Introduction to the Grand Challenges for Engineering

Throughout human history, engineering has driven the advance of civilization.

From the metallurgists who ended the Stone Age to the shipbuilders who united the world’s peoples through travel and trade, the past witnessed many marvels of engineering prowess. As civilization grew, it was nourished and enhanced with the help of increasingly sophisticated tools for agriculture, technologies for producing textiles, and inventions transforming human interaction and communication. Inventions such as the mechanical clock and the printing press irrevocably changed civilization.

In the modern era, the Industrial Revolution brought engineering’s influence to every niche of life, as machines supplemented and replaced human labor for countless tasks, improved systems for sanitation enhanced health, and the steam engine facilitated mining, powered trains and ships, and provided energy for factories.

In the century just ended, engineering recorded its grandest accomplishments. The widespread development and distribution of electricity and clean water, automobiles and airplanes, radio and television, spacecraft and lasers, antibiotics and medical imaging, and computers and the Internet are just some of the highlights from a century in which engineering revolutionized and improved virtually every aspect of human life. Find out more about the great engineering achievements of the 20th century from a separate NAE website.

For all of these advances, though, the century ahead poses challenges as formidable as any from millennia past. As the population grows and its needs and desires expand, the problem of sustaining civilization’s continuing advancement, while still improving the quality of life, looms more immediate. Old and new threats to personal and public health demand more effective and more readily available treatments. Vulnerabilities to pandemic diseases, terrorist violence, and natural disasters require serious searches for new methods of protection and prevention. And products and processes that enhance the joy of living remain a top priority of engineering innovation, as they have been since the taming of fire and the invention of the wheel.

In each of these broad realms of human concern — sustainability, health, vulnerability, and joy of living — specific grand challenges await engineering solutions. The world’s cadre of engineers will seek ways to put knowledge into practice to meet these grand challenges. Applying the rules of reason, the findings of science, the aesthetics of art, and the spark of creative imagination, engineers will continue the tradition of forging a better future.

Foremost among the challenges are those that must be met to ensure the future itself. The Earth is a planet of finite resources, and its growing population currently consumes them at a rate that cannot be sustained. Widely reported warnings have emphasized the need to develop new sources of energy, at the same time as preventing or reversing the degradation of the environment.

Sunshine has long offered a tantalizing source of environmentally friendly power, bathing the Earth with more energy each hour than the planet’s population consumes in a year. But capturing that power, converting it into useful forms, and especially storing it for a rainy day, poses provocative engineering challenges.

Another popular proposal for long-term energy supplies is nuclear fusion, the artificial re-creation of the sun’s source of power on Earth. The quest for fusion has stretched the limits of engineering ingenuity, but hopeful developments suggest the goal of practical fusion power may yet be attainable.

Engineering solutions for both solar power and nuclear fusion must be feasible not only technologically but also economically when compared with the ongoing use of fossil fuels. Even with success, however, it remains unlikely that fossil fuels will be eliminated from the planet’s energy-source budget anytime soon, leaving their environment-associated issues for engineers to address. Most notoriously, evidence is mounting that the carbon dioxide pumped into the air by the burning of fossil fuels is increasing the planet’s temperature and threatens disruptive effects on climate. Anticipating the continued use of fossil fuels, engineers have explored technological methods of capturing the carbon dioxide produced from fuel burning and sequestering it underground.

A further but less publicized environmental concern involves the atmosphere’s dominant component, the element nitrogen. The biogeochemical cycle that extracts nitrogen from the air for its incorporation into plants — and hence food — has become altered by human activity. With widespread use of fertilizers and high-temperature industrial combustion, humans have doubled the rate at which nitrogen is removed from the air relative to pre-industrial times, contributing to smog and acid rain, polluting drinking water, and even worsening global warming. Engineers must design countermeasures for nitrogen cycle problems, while maintaining the ability of agriculture to produce adequate food supplies.

Chief among concerns in this regard is the quality and quantity of water, which is in seriously short supply in many regions of the world. Both for personal use — drinking, cleaning, cooking, and removal of waste — and large-scale use such as irrigation for agriculture, water must be available and sustainably provided to maintain quality of life. New technologies for desalinating sea water may be helpful, but small-scale technologies for local water purification may be even more effective for personal needs.

Naturally, water quality and many other environmental concerns are closely related to questions of human health. While many of the health scourges of the past have been controlled and even eliminated by modern medicine, other old ones such as malaria remain deadly, and newer problems have remained resistant to medical advances, requiring new medical technologies and methods.

One goal of biomedical engineering today is fulfilling the promise of personalized medicine. Doctors have long recognized that individuals differ in their susceptibility to disease and their response to treatments, but medical technologies have generally been offered as "one size fits all." Recent cataloging of the human genetic endowment, and deeper understanding of the body’s complement of proteins and their biochemical interactions, offer the prospect of identifying the specific factors that determine sickness and wellness in any individual.

An important way of exploiting such information would be the development of methods that allow doctors to forecast the benefits and side effects of potential treatments or cures. “Reverse-engineering” the brain, to determine how it performs its magic, should offer the dual benefits of helping treat diseases while providing clues for new approaches to computerized artificial intelligence. Advanced computer intelligence, in turn, should enable automated diagnosis and prescriptions for treatment. And computerized catalogs of health information should enhance the medical system’s ability to track the spread of disease and analyze the comparative effectiveness of different approaches to prevention and therapy.

Another reason to develop new medicines is the growing danger of attacks from novel disease-causing agents. Certain deadly bacteria, for instance, have repeatedly evolved new properties, conferring resistance against even the most powerful antibiotics. New viruses arise with the power to kill and spread more rapidly than disease-prevention systems are designed to counteract.

As a consequence, vulnerability to biological disaster ranks high on the list of unmet challenges for biomedical engineers — just as engineering solutions are badly needed to counter the violence of terrorists and the destructiveness of earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural dangers. Technologies for early detection of such threats and rapid deployment of countermeasures (such as vaccines and antiviral drugs) rank among the most urgent of today’s engineering challenges.

Even as terrorist attacks, medical epidemics, and natural disasters represent acute threats to the quality of life, more general concerns pose challenges for the continued enhancement of living. Engineers face the grand challenge of renewing and sustaining the aging infrastructures of cities and services, while preserving ecological balances and enhancing the aesthetic appeal of living spaces.

And the external world is not the only place where engineering matters; the inner world of the mind should benefit from improved methods of instruction and learning, including ways to tailor the mind’s growth to its owner’s propensities and abilities. Some new methods of instruction, such as computer-created virtual realities, will no doubt also be adopted for entertainment and leisure, furthering engineering’s contributions to the joy of living.

The spirit of curiosity in individual minds and in society as a whole can be further promoted through engineering endeavors enhancing exploration at the frontiers of reality and knowledge, by providing new tools for investigating the vastness of the cosmos or the inner intricacy of life and atoms.

All of these examples merely scratch the surface of the challenges that engineers will face in the 21st century. The problems described here merely illustrate the magnitude and complexity of the tasks that must be mastered to ensure the sustainability of civilization and the health of its citizens, while reducing individual and societal vulnerabilities and enhancing the joy of living in the modern world.

None of these challenges will be met, however, without finding ways to overcome the barriers that block their accomplishment. Most obviously, engineering solutions must always be designed with economic considerations in mind — for instance, despite environmental regulations, cheaper polluting technologies often remain preferred over more expensive, clean technologies.

Engineers must also face formidable political obstacles. In many parts of the world, entrenched groups benefiting from old systems wield political power that blocks new enterprises. Even where no one group stands in the way of progress, the expense of new engineering projects can deter action, and meeting many of the century’s challenges will require unprecedented levels of public funding. Current government budgets for U.S. infrastructure improvement alone falls hundreds of billions of dollars short of estimated needs. Securing the funds necessary to meet all the great challenges will require both popular and political support. Engineers must join with scientists, educators, and others to encourage and promote improved science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in the schools and enhanced flow of technical information to the public at large — conveying not just the facts of science and engineering, but also an appreciation of the ways that scientists and engineers acquire the knowledge and tools required to meet society’s needs.

Public understanding of engineering and its underlying science will be important to support the calls for funding, as well as to enhance the prospect for successful adoption of new technologies. The ultimate users of engineering’s products are people with individual and personal concerns, and in many cases, resistance to new ways of doing things will have to be overcome. Teachers must revamp their curricula and teaching styles to benefit from electronic methods of personalized learning. Doctors and hospital personnel will have to alter their methods to make use of health informatics systems and implement personalized medicine. New systems for drug regulation and approval will be needed when medicines are designed for small numbers of individuals rather than patient populations as a whole.

A prime example where such a barrier exists is in the challenge of reducing vulnerability to assaults on cyberspace, such as identity theft and computer viruses designed to disrupt Internet traffic. Systems for keeping cyberspace secure must be designed to be compatible with human users — cumbersome methods that have to be rigorously observed don’t work, because people find them inconvenient. Part of the engineering task will be discovering which approaches work best at ensuring user cooperation with new technologies.

In sum, governmental and institutional, political and economic, and personal and social barriers will repeatedly arise to impede the pursuit of solutions to problems. As they have throughout history, engineers will have to integrate their methods and solutions with the goals and desires of all society’s members.

And “all society’s members” must be interpreted literally. Perhaps the most difficult challenge of all will be to disperse the fruits of engineering widely around the globe, to rich and poor alike.

In the world today, many of engineering’s gifts to civilization are distributed unevenly. At least a billion people do not have access to adequate supplies of clean water. Countless millions have virtually no medical care available, let alone personalized diagnosis and treatment. Solving computer security problems has little meaning for the majority of the world’s population on the wrong side of the digital divide. Sustainable supplies of food, water, and energy; protection from human violence, natural disaster, and disease; full access to the joys of learning, exploration, communication, and entertainment — these are goals for all of the world’s people.

So in pursuing the century's great challenges, engineers must frame their work with the ultimate goal of universal accessibility in mind. Just as Abraham Lincoln noted that a house divided against itself cannot stand, a world divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and hunger, cannot long remain a stable place for civilization to thrive.

Through the engineering accomplishments of the past, the world has become smaller, more inclusive, and more connected. The challenges facing engineering today are not those of isolated locales, but of the planet as a whole and all the planet’s people. Meeting all those challenges must make the world not only a more technologically advanced and connected place, but also a more sustainable, safe, healthy, and joyous — in other words, better — place.