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!

Applying Engineering Systems Thinking to Benefit Public Policy

Monday, January 25, 2021

Author: Maryann P. Feldman and Paige A. Clayton

The past 50 years have arguably been defined by economics and the neoliberal agenda, marked by the rise of economic reasoning, with its emphasis on a free market ideology (Applebaum 2019). The focus on markets and a diminished role of government have failed to deliver on the promise of widespread prosperity. Income disparities have reached levels not seen since the Industrial Revolution. Technological advances and productivity increases have been significant but have come at the expense of increased workers’ wages and with the accumulation of wealth by a few entrepreneurs and investors in a limited number of cities (Feldman et al. 2020).

The covid-19 pandemic revealed longstanding structural inequities in the United States, exposing inadequacies in government policy, lack of health insurance protection for the most vulnerable, an undersupply of affordable housing, and an inability for working people to earn a wage that allows them to live with dignity. These inequities are not inevitable and call for creative solutions and problem solving.

Conventional economic strategies often focus on stopgap measures aimed at the most conspicuous problems. As a result, we as a society have failed to create sustainable paths for widespread prosperity. The type of applied systems thinking that characterizes engineering is required. Rather than confining inquiry to technological systems, society will gain over the next 50 years if engineers apply their expertise to solving larger societal problems (Petroski 2010).

Role of Engineers in Addressing Societal Problems

While not well acknowledged by the public, everything in commerce depends on engineering: raw materials are grown or mined through highly engineered technologies, and manufactured products and advanced services depend on engineered systems. When engineers apply their methods used in building infrastructure and designing complex systems to the realm of public policy, great gains in social progress will be realized.

Advances in telehealth could improve the lives of millions of rural Americans, yet policy has not kept pace in supporting the required broadband infrastructure.

Engineers are at the forefront of developing renewable energy sources to address climate change. Consider the entrepreneurial startup bioMason, which uses inexpensive, widely available, and ecologically responsible materials to fabricate bio-based building modules that replace energy-intensive brick masonry and concrete.

Advances in telehealth have the potential to dramatically improve the lives of millions of rural Americans, yet policy has not kept pace in supporting the required broadband infrastructure. The Wireless Research Center of North Carolina is an engineer-led innovation hub that, with public support, has contributed significantly to the state’s rural economy (Clayton 2018). A national-scale effort is needed.

There are other exemplary cases that focus on specific products and projects (e.g., the work of Engineers without Borders). Imagine the potential if engineering problem solving were unleashed to address large-scale systemic problems.

Yet, although societal needs are well known, the pathways to address them are underdeveloped. Technological discoveries that address broad societal concerns are underfunded by venture capitalists, who favor lower-risk and incremental projects. Realizing the transformative nature of engineering requires redesigning systems to focus on societal benefits over profits.

Valuing Varied Perspectives

Social scientists have explained the dimension of problems, but long-term and socially agreed upon solutions have proved elusive. Implementing innovative ideas is at the heart of what engineers do: they use their knowledge to pragmatically create.

In the knowledge economy the ability to generalize engineering skills to a broader range of nontechnical problems and topics provides a competitive advantage. Many occupations are at risk of automation due to artificial intelligence (Frank et al. 2019). A human advantage lies in the ability to define problems and to see the solution from different perspectives. This is the forte of engineers.

As the field attracts greater numbers of women and underrepresented minorities, the variety of solutions offered will expand. Engineering benefits from the breaking down of stereotypes and the growth of early-education STEM programs. More diverse ideas can be realized only by the inclusion of greater numbers of women and minority engineers from underrepresented populations. The outcome will be an integration of social perspectives and systems with technology to work toward improving the human experience for all.

Expanding Engineering Literacy

Over the next 50 years, the work that engineers have done to broaden the engineering curriculum to incorporate the humanities and social sciences will pay handsomely as all education will incorporate more engineering content. The definition of literacy has changed over time as society has become more sophisticated, placing greater demand on education.

Increased technological sophistication requires that all citizens have a greater understanding of basic engineering principles and concepts. This knowledge and the greater realization of human potential will enable more individuals to envision solutions to both non-market and market problems, and to start companies that create products that enrich the human experience.

Robotics, quantum mechanics, and advanced computing, among other leading-edge fields, will continue to push the boundaries of people’s lived experience. This boundary expansion can and should be positive and equitable.

Looking Forward

Having dominated global public discourse for over 30 years, the neoliberal agenda to reduce government has run its course. A new counterargument is emerged, with government as a vehicle for collective action and an agent to advance the objectives of citizens (Feldman et al. 2016). Government is the only entity in the economy that has the mandate to promote wellbeing and prosperity. Reliance on the market has not yielded a more just society. New thinking is required that is solution oriented. Engineers are solution architects and problem solvers.

Within 50 years, we project that Congress will have more engineers than lawyers, a welcome sea change. Rather than being called on to provide a quick technological fix, engineers work best when involved in the formulation of the response to a problem. There is a sense that pragmatism—an attribute that engineers bring to their work—is missing from the current political landscape.

We are optimistic that engineering over the next semicentennial will provide the fact-finding, problem-solving, and solution-implementing approaches that were glimpsed, but ultimately not realized, during the rise of economic reasoning.


Appelbaum B. 2019. False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society. New York: Little, Brown.

Clayton P. 2018. Innovation in local economic development strategy: The Wireless Research Center of North Carolina. Geography Compass 12(6):e12371.

Feldman MP, Hadjimichael T, Kemeny T, Lanahan L. 2016. The logic of economic development: A definition and model for investment. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 34:5–21.

Feldman M, Guy F, Iammarino S. 2020. Regional income disparities, monopoly and finance. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society.

Frank MR, Autor D, Bessen JE, Brynjolfsson E, Cebrian M, Deming DJ, Feldman M, Groh M, Lobo J, Moro E, and 3 others. 2019. Toward understanding the impact of artificial intelligence on labor. Proceedings, National Academy of Sciences 116(14):6531–39.

Petroski H. 2010. The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


About the Author:Maryann Feldman is the Heninger Distinguished Professor in the Department of Public Policy at the University of North Carolina, an adjunct professor of finance at Kenan-Flagler Business School, and a research director at UNC Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. Paige Clayton is an assistant professor of economic development in the School of City & Regional Planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology.