Grand Challenges for Engineering  -  Apr 24, 2014

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21st Century Innovations

By Eugene S. Meieran, Senior Intel Fellow at Intel Corp. in Chandler, Ariz.

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 <>.

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Esakki muthu.k, Ramanathapuran


Surprise innovative topics based on mechanical engineering.

Yanira Amaya, UPBC,Mexicali


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 itís has a lot advantages but also has disadvantages that are attacking strongly to weak minded people.

emmanuel chiki , nigeria


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, surat


I want no.5 education and learning all problems can be solved our great leaders says get education

Tarzaan Sinclair, Nigeria


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, surat


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, rgukt


innovation topics listed above are really important.if u give more information about each topics it is good for readers

Dr. Solo Dolo, US


I disagree that entertainment is above the others on this list.

patel v b, karamsad


thanks my friend, i appreciate your hard work and same things i think everyday



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 , Kurukshetra- India


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, india


Now a days things are developing drasticaly where every human being is trying to change themselves in all the ways they can.

Azka Haq, Pakistan


Can you give sub topics for New Tecnology ?

Araka Ebuka, Bloombreed High School, Nigeria


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, Nigeria


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, nigeria


A good job that will serve as a guide to the engineers

mansi, lucknow


its very informative

manoj, india


these innovations are much interesting to work on

Prathyu, India


The information above is very useful and we want with pictures and each topc should be xpanded then it is very useful

Saadu O. Bashir, Nigeria


So challenging, keep it up!!!

akintade, nigeria


its a good job

akhlaque, pakistan


this very helpful for future goal setting and initiatives of nations/countries like Pakistan.

Abigal, Orlando, Florida


Super Helpful

Abigal, Orlando, Florida


Super Helpful

Praveen Gupta, Chicago


It is an interesting list. I am wondering if there is a method to arrive at the list. I teach innovation at college level, and I would love to learn about the methods of identifying the 21st Century challenges. Praveen Gupta

nalinipriya, india


very interesting n looking forward for more innovative topics.

Anais Arriaga, Manhattan,California


Super Helpful! Muahhh Thanks;*

Michael Lucas Monterey, Seattle, WA


Eugene, I was pleasantly surprized by your list and, now that we're approaching 2012, I think you did a remarkable job. However, I think you may as well have deliberately ranked the items. If you had the only 2 that seem seriously out of place are 17 and 22. With what we now know about the acceleration of polar meltdown, etc., it now seems that either 17 or 22 should be # 1. Then most of the rest of the list could be subsidiary goals under either or both. In fact, with China & much of the "3rd" world doubling the amount of human habitat over the next 18 years, it could be that there is really no essential difference between 17 & 22. None the less, bravo (with a few grave concerns about AI & robotics & nanotech). Now, I suggest that we review my updated 2007 list of 9 complex challenges: 1. Preparing humanity for global prosperity & relocation to off-world colonies by 2050 at the latest 2. Preparing coastal residents for super-storms & ultra-tsunamis caused by massive island collapses, mega-volcanoes, and cosmic impactors 3. Preparing for multiple ultra-massive solar flare direct hits and/or magnetic field breakdown & pole shift 4. Transitioning humanity from oil/coal/nuke addiction and toxic energy abuse on to recovery and sustainability 5. Redirecting & transitioning the arms industry to constructive industries for R&D + production of 1 - 9. 6. Creating fleets of floating islands and colossal dirigible Skyarks as multi-functional transport/resort/rescue vehicles, mobile telecomputing, power generation & environmental clean-up 7. Expediting the global botnet hypercomputing environment 8. Preparing humanity for near-nano-CADD-CAM, biomech symbiont units, and other economically disruptive and potentially destructive technologies 9. Doing all the above by 2030 while mitigating our global crises I predict that accomplishing 1 through 6 will eliminate most causes of mass conflict, terrorism and war by eliminating under-employment, poverty, most excess pain & suffering.

sookdeo manansingh, trinidad and tobago


I deeply support the new dimensions of innovative strategies as proposed for the world of globalization and wish to further explore some ofthem.

abbasi, aligarh, U.P,india



Lisheena Clark, New Kingdom


I love this website.

Shankar, New Delhi


There has been an intense development in information sharing & access. The next thing as internet & computers seemed out of thought is exploring more on E=MC2 of Einstein.

John Kurt, Bangladesh


There are hues difference between 20th and 21th innovation list but i think it is a challenge for us to fulfill these innovation of 21th century.

cherrndii, Philippines


thanks for this post! it helped me in my assignment. well, in relation to the article, i'm glad that there so many technologies made by human beings. but then, it's just complicating our lives. :)

Sundarsingh P G, Dharmapuri, INDIA


Globe shrinks to village. So are the warmth and mutual admiration of hearts,accommodating others and the like human values Technology 'betters' environment,living conditions and the like BUT not the human mind and heart Is there a technology to inject HUMAN VALUES into the minds of people for better 'HUMAN LIVING'?

ranjit, india


its fantastic........... i want the videos of your speetch on latest technology,,,,,like gesture recognitation technology.........or anything you interrested.......... thank you,,,,,,,,,

Keith Harrison, Melbourne, Australia


Thank you Eugene. I would very much like to 'hear' your opinion, in the context of the list(s) you have devised, which of the subject topics do you consider to be an Invention &/or an Innovation and your reasons/rationale for such decisions.

Brian Meano, Tulsa, Oklahoma


I have invented and built a technology which allows me to desalinate between 2-4 million gallons of sea water per day. The system is capable of running 7/24/365. I do not return the salt to the sea. The technology produces zero green house gas emissions nor does it use any fossil fuels. I have produced a scale model and have priced the production unit and the costs are so low that I will be able to distribute them around the world for a fraction of the cost of a traditional system. I would like to speak to one of the engineers and find out how to enter this challenge? Thanks in advance, Brian.

Cendikit, Brunsfels


In this century we should not focus on global warming, that is something humans cannot control. If the polar ice caps melt, thats no problem, the penguins and polar bears can move to another location. Such as South America's tip, or in Greenland. The thing we need to focus on in our present time is virtuality. This is becoming a severe problem, if humans keep "plugging in" to computers or something of the like, then they will (over time) lose muscle tone. Then bone structure will falter and we will crumble into piles of jelly.

sourabh, india


I Think waste material are very useful for any thing like wastage material are use as fertilizer.

Cloud Sanny, Poland


In the 21st, I think we should first fix what we want to reach, where we are going and why this effort is deployed. Are we still progressing towards "Making Life easier and healthier for Next Generation, our Offsprings"? People seem to me to forget about the real purpose of the creation of Money that is nowadays just put in the center of everything we do; Economy and Economy and again Economy. People even countries just want to have without thinking for a while, what their competition and race are for. Some of us have even great ideas of producing straight away Money (e.g. Wall Street's hunters) instead of making it as a reward for doing something important for the society. Products & Services with Companies and great inventors but Money with Hunters who decide of the flow of this last. It is clear that a Money hunter will not invest in progressive inventions but in monetary ones of his/her interest. Then bankruptcy of companies, redundancy of employees and great inventors such as Tesla without satisfaction. The last ones on the list remain the money hunters who finally will not have what to buy even what to invest in unless suicide in some cases as born only for money. The latest crisis is the proof. Was it the assumption of all the 20th Century effort? We are all now confused in the chosen direction. Let's reverse course honestly. Let's fix clearly limits. What are Science & technology for? What's the upper limit of Medicine? I think the death cure, death being a disease as anyone else. Then the problem of overcrowding on Earth. And then the problem of finding in Space the second Earth or planet similar to it. This will mark the Total Peace Era -TPE for at least million years. They all think of great life; I think the greatest remains undone. (C.O.D. Sanny).

brian schreifels, burnsville, monnesota


Under the 21st Century Innovation Topics: the only topics should be are: Energy conservation, Resource protection, Food and water production, Waste management, Education, Knowledge sharing, Preservation of history, Preservation of species, and the world putting their egoes to the side and come together so that the world survives. And stop spending money on things that are not as important, then these. Because by 2012 when the sun heats the earth far more then we will only have our selves to blame and nothing else because we could have stoped it a long time ago, but people got lazy.

Tom Hughes, Michigan, USA


First commenter,Timothy. : Oh but there is at least 2 processes for plastic back to oil processes and I am in favor of the one designed by the Lady Professor from India. It returns all plastic products back to oil and just needs to be engaged here. They sell the oil there for boilers.Simple and sweet,just needs to be engaged with my trash system and its all a go,old stuff and all with no major labor costs to outlay. My trash system will revolutionize the process and take care of certain other problems also.Not much engineering needed ,just process engagement.

Timothy Arthur O'Brien, Austin, Texas

"...reclamation of buried potentially toxic waste, particularly buried plastics and non-biodegradab le adhesives..." 

I am unable to say that I'm stunned at your omission, because until recently I wasn't too concerned about it either. But starting a few years ago, I have become increasingly obsessed with what I now believe is the primary engineering challenge of the 21st century -- reclamation of buried potentially toxic waste, particularly buried plastics and non-biodegradable adhesives. Along with that, the design of economically feasible biodegradable plastics alternatives. I think that we are all sufferring the effects of massive psychological denial -- we know that our drink bottles, product packaging, and short life consumer goods are often not biodegradable, and we are burying them at an incredible rate, such that in only a little over fifty years the whole planet is covered in piles of the stuff. It won't go away by itself, and I have no reason to believe that the material won't become toxic and potentially carcinogenic at some point in its biodegredation. If we follow a barrel of oil from an embattled field overseas, through the plant where it becomes packaging, on the truck to the store, then to the consumer's house, then to another truck where it is carried to a landfill and buried in a form that cannot be reclaimed by nature, we see the insanity that might explain world wars one, two, and three. When will engineers refuse to work with the material in a strong enough way that affects industry, or at least give us some reason to hope that there is a plan to eventually exhume and reprocess buried petrochemical materials?

Greg Junge, Galena, Illinois

"...the root problem/challen ge - human population control and sustainability." 

I think many of your items refer indirectly to, but don't define the root problem/challenge - human population control and sustainability. This may be a self-correcting condition. As all of the technological innovations enable longer life and increased population, will the earth become overpopulated to the point that the environment will no longer support human life? Will we become so numerous that we will use up natural resources and foul the environment to such a degree that the population will be reduced by disease, famine, war? This sounds more biblical than technological. Greg Junge



Hi. I was given this website in one of Engineers Australia periodicals; and it seems very interesting. I am working on a study into an open-sea method of ship loading; cape size; coal, iron ore and so on. However there is concern that the information relating to the methodology cannot be released because it is world-first and the intellectual property of the Company I work for. What is your comment to this? Regards, Ray Wilson Mech Eng.

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