21st Century Innovations

PostedJanuary 29, 2007

21st Century Innovations


Here is a brief history of my trying to generate a list of remarkable technology challenges for the 21st century, to be presented to the National Academy of Engineering in 2101, by the first person (a Purdue graduate, of course) to step onto the surface of Mars.

I decided to create this list after listening to Neil Armstrong give a presentation on this topic of the 20th Century Great Innovations, followed by publication of the book, "A Century of Innovation".  I thought it was such an impressive list and book that I decided to make a list for the 21st century, based on the same criteria; technology that significantly benefits human society.  Incidentally, I have purchased and given away maybe 50 of these books, as prizes for innovation, for recognition of innovation talks and presentations, etc. It is a fabulous book!

Three things impressed me about the 20th century list:
1. The benefits were largely universal, affecting people across the globe and at all economic levels (even if large groups of people were unable to reap these benefits).
2. The technologies were diverse and depended on the timely parallel accomplishments of science, particularly quantum theory, nuclear physics and relativity, along with the outstanding achievements in mathematics and medicine.
3. The devices that enabled all these innovations, telephones, airplanes, computers power plants, automobiles, generators, motors, etc., were made in such quantity and quality that they were affordable by large numbers of people, thus making them relatively universally available.  Their development and exploitation depended for the most part on the economic wealth generated by the capital assets devoted to their manufacture and distribution; oil wells, iron ore mines, factories, ship and railroads, etc.

So I developed my first list, unranked (the 20th century list, given below, was ranked in order of benefit to society over the 100 years of the 20th century).

20th Century Innovation Topics
1. Electrification
2. Automobile
3. Airplane
4. Water supply and distribution
5. Electronics
6. Radio and television
7. Agricultural mechanization
8. Computers
9. Telephone
10. Air conditioning/refrigeration
11. Interstate highways
12. Space flight
13. Internet
14. Imaging
15. Household appliances
16. Health technologies
17. Petrochemical technology
18. Laser and fiber optics
19. Nuclear technologies
20. High-performance materials

I used this list in my talks about innovation, at universities, conferences, industrial seminars, etc.  The list was revised as people made suggestions, and sub-topics being a little more granular in content were added.  I've given varieties of this talk at Purdue, Malaysia, MIT, Kansas State, various universities in China, in Israel, as well as at several major professional conferences.  These talks are available if one wants a copy.

Eventually, I presented this list to what we call an Industrial Fellows Forum in November 2006; a forum made up of Fellows and Fellow program managers, representing about 27 industrial concerns and represented by 45 Fellows/program managers.  We then edited the list, added more sub-topics and voted on the list, in terms of TOP, MIDDLE and BOTTOM innovative domains, although realizing that even the BOTTOM topics had much merit in a list of 21 topics for the 21st century (rather than 20 topics for the 20th century.  We actually have 22 topics; when all the votes are in, we will list the top 21 in priority order.

Personally, I see some topics that currently are low on the list, which follows, that seem to me to be too low: AI and robotics, Space Exploration, Preservation of History and Species, for example. But the list is prioritized in voting order.

In parallel to the 20th century list, there are some obvious relationships.  For example, the 20th century list depended on the providing of cheap power through electrification, capital assets such as factories, mines, oil wells and refineries, to be impactful; the 21st century list seems to be dependent on providing knowledge resources through the Internet, and computers and communication devices, to be impactful (e.g., weather prediction and control, traffic and logistics, terrorism and security, etc., all depend on availability of vast sources of knowledge and rapid dissemination of this knowledge to the right, connected people).  So as the 20th century was dominated by physical capital and lots of physical objects, the 21st century will be dominated by intellectual capital and lots of virtual objects.

Of course, this list will be wrong; had the 20th century list been created in 1907, the automobile, airplane, telephone, even nuclear power, might have been envisioned as important, but certainly the Internet, the computer and many appliances would not have been even thought of.  So my list is likely to be wrong; who knows what magic will be developed in 2069 that will be earth-shattering in its ability to improve the quality of life throughout the world!

But the list is what it is, and is given below, in priority order.

21st Century Innovation Topics
1. Energy conservation
2. Resource protection
3. Food and water production and distribution
4. Waste management
5. Education and learning
6. Medicine and prolonging life
7. Security and counter-terrorism
8. New technology
9. Genetics and cloning
10. Global communication
11. Traffic and population logistics
12. Knowledge sharing
13. Integrated electronic environment
14. Globalization
15. AI, interfaces and robotics
16. Weather prediction and control
17. Sustainable development
18. Entertainment
19. Space exploration
20. "Virtualization" and VR
21. Preservation of history
22. Preservation of species 

(I have sub-topics for each; for example, resource protection includes gas, liquid, solid, radioactive, hazardous, etc. components.  And each of these sub-topics can be further subdivided, to specifically identifiable programs.  I have intended to do this in further iterations of the list).



Constable, George, and Somerville, Bob. 2003. A Century of Innovation: Twenty Engineering Achievements that Transformed our Lives. Washington, D.C., National Academies Press. With a forward by Neil Armstrong and an afterward by Arthur C. Clarke. Available online at http://books.nap.edu/catalog/10726.html

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  • Derek Rector
    Derek Rector

    Posted 6 months, 2 weeks and 3 days ago

    100 years of inspiration
    Could our next 20 come in 25 years instead of 100? That should be a challenge.
  • chima evidence
    chima evidence

    Posted 1 year and 4 months ago

    chima evidence from nigeria comments on 21st Century Innovations
    This is a good job for the engineering society
  • Karrie

    Posted 1 year and 4 months ago

    Karrie from Texas comments on 21st Century Innovations
    My dad is an engineer and he says these things all the time!!
  • muyasa

    Posted 1 year and 5 months ago

    muyasa from buffalo comments on 21st Century Innovations
    i really think that this information are very important
  • Esakki muthu.k
    Esakki muthu.k

    Posted 1 year and 7 months ago

    Esakki muthu.k from Ramanathapuran comments on 21st Century Innovations
    Surprise innovative topics based on mechanical engineering.
  • Yanira Amaya
    Yanira Amaya

    Posted 1 year and 8 months ago

    Yanira Amaya from UPBC,Mexicali comments on 21st Century Innovations
    I found this topic very interesting and is a very good summary of the advance of the technology.
    I share your idea of the awesome things; this generate benefits for the people and a lot of money for the innovations and owner of patents.
    I like the ideas and the advances of the technology an also enjoy all the improvements that this brought to my life. But for another point of view, now the young people are very different than when I was a child, now thanks to the technology the people are selfish, low quality of life, problems with their health, weight, robs between the technology and the people, maybe it’s has a lot advantages but also has disadvantages that are attacking strongly to weak minded people.
  • emmanuel chiki
    emmanuel chiki

    Posted 1 year and 8 months ago

    emmanuel chiki from nigeria comments on 21st Century Innovations
    good work done,all the topics are relavant to us,but we need a sub topic to each to know in details and the year of inventation. Thanks this is de young chemist.
  • kurvesh

    Posted 1 year and 9 months ago

    kurvesh from surat comments on 21st Century Innovations
    I want no.5 education and learning all problems can be solved our great leaders says get education
  • Tarzaan Sinclair
    Tarzaan Sinclair

    Posted 1 year and 10 months ago

    Tarzaan Sinclair from Nigeria comments on 21st Century Innovations
    I am a Nigerian currently studying mechanical engineering,i love challenges so much and would like to know the best thing to focus my attention on--i would be happy if am responsible for new discoveries.
  • Tushar

    Posted 2 years ago

    Tushar from surat comments on 21st Century Innovations
    I want to knw deeply about topic no.11 Traffic and population logistic so give me some deep description about this topic plz...
  • sowjanya priya
    sowjanya priya

    Posted 2 years and 2 months ago

    sowjanya priya from rgukt comments on 21st Century Innovations
    innovation topics listed above are really important.if u give more information about each topics it is good for readers
  • Dr. Solo Dolo
    Dr. Solo Dolo

    Posted 2 years and 3 months ago

    Dr. Solo Dolo from US comments on 21st Century Innovations
    I disagree that entertainment is above the others on this list.
  • patel v b
    patel v b

    Posted 2 years and 3 months ago

    patel v b from karamsad comments on 21st Century Innovations
    thanks my friend, i appreciate your hard work
    and same things i think everyday

    Posted 2 years and 4 months ago

    SEM P GOEL from INDIA comments on 21st Century Innovations
    Excellent list and a very good idea to motivate many persons.
    I think, in addition to so many Innovations (which have made our life easy & comfortable), Bi-Cycle has been one of the greatest innovations not only of 19th Century but till day.
    Now Energy is one item which is needed the most and at all times(24*7)& life becomes hell if the power goes off even for a sec.
    Can some item be developed or invented which can produce some storable energy from the sun rays or wind or our exaled breathing air from the mouth or movement of body parts.
    Another can be producing potable warer from the air around us.
    Thanks & with best wishes.
  • Dr. M. P. Gupta
    Dr. M. P. Gupta

    Posted 2 years and 6 months ago

    Dr. M. P. Gupta from Kurukshetra- India comments on 21st Century Innovations
    In the time to come, we shall be needing multi intelligent persons.Students need to be taught multi skills. I think that we should introduce innovative engineering as one of the discipline in engineering institutions
  • anchal.j.jain

    Posted 2 years and 7 months ago

    anchal.j.jain from india comments on 21st Century Innovations
    Now a days things are developing drasticaly where every human being is trying to change themselves in all the ways they can.
  • Azka Haq
    Azka Haq

    Posted 2 years and 8 months ago

    Azka Haq from Pakistan comments on 21st Century Innovations
    Can you give sub topics for New Tecnology ?
  • Araka Ebuka
    Araka Ebuka

    Posted 2 years and 9 months ago

    Araka Ebuka from Bloombreed High School, Nigeria comments on 21st Century Innovations
    I thought of an invention. I noticed that cables are always running tthrough place making the whole place look disorganised. So, I thought of if it was possible to make electricity to be like bluetooth- To be wireless, sent as 'signals'. What do you all think?
  • Araka Ebuka
    Araka Ebuka

    Posted 2 years and 10 months ago

    Araka Ebuka from Nigeria comments on 21st Century Innovations
    My name is Ebuka Araka. I am a student of Bloombreed High School, Nigeria. I am a science whizkid with a very high IQ. I want to win a Nobel prize in both physics and chemistry. I need ideas on what to invent that would greatly impact mankind. I went twice for a NHSMUN Conference in New York. I want to be an Aeronautical Engineer. Thanks.
  • fakorede adeyemi
    fakorede adeyemi

    Posted 2 years and 12 months ago

    fakorede adeyemi from nigeria comments on 21st Century Innovations
    A good job that will serve as a guide to the engineers