In the most recent Bristol Distinguished Address Speaker Series, attendees at the University of the West of England’s Business School heard from the CEO of Rolls-Royce, Warren East CBE about his views on the future of engineering and tech in the UK.
East’s lecture focused on how engineering and tech are influencing the ever-changing world around us, and how it can be a beacon for positive changes in nature and society.
A shift in business focus to be more ethical and reviewing the impact a company has on the world has become increasingly prominent.
Effort, investment and technical breakthroughs are almost the ‘brand’ for British engineering and technology throughout the world, however, there has grown a strong perception – especially in the USA – that the UK has lost its way in the face of large-scale competition coming from Asia and the States.
It is now that East believes that the UK needs to stand up and grapple with the major challenges the world is set to face with a rapidly growing population, and how engineering and tech can lead innovation.
East himself has a long and varied history as an engineer for over 30 years, before taking up the role of CEO at Rolls-Royce in 2015. He is perfectly placed to analyse the current state of engineering in the UK and across the world.
To open his lecture, East stated: “As an engineer, I have always been inspired by nature. My theory is that nature is the world’s best engineer. No matter how good we are as a collective group of engineers – nature sets the bar.”
This statement was a theme throughout the lecture, as the world and its engineers look to help the world through its largest population expansion in history and its logistical problems that will present.
In 1950, the world’s population was around 2.5 billion and today it is over seven billion. In 2050, the world’s population is set to exceed 10 billion, and as East stated, “the world has stayed the same size”.
As East explained, this comes with several major issues that need to be tackled.
It not just the rise in population, but as healthcare has improved – and will continue to improve – the number of elderly people out of work increases. This means that as this number rises, the percentage of people supporting them decreases.
The availability of food will be dramatically impacted. The world’s landmass is shrinking, with large amounts of uninhabited areas actually are unable to be used to grow crops and raise livestock – meaning that usable areas for food production are shrinking at an alarming rate, as the population continues to rise.
Deserts, mountains, and icecaps dominate the world’s available landmass, but cannot be used to generate the amount of food required.
East commented: “We have a very finite space to feed the world’s population. But it is not just this issue we have to be aware of – water is another crucial element of human life that we need to be aware of. Most of the world is covered in water, but only 3% of it is usable.
“And of this 3%, only of a fraction of this is currently readily available to us. The world doesn’t have enough water. this wouldn’t be the case if we could desalinate the rest of the sea water, but that takes a lot of energy – a resource which itself is already at a limited supply.
“Our answer to any energy problem over the last 200 years has been to set fire to hydrocarbons – and ourselves at Rolls-Royce, a lot of our business is centred around setting fire to hydrocarbons.”
East recognised that this is part of modern engineering and that these problems should lead to opportunities for companies like Rolls-Royce to come up with a solution that is both safer for the environment, but that can provide for the world of tomorrow.
He continued: “As we seek to not trash to planet completely, we also need to be aware of how much we have spare. These are big challenges, and my contentions are that engineering has a very important role to play in addressing these big societal changes.”
These can include advances in micro-processes in healthcare, meaning that can live healthier and more productive lives; leading advancements in increasing crop yields out of the crops we grow in the limited areas available; as East explained – getting more usable water available; and getting the right balance with energy and how it impacts the world from a societal and environmental standpoint.
Microprocessors and the internet
East went on to show the advancements that have been made in the world of microprocessors and the improvements in battery life for devices such as mobile phones, and across the wider world of tech and energy.
Electric motors are part of everyday life for people across the world and across every section of business and society.
The individual and collective impact these processes and devices have on the planet need to be addressed from both a societal, environmental and technical standpoint.
‘Smart motors’ have been a recent revelation, where life in them have been extended by up to 30%, meaning that less energy is required to run a device.
Lighting and electronics have also followed suit with this, becoming more energy efficient.
Also, the advancements in internet servers will need to be looked at in more detail. As more-and-more people become connected, the energy-efficiency of servers will need constant innovation if they are too environmentally friendly, yet still useful.
A lot of energy is required to just keep them cool – this is where microprocessors and the advancements within the field of tech can help and constantly innovate.
Challenging the aerospace sector
As we look to increase the number of deliveries made and increase the amount of global travel we do – it is inevitable that more energy will be used on air travel.
As they heavily rely on burning hydrocarbons, which impact all of the issues East had previously covered – more innovation and advancements are needed by companies such as Rolls-Royce to find a way to change the way we use transport.
The audience at the event had employees from some of the leading aerospace companies in the world, and East challenged them, along with his own company to lead the way in finding ways to make the necessary advancements within the sector.
Going back to nature
Just as East opened his lecture, he talked about how nature is the best engineer, and how the sector should look to it for inspiration.
He said: “We are a long way short of nature’s innovation. We need to be creative to solve the problems we have within energy and a rising population – and we will continue to be innovative as a profession.
“However, the bar which we can get to is very high, in terms of where nature already exists. That is why I believe we have a tremendous opportunity within engineering and technology – as there are no limits as to what we can invent.
“Advancements are necessary, and things like artificial intelligence (AI), will not take away engineers jobs – we can use these as design tools to get the next generation of semiconductors and microprocessors, to make the necessary advancements the world needs.
“We’ve been able to make the advancements already seen in the world, because of the advancements on design tools. And AI is just another tool that will be available to our engineers to help us catch up with nature.”
To listen to the full lecture, visit UWE’s #BristolLectures page here.