Dyson himself graduated from RCA in 1969.

Dyson himself graduated from RCA in 1969.

Lumberlock, a solution to fit square pegs into round holes.

Robofold, which uses industrial robots to make curved folds.

Ikawa, a computer-controlled coffee roaster.

KwickScreen, for adding privacy to shared hospital rooms.

LooWatt, a waterless toilet that generates electricity.

The building holds a ground-level art gallery for student exhibitions.

The edge of the building, overlooking the street. Dyson awards final-year students at the RCA $50,000 to prototype promising projects.

The new building anchors the new RCA Battersea campus.

The building includes space for up to 40 student-led startups.

Co.Design

Why James Dyson Invested $8,000,000 In A Student Incubator

He believes that hardware engineers, not computer scientists, hold the keys to a better future.

In the age of apps, James Dyson--the world’s most famous vacuum cleaner salesman--has doubled down on building things. At his alma mater, London’s Royal College of Art, he recently invested several million pounds to construct the new Dyson Building, an incubator where RCA design and engineering graduates will incubate 40 new products--physical inventions, rather than lines of code powering software and websites.

Team plays with an Ikawa, a computer-controlled coffee roaster.

“Talented young minds want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page. But with the world abuzz with digital, we are losing sight of real engineering,” Dyson tells Co.Design. “Hardware is profitable. Don’t be fooled, Apple’s success as a technology company is built on hardware. The current fixation with digital is misplaced. Long-term it is unlikely to generate jobs, growth, and exports. Instead, we need to encourage more young engineers to commercialize their technologies.”

Dyson’s incubator may be on a school’s campus, but it will function largely like any startup incubator you know. Small teams can hone their ideas in working space--with access to corporate meeting rooms and creative rapid prototyping machines--all while connecting with industry mentors and angel investors to kick off their new businesses. (Neither Dyson nor the RCA take a cut of the incubator products, but independent investors may.)

Robofold, which uses industrial robots to make curved folds.

At the moment, these products are just that--traditional, physical inventions that will go on the market. LooWatt is a waterless toilet system that generates biogas in developing communities. KwickScreen is a retractable room divider to make shared hospital rooms more private. Lumberlock is, perhaps, the most designer-centric idea of the bunch. It’s a rounded plug with a square center, enabling humanity to, at last, fit a square peg into a round hole (in construction). As different as these inventions may be, they all share a distinct overtone of Dyson-ness, that design-minded pitch you could imagine selling you on a product better than whatever you’d been using for years. But he obviously realizes the stakes are larger than mere clean carpeting.

“The world needs the next generation of engineers to solve the problems of energy supply, food shortages, and infrastructure building,” Dyson says. “We need to do more to inspire them.”

It’s easy to see his point. As empowering as Facebook may be for communication and Google may be for data management, software simply cannot take the place of refrigeration to keep vaccines cold, toilets to keep water systems sanitary, green energy solutions to keep the lights on, and countless other, yet-imagined objects that can improve the conditions of the world around us.

Besides, just as Dyson has himself proven, there’s still plenty of money in good old physical products.

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11 Comments

  • Guest

    Applaud the sentiment but feel that the separation of the physical and the digital is not particularly helpful.  Also think that a focus on products is flawed...we need to design new services and systems not just the next new widget. Focus should be on how hardware and software can combine to create disruptive change in the energy system and food system etc.
    Really don't agree that the right software cannot be hugely disruptive.Just look what it has done to value chains in the music industry and
    publishing. Great change is coming that will be at least in part driven by great software - we can create software that allow people to share cars
    rather than buy them etc.

  • David Ingledow

    I believe that digital designers need to take more from physical artefacts.  In that way, I don't mean the skeuomorphic look of interface, or the interaction methods of an on-screen app, but I mean they should learn from physical interaction and product design.

    The article has some merit in saying that apps can't change the world, which I think is reasonably true; however, I believe that it is the combination of both physical products and using beautiful and tangible interaction of software to change the world.

  • Michael Aldridge

    You go Mr Dyson... the world need more people and thinkers like you. I particularly like the line "Apple was built on products not technology". Completely agree!

  • waooneilio

    hear, hear, finally a vote for the material. mark my words, in particular, mechanical devices will stage a comeback as culling energy becomes too expensive = destructive. we have dropped so much of our know-how for digital vulnerability. did i mention the rest of the world that doesn't have wall sockets and probably won't be getting any? i'm not a steam punk, but, give the world an ecological (sorry, couldn't think of anything more trendy) lever and we can... 
    virtual tp? that's what i call the short-lived bubble money generated by many a web enterprise.

  • Scot Herbst

    Nicely done.  Love the simple fact that investing in the process of physical product innovation, beginning w/ universities, is a smart strategy.  Anxious to start seeing what they incubate.  We could use more of that spirit here in US schools...per capita the UK is far more progressive in their focus on product design/innovation throughout the education system.    

  • Gideon Erasmus

    Dyson is spot on. Sooner rather than later the world will realise that virtual toilet paper really is utterly useless!

  • Michael Aldridge

    haha fantastic... I am not an Apple fan but I respect what they are doing for design. Through them other big players are slowly realising that design is profitable!

  • Hugh Knowles

    Great investment but see the separation of 'physical inventions, rather than lines of code' as rather misleading and unhelpful. Think that Apple's success is build on software and hardware. Imagine that most of the projects coming out of this will have been built or enabled with software. Fine to make a distinction between shallow value software projects but many in the digital space see the opportunity to use software (and hardware) to create radical and disruptive change. See emergent Cleanweb manifesto (www.cleanweb.org.uk/manifesto..... After all the internet has clearly demonstrated its potential to reshape business models.

    Also we need to move away from focus on product designers to designers who understand systems and systems change. A new widget is all very well but really we need to design new food systems, new water systems and new energy systems.

  • amuseamuse

    Agreed with all of the above. And at a more abstract level, I think there's probably a great deal to be learned in the industrial design world from code thinking, and vice versa. There's an interface to everything.

  • SMGKnowledge

    There is more to life than software.
    There are good paying jobs in the physical creation (and marketing) of needed products.
    We must continue to create physical things.
    We must continue to engineer until we can not only make a beautiful, elegant product but make it, as well, cost-competitively in our home countries.
    We must manufacture them (using creativity and fantasy) in our home countries to preserve the West's standard of living.
    Exactly what the late Nicolas Hayek said: in this interview - Why we must manufacture. http://youtu.be/Z8pe4lmXZyA