IET interdisciplinary innovation event

An IET event showcasing the growing importance of inter- and cross- disciplinary working within engineering.

Cross discipline engineering The Trustees have decided that growing inter- and cross- disciplinary working will be an important area for the IET for the future. The Innovation and Emerging Technologies Policy Panel therefore decided to hold a discussion forum on 30 November 2015 with an excellent group of speakers and a senior invited audience to discuss how the IET can promote inter-disciplinary innovation.

The event was chaired by our President, Naomi Climer, and we started with a presentation from Professor Andy Hopper (an ex-President). He spoke from the University perspective - and distinguished between innovations which came from within disciplines, from working across disciplines and truly interdisciplinary approaches which created new markets or new sectors. Universities could play an important role in helping businesses innovate by providing a neutral safe space and could draw on the expertise of a very wide range of disciplines - including the increasingly important social sciences.

Dave Smith from Riccardo (and incoming chair of the IET Innovation Policy Panel) spoke about the business perspective and the fact that most businesses found innovation really difficult in spite of all the help available from Government, Universities and consultancies. He cited the vehicle sector as one where the challenge was particularly great - moving from primarily mechanical engineering base to one where software and the interconnected world would give individual companies an edge. His recommendation was that businesses needed to find more places like playgrounds where they could experiment with different technologies and partnerships to find what worked best.

Ruth McKernan the head of the Government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, spoke next. She gave some practical examples where Innovate UK had been able to bring people together from very different backgrounds - for example motorsport and healthcare to transfer expertise from monitoring sensors in a racing car to looking after critically ill patients. And she spoke about how one of the new Catapult Centres had shown how satellite monitoring could be used to help prevent illegal fishing.

Peter Bonfield, the head of BRE (and an IET Vice President) spoke about the leadership challenge of heading a multi-disciplinary organisation and in meeting national and international challenges. He stressed the need to invest in both people and new capital facilities and build a diverse workforce. Standards could also play an important role in giving users confidence about new technologies and partnerships had enabled his organisation to reach out nationally and internationally.

The presentations were followed by a rich discussion which itself reflected the importance of a truly inter- and multi- disciplinary approach. Speakers raised the issues of how young engineers could be equipped to interact with those from other disciplines as well as being expert in their chosen area. What was needed was an education which combined both depth and breadth - and some other countries seemed to be able to achieve this better than the UK. There was also a need for all engineers to become expert in coding as software became an ever more important element in every kind of engineering application.

The role of intellectual property was also discussed. There was a clear trend for businesses to recognise that sharing IP was likely to be a better way forward than keeping it locked up. A new approach for an IP exchange was being trialled in the UK by the Big Innovation Centre - perhaps there was a role for the IET in alerting members to the opportunities.

So what about the implications for the IET? We are already looking at how we can improve our offer helping members broaden their skills through continuing professional development. This will become increasingly important in future. We can also help inspire the next generation of engineers by linking what they learn with global challenges and real problems which businesses face to show them more connected world in which they will work in future.

We are also fortunate in having so many members spanning a wide range of organisations and sectors. So building co-operation and collaboration across and between universities and businesses, along supply chains and between different sectors will continue to be a priority for our Technical and Professional and Local networks. Our work in publishing journals and running conferences can also help bring together people with different backgrounds.

And within the IET we must continue to model the right kind of behaviours - with an emphasis on integrity, excellence and teamwork - which are of course the IET’s own values.