Inspired Design: Young Inventors Solve Old Problems in New Ways

02/14/2012 11:42 am ET | Updated May 04, 2012

The general perception of engineers is a warped one. We are the car mechanics fixing the oil leak. Or, if we're lucky, a white coated scientist tucked away in a dusty laboratory. Never adventurers. Never explorers. And definitely not daredevils. It's not surprising then that too few young people stumble across the profession.

Sure, the terrain might be a solar panel or a circuit board, but these can be as lofty and as perilous as a mountain range. Engineers and inventors see the world differently. They want to change it, to make it better. They see what lies ahead, not only what has come before. They toss aside convention, almost stubbornly so.

My foundation adopts the same principles. We run a competition that invites university students to design something that solves a problem. Be clever. Be brave. And don't be afraid to think well off the grid. Being original is difficult in a day and age where so much has already come before. But often simple observations can inspire leaps in understanding.

In designing a vacuum that didn't choke on dust, I looked to a sawmill. I saw centrifugal force being used to separate dirt and wondered - could the same principle be used on a smaller scale? This was the very moment that set me on a journey to reinvent the vacuum cleaner.

Success in the James Dyson Award is often as a result of this same thought process. Last year's winner addressed the issue of irrigating crops in arid climates. Irrigation practices have been around for thousands of years. They've surely been honed, but still rely upon a principally inefficient delivery system.

Edward Linacre had an idea. Recognizing that life existed in dry climates despite a startling lack of water, he examined how that life was able to sustain itself. In a question about crop irrigation, he looked to evolution for an answer. He looked to a beetle.

The Namib beetle is an ingenious species, living in one of the driest places on earth. With half an inch of rain per year, the beetle survives by drinking the dew it collects on the hydrophilic skin of its back in the early mornings.

Edward made the link. He recognized that even the driest air contains water molecules which can be extracted by lowering the air's temperature to the point of condensation. His invention, AirDrop, pumps air through a network of underground pipes, to cool it to the point at which the water condenses. Delivering water directly to the roots of plants.

Inspiration needn't be as far removed as a beetle. Existing technology often inspires new technology. A researcher with the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology was using a smartphone that contained a proximity sensor to turn the display off and on. He wondered if the same technology could be applied to headphones to help them work better.

By adding a proximity sensor in the ear bud, his invention detects the angle in which it is placed in the ear, sensing if it is on the right or left side. Audio levels are adjusted accordingly to ensure the best sound is produced. Ultimately a very simple application of an existing technology - but an ingenious one nonetheless.

Brilliant thinking doesn't always result in success. Recently, a young inventor, Aiden Dwyer, shook up the scientific world with a radically new look at solar power. While out walking one day, he became fascinated about why the leaves on trees tangle in a seemingly random way. Through research he found that trees grow their leaves in a pattern laid out by the Fibonacci Sequence.

The leaves on trees are designed to capture energy from the sun. Inspired by his discovery, Aiden suggested that solar panels arranged like the leaves on trees might be a more efficient way of capturing solar energy.

He built a model and tested it in his back yard. Initially praised for his idea, he was soon denounced by critics who said it just wouldn't work. Perhaps not, but that's beside the point. Aiden didn't look to solar panels to solve the problems of solar panels. He was inventive enough to harness the design of nature in a completely novel application.

Not yet of age for the Dyson design competition, Aiden's spirit of invention is ageless. Young people are free of the inhibitions of years of experience. And with success or failure, their default is to try something new.

In the face of increasingly complex problems, we must encourage young people to take on the challenge of solving them. Alternative energy, transportation, or even a household appliance. The competition is open for entries and we can't wait to see this year's inspired solutions.

The James Dyson Award is currently accepting entries to the 2012 competition. To enter or to learn more, please visit