Graduation address given by Dr John Gilmour Nutt AM

Dr John Gilmour Nutt AM, engineer and recipient of the honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering, gave the occasional address at the Faculty of Engineering & Information Technologies graduation ceremony held in the Great Hall at 11.30am on 18 May 2012.

The photo of Dr Nutt is copyright, Memento Photography.

Dr John Gilmour Nutt AM

Graduation address


Deputy Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Dean, Distinguished Staff, Graduands, and Guests.

I should like to thank the University for the honour of this prestigious degree. I am surprised and delighted to receive it. And my thanks go also to my colleagues at Arup with whom I spent 40 years of my life, and since my retirement, to the Warren Centre, and to the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, from both of whom I have learnt much. All are represented here today It is an award to them as much as to me as an individual.

I must also thank my family who are present, and my wife Roberta in particular. In a few months it will be 60 years since I first met her at a University of Queensland “Commem Prac”, an event supposedly staged to practice singing “Gaudeamus Igitur”, the music you will hear ring out from the carillon as this ceremony today concludes, but in reality, it was an opportunity for new students to meet each other. She has been my companion and helpmate most of my life, and I love her dearly.

I am delighted with the opportunity to address you and to give you my views on how you can benefit from the degrees you have earned and have just been awarded. I have called my address “Capturing Creativity.” This theme applies to all engineering. Over the years I have spent considerable time thinking about how a business is structured to support such an attitude amongst its people and which encourages innovation at all levels.

But first I must congratulate the Graduands today. The degrees you receive mark the culmination of hard work and commitment. I hope you will put it to good use. You are entering an exciting profession, you have the tools to succeed, you have as alma mater a fine university, and as fine an engineering school as any in the world. You must apply your skills well, to the best of your ability.

Looking back, my university provided me with an eclectic education which prepared me for the world. It is difficult to believe it could have been bettered. I feel that the philosophy of the university has been with me always.

The role of a university is to teach, to expand the quantum of knowledge, and to be a source of advice for industry and governments. You, who are university leaders, researchers, and teachers, are role models for others. And you do it, not for commercial gain, but for the betterment of society. I salute you.

I experienced what architects did early in my education. For my final year assignment, I elected to work on a building design with an architectural student. And my mates laughed at me! They were doing the serious stuff – concrete testing, fatigue investigations, all sorts of engineering tasks.

“You’ve chosen the sissy option” they said !! But they were wrong. After a 40 year career in the construction industry in all disciplines, all the most difficult projects I’ve tackled have come from the minds of architects.

Architects have a vital role in our build environment ,.in many ways, they are its conscience. They place importance on values which engineers often neglect – people, the environment, beauty and art, and the cultural aspirations of the community – making our buildings, cities and towns better places to live and work.

I spent 5 years at another university overseas where I lectured and did my PhD. And after that, I went into industry and worked in only one firm, Arup for the rest of my career. It was small when I joined but it had high standards. When the Sydney Opera House came along, my PhD skills suited the design and analysis of the roof and I worked on the job for 12 years in London and Sydney. At the end, I knew how to design, plan and construct major buildings.

Arup had all the attributes of a university - creativity, search for excellence, generosity, high standards, and gentle leadership. And an ownership structure to match. Nobody owns the firm except those who work in it. There are no outside shareholders. The ultimate beneficiaries are staff trusts controlled by senior members of the firm. We call it the “naked in, naked out” philosophy. Now that is what makes it very much like a university.

From that lifetime experience, I would recommend doing a PhD to any young graduate. You become an expert, albeit in a narrow field, but you know that you can take a difficult task and find a solution. That confidence lasts all your life.

Half the graduands here today are receiving Bachelor’s Degrees, the others post-graduate degrees. I have messages for both groups this morning. For the first time graduate, remember engineering is an applied technology. It is not science but the delivery of science. It’s about finding a solution and adding value. It has purpose and creates wealth. Such applications require more than just technical knowledge – they require intuition, creativity, judgement, and motivation. Take heed of what one large engineering firm uses as employment criteria – drive for results, communication skills, judgement, working with others, and good technical knowledge.

For those with experience in industry, I advocate a focus on creativity. You should use your leadership skills to create a workplace that encourages innovation. It is a common theme that innovation is essential to a progressive society, and the record shows that Australia is good in parts and poor in others. In some areas of science we are world leaders, but our industrial support for R & D is far too low, among the lowest of the industrial nations.

Many of us are concerned with the serious adverse effect that will have on Australia’s wellbeing. It has often been said that the cause is a shortage of technological entrepreneurs, those special champions who are prepared to risk and fail, and through persistence, ability, and motivation, ultimately prevail. But that is too simplistic an answer.

Weak industrial R & D reflects an ignorance of its importance in expanding business or supporting exports; A shortage of champions raises the question of attitude and culture; the focus on short rather than long term returns is a product of investment goals; and the weakness in creating value is a sad reflection on our educated society.

YOU should be aware of such attitudes and be prepared to undertake that role in the workplace. And that will require courage. Let me urge you to do so, to make that your goal. By definition, innovation is new and untried. It is more risky than the routine. The risks must be controlled and understood. Success requires determination, opportunity and skill in many fields including science, business and in leadership.

The skill in a business is to support people who like to do original things, to seek the solutions to challenging tasks. Often they do not appear to fit into a team or office environment. They appear to be ‘oddballs’. (I was once referred to as an oddball.) But I have found that the contributions they make more than compensates for the frequent failures they experience. I would go further, it is necessary to support their failures without penalty, and to encourage them to continue, in spite of the risk to well-being and reputation. But prudently, you surround them with complementary skills.

I call this the Innovation Paradox.

Innovation comprises two parts, a creative component, and an efficient routine component.

  • Creativity involves generous time and an apparent waste of effort through failure.
  • Efficiency is about the elimination of uncertainty and all waste.

They are fundamentally opposite in character, and it’s necessary to get the balance right. Let me encourage you to search for that balance. It is well worth the effort. Do not destroy the confidence of an innovator. They will have high time and low times in their careers. As leaders, you must ensure they come through the low times.

What opportunities are there for you? Are there rewards? . Yes, in abundance for those who have courage. The engineering thought process can take you into any field of business. Look through the list published annually by Engineers Australia of the Australia’s 100 most influential engineers. I have been on the selection panel for some years now. It has been an inspiring time. I am impressed with the diversity and quality of those nominated.

There are some who have received great financial rewards, like the founder of a small engineering consultancy in Sydney 30 years ago who now runs a global firm employing 35,000 staff now ranked 36 on the ASX listings. And like you, he was the graduate of the University of Sydney. But others have achieved distinction through service to government, the public service, academia, research and a host of other community organisations where they give of their time generously.

So what is your part in the future?

Innovation needs continued stimulation in Australia. That requires the encouragement of champions, the entrepreneurs who drive the process. I encourage you to be different - to become engineering entrepreneurs, to be courageous and to innovate. You have the talent, and from this great university, you should be in the vanguard of change.

So let me finish on an optimistic note as it touches on you.

'How common is this creative ability?' asks Professor Allan Snyder, a graduate of this great university and the Director of the Centre of the Mind, Canberra. "It exists in all", he believes.

Thank you for the opportunity to address you this morning.