The National Academy of Engineering charged some of their leading thinkers to come up with the top 20 engineering achievements of the 20th century. Among them:
4. Water supply and distribution
19. Nuclear technologies
20. High-performance materials
They have also taken up the mantle of identifying the grand challenges for engineering in the 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.
Among these are making solar energy economical, managing the nitrogen cycle, reverse-engineering the brain, enhancing virtual reality and advancing health informatics. Notice how, though they will utilize technology, unlike the earlier list, they are not about inventing new things. They are about figuring out the really hard stuff. It’s almost as if we’ve already tackled a lot of the easy stuff and now, what’s left? Exactly. The complex systems. What is the nitrogen cycle? One of the most important nutrient cycles in the terrestial ecosystems, one which human activity has significantly altered by introducing more N in the form of fertilizers than the system can remotely accept, much less use. But a familiarity with these challenges is for more than tomorrow’s engineering. And we shouldn’t even be counting on them.
Colleagues tell me that implicit in bringing up these challenges is the NAE saying that, as presently construed, they can’t meet these challenges either. They know they to need to change the way they approach problem solving (choose your own word to emphasize), from relying on mere calculations to mustering a systems approach to the complexity, venturing out past where the laws and theorems apply. And to repeat once again, you don’t need to run out and buy a pocket protector, but they = we.