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.
"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.)
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.