In this contemporary time, the most dynamic and evolving human field is engineering or technology depending on your choice. Such an observation may seem at first to be a mere truism but closer considerations of its impacts in medicine, entertainment, energy and security will rapidly dispel any such dismissive judgment.
Engineering is transforming all fields. Future medicine looks as a field where robots will seamlessly help doctors and surgeons get patients back to work or home quicker and healthier. The future of global energy looks promising because engineers are breaking barriers daily in the quest to deliver affordable, efficient and clean sources of power.
From entertainment to security, nothing is spared. Today’s wars are technology wars fuelled by engineering geniuses acquired, advanced and processed over centuries. The bravery of a modern warlord is the engineering feat of someone who may never have to shoot. We are living in an era where discovery is not celebrated, not because they have become easier, but because they are happening regularly.
Engineering practice has changed so much and in a radical form from what it was a few decades ago. The global energy problem is engineering problem. The global health challenge is an engineering problem, and daily engineers are faced with burdens to solve major world problems. While the politicians enact the energy bills, the engineers make the energy practically available.
The bold and optimistic challenge to help engineer bio-grade artificial human organs is an assessment that managing what Nature gives us has limitations. Why not get a new artificial brain if the one that exists is not functioning because of disease?
But these advances pose serious ethical challenges which the engineers are not providing answers. In most cases, that is not their job; someone has to regulate them and put them on the path of keeping sanity on this earth.
But regulating these activities is unfortunately not easy. One technology could do well but could also be harmful. In this case, the problem is not the technology, but the application and usage. It is like saying because nuclear technology could kill en mass, it must be banned in hospitals where they are used in many critical treatments.
But for a moment, let us leave the technical aspect of engineering progress. I am already aware that many cotton farmers in Sudan could be out of jobs if some of the experiments on lab production of cotton in universities in US and European schools work out. We could be creating security crises where suddenly the commodity market is destroyed because nanotechnology has provided alternatives to rubber, cotton and hosts of other materials. People will be out of jobs and crises will start everywhere.
My concern is the disparity in engineering development between the developed and developing world. The rich nations are pushing the limits while the poor are not contributing much. It is not that they do not want to contribute, they want but the environment does not enable them. We lose their ideas and perspectives, unfortunately.
Can the future of engineering be structured such that these people can get on the pathway of creativity and innovation? Can the world and technical associations provide an effective system, where boys and girls in developing countries could help to solve the global engineering challenges? How can this be done? In short, how can companies begin to give people at the bottom of the pyramid opportunities to shape the products that are designed for them?
The same problem that has undermined our abilities to solve major poor people’s diseases is what is affecting the ability of the world to provide technology in ways that the poor people can use them. Exporting Smartphone to people that just need the simplest phone is not a great strategy.
Developing GloCal Mindset
The world needs a redesign: we need a new way in looking at things. It will be tough because there are many components to the engineering question. A drug company may prefer developing drugs for cancer over malaria because people that suffer malaria may not bring good revenue. Yes, those that engineer drugs consider business before the quest to save lives. But there could be a balance. Why not have a system where engineering goes global and local at the same time? They can solve the drug dilemma, with their global expertise, but localized at scale for each market.
Answering, understanding and managing emerging developments of meeting the needs of every customer (yes, the broad and specific needs), in the highly fragmented world market will define the future of engineering. It will show our readiness to solve the world’s problems. It will make engineering fresh before all global citizens. It is going gloCal- having a world global strategy, but acting local in each market or community. It means helping people solve local problems with global ideas.
If we begin to do that, we have the possibility of solving these problems. It is so shameful that in a world of so much knowledge, many are very poor and dying. We have solved the refrigeration problem in Boston, but in a small village in Ghana, the citizens have no light and refrigerators do not have any value there. So, can we say we have indeed solved how to preserve food?
The global food problem is an engineering problem. Even in Africa, they have enough during the harvesting season. But immediately that season is gone, many become hungry because they could not preserve the excess. So, you have a system where a man that threw away a basket of excess fresh tomatoes a month before is looking for a canned tomato for his family. What if he has preserved the fresh ones? We need solutions.
Now is the time to redefine what engineering research is. People at the bottom of the pyramid are not interested in nanotechnology and genome project. They just want simple ways to live and if entities can understand those challenges by providing simplicity through engineering, everyone can look at engineering future with optimism.
My African kinsmen care not if you can travel to Mars. You have not assisted them to preserve the mangoes they harvested to last longer and feed their families. So while the Mars race is on, they expect to find ways to store their excess food. If that happens, they can confidently look at the future of discovery and engineering with hope. A little support and devoting the engineering powers of the advanced nations to the “nonsense challenges” of the developing world could solve many problems.
There are engineering challenges across the developing nations and it is time we put resources to solve them instead of being obsessed with sending private ships to the moon. Engineering must be global and yet adaptable to local needs:- we need gloCal engineering for the future. Let engineers be engineers, irrespective of boundaries and make this world a better place. Until then, many will not understand why they matter. That process will help us make GloCal products. We have hailed legends that created products like iPhone and Tesla Motors. But always remember that in most places like Chad and Myanmar, the iPhone feat is just a cup of clean water. Right now, that clean water is not possible. And that is bad. The world will hail people that think global even as they help locals have solutions they need to live.