Tackling the Grand Challenges of the 21st century

Louise Smyth

Sumita Singh on tackling the Grand Challenges of the 21st century

The gauntlet has been thrown down. A recent panel of technologists and futurists have laid out the 14 Grand Challenges that engineers need to tackle by the end of this century. From reverse-engineering the brain to preventing nuclear terror, the success or failure of the industry in taking on each one will have a huge and tangible impact on the future of humanity.

Thinking about how engineers might begin to solve such huge issues, one overarching theme quickly becomes apparent – cross-disciplinary innovation, data analytics and collaboration will be at the heart of any solution. As such, the role of the engineer is evolving significantly. In addition to relying on published journals that cover targeted field of study, modern engineers are required to gather insights from a huge range of data sources including real-time sensor data, data from multiple technical databases as well as data from smart devices, just to name a few sources. Everything from social media posts to factory monitoring devices can provide useful inputs for solving today’s engineering challenges.

Such a shift will not happen by itself. The way that engineers are taught and trained will need to evolve to help new generations to break free of siloed thinking and encouraging them to see a more cross-disciplinary approach as standard. And, crucially, they will need access to purpose-built, effective digital platforms and solutions that enable them to efficiently gather and analyse all this new data, as well as seamlessly collaborate with colleagues around the world.

The scale of the problem

All 14 Challenges are vast and complex. Take the issue of providing access to clean water - today one in six people lack access to clean water. The knock-on consequences are horrific, with 5,000 children a day dying from diarrhoea-related diseases. In developing nations, up to 80% of illnesses are linked to poor water and sanitation conditions. And as climate change takes further effect, these numbers are only going to get worse.

To tackle the problem, we will need to see deep and far-reaching changes in the way we manage, purify and consume water. Although we have desalination and water recycling plants already running today, the limitations of current technologies means they lack the ability to work at the required scale. The challenge for engineers is not only to improve existing technologies and discover new ones but also to find currently unknown synergies between the existing options that can drastically increase efficiency.

An engineering solution

Looking at global water consumption, the vast majority lies with industry. Despite the amount of water required by households around the world, only 10% of our global water consumption is due to domestic needs. Irrigation, for example, can sometimes consume 80% of all water in developing nations. A new car can require around 80,000 gallons of water while a new cotton shirt can consume over 700 gallons.

The quantities of water needed to maintain our standard of living are huge and, to have the greatest impact, engineers should focus on industrial and agricultural water use as much as possible. For example, with their Water<Less programme, Levi’s managed to reduce the amount of water consumed in the production of a single pair of jeans by an average of 28% and up to 96% for some newer products. Meanwhile, in the water recycling space, microsystem engineers are experimenting with nanotechnology and other options to try and come up with new ways to filter out pollutants, whilst allowing important nutrients to pass through. Other potential breakthroughs, such as a graphene-based water filter, have emerged as a result of research in chemical engineering. On its own, no single measure will be able to make the difference. Only engineers working together and discovering innovative synergies between processes that we will be able to radically lower our water usage while improving the rate of purification and recycling.

No time to waste

The struggle for clean water illustrates the scale of the problem for each of the Grand Challenges. The industry needs to be prepared to tackle them head on and should start by making changes in the classroom. Educators and curricula need to be designed with cross-disciplinary learning and collaboration in mind – and employers need to foster a collaborative, digital working environment. This will ensure that the next generation of engineers is equipped with the digital skillset and cross-disciplinary mind-set required to take on the Grand Challenges.

With the BRIC nations and developing countries all pushing out ever larger numbers of STEM students, the talent and ambition to tackle these challenges is being created. Now both industry and academia must step up and ensure that they give the next generation of engineers access to the right information, in the right way, and at the right time, so they can make a difference.

Sumita Singh is managing director, Reference Solutions for Elsevier’s R&D Solutions