Forty Years a Programmer – a Retrospective Look at the Future

By: Alan Levy
Lead Consultant, Embedded Systems

20th February 2020

5 minute read

Home » Engineering

Slightly more than 40 years ago I sat down for the first time in front of a keyboard and monitor in a computer lab on the campus of Durham University and typed my first “hello world” program, in C, into a computer running Unix. I’d love to say it compiled and ran the first time but I honestly can’t remember what happened next.

The one thing I don’t think I dreamed back then was that as I reached retirement I would still be typing C programs into computers running Unix (well, OK, Linux) on a QWERTY keyboard and viewing the text on a monitor. I guess I imagined that by now I’d be talking to my computers HAL 9000 style, albeit perhaps without the psychopathic killer personality. By the year 2020 computers were going to be as smart as us, smarter in fact. Keyboards would be museum exhibits. Programming computers would be like more like teaching children. Displays would be used just for the comfort factor of having something to look at while we talked to the computer or so that we could read our private messages rather than have them played out loud to us.

Back then when I thought about the computer of the future it was going to be small, portable, connected and super-intelligent. Something like the love child of a smartphone and Mr Spock from Star Trek, but please don’t think too hard about that one! In fact in many ways back then Star Trek was the blueprint for the future we all thought we were headed towards.

So here we are four decades on and what has changed? Well, the small, portable, connected thing happened, so chalk that one up to the futurists. Computers that can learn like children are sort of happening – a score draw there I think. The super-intelligent thing, a bit like nuclear fusion power generation, is still said to be 20 years away and maybe always will be. Despite much talk in recent years about “the singularity”, the jury is still very much out on that prediction. The warp drive is still very much in the realms of science fiction.

So what do I think I’ve learned during my career? Well, the world changes both quickly and slowly. Technology has indeed changed the face of the planet and is continuing to change the way of life for billions of people. On the other hand whatever may happen in the next 40 years, for now, I still type at a console, drive a petrol-powered car, watch television, shop on the high street, clean the carpet with a vacuum cleaner, vote by writing a cross on a piece of paper along with a hundred other everyday things that I was doing 40 years ago. If the futurists of the 1970s had been correct then by now I’d be talking to my computer, travelling in a flying car, watching holovision, getting all the goods and services I need from my own personal robot and voting by pressing a button.

What do I really expect to happen in the next 40 years? Well, a lot of the things I just mentioned are highly likely to change. Computers are insinuating themselves into everyday items and vanishing from sight as they do, fossil fuels really have got to go, broadcast television is already merging with the Internet, the high street is starting to reinvent itself, there are vacuum cleaners that don’t need our help to do their job and I really don’t want to talk about the future of democracy just now thank you.

What about the future of programming? A little cautionary tale presents itself here. Shortly after I left university and started work as a lowly programmer somebody came up with a revolutionary new programming language they entitled “The Last One” because it was the last programming language you were ever going to need. I never actually used it but apparently, you gave the computer a few brief, descriptive instructions and then let it get on with programming itself. This news sent a shiver down my spine because it seemed to presage the end of programming as a career. Shortly afterwards somebody else came up with another programming language that they called “The Next One”. We all sniggered and got on with our lives while both of these languages vanished without a trace. These days I can generally recognise the sound of a bandwagon rolling from halfway around the planet and I wouldn’t be so easily fooled, or at least so I fondly tell myself.

Another anecdote comes from about a decade later. One of my colleagues at the large multinational consultancy we both worked for at the time made a prediction about sales growth in a particular technology market that he had been analysing. The prediction turned out to be precisely right and champagne all round was the order of the day. Of course, nobody batted an eyelid about all of the other, grossly inaccurate predictions he had made at the same time.

I think the point I’m really trying to make is that predicting the future is a mug’s game. Sometimes the possibilities are obvious and the trends are predictable to the point of apparent inevitability. More often the future is hidden in a mire of ifs, buts, maybes and things you just didn’t know about at the time. The worst part is that you can’t even reliably distinguish which predictions belong to which category.

So when somebody tries to tell you how it’s going to be in 5, 10, 20 or especially 40 years’ time, the best thing to do is to smile sweetly, nod as if in agreement, and get on with your life.

 

Thanks to Alan for his long service at Plextek and have a wonderful retirement!!

Slightly more than 40 years ago I sat down for the first time in front of a keyboard and monitor in a computer lab on the campus of Durham University and typed my first “hello world” program, in C, into a computer running Unix. I’d love to say it compiled and ran the first time but I honestly can’t remember what happened next.

The one thing I don’t think I dreamed back then was that as I reached retirement I would still be typing C programs into computers running Unix (well, OK, Linux) on a QWERTY keyboard and viewing the text on a monitor. I guess I imagined that by now I’d be talking to my computers HAL 9000 style, albeit perhaps without the psychopathic killer personality. By the year 2020 computers were going to be as smart as us, smarter in fact. Keyboards would be museum exhibits. Programming computers would be like more like teaching children. Displays would be used just for the comfort factor of having something to look at while we talked to the computer or so that we could read our private messages rather than have them played out loud to us.

Back then when I thought about the computer of the future it was going to be small, portable, connected and super-intelligent. Something like the love child of a smartphone and Mr Spock from Star Trek, but please don’t think too hard about that one! In fact in many ways back then Star Trek was the blueprint for the future we all thought we were headed towards.

So here we are four decades on and what has changed? Well, the small, portable, connected thing happened, so chalk that one up to the futurists. Computers that can learn like children are sort of happening – a score draw there I think. The super-intelligent thing, a bit like nuclear fusion power generation, is still said to be 20 years away and maybe always will be. Despite much talk in recent years about “the singularity”, the jury is still very much out on that prediction. The warp drive is still very much in the realms of science fiction.

So what do I think I’ve learned during my career? Well, the world changes both quickly and slowly. Technology has indeed changed the face of the planet and is continuing to change the way of life for billions of people. On the other hand whatever may happen in the next 40 years, for now, I still type at a console, drive a petrol-powered car, watch television, shop on the high street, clean the carpet with a vacuum cleaner, vote by writing a cross on a piece of paper along with a hundred other everyday things that I was doing 40 years ago. If the futurists of the 1970s had been correct then by now I’d be talking to my computer, travelling in a flying car, watching holovision, getting all the goods and services I need from my own personal robot and voting by pressing a button.

What do I really expect to happen in the next 40 years? Well, a lot of the things I just mentioned are highly likely to change. Computers are insinuating themselves into everyday items and vanishing from sight as they do, fossil fuels really have got to go, broadcast television is already merging with the Internet, the high street is starting to reinvent itself, there are vacuum cleaners that don’t need our help to do their job and I really don’t want to talk about the future of democracy just now thank you.

What about the future of programming? A little cautionary tale presents itself here. Shortly after I left university and started work as a lowly programmer somebody came up with a revolutionary new programming language they entitled “The Last One” because it was the last programming language you were ever going to need. I never actually used it but apparently, you gave the computer a few brief, descriptive instructions and then let it get on with programming itself. This news sent a shiver down my spine because it seemed to presage the end of programming as a career. Shortly afterwards somebody else came up with another programming language that they called “The Next One”. We all sniggered and got on with our lives while both of these languages vanished without a trace. These days I can generally recognise the sound of a bandwagon rolling from halfway around the planet and I wouldn’t be so easily fooled, or at least so I fondly tell myself.

Another anecdote comes from about a decade later. One of my colleagues at the large multinational consultancy we both worked for at the time made a prediction about sales growth in a particular technology market that he had been analysing. The prediction turned out to be precisely right and champagne all round was the order of the day. Of course, nobody batted an eyelid about all of the other, grossly inaccurate predictions he had made at the same time.

I think the point I’m really trying to make is that predicting the future is a mug’s game. Sometimes the possibilities are obvious and the trends are predictable to the point of apparent inevitability. More often the future is hidden in a mire of ifs, buts, maybes and things you just didn’t know about at the time. The worst part is that you can’t even reliably distinguish which predictions belong to which category.

So when somebody tries to tell you how it’s going to be in 5, 10, 20 or especially 40 years’ time, the best thing to do is to smile sweetly, nod as if in agreement, and get on with your life.

Thanks to Alan for his long service at Plextek and have a wonderful retirement!!

Baking and engineering

How Baking Is Valuable for Engineering Projects

By: Beate Muller
Project Engineer

7th November 2019

4 minute read

Home » Engineering

Being an engineer by trade and a baker by night (or rather weekend) the colleagues here at Plextek are happy to find some kind of bake in the office most Mondays. From layer cakes to chocolates and macarons, biscuits to croissants and choux buns, I really try to make the best of my baking skills each weekend. While this helped me climb the social ladder within the office pretty quickly, with everyone raving about the latest creation, I am sure the principles I use while baking can also translate to the engineering world.

I love to challenge myself so my baking normally consists of several different parts. As an easy example, think of a layer cake with several layers of baked sponge, with layers of filling and decorations on top.

Prepare

At first, it is important to define the specifications and clarify what the final outcome will be, ie: a delicious cake and what the work requirements are to get there (bake layers, make the filling, make decorations, assemble).

Next, it is important to define both the project plan and budget. For the project plan, it is necessary to analyse the work requirements and determine which ones can be done simultaneously and where they need to be completed successively. The filling can be made while the cake layers are baking in the oven, but on the other hand, the assembly of the cake can only start when all other parts are completed.

Making the budget involves checking the resources needed for each part of this project (the ingredients and tools) and checking how much of it is already available.

Meet

At the start of the project, a kick-off meeting brings all team members together and clarifies the vision for the job. While I don’t bake in a team, it is still necessary to have some kind of kick-off. This means getting all the ingredients ready and reading the recipe so that I am aware of what I am about to do.

Meetings are also important during the course of a project so that progress can be reported back to the project manager and to determine if both the budget and plan are still up to date. During the baking project, it will be necessary to read the recipe again to make sure all steps are executed correctly and to be clear about the tasks ahead.

Work Methodically

The execution of an engineering project depends on the methodical and precise work the engineers are doing. Baking is a science, therefore working precisely is very important in that case as well. It is crucial that the ingredients are at the right temperature and that they are added in the right order.

Adapt

During the project, complications can emerge that were not planned for. It is important to be flexible to be able to cope in these situations and find a workaround or change the schedule to continue working towards the desired outcome. If the filling for the cake doesn’t set well at room temperature it will be necessary to put the cake in the fridge for a while. The schedule will need to be adjusted in this case.

Enjoy the result

After a successful project, it is important to enjoy the results and celebrate the achievements. After all, who doesn’t love cake?

Even if the project doesn’t go as planned, it is important to learn lessons from it. One time I wanted to make a cake with a lot of colourful sprinkles in it but the sprinkles lost their colour and I ended up with a green cake! Now I know to purchase a different brand of sprinkles and not to handle the dough too much after adding the sprinkles.

Challenge yourself

After you have enjoyed the rewards of this project it is important to get excited for the next one coming up. There are always exciting things to bake and to engineer and I can’t wait for both of them!

Being an engineer by trade and a baker by night (or rather weekend) the colleagues here at Plextek are happy to find some kind of bake in the office most Mondays. From layer cakes to chocolates and macarons, biscuits to croissants and choux buns, I really try to make the best of my baking skills each weekend. While this helped me climb the social ladder within the office pretty quickly, with everyone raving about the latest creation, I am sure the principles I use while baking can also translate to the engineering world.

I love to challenge myself so my baking normally consists of several different parts. As an easy example, think of a layer cake with several layers of baked sponge, with layers of filling and decorations on top.

Prepare

At first, it is important to define the specifications and clarify what the final outcome will be, ie: a delicious cake and what the work requirements are to get there (bake layers, make the filling, make decorations, assemble).

Next, it is important to define both the project plan and budget. For the project plan, it is necessary to analyse the work requirements and determine which ones can be done simultaneously and where they need to be completed successively. The filling can be made while the cake layers are baking in the oven, but on the other hand, the assembly of the cake can only start when all other parts are completed.

Making the budget involves checking the resources needed for each part of this project (the ingredients and tools) and checking how much of it is already available.

Meet

At the start of the project, a kick-off meeting brings all team members together and clarifies the vision for the job. While I don’t bake in a team, it is still necessary to have some kind of kick-off. This means getting all the ingredients ready and reading the recipe so that I am aware of what I am about to do.

Meetings are also important during the course of a project so that progress can be reported back to the project manager and to determine if both the budget and plan are still up to date. During the baking project, it will be necessary to read the recipe again to make sure all steps are executed correctly and to be clear about the tasks ahead.

Work Methodically

The execution of an engineering project depends on the methodical and precise work the engineers are doing. Baking is a science, therefore working precisely is very important in that case as well. It is crucial that the ingredients are at the right temperature and that they are added in the right order.

Adapt

During the project, complications can emerge that were not planned for. It is important to be flexible to be able to cope in these situations and find a workaround or change the schedule to continue working towards the desired outcome. If the filling for the cake doesn’t set well at room temperature it will be necessary to put the cake in the fridge for a while. The schedule will need to be adjusted in this case.

Enjoy the result

After a successful project, it is important to enjoy the results and celebrate the achievements. After all, who doesn’t love cake?

Even if the project doesn’t go as planned, it is important to learn lessons from it. One time I wanted to make a cake with a lot of colourful sprinkles in it but the sprinkles lost their colour and I ended up with a green cake! Now I know to purchase a different brand of sprinkles and not to handle the dough too much after adding the sprinkles.

Challenge yourself

After you have enjoyed the rewards of this project it is important to get excited for the next one coming up. There are always exciting things to bake and to engineer and I can’t wait for both of them!

Plextek’s Annual Make-a-thon

Thomas Rouse - Senior Consultant, Medical & Healthcare

By: Thomas Rouse
Lead Consultant

24th October 2019

4 minute read

Home » Engineering

Thomas Rouse explains what a make-a-thon is and why it’s important for innovation.

What is a Make-a-thon? Well for us it’s a more constructive version of a hackathon, both literally and metaphorically. Plextek’s annual Make-a-thon is a chance for graduates through to senior consultants to work in teams to make amazing creations in a day. Why is this important? As a company grows, activities like Make-a-thons can test our normal working practices, help us to focus on the essentials, evaluate what it means to be innovative and just have fun with our colleagues using lots of cool tools.

The Results:

Team Green UI (Richard Emmerson, Steve Fitz, Ben Skinner and Ivan Saunders) have developed a novel user interface that can tell users the weather using a visual dome display that mechanically points to different weather states: rain, snow, mist, fog, sun, day, night – also a lot more energy efficient than displaying on a screen. Interesting to see what you can do away from traditional display technology using energy-efficient methods.

Team Infant Suffocation ( Polly Britton, Daniel Tomlinson, Alan Cucknell, Edson Silva) have developed a proof of concept for new parents with infants. Monitoring the fluctuation of the infant’s chest (using a soft flexible strap) while breathing, the device would alert the parent if the infant’s breathing became irregular. Measuring the voltage across an electrically conductive material to monitor the breathing, the material’s resistance would change according to the pressure created by the force of an inhale/exhale. A low cost, low power solution that democratises baby safety.

Engineers

Team Posture Detection (Ehsan Abedi, Thomas Childs, Bhavin Patel, Gifty Mbroh) looked at developing a proof of concept that could take readings across a number of different points across the back to detect and alert the user to incorrect posture. A novel use of accelerometers that looks to address the health issues of bad posture, either from sitting or standing, for prolonged periods of time.

Team Microfluidics (Kieran Bhuiyan, Frederick Saunders, Poppy Oldroyd) aimed to demonstrate whether low-cost microfluidic systems can be made using rapid prototyping. A microfluidic channel was made in acrylic and various concentrations of saltwater were supplied to these channels. Measuring the rate of flow demonstrated that geometrically consistent channels could be made using rapid prototyping. The results of which proved that solutions with a higher salinity did indeed have a higher viscosity.

Team Autism EEG (Tom Rouse, Josip Rožman, Glenn Wilkinson, Elliot Langran) have developed a proof of concept system using real-time neurofeedback and a traffic light wristband. The idea is to assist autistic children in identifying emotions, as many have difficulty with this. Brainwaves measured using low-cost EEG sensors and a Raspberry Pi running a Multilayer perceptron (MLP) determined whether Elliot was calm or stressed and gave near-instant feedback. The model had been trained on the day especially for him, based on two 5 minute measurements while he was experiencing different emotions. The device can, therefore, be personalised to both the individual and the concepts they would like to understand.

This year’s make-a-thon was run our Summer student Poppy and myself. Many thanks Poppy!

As you can see, giving a short timeframe can focus the mind to create amazing solutions that otherwise could take longer. Lean working can create innovation where you least expect it!

If you have any questions about any of the projects and would like to know more about any of our projects in the make-a-thon, do get in touch – I’d love to hear from you!

Thomas Rouse explains what a make-a-thon is and why it’s important for innovation.

What is a Make-a-thon? Well for us it’s a more constructive version of a hackathon, both literally and metaphorically. Plextek’s annual Make-a-thon is a chance for graduates through to senior consultants to work in teams to make amazing creations in a day. Why is this important? As a company grows, activities like Make-a-thons can test our normal working practices, help us to focus on the essentials, evaluate what it means to be innovative and just have fun with our colleagues using lots of cool tools.

The Results:

Team Green UI (Richard Emmerson, Steve Fitz, Ben Skinner and Ivan Saunders) have developed a novel user interface that can tell users the weather using a visual dome display that mechanically points to different weather states: rain, snow, mist, fog, sun, day, night – also a lot more energy efficient than displaying on a screen. Interesting to see what you can do away from traditional display technology using energy-efficient methods.

Team Infant Suffocation ( Polly Britton, Daniel Tomlinson, Alan Cucknell, Edson Silva) have developed a proof of concept for new parents with infants. Monitoring the fluctuation of the infant’s chest (using a soft flexible strap) while breathing, the device would alert the parent if the infant’s breathing became irregular. Measuring the voltage across an electrically conductive material to monitor the breathing, the material’s resistance would change according to the pressure created by the force of an inhale/exhale. A low cost, low power solution that democratises baby safety.

Team Posture Detection (Ehsan Abedi, Thomas Childs, Bhavin Patel, Gifty Mbroh) looked at developing a proof of concept that could take readings across a number of different points across the back to detect and alert the user to incorrect posture. A novel use of accelerometers that looks to address the health issues of bad posture, either from sitting or standing, for prolonged periods of time.

Team Microfluidics (Kieran Bhuiyan, Frederick Saunders, Poppy Oldroyd) aimed to demonstrate whether low-cost microfluidic systems can be made using rapid prototyping. A microfluidic channel was made in acrylic and various concentrations of saltwater were supplied to these channels. Measuring the rate of flow demonstrated that geometrically consistent channels could be made using rapid prototyping. The results of which proved that solutions with a higher salinity did indeed have a higher viscosity.

Team Autism EEG (Tom Rouse, Josip Rožman, Glenn Wilkinson, Elliot Langran) have developed a proof of concept system using real-time neurofeedback and a traffic light wristband. The idea is to assist autistic children in identifying emotions, as many have difficulty with this. Brainwaves measured using low-cost EEG sensors and a Raspberry Pi running a Multilayer perceptron (MLP) determined whether Elliot was calm or stressed and gave near-instant feedback. The model had been trained on the day especially for him, based on two 5 minute measurements while he was experiencing different emotions. The device can, therefore, be personalised to both the individual and the concepts they would like to understand.

This year’s make-a-thon was run our Summer student Poppy and myself. Many thanks Poppy!

As you can see, giving a short timeframe can focus the mind to create amazing solutions that otherwise could take longer. Lean working can create innovation where you least expect it!

If you have any questions about any of the projects and would like to know more about any of our projects in the make-a-thon, do get in touch – I’d love to hear from you!

diversity in engineering, GCSE entries, UK engineering, A Levels engineering

Reasons to be Cheerful

Nicholas Hill, Plextek

By: Nicholas Hill
CEO

18th September 2019

3 minute read

Home » Engineering

At a time when the media is particularly obsessed with gloomy speculation and bad news, it was great to hear not one but two good news stories for the UK engineering technology sector.

The first came out of the A-level and GCSE results that have been announced in recent weeks.  It seems that more girls than boys (50.3%) have taken A-levels for the first time.  This progress has been driven by years of campaigning by government, business, professional bodies and schools, influences like the appearance of female role models on TV and radio, and a move to a more practical-based curriculum.

Welcome News

As someone who is impatient to see an improvement in gender diversity in engineering, this is welcome news.  Digging a little deeper into the numbers does reveal an important issue though, which is that the overall science numbers are propped up by high levels of girls taking A-level biology.  If you look at the A-levels that lie at the core of many engineering disciplines, girls account for just 23% of physics intake and 39% of maths.  The attractiveness of physics in particular, essential for so much of engineering, has a long way to go before we reach anything like gender parity.

So the A-Level figures are perhaps better news for our burgeoning bio-tech sector than a typical engineering technology employer.  What is more encouraging for engineering is that the figures for GCSE entries show girls making up around 50% in all the three sciences – physics, chemistry and biology – and maths too.  That’s a great result, and it will be interesting to see how this GCSE cohort’s subject choices turn out at A-level.

A Practical Effect

EngineeringUK data shows that just 12% of those working in engineering are female, with the disparity being largely due to girls dropping out of the educational pipeline at every decision point, despite generally performing better than boys in STEM subjects at school.  We need to see continued, incremental forward progress, so it’s good to be able to actually see some.  Gender diversity matters not just because engineering will surely be in a better place when it is less male-dominated, but also from the purely practical effect it will have on increasing overall numbers in the talent pool.  As anyone running a UK company that needs to recruit professional engineers will tell you, we have been facing a desperate talent shortage for some years.

The other good news that caught my eye was record foreign investment in UK tech companies this year.  £5.5bn was invested in the first seven months of the year, which equates to a greater per capita amount than for the US tech sector – wow!

The UK leads Europe in inward investment, but is probably doing particularly well just now because of the weak pound and the US-China trade war, which has made those countries less attractive to foreign investors, many of which are from Asia.  This increase in investment in the tech sector is in spite of an overall reduction in UK foreign direct investment, and serves to show that the UK is still a force to be reckoned with in new technology and innovation.

Your Turn

I hope you enjoyed this brief respite from the doom and gloom stories.  If you’d like another diversion before going back to your newspaper, perhaps have a think about what else your organisation could do to promote engineering as a potentially attractive career option to girls and women, particularly those making implicit career choices through the subject choices they are making at A-level and university.

At a time when the media is particularly obsessed with gloomy speculation and bad news, it was great to hear not one but two good news stories for the UK engineering technology sector.

The first came out of the A-level and GCSE results that have been announced in recent weeks.  It seems that more girls than boys (50.3%) have taken A-levels for the first time.  This progress has been driven by years of campaigning by government, business, professional bodies and schools, influences like the appearance of female role models on TV and radio, and a move to a more practical-based curriculum.

Welcome News

As someone who is impatient to see an improvement in gender diversity in engineering, this is welcome news.  Digging a little deeper into the numbers does reveal an important issue though, which is that the overall science numbers are propped up by high levels of girls taking A-level biology.  If you look at the A-levels that lie at the core of many engineering disciplines, girls account for just 23% of physics intake and 39% of maths.  The attractiveness of physics in particular, essential for so much of engineering, has a long way to go before we reach anything like gender parity.

So the A-Level figures are perhaps better news for our burgeoning bio-tech sector than a typical engineering technology employer.  What is more encouraging for engineering is that the figures for GCSE entries show girls making up around 50% in all the three sciences – physics, chemistry and biology – and maths too.  That’s a great result, and it will be interesting to see how this GCSE cohort’s subject choices turn out at A-level.

A Practical Effect

EngineeringUK data shows that just 12% of those working in engineering are female, with the disparity being largely due to girls dropping out of the educational pipeline at every decision point, despite generally performing better than boys in STEM subjects at school.  We need to see continued, incremental forward progress, so it’s good to be able to actually see some.  Gender diversity matters not just because engineering will surely be in a better place when it is less male-dominated, but also from the purely practical effect it will have on increasing overall numbers in the talent pool.  As anyone running a UK company that needs to recruit professional engineers will tell you, we have been facing a desperate talent shortage for some years.

The other good news that caught my eye was record foreign investment in UK tech companies this year.  £5.5bn was invested in the first seven months of the year, which equates to a greater per capita amount than for the US tech sector – wow!

The UK leads Europe in inward investment, but is probably doing particularly well just now because of the weak pound and the US-China trade war, which has made those countries less attractive to foreign investors, many of which are from Asia.  This increase in investment in the tech sector is in spite of an overall reduction in UK foreign direct investment, and serves to show that the UK is still a force to be reckoned with in new technology and innovation.

Your Turn

I hope you enjoyed this brief respite from the doom and gloom stories.  If you’d like another diversion before going back to your newspaper, perhaps have a think about what else your organisation could do to promote engineering as a potentially attractive career option to girls and women, particularly those making implicit career choices through the subject choices they are making at A-level and university.

 

design, sustainability

Elegance and Sustainability

Steve FItz, Director Technology

By: Steve M.Fitz
Director, Technology

5th September 2019

3 minute read

Home » Engineering

There is a grandfather clock in my house that is nearly 200 years old – it has been in the family for a long time. Its face is lined and the body is a bit shabby (rather like its owner I hear you say) but it keeps good time and announces itself on the hour with a musical bong. Once a week I lift the 7 kg weights approximately 1m to make sure that it continues for the next 7 days. That energy input is equivalent to about one-quarter of the capacity of an AA cell; an impressive exercise in low power design given the amount of ticking and bonging that goes on in a week. In its 200 year life, it would have used about 2400 batteries if that was how it was powered.

Were it to break we would have to get it fixed because it is impossible to contemplate destroying something with such dignity. Luckily the designer had in mind the ability to repair so it has been patched and bodged over the years. If it ever finally comes to the end of its life however, every part of it could be recycled: the wood, the brass the lead weights. In fact, it could be reborn as a whole new clock.

Designing for a changing world

I have been thinking about this clock and the lessons it can teach us in designing future products that face up to the implications of climate change.

Form: Most of the products that we use are so ugly that we cannot wait to sling them the minute their function is superseded by the next model. They have no personality or vitality, they are just there to do a job and we have no emotional attachment to them at all. Looking at it more positively, if a product is to be designed to have a long life it will have to be sufficiently elegant for us to want to have it around for that long. Something that is old (or at least not current) will have to get cool; people who carry around and use stuff that is not the latest will themselves have to get cool. It has happened in the past and it needs to happen now.

Function: The clock is quite demanding. It needs winding weekly and putting right occasionally; wouldn’t it be better to have it powered by electricity and set by radio waves? – wouldn’t that improve the ‘user experience’? Definitely not. One of the attractive things about the clock is its dependence on me to wind it; we have bonded, I and the clock are one machine.

So some questions to ask when designing our next product: How can I make this last 200 years? How can I make this so elegant that someone wants it to last 200 years? How can I make this completely recyclable, even if that means making it more demanding of the user?

There is a grandfather clock in my house that is nearly 200 years old – it has been in the family for a long time. Its face is lined and the body is a bit shabby (rather like its owner I hear you say) but it keeps good time and announces itself on the hour with a musical bong. Once a week I lift the 7 kg weights approximately 1m to make sure that it continues for the next 7 days. That energy input is equivalent to about one-quarter of the capacity of an AA cell; an impressive exercise in low power design given the amount of ticking and bonging that goes on in a week. In its 200 year life, it would have used about 2400 batteries if that was how it was powered.

Were it to break we would have to get it fixed because it is impossible to contemplate destroying something with such dignity. Luckily the designer had in mind the ability to repair so it has been patched and bodged over the years. If it ever finally comes to the end of its life however, every part of it could be recycled: the wood, the brass the lead weights. In fact, it could be reborn as a whole new clock.

Designing for a changing world

I have been thinking about this clock and the lessons it can teach us in designing future products that face up to the implications of climate change.

Form: Most of the products that we use are so ugly that we cannot wait to sling them the minute their function is superseded by the next model. They have no personality or vitality, they are just there to do a job and we have no emotional attachment to them at all. Looking at it more positively, if a product is to be designed to have a long life it will have to be sufficiently elegant for us to want to have it around for that long. Something that is old (or at least not current) will have to get cool; people who carry around and use stuff that is not the latest will themselves have to get cool. It has happened in the past and it needs to happen now.

Function: The clock is quite demanding. It needs winding weekly and putting right occasionally; wouldn’t it be better to have it powered by electricity and set by radio waves? – wouldn’t that improve the ‘user experience’? Definitely not. One of the attractive things about the clock is its dependence on me to wind it; we have bonded, I and the clock are one machine.

So some questions to ask when designing our next product: How can I make this last 200 years? How can I make this so elegant that someone wants it to last 200 years? How can I make this completely recyclable, even if that means making it more demanding of the user?