Yesterday, Microsoft founder Bill Gates closed a two-day summit aimed at overcoming the world’s most pressing challenges.
The Global Grand Challenges Summit, an initiative organised by the national academies of engineering in the UK, the US and China, saw hundreds of delegates converge on London to share ideas on how to solve the major challenges facing the world over the next century.
Representatives from a wide range of disciplines discussed and debated what engineers can do to solve problems as varied as providing clean water, producing energy from fusion and reverse-engineering the brain.
Gates, who appeared by video link to give one of the closing addresses, said solving these challenges was imperative to tackling some of the potential disaster facing humanity in the coming years.
“The ones that are almost the scariest are the ones we lose sight of probably altogether. Because when they come they come in a really fairly large form,” he said. “There will be some problems we will wish had been better planned for.”
The final session of the summit saw a panel of some of engineering’s youngest and brightest stars take to the stage to give their thoughts on the summit and where they thought engineering was heading.
“One of the messages I will really take away from this is a more general message that the definition of 'engineer' is evolving,” said Jared Dunnmon, an MBA candidate at Oxford University. “From an academic standpoint I think we are really beginning to widen our approach and there is a blurring of traditional boundaries.”
One recurring theme of the summit was the need to enthuse young people to get into engineering but environmental services engineer Yewande Akinola, the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s Young Woman Engineer of the Year, said it was more than just the children that needed to be reached.
“We are not only dealing with the misconception of engineers in the classroom, we are dealing with the misconception of engineers in the homes of the people in the classroom,” she said. “And that is something we need to deal with right from the grass-roots level all the way to the top.”
For Dr Eleanor Stride, a research fellow at Oxford University, getting decision-makers to engage with events like this is crucial.
“We need to have politicians attending this sort of summit to hear the fantastic stories and solutions,” she said. “We need to make engineering sexy.”
While much was discussed and many good ideas put forward at the event, the challenge will always be to translate the ideas into action, an issue that Sir John Parker, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, recognises.
Speaking at the end of the first day, he said: “The individual academies need to pick up the great ideas and discuss how to implement them inside their own jurisdiction and how they can take any forward to government.”