Engineering the Future for Sustainability

Wed, October 25, 2023

2023 NAE Annual Meeting: Engineering the Future for Sustainability

“Innovating and rebuilding with sustainability in mind requires expertise and creativity relevant to all disciplines within engineering,” said NAE President John L. Anderson.

“Choosing ‘Engineering the Future for Sustainability’ as the theme for the 2023 NAE Annual Meeting will further facilitate collaboration among all engineering and science disciplines, including the social sciences, and nurture the exchange of diverse ideas,” he noted.

The event was held Oct. 1-2 in Washington, DC. Following is a recap of the main events and presentations. All sessions and speaker presentation may be accessed via the NAE website.

Induction Ceremony: 2023 Class of NAE Members


The event kicked off with a standing room only induction of the  2023 Class of NAE Members.

“While the NAE selects its new members based on an exhaustive search and evaluation process, it is much more than just an honorific society,” said NAE Chair Donald C. Winter. “Our role as an advisor to the nation on technical matters has been a core responsibility.” 

This sentiment was echoed by NAE Executive Officer Alton D. Romig, who said, “Today, we are celebrating the marvelous contributions that the engineers in this year’s class have made in research, innovation, manufacturing, education, the creation of novel technologies, and in designing solutions to real-world problems. Engineering improves the human condition, and that is the message we are consistently trying to convey to the public young and old.”

Special Lecture on Engineering and Society: “Engineering Ecosystems with AI,” featuring Alex “Sandy” Pentland KAP_NAS_AnnualMeeting_2023_10_01-558.jpg

Leading a discussion on “Engineering Ecosystems with AI,” Alex “Sandy” Pentland examined how tools like AI and large language models could help integrate human behavior into predictive models to improve our responses to vexing societal challenges such as climate change, pandemics, and income inequality. Pentland, the director of the MIT Connection Science Research Initiative and creator and previous director of the MIT Media Lab and the Media Lab Asia in India, is a pioneer in harnessing network science to understand and change real-world human behaviors.


The reason you might want to pay attention, other than intellectual interest, is that the new federal infrastructure bill includes social structure in the definition of infrastructure,” Pentland said. “In other words, they’re saying engineering social structure is now part of engineering. That might be a little controversial, but the non-controversial way to put it is when you build a highway, you advantage certain people and disadvantage other people. When you come up with any sort of policy or infrastructure, it has differential effects, some of which are not immediately obvious, and it’s saying you should think about that. Now, why did they put that on that bill? Because of the failures that we’ve experienced from not accounting for human social structure and human behavior.

A natural way for AI to be used is to help people understand more opportunities, more facts, and what other people do as a commonsense engine to help upskill people.

Plenary Speaker: “Sustainability: The Defining Challenge and Opportunity of the 21st Century,” featuring Arun Majumdar

In his presentation, Sustainability: The Defining Challenge and Opportunity of the 21st Century,” Arun Majumdar, Jay Precourt Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Energy Science and Engineering at Stanford University presented a comprehensive overview of the global sustainability problem and elaborated on the urgency of the matter. 

I’ve been using an indigenous quote, which my staff decided to paint on my office wall. It’s about how we look at the future. “We do not inherit this earth from our ancestors. We are borrowing it from our children.” That gives a perspective of what we do in the next 10 to 20 years is going to be extremely important with the world we leave behind for children and grandchildren. This needs to be done, in the words of Martin Luther King, “with a fierce urgency of now.”

Forum on Engineering the Future for Sustainability

Annual Meeting photo

Collaboration is key to addressing and solving climate issues. The “Forum on Engineering the Future for Sustainability” featured a panel of environmental and sustainability experts moderated by Deanne Bell, founder and CEO of Future Engineers. 

Here are some highlights of their remarks.

Much of the sustainability to date has also been focused on decarbonization efforts, and measuring progress in some ways is easier for climate mitigation. It’s avoided, reduced, or removed greenhouse gases.

Measuring progress, however, towards climate resilience requires much different metrics. It requires flood-resilient buildings, extreme-weather-resilient grids [among other things] being implemented. There’s a number of things that need to be done to build out our ability to measure that going forward.   -  Sarah Kapnick, chief scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Right now, the US Department of Energy is leading the effort to bring in an international consortium of countries of both importers of natural gas and exporters of natural gas to agree to a global playing field. There are immense technical challenges on this, but the goal is big, and we can engineer these systems for measuring, reporting, and then independently verifying the sustainability features of our products. These are on the verge of development but need guidance from organizations like the National Academies and need the work of engineers to put all these systems together.  -  David Allen, Norbert Dittrich-Welch Chair in Chemical Engineering, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Resources, and co-director of the Energy Emissions Modeling and Data Lab, University of Texas at Austin

In terms of the current state of sustainability... what we see in a survey of major companies in late 2020 is that Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is becoming the choice of standards that companies rely on. It’s a little ahead of the United States in terms of what percent of the companies report on environmental, social, and governance (ESG)-related metrics in South America, Asia, as well as Europe. Many of these include a long list of measures.  - Erkan Erdem, partner and National Leader of Economic Services practice, KPMG LLP

2023 Award Recipients

  • Robert W. Conn, Walter Zable Distinguished Professor and dean of engineering (emeritus) at the University of California, San Diego, received the Simon Ramo Founders Award “for shaping national science and technology policy through leadership in academia, business, and philanthropy and for seminal contributions to fusion engineering.” The Simon Ramo Founders Award honors an outstanding NAE member or international member who has upheld the ideals and principles of the NAE through professional, educational, and personal achievements. 
  • David Tennenhouse, senior advisor in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP), received the Arthur M. Bueche Award “for the conception, implementation, and stewardship of information technology R&D involving unique partnerships among academia, industry, and government.” The Arthur M. Bueche Award recognizes an engineer who has been actively involved in determining US science and technology policy, promoting technological development, and contributing to the enhancement of relations between industry, government, and academia.

Nadine N. Aubry, professor at Tufts University, was installed as the George and Virginia Bugliarello International Secretary.

Celebration of Life: Wm. A. Wulf

The meeting also included a Celebration of Life for Wm. A. Wulf, NAE president from 1996-2007. Colleagues, friends, students, and family members of the late NAE president spoke of how he inspired and enhanced their lives and the lives of everyone around him. Bill is remembered and revered for his service as NAE president, as well as for his many accomplishments in engineering and engineering leadership, yet his legacy will live on.