Innovation is essential in today’s world. As engineers, the ability to innovate and think creatively is crucial - it allows us to constantly adapt to the evolving challenges of our fast-paced societies and to compete in the global skills market.
As a student in the UK delegation at the Global Grand Challenges Summit 2017 in Washington DC, I had the great fortune to interact with students and professionals from both the US and China who have experienced varying engineering education cultures. The differences I observed between the approaches of our respective nations to innovation and education was enlightening.
Through conversations with new American friends, I found that that the US system of education is geared towards free thinking, and that it actively encourages students to take significant leaps above, beyond and, crucially, outside their education - working with all people, students and otherwise, to bring innovations to life and to market. These traits, to my mind, appear to be integral to the culture of innovation and at the heart of success in the industry. By comparison, I find that students in university departments in the UK suffer from a distinct silo mentality, with little opportunity to interact with, let alone work with, students of other skill-sets and academic disciplines.
The Summit was a unique event that brought together people from different academic and professional backgrounds but who have a common interest in solving the world’s grand challenges and achieving sustainable development through engineering.
Teams of students from the UK, US and China competed against each other in innovation competitions throughout the week of the Summit. All teams performed fantastically, with two teams from our UK delegation shining in the ‘Business Plan’ competition and the ‘Poster’ competition, and receiving monetary prizes. However, my observations of the distinctions between the UK and US teams has led me to believe that there is a gulf of difference in the culture of the universities from which these teams have come.
Where the US teams were well established, the UK teams had only been operating for a few months, most created purely for the purpose of the competition. The US teams were largely multidisciplinary, with engineers often occupying a small fraction of the team presenting; they were populated with incredibly well-practiced innovators, with the participants of more than a few teams having several startup companies already in their portfolio; and they were extremely well funded, with inputs from their universities ranging into the thousands of dollars.
Despite being undergraduate students, the US teams had already progressed so much further with their innovations than the UK teams, indicating that UK universities lack the culture required to both nurture innovation and to encourage students to take the leaps of faith required to follow their ideas through from conception to delivery.
I believe funding is by far the least important component; we must first work to create a culture of innovation in British universities that actively encourages students to collaborate across disciplines, to encourage them to take risks, and to facilitate the creation and resourcing of startups amongst students. After all, there would be nothing to fund without there first being ideas and willing participants.
Students have no less passion to change the world, nor any less drive than any professional in industry or academia; if the Global Grand Challenges agenda is to succeed in it’s aim of building a better world for the future, the culture of innovation must be encouraged to grow in universities all across the globe.
Of all the learned societies, the Royal Academy is uniquely positioned over all engineering disciplines and has the resources and national reach to further facilitate connections between student engineering innovators across the country, and to encourage the kind of unorthodox, progressive thinking that breeds innovation.
Though the Global Grand Challenges Summit 2017 was a phenomenal event, and one that I will forever be thankful for being able to attend, it happens only once every two years and participation for students is highly competitive. The opportunities it offered for interacting with and learning from a wide diaspora of students and professional should be accessible to everyone in the UK engineering education system.
Engineering has never been more collaborative in nature and the Royal Academy of Engineering has the ability to ensure that the engineers of the future have the skills and tools at their disposure to effectively compete in the global economy.