In This Issue
Engineering Challenges
September 1, 1999 Volume 29 Issue 3

There's Work to Be Done (editorial)

Wednesday, September 1, 1999

Author: George Bugliarello

As the beginning of the new millennium nears, it is sobering to take stock of the challenges facing our society that require the deep involvement of engineers.

We approach the millennium with a justifiable pride in the enormous achievements of engineering. In the last century alone, these achievements have revolutionized our lives and changed the physiognomy of our cities. From automobiles and aviation to travels in space, from telephony and radio to television and computers, and from water supply and sanitation to bioengineering, they have changed the ways we work and have nearly doubled our life expectancy. There will be ever more demands for engineering to extend those achievements and the reach of human beings far beyond where we are today. But, as we approach the end of this century, we need to recognize that much needs to be done to continue on the high road of innovation and that there are new kinds of challenges to be addressed.

Many of these challenges are of a purely technical nature, like finding ways to remain competitive by building better, faster, and cheaper, to go beyond the limits of silicon chips and invent entirely new kinds of computing elements, to create more sophisticated artificial organs and bio-machine interfaces, to develop the enormous possibilities of nanotechnologies, or to devise protective systems against terrorist attacks.

In the wake of recent events in the Balkans and other humanitarian disasters, it is clear that new kinds of military technologies are called for to deal with diffused, low-technological-intensity adversaries and conflicts, and that new logistic approaches have to be devised for massive humanitarian aid and rapid reconstruction. Here again, the need for creative engineering is paramount, as it is also in the continued development of intelligence systems to help us stay informed about the strength and intentions of potential adversaries.

The list of these technological challenges is a long one. But even longer, perhaps, is that of socio-technological challenges -- of how to address problems that require for their solution an intimate combination of technical and social skills. The permanence of poverty in over one-sixth of the world population is one such problem. The need to create jobs for over a billion people in the megacities of the developing world is another. In an ever more populous world, hunger and joblessness are dangerous and destabilizing global problems. Beyond our obvious self-interest in addressing these problems, simple humanity demands that we resolve to conquer them. We now possess the technology to increase food production, to create adequate shelter for all, and to teach useful skills to everyone, but we have to learn to better couple these technological capabilities with societal and organizational innovations. Engineers must press for recognition of the fact that technologies exist today to solve these problems, and that poverty, joblessness, and lack of shelter are not preordained to remain endemic phenomena of human life. Neither is it preordained that we remain victims of most natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Turkey. There is much that technology can do to mitigate their impact, if society is willing, for instance, to formulate and enforce new codes about seismic construction or new rules about floodplain occupancy.

Closer to home, an example of a key and urgent socio-technological problem is technological literacy. Our citizens should have a sense of technology’s role in our lives, of how technological decisions are reached, and of the kinds of questions that should be asked about any new technology. We have seen recently in the case of Kosovo how ill equipped the general public was to understand what could realistically be expected of the military technology employed. It is still not sufficiently recognized that technological literacy is essential to preserve and reinforce democracy in any modern country -- certainly in a country as dependent on technology as ours. Engineers have a major role to play in the development of technological literacy, because without it, without a knowledgeable electorate, we cannot hope to counter the continual threats to the federal R&D budget for engineering and the physical sciences.

U.S. engineering itself needs to be more representative of the U.S. population if it is to deal successfully with major socio-technological challenges at home. Although the battle for more women in engineering is being waged encouragingly, we are not gaining much ground when it comes to underrepresented minorities.

Another major socio-technological challenge for U.S. engineers is how to increase the productivity of vast sectors of our economy. We are fortunate that great engineering achievements have made information technology and telecommunications the most dynamic part of our economy. But the successful dynamism of these fields has not been emulated by other industries and the service sector. It is only recently, for instance, that the whole sector of retailing and merchandising, a large sector of our economy, has begun to recognize the significance that technology holds for its future. In the educational sector also, productivity remains a major concern; university tuitions have far outpaced inflation, and, in primary and secondary schools, achievement does not match investment, despite ever-growing expenditures in technology.

Again, here at home, our engineering skills could be used more effectively to help our government in its relations with other countries. This is a multifaceted issue. A simple example has to do with the large number of foreign students who come here to learn engineering and science. We train those students indistinguishably from our own and do little to prepare them for the leadership positions they usually assume when they return home; this is both a challenge for our engineering schools and an opportunity for our country to help develop competent leadership abroad.

The enormous needs of the rapidly growing number of large cities in the developing world offer us still another opportunity. Those very large urban concentrations, with daunting problems ranging from housing to infrastructure to jobs, must be helped to walk on their own feet. By and large, traditional assistance programs have not worked. A novel self-help approach is needed to trigger new attitudes toward innovation. This may require pooling the needs of several cities across national borders to create sufficiently large markets for urban technological innovations, both indigenous and coming from the developed world, that are appropriate for their economies -- an example of an exquisitely difficult but crucial socio-technological challenge for the next millennium.

On the threshold of the new millennium, most engineers undoubtedly have their own lists of challenges and opportunities and their own views of the problems crying for engineering involvement. But one thing is clear: the potential demands on the thin line of American engineers -- a line made even thinner by the decreasing number of students interested in engineering -- are immense.

There’s work to be done.

About the Author:George Bugliarello is chancellor, Polytechnic University, and interim editor-in-chief of The Bridge.