Engineers will be vital in creating and delivering new and better drugs to solve many of the disease and healthcare problems of the developing world, Bill Gates told a global summit of engineers in London yesterday. Engineers also have a critical and urgent role to play in devising solutions to climate change, he said.

The co-founder of Microsoft is now focused on the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation charity which seeks to bring development through education and innovation to the world’s poorest people. He spoke via video link from Washington to the delegates attending the second day of the Global Grand Challenges Summit, which was held to debate the engineering contribution to the world’s biggest issues.

The distribution of drugs was often the crucial problem in getting reliable disease prevention and vaccination programmes up and running in the poorest countries, he said. Engineers are good at the handling the complex issues that setting up drug depots would entail. But there was also a list of more basic needs: “People living in Africa are increasingly living in urban slums, and they need the basics of shelter, lighting and heating.”

This summit was the first of its kind, organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering in partnership with the national engineering academies of the US and China. The Grand Challenges were identified as global priorities by the US National Academy of Engineering in 2008 and focus on health, food, water and infrastructure issues for the 21st Century.

The Gates Foundation philanthropic trust is involved directly in several of the Grand Challenge issues, and Bill Gates singled out climate change as another area where engineers could make a huge contribution. “This is really a serious issue,” he said. “We need engineering and innovation to get low cost power that emits no carbon dioxide. That’s the real global challenge that this generation of engineers has to face. Governments could be doing more, but we need to solve it very quickly, and only engineers and scientists can do that.”

In a lively question-and-answer session with an audience of more than 400 engineers, designers and innovators, Mr Gates confessed himself puzzled by the shortage of engineers found in Europe and the US. “It’s really surprising to me that we have a deficit,” he said. “If you want the most interesting jobs, the ones that pay well and that have the most impact on society, then go into science and engineering.” Engineering, he said, “is the reason that any progress has taken place at all.”

On its second day, the summit identified significant opportunities for progress on the Grand Challenges, but also some areas for deep concern. Sessions covered issues in the areas of enriching life, technology and growth, and resilience.

  • Under the heading of enriching life, Professor Neil Gershenfeld from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pointed to a coming “revolution” in terms of making things. The revolution, he said, was not in the much-hyped technology of 3D printing, but in the digitisation of the materials and processes of fabrication. “Fab labs” enabled the personalisation of products and abolished the boundaries and constraints of traditional manufacturing, and linked in to new methods of delivering education and organising a “campus” of peer groups, mentors and universally available tools.
  • The session on technology and growth tackled some of the difficulties of the innovation process, particularly in the translation of ideas from universities and from small businesses to large-scale commercialisation. Dr Regina Dugan, currently in charge of advanced technology at Motorola Mobility but previously director of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), said that the agency’s serial success in bringing ideas to fruition proved that innovation could be taught and replicated. The key, she said, was not the conventional view of a linear process of applying science to make a product, but a more dynamic identification of “intersections” where deep science met a pressing market need.
  • Resilience, in the definition of Arup director Jo da Silva FREng, is about the ability of systems to perform “so that disruption doesn’t mean collapse”. This session saw a succession of speakers expose worrying vulnerability in different aspects of current engineering infrastructure: from the extreme weather events that appear to be increasing in frequency, to threats in cybersecurity and in energy supplies. Jo da Silva said that a big hurdle was to gain public and political acceptance that disruption would take place: authorities were denying that events such as Hurricane Sandy, which affected the north-eastern United States catastrophically last autumn, could ever happen again, she said.

The summit also heard the views of young engineers on the challenges they see in taking the ideas from the London event forward. American engineer Jared Dunnmon, now studying at Oxford University, said that a message he would take on was that the definition of an engineer was changing. “Often we are good at solving technical challenges,” he said. “But we also need to be engaged in politics and policy discussion, devising new business models and doing things at a social level to bring about wider behavioural change.”

NOTES

The 14 Engineering Grand Challenges identified in a 2008 report by the US National Academy of Engineering cover a wide range of issues, including energy, food, water and urban infrastructure. The list is available at  www.engineeringchallenges.org

A second Summit will be held in Beijing in 2015 to review progress on the Grand Challenges.

Notes for editors

  1. The Global Grand Challenges Summit is organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the US National Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
     
  2. The 14 Engineering Grand Challenges identified in a 2008 report by the US National Academy of Engineering cover a wide range of issues, including energy, food, water and urban infrastructure. The list is available at  www.engineeringchallenges.org
     
  3. Founded in 1976, the Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship - comprising the UK's most eminent engineers - provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain's engineering community.

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