Engineering Experience – Radio Production as a Design Issue

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Jul 212012

One of the great things about running media courses in a Faculty of Technology, is that you get to look at the delivery of learning opportunities from an engineering perspective. I’m not an engineer myself, my background is humanities and media studies. But I enjoy working with engineers, technologist and designers because they have a very specific way of looking at the world. Rather than seeing the world as an opposing set of political forces, or as a set of signs leading to deeper rooted meanings waiting to be unravelled, engineers tend to see the world for what it is – a space to be occupied, with problems to be solved. There is nothing that an engineer would like to do, in my experience, than to make the occupation of the social and physical space we occupy more tolerable, sustainable and efficient.

Engineering doesn’t just stop at maintaining a degree of comfort. Engineers seem to have a drive to want to occupy more space in more interesting ways. Engineers are transfixed on getting from a-to-b and places that are further away in some degree of comfort. They want to build things that are bigger, stronger and faster than before, and do this in a way that is less resource intensive, more efficient and using a minimum of forces to achieve what they desire. In the twelve years I’ve worked in a Faculty of Technology at De Montfort University I’ve come to know that engineers are chiefly pragmatic and practical people.

Engineers don’t see their mission in grand, metaphysical or historical terms. Instead they look at the myriad of problems that shift and change as we interact with the physical world and attempt to come-up with solutions that can help us master them. The world is full of big and small problems that need constant attention and which require innovative design and technology solutions. The challenge of engineering, so I’ve seen, isn’t to explain things about our lives, but to do things with our lives. Engineering is about using and deploying resources effectively for clearly recognised gains at the end of a pragmatically managed process. A good engineer looks for simple and elegant solutions that keep the chosen process as well integrated as possible. A pragmatic engineer, however, will be prepared to change and adapt these solutions as circumstances require.

Complexity isn’t a problem per-se, but an experienced engineer will work on the assumption that there is always a trade-off between efficiency, technical capability and the minimum requirement that it takes to get a cost-effective solution into general usage. This approach was brilliantly exemplified in the latest edition of Material World on BBC Radio Four. Reporting from the Farnborough Air Show, the focus was on how airports are looked at as a design and engineering problem. The complexity of moving physical objects, information, power and people through a building in a rapid yet seamless flow was brought to life in vivid terms.

Ove Arup, the British engineering firm that builds airports around the world, talked through their approach to modern airport design. From heating and lighting, to check-in and immigration; from shopping and retail, to noise management and acoustics. What was interesting was the focus that was given to the experience of the passenger. This is ‘experience engineering’ on a grand scale. Not content with merely bolting-on the solutions to an otherwise already established systems approach, the engineers at Ove Arup want to start from the ground-up, making all the technological interventions that they manage fundamentally integrated into the infrastructure of the airport experience itself.

This means that Ove Arup engineers have to analyse data about the movement of people, airplanes, luggage, provisions, power, fuel and many more products and services that are the blood in a massive circulation and respiratory system. At the same time the engineers have to model and plan for different eventualities. How will the designs that they advocate cope in different circumstances? What happens if there is a terrorist incident? What happens in poor weather? How do you make ordinary passengers feel as comfortable as visiting dignitaries? How can the retail operations capture passengers for longer so that they spend more money?

From a purely systems point of view many of these problems can be solved quite easily, but the challenge is to make the airport feel human, intimate and exciting. This architectural approach to design has to give a sense of progress and advancement. The acoustic design has to maintain the balance between isolation and comfort in the passenger areas, and a sense of being within the centre of a major international transport hub. Likewise, security has to be efficient yet unobtrusive. All of which mean that the engineers, designers and architects are facing significant design challenges in their own right, at each stage of the process, and in the context of the expectations of the clients.

The Material World gave a well balanced sense of wonder at the smart solutions that contemporary engineers are dealing with and the need to be sceptical that these solutions are there to serve not only the business operation but not the people who use these airports. The fact that people can so confidently ‘engineer experience’ in this way is a testament to the future, and is something that I will consider worth developing in whatever field I find myself working. Courses in Creative Media Technology can definitely benefit from the approach I’m sure.

Personal Reflection on the DMU@Radio Graduation 2012

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Jul 202012

DMU Technology Graduates 2012

Yesterday was the first De Montfort University Graduation Ceremony that I’ve been to at the Curve Theatre in Leicester. It was a great opportunity to celebrate the achievements and commitment of the graduates from the Faculty of Technology. The venue was packed and the theatrical nature of the event was great. There was a real sense of occasion and a willingness to encourage the graduates and their families to show their support for one another. This wasn’t stuffy in any way. It was easy to follow, and each student got their opportunity to shake the hand of the Pro-Vice Chancellor, Professor Andy Downton. It was clearly well designed to lay down a marker showing the progression of a whole group of talented and enthusiastic people who are no longer students, but graduates.


Simon Walsh Gowned-UP

It’s always a good opportunity to spend time with colleagues, who like me seem to enjoy the dressing-up.

Afterwards, Simon Walsh had organised a chance for a drink with some of our graduates and their families in the Font Bar, which is just on the DMU campus. In years gone past the campus was always empty during graduation week, but now that the DMU car parks are being used by the graduates and their families, it is great to see so many people about in their robes and their suits. The campus really feels alive for graduation.

So having a drink gave Simon and I an opportunity to catch-up, connect with people we’d heard about but never met. It was great to see so many people relaxing and chatting, and it gave me a good chance to talk to the parents, siblings, grandparents and friends of the students I’ve been working with for the last three or four years. It’s only when we sat and chatted like this that I felt the force of the pride and backing that our students have received from their families. Everyone who I spoke with was really proud of the personal achievements of everyone, the chances that they had, and the memories they are moving onward with.


Ryan Reflecting on Three Years

Indeed, it made me realise how much I and my colleagues have to raise our game in the future and deliver an even better service. One that goes beyond the traditional approach to learning, skills and personal development and sees each individual as someone with potential and a fair chance to do well in life based on merit. What I realised when I was sat chatting is that it is all about promoting a sense of community, identity and belonging. Our students and their families really care and have a strong sense of esteem tied with what they do.

It’s great to be able to share that pride and to show in return how proud I’ve been of the work that our students have done. It’s not an even road, and we do have zig-zags along the way, but I can really say that the graduates from BSc Radio Production & Technology are clearly stepping up to the mark. The focus for the future that this group of gradates is now concentrating on is about finding meaningful work in the media industry. The growing sense of confidence and entitlement that this is even possible, and not just a vague dream, is humbling. It’s been my dream for some years now that our graduates are able to easily make these first steps in to a life that they will find rewarding, and it’s great to see it coming on in such a unified way.


Elle’s Award for Best Media Technology Project

The group mindset of these graduates is that they believe they are capable and entitled to work as professionals in the media industries. The level of professionalism and engagement, based on a mindset that is about innovation and discovery is really exciting – and these guys have it. This batch of graduates clearly get the idea that they have defined and sought after skills that will enable them to produce compelling and interesting radio and audio content. At the same time they are able to do this with a strong grasp of the process and practical realities of the media professions. They know that they have to be entrepreneurial, and they know that the have to embrace new technology, new ways of working and new ways of thinking in order to be successful.

I’m certain that the foundation of skills and knowledge that they have acquired during their time at DMU will help to take them on a journey that will be very different from many gradates of other media courses. When I was asked what the job prospects are like for these graduates, I can honestly reply that I think they are very strong – even in the midst of a recession. This is a generation who are going to figure things out their own way, and who only need the space, encouragement and support to do so. Of course, there is no automatic stepping-stone into the media industries, but if you want a clear example of graduates who are capable of getting meaningful and rewarding jobs, then this is a year to look at.


Sam Harris Celebrating

Both Simon, myself and my colleagues in the Faculty of Technology don’t want the journey through DMU for these graduates to end at this point. W are very keen to keep in contact. We could never do this easily before, in the direct way, but now it’s possible and easy with Facebook and other forms of social media. We definitely need to be getting on with making plans for some alumni events. Then I’m very keen to organise more family and supporters events as well. Graduation has proven to be a great opportunity to talk with so many people and hear them express their pride in what they have achieved and their believe and confidence as they face the new discoveries of the future.