What Are We Waiting For? Sputnik? An Explanation of Today’s World? New Ways of Working? National Strategy?

Charles M. Vest
speaker
Charles M. Vest Read Bio
National Academy of Engineering
Subject: Engineers: The Next Generation Sputnik? An Explanation of Today’s World? New Ways of Working? National Strategy?
Venue: Annual Meeting
Date of speech: September 30, 2012

INTRODUCTION

 

WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR?


I want to begin my remarks today by expressing my appreciation for the honor and privilege of serving as your president. It has been a very rewarding experience, and I hope that I have added some value to the NAE, and to the greater causes that we serve.

There is one thing that the out-going leader of an important organization values above all else … that is that he or she will be succeeded by a new leader whom he or she deeply respects. Although I appropriately played no role whatsoever in the work of the Nominating Committee, I could not be more pleased than to have Dan Mote nominated to be our next president. We could not possibly do better.

But there are areas in which we could do better. For example …

The embarrassing silliness of this political season has reinforced something that has bothered me for some time: For many years now, as a nation and as a body politic, we have been waiting. Waiting when we should have been acting and leading. I don’t get it. 

What are we waiting for?

If I hear one more person say that our educational, scientific, and technological enterprises are waiting for another “Sputnik Moment” I fear that I will react in some bizarre, illogical manner unbefitting this office.

But there are some things that I am waiting for, and I suspect that I am waiting for them in the good company of all or most of you. I am waiting for our political and corporate leaders to honestly explain today’s world … clearly and continually in their public dialog and through their strategies and actions.

I also think that far too much of our nation is waiting for new ways of working to arrive. We hear lots of rhetoric about how the nature of work will change, as if it relates to some unknown distant future. The fact is that it is happening now, and we need a broader recognition of this fact and policies and education that reflect it.

Finally, I am waiting for National Strategies around the fundamental issues of our time. By “National Strategy” I generally mean “rules of the road.” One of the great lessons of the second half of the 20th century is that central planning does not work.  The private sector and especially entrepreneurial communities will beat central government planning every time. BUT … having said that, in my view, many of the great national and global challenges we face today require the government and society to establish and sustain goals, directions and policies that describe the “rules of the road’ within which the private sector can find optimum solutions.

 

WAITING FOR SPUTNIK


It is true, that when I was a high school student, America woke up one day and learned that the Soviet Union had placed a satellite named Sputik into orbit about the earth. This injured our national pride, raised national security and geopolitical concerns, and led fairly quickly to a focus on the importance and quality of our science and mathematics education. It inspired many young people, including me, and in due course provided us with better teaching materials and with major increases in financial aid, provided by both corporations and government, for advanced studies in engineering and science, and new career opportunities. 

Like Pearl Harbor, it was a single, crystallizing moment of the kind to which our nation is good at responding. 

Be that as it may, waiting for a new Sputnik Moment in 2012 is folly. This generation already has its challenges, and they are far more fundamental and far more important than was a Soviet satellite.

And most … perhaps all … of this generation’s challenges are global. They are global because our world is straining to support 7 billion people who share a single environment, share finite natural resources, share knowledge, share economy and commerce, and above all, share a common humanity.

This generation’s challenges are global.

As you know, the NAE commissioned a committee of 18 superbly creative and innovative men and women to establish a set of Engineering Grand Challenges that if met would improve life on earth, and that they believed could be accomplished if we set our minds and resources to them.

These grand challenges fall into four large buckets: Sustainability, Security, Health, and Joy of Living. Mostly through the voluntary efforts of many leaders of higher education, these NAE Engineering Grand Challenges have led to numerous education and outreach programs, and have entered the national dialog among business, government, and academia.

What I have observed through our Grand Challenges work, and through many other campus visits and gatherings of entrepreneurs, is that this generation of young people is eager to engage. They aren’t waiting for Sputik. So let’s all work together to provide them with the opportunities and resources to start meeting these grand challenges. Let’s stop dampening their well-informed enthusiasm and efforts by choking back on funding higher education, stalling research support, blocking immigration, and glorifying and rewarding careers that add no value.

NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program

 

WAITING FOR LEADERS TO EXPLAIN OUR NEW WORLD


Virtually everyone in this room is engaged in industry and commerce, in higher education, in research and development or in national security. Each of us lives, works, and learns in a highly integrated, networked world. 

Do you recognize this world in our political rhetoric?

Do you hear our corporate leaders working explicitly and in a sustained manner to help our people understand this?

Maybe you do, but I don’t.

The world has changed. We need to get on with it.

R&D investments by both the private and public sectors increasingly spread around the globe. Currently it is approximately 1/3 in North America, 1/3 in Europe, and 1/3 in Asia. And, the level of education is rising all around the world, especially in the STEM disciplines. These new global distributions are good things. But we can’t sit on our thumbs and watch much of the rest of the world approach and then surpass us in these important investments. In my view, our most important national comparative advantages are democracy, free enterprise, diversity, and excellence and inventiveness in higher education and research.

Global R&D Investments

So, I think that our leaders owe us more straight talk about the nature of today’s world. In particular, we all must understand that now and in the future, we must compete but also cooperate with others all over the world – other countries, other companies, other universities, … other colleagues. Cooperation and competition are the Yin and Yang of the modern world.

And sharing is the enabling mechanism. Sharing of knowledge … sharing of talents… sharing of education. This is the new world of open innovation, and of new ways of working.

During our 2011 NAE National Meeting, we held a forum on Manufacturing, Design, and Innovation. Our colleague Rod Brooks was one of the panelists. Suggesting that we concentrate too much on the most sophisticated technologies and environments, Brooks laid out a case for focusing on small, easily programmable robots to help humans perform fundamental manufacturing operations. Such devices could “democratize low-end manufacturing.” Fast forward to last month, and note these words in Tom Friedman’s August 26, 2012 NYT column describing Rod’s newest venture, a company called Rethink Robotics:

The Rethink design team includes Bruce Blumberg, the product manager of the Apple LaserWriter, as well as 75 other experts from Russia, Georgia, Venezuela, Egypt, Australia, India, Israel, Portugal, Sri Lanka, the United States and China.

“It is all made in America,” says Brooks, but by “the best talent” gathered “from around the world.”

So here, in one package, is competition, cooperation, and new ways of working.

 

WAITING FOR NEW WAYS OF WORKING


Yet I keep reading about new ways of working that are going to happen in some distant future. In fact, they are happening now, and we need to be preparing more people for them.

A few decades ago, we talked about Brain Drain. This generally referred to the movement of highly talented young people, especially scientists and engineers to the U.S. to study, and subsequently contribute richly to our nation as faculty members, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. But “drain,” of course has a negative connotation because to some extent America’s gain was a loss to these individuals’ home countries.

Today, especially for young people, we are more in an age of Brain Circulation, with students, entrepreneurs and corporate personnel living and working in multiple countries during their careers.

But I believe we are rapidly entering the age of Brain Integration. By “brain integration,” I mean integrating people’s minds with each other’s, and with computers. Here is a simple example of what I mean:

Brain Integration

Think about the game of chess.

A well-programmed computer can consistently defeat a human chess opponent. This was most famously demonstrated several years ago when IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Gary Kasparov.

But, it turns out that a team of humans plus a computer can be expected to beat any other human or any computer.

One of the most exciting examples of brain integration is by the website FoldItFoldIt is basically a computer game developed by faculty at the University of Washington. It not only chains together many personal computers around the world, it also chains together many minds, because the thousands of people playing this game are in fact cooperating to solve complex protein folding problems. Although, to the individual players, this is a new way of playing … in fact it is a new, cooperative way of working.

Douglas Thomas and John Seeley Brown explore the same concept of harnessing massively multiplayer online games for purposes of learning in the interesting book, A New Culture of Learning. But in this case, my use of the word “harnessing” shortchanges the concept of brain integration because the players and communities themselves develop the culture of learning; it is not a new way of doing traditional teaching and learning.

New Culture of Learning

Finally I should note that developing such new ways of working and problem solving is the object of intense research at places such as the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, which is devoted to answering a Core Research Question, “How can people and computers be connected so that – collectively – they act more intelligently than any person, group, or computer has ever done before?

Now let me turn briefly to the manufacturing sector:

Our nation is perplexed about the future of manufacturing in the U.S. and about what manufacturing jobs have changed or will change.  Too frequently, discussions about manufacturing revolve around a nostalgic view that the old jobs may return.  In fact, we need to understand what the new jobs will be and how to prepare young people for them.

During the last several months, the NAE, with the guidance of an informal advisory committee headed by the visionary former General Motors executive Larry Burns has helped us begin developing a new framework for thinking about the nexus of manufacturing, design, and innovation. We have held one major workshop of leaders from business, academia, and government, and are developing a fast-track set of research and analysis projects that we hope will be useful to the nation.

There is an exciting world out there involving additive manufacturing, biologically based manufacturing, design for sustainability, and advanced robotics. There is plenty of great and important R&D to be done in these fields, but the overall picture, and especially the issue of jobs, is much broader than just advances in these individual technologies.

Things are stirring. Our committee observed that, “While overall US manufacturing employment has decreased by 5 million jobs since 1980, manufacturing employment requiring at least a college degree has increased by approximately 1 million jobs.” That should make us sit up and pay attention.

The framework we are working toward is centered on Making Value. By this, we imply that it is not just about making things, nor is it just about creating services. It certainly is not just about making money in ways that add little value to customers or society, and it is not just about making anything confined solely to U.S. geographic boundaries.

In our developing framework, Making Value requires an integrated system of activities -- including understanding customers, research, development, design, manufacturing, and services – necessary to deliver value to customers. Making value requires a holistic system of these activities that must be developed and optimized in the national interest.

If all of this sounds suspiciously like gobbledygook, just stop and think about what the iPhone and its progeny have done. For sure, they integrated innovation, design, and manufacturing. But they also created an entire new industrial ecosystem, especially the “App” industry. For sure they made money … but also created opportunity for basement software developers, provided new platforms for business and for education, and either harnessed or unleashed creativity and innovation all over the world. They created and enabled a new ecosystem of people and activities. We believe this general framework of Making Value will extend far beyond just the IT device industry.

I hope that in the coming months our NAE work will meet three basic objectives:

  1. Analyze existing best practices in holistic enterprises that make value;
  2. Learn all that we can about the likely ecosystem that will support future work, including the skills, education, infrastructure, and government policies to enable and support new work; and
  3. Determine the necessary and sufficient conditions to make the U.S. the ideal place to make value.

 

WAITING FOR NATIONAL STRATEGY


I worry a lot about the seeming inability of the nation to set strategy, in the broad sense of establishing and sustaining “rules of the road.” In fact, in the dark recesses of the night, I sometimes become afraid that this could be an Achilles’ heel of democracy itself. I know that this is overly pessimistic, but let me give you an example of why I worry.

A few years ago, I visited a sprawling facility of one of our largest companies. They had invested huge amounts of money and engineering in several forms of alternate or renewable energy production … wind, solar, biomass, etc. These had been carried to the large-scale demonstration level.

But the machines were just sitting there. When I asked what their plans were for bringing these huge devises to market, the answer was “We have no plans for commercialization. Our investment is ending because the government has set no energy policy and they have set no carbon policy.” Until that happens, we will have no idea what the markets will be.”

Government is not going to do the things that are required for us to have a vibrant economy, health, security, and quality of life.

Business is not going to address the things that are required for us to have a vibrant economy, health, security, and quality of life.

Academia is not going to address the things that are required for us to have a vibrant economy, health, security, and quality of life.

The fact is that we have to have all hands on deck. Each of these sectors must play its proper role and forge an alliance to meet today’s challenges.

What we are missing is bold vision and leadership.

“Well,” you might ask, “Don’t you know that we have a big financial problem?”

“Don’t you know that we have been fighting wars in the Middle East?”

“How can we summon bold vision and leadership in such a time?”

Here is a thought:

150 years ago, in the midst of the utter devastation of the American Civil War, our leaders conceived and passed the Morrill Act. The Morrill Act established our great system of Land Grant Universities to invest in the education of young people from all social strata. I would guess that most of us in this room were educated in Land Grant Universities.

150 years ago, in the midst of the utter devastation of the American Civil War, our leaders conceived and created the National Academy of Sciences because they understood that “science and art” were fundamental to the development and expansion of our nation.

Until or unless, such bold vision comes again, we must unleash our innovation system as best we can. This is a nonlinear, loosely organized system that still is the best in the world.

And we need to be at the forefront of other emerging models of innovation:

Inducement Prizes …

New, reorganized universities …

Virtual communities …

But we must remember that it all begins with education.

 And something big is about to happen in education.

 We will explore this tomorrow in our Forum on the Future of Engineering Education.

 Thank you.