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A major disconnect exists between technology and sustainability that has to be bridged

Engineers have to start working closely with scientists and business, says Professor Andy Hopper

Computing has already revolutionised the way we live our lives, so it is reasonable to predict that it will play a major role in shaping our long-term future. However, first we have to overcome a major disconnect between technology and sustainability, and most importantly be able to harness 'green' innovation to address global environmental challenges.

In my inaugural address as incoming president of the IET in October last year, I highlighted the need to provide more open access to intellectual property created in universities. In particular, I want to empower dynamic small to medium-sized businesses to exploit and commercialise innovation.

The interface between universities and industry takes one of two forms. The turnstile model is a high-barrier and high-cost approach in which the university is encouraged to produce IP and sell it for as much as possible. The alternative is a low-barrier, low-cost model – the revolving door – in which companies can access intellectual property with greater ease – even through open source. In turn, universities are incentivised to kick-start and accelerate new ideas and processes.

Put this in the context of our need to focus on sustainability and the creation of a better environment, and the need to 'free up' potentially disruptive technologies becomes more acute. There is arguably a real moral imperative. Our role in universities is to create a positive environment and nurture young creative minds with the vision to see beyond physical barriers.

However, innovation has to live in the real world; we also have to accept that regulations and legislation are inevitable. Not least as we strive to create a more sustainable environment – in the form of recycling, carbon tokens or personal energy use. But while innovators need to anticipate and adapt to regulation, they need to shape it and not be constrained by it.

At the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, the use of computers to optimise the use of resources is a key enabler to societal growth and wealth creation, from logistics and travel to managing our buildings. But this requires detailed observation and data collection – so we need to balance the benefits against our concerns about privacy. For example, we are used to using our phones to know where we are. Supposing we knew where every car on the planet was so that we could optimise traffic flows; would our lives be better?

If you turned off the Internet, much of what we take for granted would grind to a halt. Although it is a great enabler, the Internet is also brittle and acts as the pacemaker for the planet. The mobile phone and digital cellular networks provide the most amazing method of distributing information around the world. Access to information and education changes lives.

For example, almost every farmer on the planet has a mobile phone with a camera to take pictures of their crops, upload to a server and get back information about nitrogen dosage, disease and the influence of climate patterns. All this makes for better food production, greater knowledge and wealth creation to increase the sustainability of the planet.

We need to make sure that the computing behind governmental policy-making fiscal projects, such as comparative global warming models, is as accurate, reliable and repeatable as possible. By using computer science to develop and apply new techniques for building accurate and verifiable implementations of complex simulations, we can be confident in the results.

The need for more computer power is inexorable, so we have to make sure that this power is used efficiently with no waste. While historically we have thrown power and processing at problems to solve them, things are now different.

Server farms are already being located near large-scale renewable energy sources such as wind turbines, to replace long high-capacity power connections with low-power, high-bandwidth data connections. This can be extended by sending computing tasks round the globe to follow the peaks and troughs of renewable power generation.

It is time for engineers to work closely with scientific and business disciplines if we are to help ensure the long-term future of our planet.

While Europe has been at the forefront of early progress, there is growing recognition that countries need to work together to tackle the major challenges. The Global Grand Challenges Summit encapsulates this drive for a greater collaborative approach and will be the catalyst for innovation and progress. 

Professor Andy Hopper CBE FIET FREng FRS is head of the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory and president of the IET

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