Engineering Needs More Futurists – IEEE Spectrum

A quick glance at the news headlines each morning might convey that the world is in crisis. Challenges include climate-change threats to human infrastructure and habitats; cyberwarfare by state and nonstate actors attacking energy sources and health care systems; and the global water crisis, which is compounded by the climate crisis. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the rapid advance of artificial intelligence and what it means for humanity.

As people grapple with those and other issues, they typically look to policymakers and business leaders for answers. However, no true solutions can be developed and implemented without the technical expertise of engineers.

Encouraging visionary, futuristic thinking is the function of the Engineering Research Visioning Alliance. ERVA is an initiative of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Engineering, for which I serve as principal investigator. IEEE is one of several professional engineering societies that are affiliate partners.

Engineers are indispensable architects

Engineers are not simply crucial problem-solvers; they have long proven to be proactive architects of the future. For example, Nobel-winning physicists discovered the science behind the sensors that make modern photography possible. Engineers ran with the discovery, developing technology that NASA could use to send back clear pictures from space, giving us glimpses of universes far beyond our line of sight. The same tech enables you to snap photos with your cellphone.

As an engineer myself, I am proud of our history of not just making change but also envisioningit.

In the late 19th century, electrical engineer Nikola Tesla had envisioned wireless communication, lighting, and power distribution.

As early as 1900, civil engineer John Elfreth Watkins predicted that by 2000 we would have such now-commonplace innovations as color photography, wireless telephones, and home televisions (and even TV dinners), among other things.

“If we are going to successfully tackle today’s most vexing global challenges, engineers cannot be relegated to playing a reactive role.”

Watkins embodied an engineer’s curiosity and prescience, but too often today, we spend the lion’s share of our time with technical tinkering and not enough on the bigger picture.

If we are going to successfully tackle today’s most vexing global challenges, engineers cannot be relegated to playing a reactive role. We need to completely reimagine how nearly everything works. And because complex problems are multifaceted, we must do so in a multidisciplinary fashion.

We need big ideas, future-focused thinking with the foresight to transform how we live, work, and play—a visionary mindset embraced and advanced by engineers who leverage R&D to solve problems and activate discoveries. We need a different attitude from that of the consummate practitioners we typically imagine ourselves to be. We need the mindset of the futurist.

Futuristic thinking transforms society

A futurist studies current events and trends to determine not just predictions but also possibilities for the future. The term futurist has a long connection with science fiction, going back to the early 20th century, personified in such figures as writer H.G. Wells.

While many literary figures’ predictions have proven fanciful (though some, like Elfreth’s, have come true), engineers and scientists have engaged in foresight for generations, introducing new ways to look at our world, and transforming society along the way.

Futuristic thinking pushes the boundaries of what we can currently imagine and conceive. In an era of systemic crises, there is a seemingly paradoxical but accurate truth: It has become impractical to think too pragmatically.

It is especially counterintuitive to engineers, as we are biased toward observable, systematic thinking. But it is a limitation we have overcome through visionary exploits of the past—and one we must overcome now, when the world needs us.

Overcoming systematic thinking

Four times each year, ERVA convenes engineers, scientists, technologists, ethicists, social scientists, and federal science program leads to engage in innovative visioning workshops. We push hard and ask the experts to expand their thinking beyond short-term problems and think big about future possibilities. Some examples of challenges we have addressed—and the subsequent comprehensive reports on recommended research direction for visionary, futuristic thinking—are:

  • The Role of Engineering to Address Climate Change. Our first visioning event considered how engineers can help mitigate the effects of rising global temperatures and better reduce carbon emissions. We envisioned how we could use artificial intelligence and other new technologies, including some revolutionary sensors, to proactively assess weather and water security events, decarbonize without disruptions to our energy supply, and slow the pace of warming.
  • Engineering R&D Solutions for Unhackable Infrastructure. We considered a future in which humans and computing systems were connected using trustworthy systems, with engineering solutions to self-identity threats and secure systems before they become compromised. Solutions for unhackable infrastructure should be inherent rather than bolted-on, integrated across connected channels, and activated from the system level to wearables. Actions must be taken now to ensure trustworthiness at every level so that the human element is at the forefront of future information infrastructure.
  • Engineering Materials for a Sustainable Future. In our most recent report, we discussed a future in which the most ubiquitous, noncircular materials in our world—concrete, chemicals, and single-use packaging—are created using sustainable materials. We embraced the use of organic and reusable materials, examining what it is likely to take to shift production, storage, and transportation in the process. Again, engineers are required to move beyond current solutions and to push the boundaries of what is possible.

ERVA is tackling new topics in upcoming visioning sessions on areas as diverse as the future of wireless competitiveness, quantum engineering, and improving women’s health.

We have an open call for new visioning event ideas. We challenge the engineering community to propose themes for ERVA to explore so we can create a road map of future research priorities to solve societal challenges. Engineers are needed to share their expertise, so visit our website to follow this critical work. It is time we recaptured that futurist spirit.

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