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Sir James Dyson Interview: The UK has been left behind in technology and innovation

| Alamy

7 min read

From brilliant British inventor and manufacturer to leading Brexiteer, Sir James Dyson has been a household name for decades.
The engineer talks to Georgina Bailey about his view that Britain is failing at innovation, his farms, and why he has no plans to retire.

Ask Sir James Dyson to describe himself in three words, and he gives five: determined, curious, open-minded, impatient and dissatisfied.

It is the last word that has driven his approach to innovation the most, he says. He hated the bag in vacuum cleaners, so he spent five years inventing a vacuum that didn’t need one, going through 5,127 prototypes. Whether it be vacuums, hand dryers, hairdryers or farming, everything he has turned his hand to has been because he doesn’t like the way it currently works. 

“These things are long journeys, they’re not quick,” Dyson says. “In my case, they’re not brilliant. I just stick at it until I’ve made it work.” The result: he is the fourth richest person in the UK, worth an estimated £16.3bn according to the Sunday Times Rich List 2021. 

He has recently drawn a lot of attention for his farming endeavours, despite it being one of his less-profitable efforts – something he puts down to supermarkets underpaying for food and the lack of a level playing field on global subsidies for farming. He has bought the signature Dyson approach to his 35,000 acres of farmland, including using drones to map out fertilisation and weeding plans.

At 73, he has no plans to slow down soon. “You sound like my wife,” he says, when asked about plans to retire. Nor, despite his prominent role during the Brexit referendum, does joining the political arena appeal: “I’d be a hopeless politician. I’m a manufacturer, that’s what I want to be,” Dyson says.

When he finally does step back, he’ll carry on designing, he says. He has pulled apart most things in his home to figure out how they work and hopefully improve them. “The act of physically building it, and testing it, and watching it fail gives you an idea of how to improve it and make it work,” says Dyson. His eponymous company does not employ technicians – all engineers who work for Dyson have to build their own prototypes and do their own testing – for that reason.

Dyson has been greatly concerned about the future of British manufacturing and innovation for many years. “We don’t produce enough engineers. In Britain, we produce 20,000 a year, China produces 600,000, India 350,000. Even the Philippines produces more engineers than we do. In this global competitive world, where technology is everything and it’s developing so fast, we’re getting left behind.”

Our psyche is one of getting rich quickly. We admire the brilliant Oxford first without any effort, not the person who works hard and gets there in the end.

While we have very good design and engineering universities in the UK, the majority of students and researchers are from outside the EU, and then “we send them packing when they’ve developed wonderful technology”, says Dyson. So why does he think the UK produces so few?

“It comes down to our lack of interest in manufacturing, which has existed probably since Victorian times, [Charles] Dickens and [William] Blake and dark satanic mills. And our class system, where an engineer is pretty low in the grade of professions – a vicar is higher than an engineer, whereas in Germany and France, engineer is the top of the socio demographic. 

“It is our feeling that manufacturing is something dirty, done by unsuccessful people. People who are not successful academically, they go off into factories and they produce things, and factories are treated as places that provide employment, not places that produce wonderful products we can sell all over the world and bring in foreign clients and create wealth. That is what they should be considered as, but that’s not how they’re viewed politically or by the public.”

Dyson continues: “Our psyche is one of getting rich quickly. We admire the brilliant Oxford first without any effort, not the person who works hard and gets there in the end. I think we admire the wrong things as a nation sometimes.”

These concerns contributed to Dyson’s desire to write his second autobiography, Invention: A Life, which came out this September. It was timed to coincide with the graduation of the first cohort of students from the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, a private higher education institution he founded in 2017. 

Based at the Dyson technology campus in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, students are paid a salary for working three days a week at Dyson, study the other two and have their tuition fees covered for the four-year course. If they want it, there is a guaranteed job at the end. 

Dyson says: “I was reflecting back on what it was like when I left college, and what I thought the world was going to be about, in particular the world of manufacturing and engineering and design. I realised that what I thought then was wrong. I wanted to put that right, and point out that the young people graduating now, the world is theirs.”

“I assumed that to be a manufacturer, you had to be a businessman, and have experience. What I’ve learned is that experience is of little use, because tomorrow is different to today. And that has never been truer than at the moment.”

Dyson is visibly most enthusiastic when discussing inventions and the James Dyson Award, covering 29 countries. Recent winners include a Spanish student who created a box that can detect cancer in urine, sends the results to the cloud, and then informs the user what cancer they have and what to do next, and a Filipino student who discovered a way to generate electricity by mashing up certain fruits and vegetables, spreading a thin film across a pane of glass and shining a light on it.

A prominent Brexiteer, Dyson believes is it’s too early to say if Britain’s departure from the European Union is going well – but he hasn’t seen much red tape disappear. 

I’ve always believed that government shouldn’t be trying to pick winners, either areas, or indeed companies

“Every government, when they come in, say they’re going to get rid of red tape. It stifles innovation and it makes it very hard for entrepreneurs,” he says. He is in favour of lower taxation for investors and innovators. In 2010, Dyson wrote a report for David Cameron on how to make the UK the leading tech exporter in Europe, including recommendations for additional tax relief for Research and Development (R&D) investment. As a result, he says, between 2010 and 2019, expenditure by UK companies on R&D doubled.

“I’ve always believed that government shouldn’t be trying to pick winners, either areas, or indeed companies. They should let entrepreneurs and engineers come up with the ideas themselves.”

Dyson appears a proud internationalist; he employs more than 12,000 people in offices across the globe and exports to 89 countries. In 2002, he shifted most of his manufacturing to Malaysia – largely because it was hard to find UK suppliers who could deliver components at scale, he says, and in 2019, he faced criticism for moving his headquarters to Singapore. He bristles at the suggestion this was hypocritical given his support for Brexit.

“When I moved manufacturing, we employed about 2,000 people here. We now employ 4,000. So I’ve created jobs in Britain. If any one of those [critics] wants to try making something in Britain, let them go and do it,” he says, adding: “And I wasn’t allowed to expand my factory, planning permission was refused, so that’s another issue.”

There are other advantages to working internationally. Dyson has kept his mask on throughout the entirety of our Microsoft Teams interview, a rule that has been in place on his Malmesbury campus since February 2020 – something he picked up from his time in Asia, he says – despite not finding masks particularly pleasant. 

Are there any prototypes for an improved Dyson mask floating about, then?

“My lips are sealed.”

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