History shows: Innovation requires a recipe

Even before the science of combustion was fully understood, the earliest engineers empirically learned how to control fire. This innovation, some 500,000 years ago, became an essential basis for human advancement, but today it is also the culprit for global climate change. Innovation leads to disruptive change, which brings good and bad.

Just over 15,000 years ago, agricultural engineers began to perfect farming techniques, naval engineers built ships about 6,000 years ago and soon after transportation engineers invented the wheel and vehicles.

Materials engineers advanced metallurgy by first using copper and silver, and later tin to produce bronze, leading to the subsequent use of iron and the development of steel about 2,500 years ago.

These technical innovations, along with the use of water power, facilitated early civilizations. If that innovation history were absent, it is unlikely that we would be reading this material today on our various devices.

All of these early engineering innovations would have come to naught had humans not first learned to use language, write reports, calculate arithmetic and develop an alphabet. Hence, the technical advances that moved civilization forward did so because they were preceded by a human understanding of how to trade, and what was fair and just, both of which had to be codified into legal systems.

There is a feedback between engineering and social innovations. For instance, paper and, later, movable type were the necessary engineering innovations required to advance social and business innovations that improved trade and law.

Innovations advance humanity when they are converted into social or business value. But how does this become possible?

The entrepreneur and innovator Sam Altman is reported as saying that the chances of an innovation becoming a sustained reality are “something like Idea times Product times Execution times Team times Luck, where Luck is a random number between zero and ten thousand.”

How can we intentionally generate “Luck”, that random number that we hope is far removed from zero and is very close to ten thousand?

The economist Joseph Schumpeter taught us that innovation leads to prosperity when we are open to newness. Then, it becomes a routine activity. We consequently develop a culture in which we support and acclaim pioneers.

This is what we’re trying to do through McMaster Engineering. From our academic programs to an extracurricular innovation ecosystem, we are laser focussed on improving the value that our graduates bring to society.

We encourage our graduates, as best as they can, to focus on openness, be unafraid of being pioneers and become among the first to ward off the bad associated with disruptive change. They are educated to recognize that engineers alone will not be able to change the world. We teach our students that diversity of thought and disciplines matters.

McMaster Engineering has a long history of developing and delivering interdisciplinary programs, such as the over 40-year old Engineering and Management program, which educates engineers about business. Likewise, Engineering and Society explores the human side of engineering. The new Engineering and Biomedical program transforms healthcare challenges into a new learning experience for students. Our Innovation and Society living learning community fosters interdisciplinary relationships that help our engineering students thrive.

We are educational innovators because we aspire to educate engaged citizen scholars who will transform our world.

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