In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about! We are posting selected articles each week to give readers time to savor the array of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this very special issue. Check the website every Monday!

Moving Toward 20/20 Foresight

Monday, February 1, 2021

Author: Kristala L.J. Prather

Every new year prompts past reflections and new expectations, but some feel more significant than others. As the year 2000 arrived, the world ­anxiously waited to see whether a seamless conversion of global data systems from two- to four-digit representation would avert a “Y2K” disaster. It did, and the technological world continued its march, confident in the progress and potential of science and engineering to reliably introduce new solutions to problems both known and unknown (social media, anyone?).

Twenty years later, there were no worries about the possibility of inoperable telephone lines or inaccessible bank accounts, but the symmetry of the year 2020 was hard to ignore. The connection between the numerical year and the standard for visual acuity prompted many to ponder what could be foreseen. If we imagined a future along any of multiple dimensions, what would we see?

It seems safe to say that few would have envisioned what this year has brought forth. A global pandemic persists. The American West experienced destruction from wildfires on an unprecedented scale. For only the second time ever—and for the second time since the turn of this century—the list of named tropical storms extended into the Greek alphabet. And these ­disasters have been accompanied by economic distress, highlighting the inextricable links between the natural world and societal wellbeing, particularly with respect to the inequitable distribution of negative impacts.

Never has it been more clear that global challenges require coordinated, aggressively realized global solutions. Undoubtedly, advances in scientific knowledge and engineering know-how will bring new technological revolutions, enabling society to make progress against these and other, yet-to-be-identified threats. After all, it’s almost easy to immediately turn to science and engineering to solve the most pressing problems, including those emerging from medical crises and climate change.

Promises and Limitations of Scientific and Technical Innovation

Exciting Possibilities

Through my own lens of metabolic engineering and synthetic biology, I see new products being brought to market from the transformation of renewable substrates, products that will dramatically reduce reliance on fossil carbon for fuels and chemicals. In addition, novel biobased materials will reduce the environmental burden of unrecycled and unsustainable plastics by incorporating end-of-life biodegradability at the design stage. Harnessing the exquisite diversity of biological metabolism will enable a reduction in waste, as discarded organic matter becomes the feedstock from which sustainable materials are produced.

The leveraging of natural and synthetic biological sensing systems will enable new modes of assessing water quality, reducing the burden of waterborne disease. Further advances in complex biological systems design and engineering will generate mimics of natural microbial ecosystems that will remediate contaminated water—perhaps using distributed purification systems powered by locally produced energy.

New manufacturing modalities for point-of-care therapeutics, tied to POC diagnostics, will transform the practice of medicine and, more importantly, the quality of life. It’s even conceivable that engineered implantable devices—whether mechanical, biological, or hybrid—will dynamically detect and treat disease without intervention from a provider.

Persistent Challenges and Wicked Problems

History, however, has shown that technological advancement is not enough to solve society’s most serious problems.

The mass shift toward remote work and school shone a spotlight on disparities in access to technology. How can the college student learn effectively when her internet access is too unstable to enable meaningful engagement from 3000 miles away? How much does the achievement gap expand when the parents of an elementary-age child do not have the luxury to dedicate time to home schooling and the child is unable to “self-direct” at the age of 9 (or younger)? What if neither has access to a laptop with sufficient computing power to even attempt a remote connection?

In addition, substantial racial disparities in health outcomes among those infected with SARS-CoV-2 point to much deeper tragedies masquerading as “underlying health conditions.” What does it say about equal access and opportunity when those most likely to become infected with a pandemic virus are those who are also both most essential to the continued operation of a productive society and most likely to suffer high mortality rates from infection?

History has shown that technological advancement is not enough to solve society’s most serious problems.

The inability or unwillingness of a significant fraction of citizens to accept and adhere to the public health recommendations that are most likely to enable a return to economic activity while also reducing infection rates may indicate a broader lack of trust in science. How can a society wage a successful battle against an insidious pathogenic foe in the face of persistent reluctance and even refusal to accept that it exists?

Questions to Guide the Way Forward

Hindsight is 20/20. Considering ways in which engineering will change the world over the next 50 years, perhaps it is time to reflect on the past as a way to understand the promise and the perils of advancing engineering into the future.

The biggest obstacles in addressing current and future global challenges are unlikely to arise from limits on transformation efficiency of microbial hosts being constructed to produce novel chemicals, or from limits on oxygen transfer rates in reactors designed to manufacture novel vaccines. For certain, there will be stumbling blocks and two steps forward may be followed by one step back. But this, to the researcher, is normal; it is expected. Rather, the questions that must be answered include the following:

  • How can we engineers encourage full and inclusive participation in the process of defining problems and developing solutions?
  • How can we identify and mitigate the implicit biases that may skew these solutions to be impractical or undesirable for populations at risk?
  • How can solutions be deployed in the most equitable and therefore most effective manner, to maximize benefit to all?
  • How can we scientists and engineers engage in effective and productive dialogue with our citizen neighbors? How do we acknowledge that predictive science comes with uncertainty, while communicating that this does not mean scientific conclusions are unknowable?
  • And to invoke the famous phrase from the film Field of Dreams, what if we build it and they don’t come? What if we develop technologies that are accessible and have real potential to have significantly positive impacts on the health of both humans and the planet we inhabit, but they are ignored or rejected or even denigrated?

These are not questions that most engineers, including myself, are trained to answer. But they are ones that I hope will increasingly motivate all of us to approach our work with an eye toward making the most positive and lasting impact we can. The future is what we make it.

About the Author:Kris Prather is the Arthur D. Little Professor and executive officer in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.