The Creative Engine partners aim to help organisations embrace innovation and develop new ideas, and to ensure that engineering learners are equipped with the knowledge required to boost their employability opportunities, entrepreneurial capability and ability to become leading engineers, write DCU's K Martins, A Morrissey and JG Carton
Civil

Together, the Creative Engine partners aim to help organisations embrace innovation and develop new ideas, and to ensure that engineering learners are equipped with the necessary knowledge required to boost their employability opportunities, entrepreneurial capability and ability to become leading engineers, write DCU’s K Martins, A Morrissey and JG Carton.

Wider array of cross-disciplinary skills


In contemporary engineering Vocational Education and Training (VET) worldwide, there is a conflict between an ever increasing need for technical knowledge and a growing recognition that young engineers must possess a wider array of cross-disciplinary skills that will allow them to function in real engineering teams, meeting the needs of companies, institutions and society [1].

At the same time, the normal focus of modern engineering teaching and education is on narrow and deep technical specifications, leaving little room in the curriculum for the development of skills such as the ability to think and act creatively and innovatively.

The term engineering is derived from the Latin ingenium, meaning ‘cleverness’ and ingeniare, meaning ‘to contrive’ or ‘to devise’.

Inherently creative and innovative


Thus, it is a fact that much of engineering is inherently creative and innovative. Creativity is the ability to imagine something new – it is an active process and a state of mind; while innovation can be defined as the point where an idea becomes something tangible – a product, a service or a business model – thus creating value.

Engineering is a highly disciplined subject in which the elements of creativity and innovation are often forgotten despite the origins of the discipline.

Therefore, educational initiatives that invest in curriculum modernisation and the necessary knowledge and attitudes for promoting these skills are required, encouraging future engineers to master more than the mathematical and scientific knowledge associated with their discipline [2].

Given this context, there is a need to develop new pedagogical and teacher training material focused on the integration of creativity and innovation into engineering education.

Openly accessible modular training course


This is the main aim and the justification for the Creative Engine project [3], which aims to develop an openly accessible modular training course, focused on the subjects of creativity and innovation, that will encourage future engineers to understand the value and relevance of these competencies within their studies and careers.

This Erasmus+ supported project brings together five partners from four European countries: The Institute of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange (IKE) and South West College (SWC) from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; Tknika from Spain; Thomas More University from Belgium; and Dublin City University (DCU) from the Republic of Ireland.

The Creative Engine project


Creative Engine is a three-year project, and runs from September 2018 to August 2021. The first key objective – a comparative needs analysis to map the creativity and innovation skills required in today’s engineering industry and to inform the design and content of the modular training course – has been completed through the conduction of a survey with 240 engineering companies across the four participating EU countries (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Number of survey responses across the participating countries.

In the Republic of Ireland alone, 49 organisations across 20 counties responded to the survey, which was rolled out between February and March of 2019.

The survey outputs are divided into six key areas. The first area, creativity and ideas management, relates to the idea that creativity is critical to innovation, and thus developing a capability in creativity and especially creative problem solving through a range of tools and techniques has been identified as an important learning outcome.

A mixture of optimistic and pessimistic results was obtained in this key area. The respondents identified a relatively strong commitment to creative problem-solving, with most European companies (75 per cent) believing they encourage it by allocating the appropriate space, time, funding and resources, while 90 per cent of respondents considering they encourage employee participation from different functions when they search for new ideas and solutions.

However, only around half of them assess creative problem-solving as part of an employee’s performance appraisal.

Creative problem-solving


This highlights a lack of understanding of the value in developing and thus, appraising creative problem-solving (CPS) skills as part of employee performance. Much of this understanding can come from a better general understanding of the principles of innovation and the value it has to an organisation.

When it comes to collecting ideas from employees, group meetings appear to be the preferred method, used by almost two-thirds of organisations – but only half of them affirm that the collected ideas are managed through a formal structured process, a figure that drops to around one-third among Irish companies.

Lastly, only three out of five of the companies surveyed use metrics to determine which ideas go forward, with return on investment/value for money and increased customer satisfaction being the most popular metrics among the ones that do.

This shows a gap in knowledge and appreciation of how powerful metrics are in influencing the progression of an idea, and emphasises the need for training on exploring ways in which customer satisfaction can be measured.

Innovation development


One of the essential elements of innovation is having clarity over what innovation means to a company. When members of an organisation have a similar understanding of what it means to be innovative, better and more consistent progress can be made in innovation development, hence deriving increased value for the company.

As a result, the second key area, denominated innovation process and planning, concerns the base line knowledge of what innovation is, the principles of innovation and the value that it represents to businesses of all sizes and cultures.

A key finding from this area is that 75 per cent of European companies – and 83 per cent of Irish companies – admit that their approach to innovation is not structured (Figure 3).

Figure 3: EU and Irish results regarding companies’ approach to innovation.

Free flow of thoughts


Within the innovation process, parts such as ideation may be more unstructured to allow for a more free flow of thoughts; however, if value is to be derived from innovation, a structured approach to innovation is required within an organisation.

In addition, a third of respondents acknowledged that they do not have an innovation plan that is aligned to their business strategy – meaning there is a lack of understanding in the value of linking the two – and three in five affirm that the innovation plan is not communicated across the business and its stakeholders to gain their input and commitment.

The third area, customer analysis, relates to consumer expectations and effective communication between organisations and its internal and external customers.

Developing a skillset in customer insight and discovery to support exploration and investigation of customer needs is crucial to innovation developments – and so is ensuring that innovators understand techniques and methods to identify those needs.

The survey revealed that 54 per cent of European companies admit that their engineering departments do not interact with customers directly to sense and identify their needs and problems.

The result is slightly improved among Irish companies (Figure 4), but it still highlights the need to develop capabilities in effective team management, multi-level and discipline communications and customer needs analysis, aiming to improve customer interactions.

Figure 4: EU and Irish results regarding customer interactions.

Data analytics


When it comes to identifying customer needs, market research is by far the preferred method, employed by 77 per cent of EU companies and 59 per cent of those in the Republic of Ireland, showing an opportunity to develop capabilities in customer needs analysis and market analysis using a range of other tools and techniques, as well as data analytics.

Identifying innovation in the context of current and existing product and service offerings means that the introduction and management of new innovations – such as enhancements and process improvements – needs to be managed in the context of existing constraints, product targets and stakeholder expectations.

Thus, developing a competence in matters related to the management of new innovations into existing portfolios of products and services, business processes and resources is essential in the shaping of an innovator, and has been included as the fourth key area within the study.

New solutions and offerings


The responses to this section gave an insight on the areas of priority where respondents are generating new solutions and offerings.

The majority of companies showed a good level of priority being placed on product and process improvements and new product development, and less priority on new innovations for new markets and new business models.

This emphasises the potential to develop capabilities in the development and management of balanced innovation to support all kinds of innovation, where innovators need to know and manage all stages of the innovation process and contextualise each stage according to the industry they are in.

Furthermore, seven out of 10 organisations believe that they test solutions and offerings on customers and obtain feedback to refine their propositions, with prototyping and piloting being the preferred technique, employed by 61 per cent of those who do test on customers.

Customer analytics accrued only 22 per cent of votes in terms of a chosen method for testing, clearly showing a need to develop capabilities in customer-centric innovation.

Business case development, in the context of project management, analyses how fulfilling the business case for an innovative project will implement the corporate strategy and sustain the competitive advantage of the organisation.

It is a critical as part of the innovation process, and is the fifth key component of the training needs survey.
Perhaps surprisingly, less than a third of respondents consistently use systematic business planning techniques to build the business case for a new solution, with 40 per cent affirming to use these techniques ‘sometimes’ and 28 per cent ‘never’.

New business cases


Irish and EU results were in line with each other (Figure 5), showing a general concern that can be attributed to either a gap in skills or an insufficient need to have to build new business cases.

Figure 5: EU and Irish results regarding business case development.

Lastly, but not least importantly, the key area of communication and engagement concerns the competences in technical subjects related to the design, building and management of platforms and content for innovation communications, the knowledge of frameworks to assess the maturity and pace of innovation, as well as the awareness of methods to promote openness, sharing and communication to support an innovation culture within an organisation.

Within this area, one of the most surprising and pertinent findings of the training needs survey revealed that 80 per cent of respondents believe that their training needs in innovation and creativity are not being completely fulfilled by current provisions.

This result – which achieved an even higher level of dissatisfaction of nearly 90 per cent among Irish companies – presents a good opportunity to all the partners and provides the reason why the outputs of the innovation training modules in the Creative Engine project are so important.

Figure 6: EU and Irish results regarding training needs.

Next steps


Using the results collected through the training needs survey, the Creative Engine team are currently designing a creativity and innovation modular training course, which is based on:

  • Developing interpersonal, communication and problem-solving skills in engineers
  • Applying innovation process to support effective planning and development of innovation within organisations
  • Understanding the importance of aligning innovation and business strategies
  • Evaluating using metrics to support business development and growth

These training materials will be piloted within the partner institutions in the first instance and then will be openly accessible to universities, companies, institutions and individuals who wish to use it.

In tandem with the teaching materials, the partners are developing a teaching training programme to enable the effective delivery of specialised cross-disciplinary engineering education.

Both the student and teacher learning materials will include interactive case studies, podcasts and project-based learning exercises, as well as open access pedagogical resources (such as an online toolkit), building capacity in the engineering sector across Europe.

A number of intangible results are also expected to be realised from the project. For instance, the partners will be upskilled in the modern approaches to engineering education, will have access to a new network of academic and industry contacts in the sector, and will be potentially more welcoming of further cross cultural activities, encouraging EU collaboration and exchanges.

Furthermore, students will benefit from new knowledge gained through the training course, securing employment in an industry where creativity and innovation skills have become a high priority for employers, or even pursuing their own entrepreneurial ventures as they will have gained new competencies.

Together, the Creative Engine partners aim to help organisations embrace innovation and developing new ideas, and to ensure that engineering learners are equipped with the necessary knowledge required to boost their employability opportunities, entrepreneurial capability and ability to become leading engineers.

References


1.) Crawley, Edward F., et al. “The CDIO syllabus v2. 0. An updated statement of goals for engineering education.” Proceedings of 7th international CDIO conference, Copenhagen, Denmark. 2011.
2.) Cropley, David H. “Promoting creativity and innovation in engineering education.” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 9.2 (2015): 161.
3.) Creative Engine official website: www.creative-engine.org

Authors: Anne Morrissey (anne.morrissey@dcu.ie) and James Carton (james.carton@dcu.ie) are principal investigators on the ERASMUS+ funded project Creative Engine, while Kelvin Martins (kelvin.cardozomartins@dcu.ie) is a researcher on the same project. All three are based in the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at Dublin City University.

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Together, the Creative Engine partners aim to help organisations embrace innovation and develop new ideas, and to ensure that engineering learners are equipped with the necessary knowledge required to boost their employability opportunities, entrepreneurial capability and ability to become leading engineers, write DCU's K Martins, A Morrissey and JG...