What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘”inventor”? Blame pop culture if you picture an Einstein-looking person in a lab-coat who make things explode. Things can explode sometimes, but modern-day inventors prefer them to solve real-life problems.
And James Dyson Award (JDA) is searching for the world’s next great inventors. Organised by the James Dyson Foundation, the JDA challenges undergraduates and recent graduates of engineering and design, to invent something that solves a problem.
We chatted with Yvonne Tan, Dyson’s Digital Motor Engineering Manager, Singapore and one of the jurors of JDA, to find out more.
What’s your definition of an inventor today?
An inventor is much more than just someone who creates or designs things. To be an inventor is be a problem-solver – someone who applies their knowledge in design and engineering to solve everyday problems.
Why does the world need inventors?
The world will always need inventors for one simple reason – there’ll always be problems waiting to be solved!
Today, we’re going through all manners of challenges at both a national and international level. The rampant use of single-use plastics and the resulting environmental pollution is a problem of international concern. At a more local and relatable level, Singapore is facing a rapidly aging population.
Most immediately, the world is now going through one of its greatest challenges in decades. The opportunities are vast in areas such as clean energy, healthcare, agriculture, mobility, inclusive design – just to name a few.
Can you share some of the greatest ideas and products that have come out from the James Dyson Award that you think is especially relevant in our covid-ravaged world today?
This is a difficult one as I’ve seen many great ideas and inventions come out of the James Dyson Award. I will however share two that come to mind.
The first is the Self-sanitising door handle, which made it to shortlist of top 20 international entries just last year. As the name suggests, it is a door handle that is capable of sanitising itself through the use of advanced photocatalytic and blacklight technology.
The pair of students from The Chinese University were struck by the rapid spread of SARS in Hong Kong back in 2003, and decided to come up with an invention that could help limit the transmission of infections through public common spaces. Personally, I like the design because it is simple, effective, and automated.
The second that comes to mind is last year’s Singapore National Winner of the James Dyson Award, Wheelson. The students from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) noticed that people on campus struggling to keep their balance while carrying their groceries on their bicycles. This would increase the chances of falls, or the risk of accidents with pedestrians and vehicles. They were then inspired to come up with a device that made it safer and easier for people to transport goods via bicycle.
What Wheelson essentially is, is a versatile attachment with storage units that goes onto the rear end of a bicycle. Because of the low centre of gravity – it allows the use to maintain a much more stable position when riding. What I find really cool about it is that it can be detached, and used as a grocery shopping cart. Ingenious.
Today, with everyone staying at home, more people than ever are now relying on food and grocery delivery services to get their weekly dose of essentials. This invention could not have come at a better time.
How do you think the pandemic will spur inventors to come up with new ways of living?
It will certainly inspire a new generation of inventors to think about can be done to help the world better respond to, or prepare for future pandemics.
We have seen many interesting, inspiring, and potentially disruptive projects on the realm of healthcare. Some look at innovative diagnostic tests, others take aim at improving the well-being of patients and medical professionals, and some even look at empowering the learning of medical students!
I’d absolutely encourage students to look at how the ongoing pandemic is unfolding across the world, where the challenges lie, and how they can come up with ingenious solutions to help people should we find ourselves in a similar situation.
Healthcare is just one of the many areas to look at of course – we’d encourage inventors to look at problems from all realms.
You are an engineer with many hats – what do you think are some of the challenges engineers would face when attempting to participate in a competition like this?
The process of invention is never easy. I think the number one thing that engineers, designers and inventors must prepare to face is failure. It is natural in the iterative design journey to experience failure. In fact, I highly encourage it!
Failure serves to being you one step closer to the solution. It is how you learn what isn’t working, so you can try and find a way around it.
When students share their struggles with me, I remind them of two things. The first is that encountering a really difficult problem is a reflection of the fact that they are genuinely trying to find a different and better way. Sticking to conventional approaches is always easy, but you’re not going to arrive at something that performs radically better. This serves to remind them of the purpose of what they’re doing, and the positive and significant impact their invention could have on peoples’ lives.
The second is to persevere. It’s a nice story to tell, but many of the world’s greatest inventions weren’t discovered by chance or a “Eureka” moment. More often than not, it’s the result of long hours, months, and even years of commitment to engineering and testing – iteration after iteration. Just look at James Dyson’s journey in inventing the world’s first bag-less vacuum cleaner as an example. It took him 5,127 prototypes (that’s 5,126 failures!) before he was finally satisfied with his solution.
What are your expectations of the local participants this year?
I try to keep an open mind as far as possible when it comes to looking at students ideas. It is important that inventors feel a connection to the problem that they’re solving – as it is what usually spurs them on to come up with something genuinely meaningful and impactful.
I am however pleased to see students are applying their ingenuity in problems that are highly relevant and important today – as I’ve shared earlier. Sustainability in particular is something that needs to cut across everything we do or come up with today.
I’m also delighted to see more female inventors stepping up to the challenge and pioneering some really amazing inventions that have the potential to make such a positive change to the world.
Just look at Lucy Hughes who won the International Award last year as an example – MarinaTex is truly ingenious because it channels existing waste streams to come up with something positive and impactful!
What are some of the unique challenges Singapore has that need help from inventors?
Personally, I feel strongly about Singapore’s rapidly aging population. This comes from my own personal experience of caring for my aging parents.
Monitoring the daily intake of medication in the elderly, being able to keep a watchful eye on them while away, ensuring safeguards are in place should they encounter any mishaps, improving their mobility if they’re physically infirm, ensuring their mental health and well-being are well looked after – these are just some of the areas which I think are ripe for solutions.
To me, any kind of support in these areas would also have run-off benefits on caregivers. The use of technology and automation can go a long way in helping care givers do a better job, and reduce the risk of care-giver burnout.
There are other areas students can consider, but I do wish to avoid sounding too prescriptive! I’d just like to close with an open question to all the budding inventors, designers and inventors out there: What problem will you solve today?