Q&A: Chris Hayhurst, MathWorks
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Chris Hayhurst, a judge of last year’s E&T Innovation Awards and European Consulting Manager of MathWorks, leading developer of mathematical computing software for engineers and scientists, discusses what it takes to enable excellence in the industry.
What are you looking for when judging innovation award entries?
The most impressive and attractive innovations are ones that address some of the world’s biggest challenges. We have seen entries that could have a significant and direct impact on health, sustainable development, energy, and climate change. Increasingly, engineers want to work on problems that can make a difference and it is hugely rewarding and motivating to see the impact of their work. The awards can help those engineers to see that their work is recognised and get feedback that others also see the potential for global impact. One of those innovations was Oxford PV, which has been recognised for scaling up production of Perovskite PV panels to commercial levels, which could have a direct impact on the future of renewable energy.
Some entries have been remarkable by combining several ideas from disparate areas to produce an innovation. A good example is BT, last year’s winner of the Intelligent Systems award, which took inspiration from epidemiological research into virus transmission and the technique of reinforcement learning in artificial intelligence (AI), to create a system for helping to plan the response to new computer virus attacks.
What technology areas are helping to address these challenges?
Key technology enablers for innovation underpin many innovations we have seen in recent years. The engineering community is adopting and driving the use of AI, electrification, embedded software, and cloud computing to create innovative products and services. Kuronga, winners of the Best Application of Technology for Good award, showed that putting cloud computing into the hands of rural farmers is possible and can improve equality and diversity of our food production.
It is important that today’s engineers can quickly evaluate and apply these key technology enablers to problems without needing years of experience themselves. Technology is moving and changing faster than ever before, so engineers must continuously learn these new techniques to be effective, and have access to technical computing environments where they can test and develop their ideas.
What is the future of innovation?
Technology and new approaches are only part of the future of innovation. There are some excellent young engineers coming through and one of the most important roles of the IET and Innovation Awards is to encourage the next generation. The awards have shone a spotlight on a few young engineers, their work, and their ability. Rayna Bortha’s winning entry in the Young Pioneer of the Year award not only has the potential for direct impact on future food supplies, but also shows off the possibility of a great future innovator.
What is the role of creativity in innovation?
There is a creative element in nearly all E&T Innovation Awards entries. This can be seen in the creative identification of a problem that has long been ignored, or a creative solution to a problem that many people have tried to tackle in the past. Creativity can also be expressed in communication of an innovation, or in designing the experience that the customer has in using the innovative product. Heriot-Watt University’s innovation for real-time pothole detection and reporting in Malaysia brings together common technology and the frustration of road users to efficiently target the local government’s scarce resource.
In reality, is innovation about process and perseverance rather than creativity and inspiration?
Process and perseverance are necessary to get any engineered product to market successfully or to make continuous improvements to products that keep them useful as the environment or market changes. Innovation has the potential to react to major market changes, or jump ahead of the competition to finally solve a problem that others have failed to address.
The Innovation Awards were formed round the series of Critical Challenges that society faces. These include Diversity, Health, Equality, Sustainability including Climate Change, Trust, and Inspiration. To what extent do you think engineers will be responsible for meeting these challenges, and can they do it on their own?
It is inspirational and encouraging to see so many creative and innovative products and services, particularly when they are directed towards the common good. But on their own, they are not enough. At best, they will contribute something to the goals and inspire others to do something too. At worst, they may just distract us from the real needs or make us feel that enough is already being done when real issues go unanswered. Innovation will only be impactful on global problems like climate change if it is combined with strong government leadership at national and international levels. For example, recent innovations to use satellites to identify methane leaks shows us where the problems are, and climate science tells us that fixing those problems is a good investment, but only political will and negotiations will enable those leaks to be eliminated.
MathWorks is the leading developer of mathematical computing software. MATLAB, the language of engineers and scientists, is a programming environment for algorithm development, data analysis, visualization, and numeric computation. Simulink is a block diagram environment for simulation and Model-Based Design of multidomain and embedded engineering systems. Engineers and scientists worldwide rely on these products to accelerate the pace of discovery, innovation, and development in automotive, aerospace, communications, electronics, industrial automation, and other industries. MATLAB and Simulink are fundamental teaching and research tools in the world’s top universities and learning institutions. Founded in 1984, MathWorks employs more than 6,000 people in 34 offices around the world, with headquarters in Natick, Massachusetts, USA. For additional information, visit www.mathworks.com.
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