2001 Annual Meeting - Chairman's Remarks

Technology, Leadership and Public Policy
George M.C. Fisher
October 7, 2001
National Academy of Engineering


On Sept. 18, seven days after the New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington tragedies, a major New York Times story led with a professional engineer "holding court among conference tables stacked with blueprints."

Normally, that would not be cause for great notice. But this engineer was trying to figure out how to keep the supporting walls of the basement of the World Trade Center from collapsing - a crucial question since, as he explained, "You've got the Hudson River across the street."

As the story went on to detail his efforts to solve this huge, complex and dangerous problem, I realized how rarely ordinary people ever get to read about, much less try to understand, what engineers do.

So I was even more drawn on the same page to a second story in which a number of engineers were asked how to defend skyscrapers against terrorism.

How tall should these buildings be? What should they be made of? How can you build them to slow down fires and protect stairwells? Are the costs of such protection prohibitive? One can't help but notice that these aren't simply engineering issues - they're also important public policy questions. They can't be answered by only MBAs or lawyers or history majors.

They can only be answered by or with the help of engineers who also know a lot about public policy - and who have a place at the table with the other people making the decisions.

In the 21st Century, many of the most vexing public policy questions will fit this description. The role of engineers must expand dramatically as our world becomes more complex.

Now, we all know the popular image of engineers. We're shy, retiring dweebs who wear pocket protectors, have trouble with words, and would rather be home alone with our computers, ham radios or erector sets. And, I suppose there are just enough of us who fit that image to make us a bit defensive.

The new engineers, however, the ones who will have a place at the policy table, must understand more than ever the human dimensions of technology. They'll know how to communicate effectively. They'll be aware of cultural diversity and familiar with complex global issues.

Issues like, globalization as it evolves from a ‘90’s catch-phrase to permanent reality. It has two faces. A happy face = the glories of global trade and the Internet, which have eradicated boundaries, opened paths and sped up communication, creating enormous wealth. A sad face = the dispossessed on the move, homeless, landless, jobless, unskilled. Migrating to mega-cities. Their cultures undermined.

Most of us in the West do, in fact, have a global blind spot. We speak of the Third World as if it were another planet, far from our own. We don't acknowledge and perhaps we are ignorant of the scale of the misery. Or, until last month, that that misery can directly affect us. Instead, we often have parochial tunnel vision. For politicians, that means getting and staying elected. For corporate leaders, it's often sacrificing the future for short-term results.

For techies, it's inventing new gizmos with all too little thought for real human needs and real human users.

The late academy member Michael Dertouzos, who directed the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT, wrote of sitting on an airplane for three hours trying to get a smart card designed for his new laptop to work. He couldn't do it. One of his traveling companions, a pioneer in developing the Internet (no, not Al Gore) couldn't do it either. Nor could another faculty member. After a long struggle Dertouzos got it working, but had no idea how.

This seems beyond even tunnel vision: Dertouzos attributed it to an “endemic engineering mind set” so passive-aggressive toward customers that it might be named “virtual hostility”.

And the problem is compounded in the Third World, that place in our blind spot, which is desperate for practical solutions from a human perspective. Technology is driving several hugely important issues that cry out for trenchant advice from engineers who understand public policy issues.

Global terrorism, which Bill Wulf will speak about, is one such issue.

Another is Earth Systems Engineering. The Earth was designed as a geological and biological habitat. It is fast becoming an engineering artifact.

We have built and built, from L.A. to Tokyo, with too little regard for the secondary and tertiary consequences. We've drained our wetlands, paved our parking lots, spewed carbon into the air, and flushed chemicals into the water.

Now we're in a bind. We will likely never reduce carbon emissions to 1900 levels. We are way too late to conserve our way out of the problem. Sun, wind and water probably won't be able to generate more than 10% of our energy needs for a long time, if ever. That leaves fossil fuels and nuclear power - and some very heavy political baggage.

Hardly anyone wants to think - and is trained to think - on such scale. But, Earth Systems Engineers are. They need to be at the table.

Another crucial issue, as Bill Wulf mentioned yesterday to the new members, involves “mega-cities.” By 2050, there are likely to be four billion people living in cities of 10 million or more. That's the equivalent of adding 8 mega-cities to the planet each year. At least one quarter of their inhabitants - one billion people - will live in absolute poverty. Economic growth unfortunately will probably come at the cost of polluting the water and air. Issues around transportation, drinking water, sewage and disease will be hideously complex.

In the past we've largely ignored these issues. The public policy questions are staggering. But, if anyone can help untangle this knot of technology and human needs, engineers can.

Dire scenarios like these take place at one end of the spectrum. But, at the other end, is reason for optimism: the potential for creative solutions through new technology. An example is the application of high-speed computation. This already has been, for example, a significant enabler of the Human Genome Project.

It almost surely will lead to advances in other fields so innovative that they are impossible to foresee. The potential applications for food production alone offer great hope to the world.

But, it is not enough for engineers to help develop these technologies. Technology by itself does not solve problems of public policy. That is why the participation of engineers in the wider world is so vital now. Who better to sit on local committees about land use? Who better to write op-ed pieces for the local newspaper? Who better to speak up and take the wind out of the sails of politicians and pundits who build their careers on simple-minded approaches to complex problems? Who better to serve in Congress, the Cabinet, The White House? Why not?

Engineering is a difficult, demanding discipline. We learn to build things, to make things work. That knowledge carries a responsibility, especially in times like these. We are NEEDED. Rhetoric cannot build a bridge, put in a sewer system, design a computer, clean the air or design a mega-city.

Engineers are needed now, more than ever, to help make the world a more livable place - not just because it's the right thing to do; but, as we have recently learned, because angry, dispossessed people can become supporters of terrorist demagogues who extract a high price from us through their murderous acts.

This is sometimes referred to, by policy analysts, as “draining the swamp" - removing the breeding ground for terrorism by improving the quality of life for all.

Today the news remains full of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and Afghanistan. It makes for unsettling; but also very sad reading; and, for sure, we must be uncompromising in our efforts to stop terrorists where ever they may be. As we do this, it is instructive to look back to when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and reduced its cities to rubble.

The West, covertly and not so covertly, armed and trained anti-Soviet resistance groups, including the Taliban. But, when Soviet troops finally left Afghanistan after 10 years of frustration, so did the West.

What if, instead, we had sent our engineers to rebuild it? Our doctors? Our agricultural experts? Our business people? What if our policy toward Afghanistan had been a cooperative effort, hammered out by people who understood all the consequences, technological as well as political?

None of this happened, of course. It wasn't in anyone's parochial interest. It wouldn't have been easy to do and it would have cost a lot of money - but perhaps a tiny fraction of what it will cost to rebuild New York. Not that anything would have prevented those treacherous terrorists' actions, but we might have lessened their support base in Afghanistan.

After September 11, however, parochial attitudes suddenly looked petty and foolish. Old political antagonists put their arms around each other and sang “God Bless America.” The show of unity and cooperation seems genuine, not forced. It was as if a sudden alignment of interests had taken place: the public interest, the national interest and the global interest.

Some of this, of course, happened because people were deeply shocked and fearful. But, it's also what can happen when we understand, not just in our heads, but in our hearts, that we are all really in this together.

It's time for each of us as engineers to rise to the challenge.

In conclusion I would remind us that with recognition comes responsibility. As NAE members you are the most accomplished and most respected members of the engineering profession. It is up to you to:

1.Widen your horizons. Be a Renaissance engineer - that is, an engineer for the 21st century.

2.Get involved in public policy. Don't be afraid to run for office. Stand for practical, cooperative solutions. Bring your expertise to the table and make others want to listen to you.

3.Most important, go out and change the world. Make it a better place. Improve the quality of life for all the people of the earth. Isn't that what engineering is really all about?