Dredging up some old ideas / by Dan

Three essays I'd pretty much forgotten about, written for courses at Cambridge during my Master's in Technology Policy, linked here for no reason in particular: Peer Treasure: how firms outside the software industry can use open source thinking How can we strengthen links between entrepreneurial companies and entrepreneurial universities in the UK? Motor vehicles in the developing world: options for sustainability* [all PDFs]

Reading them again now, I'm struck by a) how much terminology and how many concepts I've since forgotten through lack of use, b) how I didn't really know what I was going to go on to do afterwards, c) how barely I even scratched the surface of the subjects, and d) how naïve I was about academia and how it worked (still am, in fact).

As a bonus, here's a note-form list of possible dissertation subjects I considered at Cambridge before settling on architectures of control in consumer product design [PDF] (which ultimately led to this site, and three years later to starting a PhD at Brunel, and where I am now). The possible subjects are quite an odd mixture of obsessions and paranoia.

18/11/2004 Possible dissertations, linking technology & policy

This is a list of some ideas I have for possible dissertations for my MPhil (Technology Policy). The list may be added to, over the next few weeks. Putting it on the internet is more of an experiment to see if anyone has any apposite comments (or indeed if anyone finds it). It will also lead to some interesting search results in Google.

Please note: some of these opinions/suggestions are very controversial. It doesn’t mean I agree with them. And certainly Cambridge University would not want to be associated with any of the ideas.

1) The Powerpoint Effect: What effects has the Powerpoint style of corporate presentation and communication had on business thinking, planning and culture? Example: Columbia disaster (would be following Edward Tufte’s work – how could I extend it?)

2) To what extent have trivial political issues affected the design, engineering & manufacturing of products? (i.e. not environmental or genuine social issues, but ones related to pleasing a particular area – e.g. Hillman Imp at Linwood – or particular lobby group or party. Example, space shuttle solid fuel segments made in Utah for political reasons, led to Challenger disaster)

3) Related to 2: Political Correctness in product design. Does it really exist? Is it a problem? Or is the whole idea of providing what most customers want (in a very competitive market) entirely immune to the ‘PC’ label? i.e. Benthamite utilitarianism rather than any hidden agenda? Example: clear sticking plasters rather than ‘skin colour’ pink – this may be politically correct, but it does not have the potential to offend or inconvenience anyone. Whatever your skin colour, a clear plaster is fine. But if all aeroplane seats were made extra-wide in case a very fat person needed to travel, and the capacity of the plane was therefore reduced substantially, leading to higher fares for everyone, is this a case of political correctness in design rather than expediency/utilitarianism?

4) To what extent does ‘productisation’ of high-risk or experimental ventures (shuttle, APT?) lead governments and the public to take a less tolerant attitude to failure? i.e. by talking up new science advances and putting everything in a commercial context, have we blurred the lines between what should be regarded as safe, established consumer products and what are much less resolved or ‘packaged’?

5) What is the UK’s excuse? Why have we consistently failed to develop technology to the extent of US or Japan? Is there anything we can do? Are we doomed? Is it attitude? Are we ahead, i.e. that we’ve already passed our peak while others still have to reach theirs?

6) To what extent has the British taxpayer (through privatisation of nationalised industries) funded multinational companies’ profits? e.g. aero engines, Land Rover, K-series, APT (Pendolino)

7) Can the British motor industry survive?

8 ) Do consumers treat ‘British’ technology differently to that perceived to be ‘from’ other countries? National ‘design’ styles are recognised but are there evident ‘technology’ styles?

9) Full circle: do we need Colleges of Advanced Technology again?

10) The future of insurance in an increasingly uncertain world: a case for nationalisation?

11) Non-profit technology companies: could they facilitate large-scale shifts in consumer behaviour towards more sustainable, environmentally sensitive products by undercutting conventional competition? Where could the money come from?

12) How will the future direction of environmental and energy technology policy affect consumer products?

13) How will the future direction of intellectual property policy affect consumer products?

14) How has the evolution of consumer products affected technology policy, and how will it do so in the future?

15) Related to 9: Private universities – should the UK go down this route? What about ‘technology’ universities sponsored or run by major technology companies?

16) Narrow disciplines in academia: what advances have we lost because of them?

17) Related to 16: can we create a new a Renaissance Man (and Woman) through science education?

18) Are computer-managed design & development systems (PLM, etc.) guilty of destroying actual innovation? Has all real innovation been outsourced/isolated from the real development process?

19) Are meaningless business terminology and diagrams destroying innovation in product and new technology development? Are we over-analysing? (Use examples of actual companies’ development models – if they need them!)

20) Related to 5: What’s the real reason we fail at entrepreneurship in the UK? Will any of these initiatives be of any use at all? What can we do to win?

21) Should the UN decide on a ‘global future of Mankind’ strategy/policy/mission statement, esp. with regard to technology?

22) Engineering & physical/chemical science degree applications are falling. How can we make them attractive without diluting them? Or should we be making them attractive at all?

23) Related to 22: Has the public’s understanding of science decreased? Is this due to dumbing down of education?

24) UK plc: should we actually create it?

25) Related to 24 and 11: should we specifically seek to form (ultimately) profit-seeking nationalised companies, especially in high-technology sectors, to invest public money in creating something that will eventually pay back enormously? e.g. the French government owns EDF, which operates worldwide

26) By presenting the government as, increasingly, a ‘nanny state’ which knows what’s best for all of us, have we unwittingly created a generation which believes the government to have all the answers, in philosophy and morality as well as science and technology? By ‘giving’ people human ‘rights’, have government / the UN somehow, perceivably, set themselves up in almost a ‘Creator’ rôle? Example: Karl Pilkington evolution discussion, Xfm

27) Related to 26: Human rights or human responsibilities?

28) If we remove the ‘from each according to his means, to each according to his needs’ ethos, would nationalised industries have been more successful in the UK?

29) Edward de Bono’s ‘multiple governments’ competitive market idea. I think it may be in ‘Po: Beyond Yes & No”. Within a country, there would be multiple ‘governments’ – providing different levels of service in return for different tax levels. Could it ever work, even in limited form? Are private education and healthcare a very limited implementation of this already? Would government have to be separated from ‘the law’ to make any of this possible?


*I revised this last paper a bit during the short, speculative life of Lockton Motor Ltd (hence the logos) - a story I'm sure I'll get round to telling one day.