Engineers could be reconstructing alien life in their own labs. Or colonising Mars through electro-magnetic waves. Or, closer to home, they could be competing with sports teams and entertainers for the attention of young people through the development of attention-grabbing engineering-based projects.

The first day of the inaugural Global Grand Challenges Summit, which is being held in London this week to debate the engineering contribution to solving the world’s biggest challenges, heard from a world-renowned scientist and from a superstar recording artist about how engineers should be driving change through bold ideas and by seizing the initiative.

The summit, organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering, in partnership with the national engineering academies of the US and China, heard yesterday from Craig Venter, the scientist who led the first sequencing of the human genome and the construction of the first synthetic bacterial cell, and, in an unscheduled appearance, from the singer and technology evangelist Will.I.Am. Today, the summit continues with further contributions from global leaders in engineering, science and business, including a presentation by Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.

Keynote sessions at the summit yesterday covered issues in sustainability, health and education. These are underlying themes in the Grand Challenges for the 21st Century which were identified as global priorities by the US National Academy of Engineering in 2008.

Five years on, however, Dr Venter said that on the interlinked problems of energy, water and food the Grand Challenges had become grander and a lot more challenging. Economic uncertainty and political indecision had not helped, he said, and increasing industrialisation and population increases were making the problems worse.

“Disruptive change is needed, and synthetic life will be part of that change,” he said. Innovations in synthetic biology made it possible to reconfigure manufacturing in a new way. That could include recreating materials and alien life forms in laboratories here on Earth and sending biological data to Mars in just a few seconds. “The problem with doing this isn’t the technology and the engineering; it’s the social and the regulatory side. Changes in the past five years haven’t improved the situation.”

Only engineers and scientists could solve the big issues facing the world, Dr Venter said – but not enough young people in the US and the UK are being switched on to engineering. The entertainer Will.I.Am had novel ideas for tackling this. He proposed that the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) should change to STEAM, to include the Arts as well, and to show that real change would be achieved by TEAMS.

But he also challenged the conference audience of engineers to compete for young people’s attention. Entertainment and sports produced positive images to fire imaginations: “You engineering guys should compete in the world of popularity too,” he said. “We need to make it sexy.”

Other presentations at the Global Grand Challenges Summit also challenged some engineering stereotypes:

  • On Sustainability issues, economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs said that the “juggernaut” of the global economy and widespread political confusion meant that humankind had now passed the boundaries of what the planet could provide. Yet there were models based on continued economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability that could provide viable ways forward
  • On Health, the MIT Institute Professor Robert Langer saw big opportunities in the adoption of engineering materials and methods in areas where previous innovation had been largely in the hands of the medical profession. He saw three distinct areas where an engineering approach could make a big difference: in the use of nanotechnology to deliver drugs within the body; in personalised medicine through implanted devices; and in the combination of biological cells with polymers to create new tissue
  • On Education, leading engineering educationalists from both sides of the Atlantic – by Will.I.Am – saw big potential in expanding the reach of the profession through greater use of real projects to enthuse young people with the idea of engineering as a method of problem-solving. And Stanford University President Professor John Hennessy said that new on-line course delivery methods meant that engineering knowledge was now available to everyone worldwide at the click of a mouse button.

The conference continues today with sessions on enriching life, technology and growth, and resilience and concludes with an address by Bill Gates. A live webstream of the summit is available at: Global Grand Challenges Summit

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.

For more information please contact

Sarah Griffiths at The Royal Academy of Engineering Tel. 020 7766 0655