Continuation of Life as We Know It on the Planet – An Engineering Vision

Continuation of Life as We Know It on the Planet – An Engineering Vision
Annual meeting of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, Beijing
June 1, 2016

Continuation of Life as We Know It on the Planet – An Engineering Vision[1]

President Zhou Ji, esteemed Members and Foreign Members of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, dignitaries, guests and friends, it is truly a great honor to be elected to the academy, and I will endeavor to live up to the esteem it conveys. For more than two decades I have been privileged to work with colleagues and organizations in many parts of this country, from the highest levels of government to city and provincial governments and universities too. I have enjoyed immensely developing an understanding of and respect for Chinese culture and history and their importance in the world today.

At the end of the last century, a national committee in the US looked back over 100 years to identify the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century. These achievements, which have a US focus, were ranked in order of importance and published in a splendid volume, A Century of Innovation – Twenty Engineering Achievements that Transformed Our Lives. They remain an inspirational vision for engineering.

  Slide 1

Electrification of the country (#1), automobile, airplane, water supply and distribution (#4), . . . interstate highways (#11), the Internet (#13), nuclear energy (#19), high-performance materials (#20)—these engineering advances over just 100 years changed the world. The technological transformation driven by them could be considered the greatest in any century in history.

  Slide 2

Because of the excitement over A Century of Innovation, a follow-up question was fully anticipated: What will engineering achieve in the 21st century? It was immediately concluded to be an impossible question to answer—we cannot predict 10 years into the future, let alone 100. However, instead of attempting to predict what engineering will achieve over this century, we might predict what does engineering need to achieve in this century for life to continue on this planet as we know it? The answer to this question provides the first engineering vision for the planet in history.

This is a global vision—not a national one, or a corporate one, or an academic one.

It is multidisciplinary because of its disciplinary complexity, multicultural because it is global, about life because it serves people, creative because it calls for technical achievements, and it engages people everywhere because it is a vision for the planet. And it is especially for people doing engineering because the mission of engineering is creating solutions serving people and society.

The NAE recruited 18 visionaries from around the world to identify a set of goals that must be achieved to fulfill this vision. The committee reached out broadly for counsel, received thousands of inputs from all over the world, and ultimately selected 14 engineering system goals that, if met, could preserve life on the planet as we know it. After the committee’s report, Grand Challenges for Engineering, satisfied more than 50 academy reviewers (making it among the most reviewed reports in academy history), it was published by the NAE in 2008. The 14 challenges are:

  • make solar energy economical
  • provide energy from fusion
  • develop carbon sequestration methods
  • manage the nitrogen cycle
  • provide access to clean water
  • restore & improve urban infrastructure
  • engineer better medicines
  • reverse-engineer the brain
  • prevent nuclear terror
  • secure cyberspace
  • enhance virtual reality
  • advance personalized learning
  • engineer the tools of scientific discovery
  • advance health informatics

The list implicitly covered other important problems as derivatives, like ensuring the food supply for an expanding population by providing sufficient clean water and energy and managing the nitrogen cycle.

This is classic engineering systems thinking: start with a vision, then identify the goals whose fulfillment is needed to achieve the vision, and finally determine the objectives that are required to reach each goal—they are the hard part to be addressed over the century. The challenges are complex and of enormous scale. For example, the challenge to provide access to clean water for everyone on the planet—not just the 1 billion who do not have it today, but the 2-3 billion additional people expected by 2050.

Since 2008 global interest in the Grand Challenges has increased steadily, more akin to a social movement than an engineering project. This interest is driven by the importance of the goals to people everywhere, not by the funding of them for there is no direct funding as yet.

My speculation is that students are attracted to these challenges because:

  • The Grand Challenges for Engineering is the first global vision for engineering, and students are inspired by where engineering needs to go.
  • The Grand Challenges for Engineering are possibly the best explanation of engineering for people of all cultures. They show clearly both how and why engineering serves people and society.
  • The Grand Challenges for Engineering present a unifying vision for engineering where everyone, everywhere can tell the same story and have the same goals—a rare circumstance.
  • The Grand Challenges for Engineering attract those interested in helping people and society, especially women and minorities.

  Slide 3

Today’s and tomorrow’s students will deliver the solutions to the Grand Challenges over the 21st century. What preparation not normally found in an engineering curriculum can prepare them to contribute to solutions to the Grand Challenges and problems like them? In 2009 this question inspired two deans of engineering[2] and a college president[3] to contemplate a Grand Challenge Scholars Program to answer this question.

  Slide 4

Because they realized that controlling engineering curriculums everywhere was impossible, they instead identified five competencies, or outcomes of a program of study, that would provide the necessary foundation for successful leadership for problems like the Grand Challenges for Engineering. These five competencies are not normally part of a university engineering curriculum, but each university with a Grand Challenge Scholars Program determines how they can be accommodated for each student. The five competencies are:

  • research/creative project experience—a mentored technical experience on a Grand Challenge–like topic to develop technical competency
  • multidisciplinarity—a hands-on experience on a Grand Challenge topic spanning multiple disciplines such as medicine, law, business, sciences, and public policy that are factors in the challenge solutions
  • business/entrepreneurship—experience with viable business creations like those necessary for implementation of solutions—no implementation yields no impact
  • multicultural understanding and appreciation—obtained through a global cultural experience to ensure that proposed Grand Challenge solutions achieve local acceptance
  • social consciousness—understanding of the needs of people in the environments of the solutions

The Grand Challenge Scholars Program ensures that students are steeped by experience in these five competencies through study and field work as part of or in addition to their normal university degree programs.

I believe the competencies provide a strong foundation for all engineering education in today’s fully connected world. They are all about doing, about the understanding gained from the experience of problem solution. As Confucius counseled in his Analects, “I hear and I forget, I read and I remember, but I do and I understand.” The Grand Challenge Scholars Program is about doing and understanding.

  Slide 5

In 2015 President Obama received a letter signed by about 1/3 of the deans of engineering in the US committing to graduating at least 20,000 Grand Challenge Scholars Program students over the next decade.

And because the Grand Challenges for Engineering are global, other countries are engaging in them and in the Grand Challenge Scholars Program too, including nine leading national universities in Australia, a university in Malaysia that signed the letter to President Obama and is graduating its first Grand Challenge Scholars Program class this September, two universities in Singapore, and one in Hong Kong. And more countries are considering engaging in the GCSP.

  Slide 6

In addition, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK, and the US National Academy of Engineering have jointly sponsored two Global Grand Challenge Summits, one in 2013 held in London and the second in 2015 in Beijing. A goal of the global summits is to engage a wider, international audience in the Grand Challenges for Engineering and the Grand Challenge Scholars Program. The Chinese Academy of Engineering devoted 50 pages of the March 2016 issue of its new journal Engineering to the proceedings of the Beijing Summit.

These summits include a university student competition on a Grand Challenge topic. The grand prize in 2015 was won by a Chinese student design team from Zhejiang University that reduced the amount of clean water needed to wash your hands by 80%. The students had already filed for patents and were potentially on their way to entrepreneurial fame and fortune.

The next global summit will be held in Washington during the week of July 17, 2017. It will also include a university student competition and in addition an invitational international robotics competition for 14- to 18-year-old students. The sponsor of the robotics competition is the International FIRST Committee that is collaborating with the national academies to introduce the Grand Challenges for Engineering to younger students and their parents and teachers. The robotics competition will be based on a Grand Challenge theme selected in consultation with the three national academies.

In closing I offer the following takeaway points:

  • The Grand Challenges deliver the first engineering vision for the planet in history.
  • They are the best description of engineering for the public because they exemplify two important questions very well: What is engineering? and How does engineering serve people and society?
  • Achieving the vision requires global solutions to the Grand Challenges. They cannot be achieved by one or two countries alone. We are all in this together.

Preparing talent to address the Grand Challenges for Engineering and problems like them is an NAE priority, and it is the focus of the Grand Challenge Scholars Program. More than 50% of Grand Challenge Scholars Program students are minorities and women.

I hope that our academies will join together to inspire the preparation of engineers and others for the global problems of our time, problems like the Grand Challenges for Engineering. Together our academies can lead this movement for the betterment of the world. And if not we, who else can actually do it?

Academies of engineering have the right voices for this message.

What better collaboration could we propose?

Thank you for your most kind attention.

[1] Remarks presented at the annual meeting of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, Beijing, June 1, 2016

[2] Drs. Thomas Katsouleas of Duke University and Yannis Yortsos of the University of Southern California

[3] Dr. Richard Miller of Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering