Washington D.C

An Academy delegation recently attended the Global Grand Challenges Summit in Washington DC, which took place from 18-20 July 2017. This was the third biennial event hosted jointly by the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE), the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) and the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering. The Summit focused on inspiring engineers, policymakers and the public to address the big issues for the current and future generations.

The weeks’ activities started early for the UK delegation with a Royal Academy of Engineering International Reception on Monday evening, hosted in a very grand and historic building housing the National Academies of Engineering, Science and Medicine. As well as being an excellent way of meeting our International and Expatriate Fellows based on the East Coast of the USA, this was also an opportunity to showcase the Academy to the wider science and innovation community in Washington. Over the course of the evening International Secretary, David Thomlinson FREng, gave an overview of Academy’s International activities, and a representative from the British Embassy in Washington spoke about the importance of the UK, USA and China taking leadership on the Grand Challenges agenda.

The next day saw 15 teams of university students from the UK, USA and China pitching their innovations to solve global challenges in a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style Student Business Competition. Dr John Lazar FREng was one of seven judges tasked with probing the students on their business proposals. The standard was incredibly high, but Bournemouth University delivered an outstanding pitch to take 2nd prize of $15,000 for their innovation; MoreWater, a modular water filter system. 

Shortly after the end of the competition, 150 students gathered in the auditorium to take part in an adapted version of ‘How to Change the World’, a programme run by the UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP). This programme aimed to give the students an introduction to the Grand Challenges for Engineering, and an understanding of the broader international framework that the challenges sit within, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Under this programme, students worked together in multi-country teams tasked with producing an engaging podcast explaining how solving one of the Grand Challenges could impact the lives of people around the world.

Meanwhile, in what was a very busy week in Washington, teams of school children from almost 160 countries gathered for FIRST Global, an “Olympics” style robotics challenge. This global event aims to increase the students’ knowledge of STEM so they can become the next generation of scientific leaders who will work together to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.

After a busy day of student activity, the Summit opened with speeches from senior academy representatives, and an announcement from David Thomlinson FREng that the Royal Academy of Engineering would host the first in a new series of Summits in London in 2019.

Dr Rajiv Shah, incoming President of the Rockefeller Foundation and former Head of USAID, gave a keynote address calling on engineers to be proud of their expertise and to speak out on policy issues. Dr Shah went on to push engineers to pursue systems changes around global challenges. Next to take the stage was Dr Deng Zhonghan, CEO of Vimicro, who spoke about “not just reinventing wheels, but reinventing two wheels”, with an impressive case study of sustainable digital business models in cities, and how bicycles are making China smarter.

Lord Alec Broers FREng, former President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a foreign member of the NAE and the CAE, took a moment to reflect on the progress of the Grand Challenges agenda from his unique position as a member of the international committee who founded the challenges. He argued that although the Grand Challenges for Engineering were founded almost 10 years ago, they map directly onto the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and remain as relevant today as they were then.

After a quick break for lunch in a (very thankfully!) air conditioned tent, there was a display of over 80 posters, by both undergraduate and postgraduate students. The posters related to research and innovations on one of the 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering and were judged on their originality, impact and design. A team from Newcastle University were the winners in the Undergraduate Impact category with their poster on Nomadic Resource Generation. Students with winning posters received $2,000 each, and were each recognised in a special ceremony at the end of the Summit.

The second half of the day started with a session jumping into the depths of Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence with a fascinating talk from Michael Abrash, Chief Scientist at Oculus, who illustrated that our perception of reality is actually just a best guess from available data- to see the footage and a full transcript of his talk view here. Jeffrey Dean, Senior Fellow at Google, spoke about how neural networks are driving an AI revolution. When asked a question about safety of AI, his response was, “AI safety doesn’t concern me because we’re barely lifting off from earth and people are wondering how we’re going to colonize stars”.

The second session was curated by The Academy, and included a call to arms from the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, for engineers to engage with the complex challenge presented by Anti-Microbial Resistance (AMR). Professor Molly Stevens FREng, Head of the Stevens Group at Imperial College spoke about how biomaterials are fundamentally changing healthcare, with collaboration across disciplines enabling new materials to replicate tissue. Earlier questions from delegates had criticised the all-male line up at the start of the Summit, so in response to questions about gender equality, Dame Sally and Professor Stevens spoke about the Athena Swan equality programme in the UK, and how this has helped to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing careers if women in STEM.

Day one concluded with a very special reception at The United States Institute of Peace, a non-partisan, independent, federal institution that provides analysis of conflicts around the world. After a day full of ideas, the reception provided a useful opportunity for networking and exchange of views. The Academy delegation went on to a dinner in recognition of the Summit sponsors, Lockheed Martin, The Boeing Company Charitable Trust, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Shell.

The second day opened with a session on sustainability and began with a talk from Professor Ding Yihui, Senior Advisor to the China Meteorological Administration. Professor Ding showed sobering graphics of Shanghai underwater after a two and four-degree temperature rise, and argued that Shanghai and other cities are still at risk, even with China’s significant investment in renewable energy. A passionate plea for countries to honour the Paris Climate Agreement was met with predictable audience approval. Next to take the stage was Professor Wu Zhiquiang, Vice President of Tongji University, who focussed on the Grand Challenge of urbanisation, starting with an astonishing statistic that by 2050, 80% of Chinese people will live in cities. Professor Wu compared the trajectories of urbanisation across different nations using an impressive variety of data, and said that he felt we should be tackling issues around urbanisation by treating the city as a living organism ‘a city-being’.

In a tribute to the diversity of the Grand Challenges for Engineering, we moved from sustainability to a session on reverse engineering the brain. Professor Christof Koch of the Allen Institute opened with the importance of understanding the circuit elements that make up the brain. At the Allen Institute they are building a “periodic table” of the brain, with the aim of understanding the function of the 16 billion neurons in the cortex.

Professor Rikky Muller of UC Berkeley followed this with a fascinating presentation on the future of the brain-machine interface, and the prospect of intelligent closed loop miniature therapeutic brain devices, which will help to improve the quality of life for sufferers of neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

In the next session, UK keynote speaker Martha Lane Fox, Baroness of Soho, founder of lastminute.com, and the youngest female member of the House of Lords when she joined in 2013, had a conversation with the Summit host, Ali Velshi, about digital inclusion and her fears that the internet isn’t the open space it always promised to be. When asked about her new website, fighting for a fairer internet, Martha stated that the birth of the internet promised to enable new voices to emerge, but in reality we are now in a position where over 96% of the internet is built by men, and we have allowed traditional hierarchies to be replicated. In questions, the audience were keen to learn from Baroness Fox’s experience at the interface of technology, policy and politics, and what they could do to prepare themselves to work effectively in that space.

The final session of the Summit featured panel sessions on both education and public engagement. The education panel debated the importance of equipping the next generation of engineers, not just with technical skills, but the engineering habits of mind, including problem solving, systems thinking, visualisation and team work. Francis Reyes, Global STEM Challenges Student at Edison High School in Virginia, spoke passionately about how her programme taught her that “communication is key”. The panel discussed the need to intervene at a younger age, as by age 9-10 many children are already writing off a career in STEM.

Next up, Senator Tim Kaine, was joined by Deanne Bell, engineer and presenter of TV show Make Me a Millionaire Inventor; and Dean Kamen, inventor and founder of FIRST Global, to discuss the importance of public engagement. Senator Kaine encouraged engineers into politics by stating that “the greatest politicians I have ever worked with didn’t come from political backgrounds”. Ms Bell reminded all present the importance of not forgetting that to be an engineer is a strong identity, and called on all engineers who have moved into policy and public engagement positions to talk about their engineering background openly.

Dr Dan Mote, President of the NAE, brought the Summit to a close by thanking everyone for attending, and formally handing the baton to the Royal Academy of Engineering, who will host the first summit in a new series in 2019.

Although this was the end of the summit for many of the delegates, the students attended a Change the World Student Event on the Friday morning. The event began with the students gathering in their inter-country teams, with the aim of making progress with their podcasts. Almost 20 senior delegates from the Summit, including David Thomlinson FREng, attended this event in a mentor capacity, to offer advice and guidance to students when needed. The mentors then took part in careers panel, sharing their own career experience, including tips and guidance for students looking to pursue a career tackling global challenges.

This was an incredibly inspiring event, with dynamic speakers and engaging discussions, but what will be remembered will be the level of student enthusiasm and participation. At the end of each talk there were students from all three countries lining up to ask questions which were well informed and insightful. The How to Change the World programme was widely regarded as a brilliant initiative, instilling confidence in the students and encouraging them to engage with each other, and to question the more senior delegates in the room.

The whole week of events demonstrated the value of bringing together engineers across different nations and different generations to discuss the grand challenges to be addressed if engineering is to make its full contribution to making the world a better place.

If you would like any further information about the Summit, please contact one of the UK delegation: