Skip to main content
No. 2374:
Grand Challenges

by Andrew Boyd

Today, grand challenges. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

"Throughout human history, engineering has driven the advance of civilization." That's a pretty bold statement. But so is the document it's taken from.

In February 2008 the National Academy of Engineering unveiled a report outlining the twenty-first century's "grand engineering challenges." The Academy traces its roots to an act signed by Abraham Lincoln. When the government has an engineering question, these are the people they go to.

everyday challenges: like to provide access to clean water

You might expect these engineers to talk a lot about machines, and there's some of that. "Enhance virtual reality" is one of the fourteen challenges. But what's most interesting is the strong focus on improving the human condition.

The report zeros in on themes "essential for humanity to flourish: sustainability, health, reducing vulnerability, and joy of living." Joy of living? That's not something you often find in a formal government document. Not since the Declaration of Independence, when our forefathers proclaimed the pursuit of happiness an unalienable right.

Living a joyful life requires a world we like to live in. So not surprisingly, there's a lot of focus on the environment. We need energy but not pollution, so there are challenges to focus on solar and fusion power. We need to better "manage the nitrogen cycle"— understand, then engineer, the air we breathe. And we've got to figure out how to store unwanted carbon dioxide just like we store nuclear waste.

On the health front, there's a call to engineer better medicines. No surprise there. But there's also a call to improve health information systems. Think about that. It's a grand challenge just to manage information. Keep patient records secure. Catch epidemics like SARS early. Information can save lives.

And this caught my attention— "reverse engineering the brain." The brain's a remarkable computer. It's so good, we're going to make our machines smarter by modeling them after the brain. For decades we've tried to beat the brain at what it does. But no more. We're going look inside and see how it works— just like a company stealing trade secrets from a competitor.

And there are more challenges. "Personalized learning"; "restoring and improving urban infrastructure"; worldwide "access to clean water"; "engineering the tools of scientific discovery." We're even called upon to "secure cyberspace" and "prevent nuclear terror." It's sad to think it's a grand challenge to stop acts of crime and violence. But … it's reality.

Shipping containers on a large water vesselShipping containers pose a threat of nuclear terror.

So the Academy isn't interested in questions about building better mousetraps. They're asking big engineering questions. Questions about complicated systems. Questions about improving life. Questions about survival. Who knows how we'll fare with them. But they are challenges. And every engineer loves a good challenge…

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

21 Century's Grand Engineering Challenges Unveiled. Press Release of the National Academies, February 15, 2008. Accessed May 10, 2008.