We are trying to define the heritage of the future – the creativity and ideas in engineering that people will look back on – Andrew Scoones

Andrew Scoones is a filmmaker specialising in the built environment. Andrew seems to have interviewed or met almost all of my engineering design heroes, and so I was equally delighted and nervous when he agreed to let me interview him! In this podcast we explore one of Andrew’s passions, the identification and celebration of engineering culture. Along the way way we get in to some great stories about designers, what they design and how they do it.

Andrew is director of the Engineering Club, set up over twenty years ago to host events about the broad culture of engineering in an informal setting. In this podcast he shares some of his favourite stories from Engineering Club guests, which illustrate different aspects of engineering culture.

En route we get into bicycle design, designing trainers, whether there engineering culture includes creativity, and whether there is room for creativity in industrialissed systems. We talk about some great engineers and their projects. And we talk about building your own dishwasher.

Please enjoy this interview with Andrew Scoones and let me know what you think in the comments below.

Selected links from the episode

Show notes

  • History of the Engineering Club – stories about engineering told in a non-institutional way [2:10]
  • For building engineering, not telling engineering stories as a sub-section of architectural stories, but as something in their own right [2:50]
  • Bicycles are a particularly rich seam of stories for engineering [3:05]
  • Mike Burrows was particularly inventive bicycle designer as a man who knew how to build the machine [4:20]
  • To go faster you need to look at every tiny detail [5:00]
  • An example of an engineering story that transcends the technical and starts to demonstrate ambition and imagination about what can be achieved [5:48]
  • Theories that the bicycle was necssary because of a huge volcanic eruption in south-east asia had ruined the crops in Europe and horses were starving and an alternative method of transport was required [6:40]
  • The ability to go back and revisit assumptions that we have made in one context and to check if they are still relevant is an important skill in design [7:10]
  • Building and testing and building and testing to get quick feedback on your creativity. An important part of creativity is not just the ability to have an idea but the ability to test it out, get them wrong and fail [8:05]
  • Failure is an important part of creativity [8:30]
  • Bicycles are a level of technology that someone with only rudementary skills could reach the technological level to master the tools that will enable them to manage, fix it, create parts for it – it’s a technology that is in reach [8:40]
  • Graeme Obree took the bearing out of his washing machine to his in his champion bike because it was the only thing that could deal with the speeds he was after [09:40]
  • Again, it’s not just the ability to think laterally but the ability to test it in your workshop [10:13]
  • [Cycling] is a very exciting form of engineering because you can do it [10:24]
  • Father was an engineer and before he bought anything he insisted he would try and make it himself – he attempted to build his own dishwasher [10:30]
  • Being a producer rather than a consumer – use the tools rather than being used by the tools [12:00]
  • Filmmaking and building are both sectors in which you can get close to the making without having to go into deep R&D and lots of expense [13:30]
  • Trying to take things apart and see if you can make them collapse is part of the engineering culture [14:10]
  • How to design a sports shoe (Tim Lucas) [15:05]
  • The shoe manufacturers generated lots of ideas, but they kepty the locked away in a safe even if they didn’t use them because that was their IP and could be the part of a new idea later (relevance to building creative systems –see my post on this)  [16:02]
  • Building the first Seawater Greenhouse [18:40]
  • Is there such a thing as engineering culture [21:30]
  • Culture is something that people in industrial economies do in their time off; not a must-do during work hours [21:50]
  • What is an engineering culture if it does exist: heritage; the stuff of engineering is an important part and be understood. But most of our stories are contempoary. We are trying to identify the heritage of the future, the creativty and ideas that people will look back on [22:20]
  • Very few of the younger engineers could identify contemporary engineering heroes. [23:00]
  • The Pompidou Centre – a fresh look at a city buliding at its time and it wore its engineering functionality on the outside [22:20]
  • Peter Rice’s passion for horse racing [22:20]
  • When we wrongly divide engineering and culture there is a strong shared element of humanity in the best engineering and its not just metal and emotionless structures [26:50]
  • Organisational rituals and symbols as part of culture in organisations [27:20]
  • Creativity is not necessarily thought of as part of engineering culture. The industrial process is one that demands repetition, and isn’t looking for a different way to do things, it needs repetition to produce great benefit to many people [27:50]
  • We have a challenge: we need to find some degree of repetitiveness to solve some of our housing problems. Creativity has problems to solve, but it may only be able to do it by finding a way to be repetitive. [28:30]
  • Elegance is incredibly important. Elegance in software engineering is really sought after: finding a neat way to save pages of code. Reducing material use to a very simple solution is important. Somehow we’ve lost that. Any old design comes up, we can make it! We’ve lost that creative moment of less is more [29:15]
  • In a world where we can calculate our way to increasingly difficult solutions, we don’t have that driver for simplicity [30:40]
  • Producing elegant drawings [31:30]
  • If you can inspire people to take great photographs or make great stories out of it, then that can add to the mythology of it. There’s an important link between objects and the media we use to talk about them [34:30]

People mentioned