LOS ANGELES — The electricity of intellectual innovation filled the University of Southern California’s Bovard Auditorium Oct. 6-8, 2010, as leaders from a variety of disciplines met to explore the National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) 14 Grand Challenges. The 14 Grand Challenges, as determined by a committee of the National Academy of Engineering, are: Make solar energy economical, provide energy from fusion, develop carbon sequestration methods, manage the nitrogen cycle, provide access to clean water, restore and improve urban infrastructure, advance health informatics, engineer better medicines, reverse-engineer the brain, prevent nuclear terror, secure cyberspace, enhance virtual reality, advance personalized learning, and engineer the tools of scientific discovery.
More than 1,000 innovators, engineers, policy makers, educators, executives, and students were on hand as moderator and broadcast veteran Miles O’Brien, CNN’s former chief science and technology correspondent, fielded questions from audiences harnessing a number of social media including Facebook, a live blog, a live webcast, and Twitter, helping bring the Grand Challenges to life.
The Grand Challenges are 14 issues identified by the NAE as areas where engineers, in concert with key stakeholders, can make the greatest impact to society worldwide. A powerful line-up of panelists provided solutions from six different perspectives — technology, innovation, policy, communications, education, and business — all looking beyond engineering to a broader societal landscape.
USC President C.L. Max Nikias provided the context for the discussion. “The solutions of these Grand Challenges will not be solely technological. They cannot be solved only by engineers and scientists. No single discipline can solve them alone; it will require a unified front,” Nikias said.
USC Viterbi School of Engineering Dean Yannis C. Yortsos added that “the second annual Summit is not only a forum on technology, but also one that will shine light on the multitude of forces that need to be marshaled to solve crucial societal issues.”
NAE President and keynote speaker Charles Vest focused on the underlying master challenge. “As a nation we are moving in the wrong direction,” he said. “Where we used to be number one, we are falling down the scale.” Vest hoped for more engineering students in the new generation, noting that 21 percent of students in Asia receive degrees in engineering; 14 percent in Europe, and only 4.5 percent in the United States.
Technology Panel keynote speaker Jean-Lou Chameau, president of the California Institute of Technology, framed the discussion by describing a fundamental difference between the 20th and 21st century. “The 20th century,” Chameau explained, “focused on progress; the 21st century must focus on sustainable progress, and this new approach should define the way we approach technological innovation. The United States needs to spark an innovation arms race,” he said.
During the Innovation Panel, X Prize Foundation Founder and Chairman Peter Diamandis stated, “We are living in an extraordinarily magical time right now. To create an innovation environment, you have to be tolerant of risk. Fail often, fail early.” Paul Debevec, recipient of an Academy Award for his work on “Avatar” and associate director of the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC added, “As a culture, we need to value innovation. We need to reward systems that reflect the value of innovation.”
An immediate step in catalyzing innovation was with the announcement of the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition (MEPC), which will award $50,000 each year to enterprising USC Viterbi Engineering students. It is funded by a $1 million endowment from the Massiah Foundation.
The Policy Panel discussion focused on how engaging and effectively communicating with policy makers may be one of the greatest challenges facing engineers and educators. Daniel Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, explained that policy success requires communicating and recommending action from a policy maker’s perspective. “You need to show the policymakers why your idea solves their problem,” he said. UCLA healthcare economist Dana Goldman gave an example from his specialty saying that policymakers must understand that healthcare innovation in the form of advanced medical technology or electronic medical records will ultimately lead to savings costs and improved healthcare delivery.
At the Communication Panel, moderator Miles O’Brien called upon the engineering community to “toot your own horns. Good ideas are not enough — you have to sell them and sell yourselves.” O’Brien added that communicating science and engineering to a broader audience is itself a challenge and an opportunity. CNN chief business correspondent Ali Velshi added that: “we have to explain complicated things in a way that the audience can understand. What I want to do specifically is connect them to ideas, innovation, and inventions that will change the world.”
The Education Panel focused on the challenge of educating our future leaders in Science-Technology Education-Math (STEM) and emphasized that innovation and education go hand in hand. One example is the expansion and regional development of the NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program. Susan Hackwood, executive director of the California Council on Science and Technology, stressed that educators must also think about ways to use digital education to reach students with STEM education and that the digital classroom of the future could augment traditional schools.
The Business Panel focused on how bringing the Grand Challenges to life requires corporate investment. Peter Williams, chief technology officer for the IBM-Big Green Initiative, emphasized that “we need to think of each of these Grand Challenges as a business rather than a grand idea.” One example came from Alexis Livanos, corporate vice president and chief technology officer of Northrop Grumman, who stated that his team is emphasizing one Grand Challenge: securing cyberspace. Livanos described a process to develop flexible systems and flexible architectures that can respond to an evolving threat in cyberspace. His team is working on “Observe, Orient, Decide, and Attack” (OODA), processes loop to address security issues.
The NAE Grand Challenges Summit proved to motivate and capture brilliant minds alike in whose hands the future is now placed. National Summit organizers included this year’s Summit host, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, Duke University-Pratt School of Engineering, Olin College of Engineering, and the California Institute of Technology. Lockheed Martin was presenting sponsor, along with 25 other major corporations.