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Accelerating innovation - how to spark innovative progress

17 March 2020

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In March, CSaP’s Policy Leaders Fellows joined a series of talks on aerospace and innovation. Professor Rob Miller, Director of the Whittle Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, discussed the need to speed up the process of technological development in order to transition to a low carbon economy in a timely manner.

“The biggest challenge facing humanity is climate change, and as we work towards getting to net zero, our biggest enemy is time.”

Professor Miller's belief is that tomorrow’s winners will be the countries and companies who adapt most quickly to shifting technology. Reflecting on his experiences with the Whittle Laboratory, which has sought to accelerate technology development, he suggested that accelerating innovation must be accompanied by a culture change.

Using a DARPA model, he explained that the assembly of small multidisciplinary teams with relevant technical backgrounds who are given a problem to solve, and a fixed period of time in which to find a solution, is one of the best ways to spark innovative progress. He recommended doing value stream analyses based on time, rather than profit, in order to eradicate pointless tasks and speed up timelines in the innovation and production processes.

He added that while it was cheaper to outsource aspects of the manufacturing process, there were knock-on consequences such as delays due to ordering, contracts and shipping parts, which were not worth the time delays.

Furthermore, the merging of physical and digital systems – with digital modelling and in-house production of prototypes in rapid time scales – is one way in which the fourth industrial revolution can hasten the speed of product development.

“If you can start something on Monday morning and can test it by Friday lunchtime, people will get more excited about what they’re working on.”

Professor Miller’s view was that by empowering designers to reach into the physical and digital worlds, and using in-house production to merge these worlds in shorter periods of time, designers become “supercharged” due to the speed at which they have tangible results.

As organisations such as the Whittle Laboratory apply these philosophies, Professor Miller expressed the need to ask bigger questions. In this vein, companies were asking innovators to tackle bigger problems, such as trying to envisage how big an electric aircraft could be, or whether it is possible to design silent aircraft. Professor Miller hoped that the UK would be able to use this type of thinking to lead on the development of technologies such as a zero emissions aeroplane of some form.

Professor Robert Miller

Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge