James Trevelyan

James Trevelyan is an engineer, educator, researcher and start-up entrepreneur. As founder and inventor of Close Comfort, he is introducing new energy-saving, low emissions air conditioning technology for a global market. His research on engineering practice helped define the Engineers Australia professional competencies for chartered engineers. His books “The Making of an Expert Engineer” and “Learning Engineering Practice” are influencing the future of engineering education in universities and workplaces. He is best known internationally for pioneering research on sheep shearing robots from 1975 till 1993 and for the first industrial robot that could be remotely operated via the internet in 1994. He has worked as an expert witness on several significant intellectual property matters in Australia and internationally. He has also managed his family investment portfolio for several decades and has advised family investment companies in the UK and Australia.

What coming technological advancement do you expect to have the biggest impact on your business?

I might be controversial here but I really think that we have become sidetracked with expectations that new technologies are about to be discovered just around the corner. We actually have so many new technologies lying around waiting to be applied. All we really need is sufficient awareness of both the technologies and the potential markets. Therefore, my response to this question lies in our ability to educate young people to spot these opportunities sooner. The best way to do that is to encourage perception skills like listening and collaboration, capabilities that university education undermines significantly in my opinion.

What misconception do people outside of your industry hold about it?

I think you’re asking about the knowledge an industry relies on. It reminds me of my research on engineers’ knowledge, something that amazed me in its complexity once I began systematically interviewing hundreds of engineers, something I had never really thought about while working as an engineer. We take knowledge so easily for granted. So much of it is embodied in the artefacts that surround us. The French philosopher Bruno Latour pointed out how much knowledge is embodied in the structure and layout of a supermarket, knowledge that only a knowledgeable person can recognise, let alone retrieve.

“What do you wish someone had told you at the beginning of your career?”

As an engineer, I wish I had the insights that emerged from my research on what engineers really do. Engineers persuade people to implement their ideas with money from other people, and do their best to detect and sort out the confusion resulting from inevitable misunderstandings. They mostly work without formal authority, and often with minimal understanding on how to practically implement their ideas. It’s a thrilling experience when the results come somewhere near matching expectations.

What makes you most optimistic about the future of your industry?

Four factors are driving personal air-conditioning.

Climates are warming.

Summer temperatures in cities are rising even faster.

Productivity growth has almost stopped. We’re not going to see new buildings popping up everywhere. Most of us will be living in the buildings we see today.

Electricity to run air-conditioners at night will be more expensive when the sun doesn’t shine.

Only a tiny minority living in hot climates can afford traditional air-conditioning.

Personal air-conditioning is energy-efficient, sustainable and affordable. Everyone can enjoy comfort while sleeping and working, without altering existing buildings.

Why would I not be optimistic!