, have made a volte-face on their positions on GM and nuclear power (5). They’ve even modified (but not much) their concerns about overpopulation, and have a relatively technology-based optimism about the future. This contrasts some of the new generation of political leaders, like Ed Miliband, who hector the public over their apathy on climate change whilst attempting to not be too negative. Regurgitating the opening chapter of Nordhaus and Schellenberger’s book, Break through: from the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility, David Miliband says it’s vital to offer a positive view of a low carbon future: ‘If Martin Luther King had come along and said “I have a nightmare’ people would not have followed him.’ (6)

Imposing sustainable innovation

Sustainable or environmental engineering courses exist in many UK engineering departments (7). They’re predicated on the idea that ‘elements of government policy, business strategy and technical innovation are being driven by the need to deliver a more sustainable future.’ (8) Sustainability is mainstream and a core value of many professional institutions (9). On one level, these green-tech based drivers for innovation - growth-lite or growth-clean - can be welcomed as a much needed boost to the economic landscape.

However, the ‘forced’ driver of innovation behind green-tech and sustainable engineering contains many problems. It also relies too heavily on the ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ school of innovation. This way of thinking can be countered with a simple example: we never ‘needed’ to be able to fly.  Once we could, though, the world ultimately became a better place through the invention of flight, space flight and the subsequent telecommunications, remote sensing and so on these opened up. More of us can now travel to remote and interesting places for holidays, work in different countries, to attend conferences and have a faster alternative to exchanging of goods over long distances. Whether intended or not, unnecessary air travel has had a real democratising influence.

Second, green tech and any sustainable driven innovation are based on a blinkered view of innovation and creativity. If we merely focus on ‘problems’ and aim to develop ‘solutions’ from an environmentally-constrained list of what’s ‘possible’ or ‘needed’, then we lose the ability to take ideas from the unconstrained sectors of innovation. These unexplored or disallowed areas might well bypass the original problems anyway. To have an open mind about possible engineering solutions, there must be a certain level of confidence to explore beyond the predetermined boundaries of what’s necessary, environmentally-friendly or ‘responsible’. In short, we must have faith in humanity’s positive capabilities.

Third, the idea of forced innovation is underpinned by a pretty miserable view of humanity. People’s activities (historically, but especially today) are seen as primarily destructive to the planet. It also starts from a catastrophic view of the future, which severely limits our vision of that future and the role engineering should play. The contemporary innovation mindset is doubly blinkered. It says we have set our sights so low that innovation for the foreseeable future will be driven by what we can’t have rather than what we might at least want the choice to have.

A not very exhaustive list might include:

• More and better, faster modes of mobility and travel;
• Larger and more modern housing;
• A greater choice of foods grown ‘out of season’;
• Even more time for leisure and non-work related intellectual pursuits.

Unfortunately, nowadays the default starting point is ‘No’, you can’t – or shouldn’t - have more. Too often, we’re told we’re spoiled by choices and over indulgent.  Green-tech may allow us to have the slightly better ‘No’ (otherwise known as ‘Yes, but…’). A truly innovative and creative society would start from ‘Yes’- without the ‘but’, and let us work out how we’re going to get there.

It’s eminently sensible to be aware of limited resources (who isn’t?), whilst aiming to transcend those limits through unfettered creativity. We shouldn’t simply accommodate. One limit that ‘sustainably constrained innovation’ certainly has is on the human imagination. Innovation tied to achieving a ‘sustainable’ future is based on an over reliance on our imagination when framing the future (ie. flights of fancy) whist concurrently underplaying our imagination (settling for restraint).

The sustainable imagination is suffering from a collapse of the imagination in terms of learning from the past how humanity is capable of meeting and exceeding its needs by transcending limits in both material resources and technology. For example, the agricultural and industrial revolutions, as well as the social revolution from feudalism and slavery to capitalism, escaped the limits imposed on them by exposing them as ‘social’ rather than ‘natural’. Too often, we imagine the future as a static extension of the present. Really, we need to restart thinking about it as being dynamic, where the end point is not prescribed at the start.

Dominating nature, not destroying it

So, where does this leave engineering and engineers? It may be tempting to use this time in the (relative) limelight to try to attract young people to the profession through the soundbite of ‘sustainability’. But we should remember that in fact the world, at least its surface, has largely been artificially created as a result of both agriculture and industrialisation. In other words:  it is a human creation. This is a good thing, and we should be proud of it.

Dominating nature is not the same as destroying it. Whilst we can learn from and be inspired by nature, most of our great practical and cultural artefacts have not been created by nature. We have had to wrestle them into being. In the process, we’ve also created enough free time to produce our own ‘romantic’ view of the (artificial) world. The existential angst we are now suffering from could be considered a luxury product.

Back in the mid-nineteenth century, the first of the UK engineering institutions, The Institution of Civil Engineers, achieved a royal charter which contained the following passage:

...for promoting the acquisition of that species of knowledge which constitutes the profession of a Civil Engineer, being the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man… (10)

Today, many would see this statement as having a certain arrogance. It implies that nature can and should be exploited as well as utilised at the ‘convenience of man’. We should beware of the newly converted eco-technophiles, such as Stewart Brand, who make a big thing of demonstrating their ‘conversion’ to technologies such as nuclear power and genetic modification. As Brand himself has pointed out, by refuting them until now, arguably people like him have held back progress in those areas, possibly by decades (11).

Engineers like to have a project and then apply the arts of compromise and ingenuity. After that, they might be innovative and sometimes daring in delivering the best possible solution within the constraints of the physical world and any economic limits. We should, however, learn not to compromise on the scale and ambition of projects. We should have the freedom to propose projects which are not constrained by the additional burden of the fear of an uncertain future.


Dr Paul Reeves, principal software developer, Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks R&D; former senior researcher, International Automotive Research Centre, University of Warwick


(1) State of the Nation: Infrastructure 2010, Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE)
(3) See for example: , and
(4) Park Spark lights lamps with dog doo, Matt Hickey, Cnet, 23 September 2010
(5) Stuart Brand Home Page
(6) Foreign Secretary David Miliband accuses public of climate change apathy. The Times October 23, 2009
(7) Renewable UK university course lists related to wind and marine energy
(8) University of Cambridge. MPhil in Engineering for sustainable development
(9) See for example:
(10) ICE charter Quoted by Natasha McCarthy (2009)  in Engineering – A Beginner’s Guide, p13
(11) Stuart Brand (2010). Whole Earth Discipline. London: Atlantic Books, p117

Festival Buzz

View: 'Turn That Racket Off'

"The Battle of Ideas goes from strength to strength. The intensity, variety and depth of debate, sustained for an entire weekend, makes for a unique experience charging the intellectual batteries for the rest of the year."
Raymond Tallis, emeritus professor of geriatric medicine, Manchester University