Saturday, 18 June 2011

What's new? - Innovation, of course: An update from Milan by Robert Dennis...

A thermal head being used to create new 
CPUs and chipsets. (Photo: Wikimedia)

OK, time for another update. I have been doing a lot more communications-related work of late (recently) as well as teaching. And as I discussed in my last update, it’s always a challenge keeping up with clients and students who work in highly-specialised fields.

I have been teaching at a company that specialises in designing trains – more specifically, the electrical and pneumatic plant on the underside of the carriage. They work to incredibly tight specifications using 3D graphics programs. As with most other industries there are hundreds of acronyms to get used to (e.g. TCMS (Train Control and Monitoring System and HVAC (HeatingVentilating, and Air Conditioning), as well as a raft (a lot) of engineering and technical terms, such as “bogie”, the wheeled wagon or trolley the carriage sits on. (Confusingly this is known as a “truck” in the US.) But, of course, they also need the day-to-day stuff: meetings, presentations and phone calls, etc.

Lessons are continuing at the biopharma company I teach at. I am always amazed by the deluge (flood, inondazione) of new research that is constantly being undertaken worldwide and the therapies that are being developed. And even for the experts working in the medical and pharmaceutical fields, staying up to date is a constant but fascinating battle.

On the communications side, I was in Cambridge in April, where I visited Bletchley Park, Britain’s wartime top-secret codebreaking facility, where the world’s first programmable computer (Colossus) was built to crack the codes of the German High Command. I watched a video being specially filmed for the social media project I am involved in with OpenKnowledge srl. Again, it was fascinating chatting with scientists working at the cutting edge of technological research (in this case, advanced encryption techniques that exploit the spin effects of electrons).

I have also been spending time with a design firm that specialises in finding solutions relating to structural packaging (e.g. plastic containers for household detergents). This kind of industrial design marries engineering with aesthetics and it’s great to see how an idea goes from a pencil sketch to a rendered 2D image to a 3D prototype literally printed out using stereolithography. I'm really looking forward to developing some great communications projects with these guys!

If I had to pick one theme that unites the various industries I have been teaching people from and working with recently, it would be: innovation. Finding answers to challenging questions in the fields of pharmaceuticals, computer technology or industrial design requires an astonishing amount of insight, trial and error and perseverance. One aspect of what might be termed the “innovation industries” is the amount of research and effort that just gets discarded. The number of drafts that are scrapped or versions that are superseded can at times seem soul-destroying – but, of course, it’s all absolutely necessary as the goal is to find 100% workable solutions. (Interestingly, in the case of the biopharma industry, advances in genetics and computing are allowing compounds that have been thrown on the scrap-heap to be reinvestigated and possibly salvaged as new treatments. This is especially important where huge sums of money have been invested in compounds whose patents have expired: they can be given a new – commercial – lease of life.)

While older manufacturing industries decline in the West – and as Asian economies increasingly take over the “heavy lifting” – the need for ever-greater innovation can only increase. Of course this requires massive amounts of investment, not only from the industries themselves, but also from society as a whole in order to create highly-educated and creative workers able to come up with (think of / imagine) the next wave of solutions and technologies that will add value and drive the economy. Since I live here in Italy I can appreciate the importance placed on education (particularly higher education) in this country. Although at times it can seem that Italians tend to have a much more theoretical approach when compared with their more pragmatic Anglo-Saxon counterparts, you can really appreciate the value of the rounded (and often simply longer) education they receive – especially when it comes to applying creative brain-power to a problem.

I am really looking forward to extending and deepening my contacts with the individuals and businesses I am working with here in Milan. The next few months will also be an exciting time for everyone involved with the Milan Business English Network – we are planning a series of events and initiatives for the autumn. 
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