Mechanical Aptitude

Unless we understand the engineer as a Renaissance person, we may well be back in the dark ages.

I’m worried about the future of engineering. In the West, interest in studying engineering has been on the wane for years. In the U.K., less than half of engineering graduates choose to enter the profession, lured instead by careers in finance and product marketing. It’s a similar story in the U.S.: For the past 10 years, the number of Master’s degrees awarded in engineering has declined by nearly 30 percent.

 Why the shortfall? Perception. Young people don’t associate engineering with improving quality of life. They see people repairing air-conditioning units or servicing cars: maintenance rather than invention. The truth is that engineers do much more. They design bridges. They harness renewable energy. They create new technologies. Engineering is the union of invention, science, and design—communicating that scope is vital to reigniting interest in the field.

In a small way, the Dyson Award, our global design prize, is a way to nurture the engineers of the future. The challenge is simple: Solve a problem through better design, with function considered first and foremost. Last year’s winner, American Michael Chen, was inspired by the accelerometer technology found in a Nintendo Wii. He designed a cycling jacket that flashes green when the rider accelerates, and red when the user brakes—ingenious. And yet Michael has battled to get his design in front of the big cycling-equipment manufacturers. Maybe he’d find it easier if he were a business or marketing graduate.

For the past four years, my company has worked to open a design and engineering school here in the U.K. Our goal is clear: Give students the opportunity to use their hands and minds to discover the thrill of invention. In partnership with Rolls-Royce, Williams F1, and Airbus, we intend to show students that design engineering isn’t memorizing formulas; it’s making mistakes and taking risks, and it can have a huge impact.

Good old government bureaucracy is slowing us down, however. The government wants Britain to become an “innovation nation,” calling for industry to have a stake in the future of the country’s youth. Yet with planning inquiries and funding red tape, it’s proving hard to make an impact. Regrettably, it seems schools specializing in fashion, retailing, and enterprise find greater favor. But as engineers, we will plow on. We’ll continue our awards and student workshops and hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, we may well open our school.

Everybody should care about engineering because everybody is affected by it. When you’re talking about the future of invention and technology, failure is part of the deal, and by no means the end.
James Dyson is the founder and chairman of Dyson in Malmesbury, England.

Illustration by Annemieke Beemster Leverenz