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Thoughts from the IET President: Unpacking horizontal innovation

BRE’s Chief Scientist and current President of the Institution of Enginneering and Technologies Jeremy Watson talks about his 2017 presidential priorities including diversity and inclusivity, horizontal innovation and re-inventing the learned society.

So – what do we mean by Horizontal Innovation (HI)?

People will have different interpretations, but for me HI has a number of aspects; taking ideas and engineering solutions that work in one application into another, thinking about analogies, and creating innovative teams that are made up of various engineering (and maybe non-engineering) disciplines. I saw plenty of good examples when I worked for Edwards and Arup.

This raises the question of the distinction between Multidisciplinarity, Cross-Disciplinarity and Interdisciplinarity. There’s a difference between the separate deployment of specialist disciplines into a project, and teams trained in discipline-hopping that actively seek to co-create at all stages in a project, from specification to test. Then again, there are interdisciplinary engineers who specialise in joining up knowledge and understanding to create innovation. For them, key knowledge areas might include Systems Engineering, Cybernetics and Biomimetics. The IET is actively developing tools and membership propositions that promote these ways of working.

So what are the benefits of Horizontal Innovation? It promotes the creation of new products, services and processes, particularly by way of analogies and cross-overs of technologies and methods between application sectors. An example previously reported by the IET is the application of Formula 1 racing car driver protection ‘cages’ to the design of systems for safely transporting infants by ambulance. Another, using analogies between biological and engineering systems – a Biomimetic example – is the re-use of the branching structure of veins in a leaf to the design of electrodes in a fuel cell, maximising the availability of fresh fuel and oxidant to the reaction surfaces. These innovations require ‘Creative Conversations’ between experts from different (sometimes very different) expertise areas. The IET provides the space and tools to do this.

Just last week the IET and the Manufacturing Technology Centre announced Warwickshire-based SME, 3P Innovation, as the winner of its Horizontal Innovation initiative to find a SME whose technology could be adapted and commercialised to solve a real-life healthcare issue.

3P Innovation was working on a novel catheter when the team realised that a small moulded valve, used by other clients in food dispensers, could be repurposed to solve the problem of catheter associated urinary tract infections – they will now receive £35,000 in funding.

This really is a truly innovative solution to a real world health issue and has the potential to bring huge benefits to our healthcare system by reducing infection rates and fatalities.

If you agree that Horizontal Innovation is a good thing to do and encourage, what sort of organisational structures promote it?

There are many, but they have some common features:

  • Multidisciplinary teams, including some experts in cross-disciplinary working
  • Senior management support, permitting the investment of money and time – space to think
  • Openness – to ideas from outside the organisation – and the organisation’s own new ideas
  • A fostered culture of enquiry and enthusiasm within development teams.

Bringing new ideas into R&D teams by workshopping and roadmapping with university researchers from a variety of disciplines can also help – and of course, encouraging staff to engage with the IET, its Knowledge Services and events, to inform and broaden interdisciplinary thinking.


This blog was initially posted on the IET website.