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Seven ‘Technology Critical Targets’

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Is the Earth heading towards catastrophe or will technology save us? To achieve that, what specifically are the issues we must address? Here are our seven 'Technology Critical Targets'.

Planet Earth is facing many challenges as our growing population requires more food and energy, and is constantly using more resources. Something must change. Ultimately, it will be engineers and scientists who solve the problems and pave the way for future generations. What are the challenges we must solve now?

As the IET celebrates its 150th anniversary, it seems an appropriate time to draw the figurative line in the sand, identify the issues and specify the critical targets that need to be met: the seven Technology Critical Targets.

Leading the IET through its anniversary celebrations as president is Professor Danielle George, who acknowledges the role of engineering and technology sectors in providing the majority of the world with shelter, health, education, entertainment, communications and more. “As remarkable as all of our achievements are,” says George, “there are a great many more challenges ahead of us, and I think these seven targets really encapsulate all of those.”

Each of the seven challenges, outlined below, comes with a Critical Target and a deadline to hit that target, but are these Critical Targets realistic? “We have certainly set ourselves some tough challenges,” admits George. “But the truth is we need to meet the challenges to ensure the future of the Earth. The Earth is a planet with finite resources, and the growing population is consuming them at a rate that we just can’t sustain much longer.”

The nature of these Targets means that there will be obstacles along the way that move beyond just technical issues – nothing will be achieved unless economics and politics are factored in. As George says: “There’s lots of barriers we are going to have to overcome. We will develop engineering solutions, but engineers cannot solve this on our own – we need the political will and strength behind us as well.”

Each Critical Target is coupled with a category in the new-look 2021 E&T Innovation Awards, and both Target and Award are championed by a member of the E&T Advisory Board.

1. Sustainability

The Earth’s resources are being exhausted. Waste products, particularly plastics, no longer just fill up landfill sites and pollute our rivers; they are affecting our seas and oceans as well. Food needs to be grown and gathered more sustainably. Pesticides and herbicides should be used judiciously, fish caught selectively, land and wildlife managed carefully. Technologists need to measure and model the problems, find efficient solutions, use sustainable materials, and create the means by which all people can live in an environmentally sensitive fashion.

Moreover, according to Yewande Akinola, we can’t view these as local problems. “We need to start to be very honest with ourselves,” she observes. “Our world is shrinking and very quickly. Whatever you do in one part of the world has a massive impact on what is happening 7,000 miles east or west. That has become so clear in the last year and a half.”

We are no longer in a world where we can say ‘that’s happening there and not happening here’. This means thinking about a bigger picture when assessing the consequences of our technologies. Akinola says: “We really have to think about the impacts that our solutions have here, as well as where component parts are coming from. Wherever it is that we’re situating our factory, we have to ensure that we’re doing the right thing for everybody. I really think sustainability needs to be right at the start of any engineering project.”

The Critical Target deals with sustainability at the most basic level – sustaining the species that live on our planet. But is it possible for the human species to deal with its myriad problems and still preserve all the other species? “We have to try,” says Akinola. “It’s very important that we set goals for ourselves. We seem to have done it with landing on the Moon, so why can’t we set ourselves the target of ensuring that we preserve the incredible diversity of flora and fauna on this planet that we live on? I can’t think of any greater cause than protecting what we’ve been given. The same way we would be very, very protective of our loved ones, is literally the same way we need to be protective about the planet that we have. Whether we achieve it or not, time will tell, but I hope nobody can actually say ‘we didn’t give it our very best shot’.”

Fact: Biodiversity is declining. Currently, there are more than 134,400 species on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) , with more than 37,400 species threatened with extinction. This includes 41 per cent of amphibians, 34 per cent of conifers, 33 per cent of reef-building corals, 26 per cent of mammals and 14 per cent of birds.

Champion: Yewande Akinola is a design engineer and broadcaster.

2. Alternative energy sources

Quite simply, the planet is changing. The most pressing example is climate change, and the consequence of that could be a change to our ability to inhabit certain parts of the world, or grow enough food to feed the expanding population. The biggest challenge facing humanity is to prevent climate change ruining the planet, and that means to stop releasing greenhouse gases. Charles Adler believes there are many technology-based solutions to achieving this goal: “Part of it is, how can we be more efficient or effective in our use of energy. Think about these massive buildings that we spend eight to 12 hours in each day. When we go home the buildings are still running. Completely inefficient. And while we’re at work our home is doing the same thing. Even in that, there’s something very clever that I think can be done, perhaps taking inspiration from the Bauhaus kind of fusion of Arts and Technology.”

Being more efficient in energy use is clearly important, but it is only the switch to carbon-neutral energy generation that will combat climate change. Adler says: “My ideal hope is that we are completely moving off carbon-based energy. What’s interesting is to think about the elements that are around us: we have water, we have air, and we have the Sun. And we already use those. It’s going to take a multitude of variations, a potpourri of alternative energy sources, with nuclear being one.”

Can we reduce our reliance on fossil fuel to zero by 2050, to meet our Critical Target? Adler is optimistic: “We’ve done pretty well – our project plan is certainly off. We’re over budget and over time, but we do eventually deliver. For the 2050 target, I think setting the goal is important – it motivates us, there’s a deadline. The only reason Kickstarter works is because there’s a deadline, there’s a point of anxiety when you have to hit a target.”

The technology required to meet the Target may not yet be obvious. “The ideas that are coming out of the garages, or the university labs, that are winks and nods or inklings to an idea that can have a severe and massive benefit to future society,” Adler believes. “In addition to that, people with ingenuity need capital – whether that comes from venture capital, whether that comes from a bank, whether that comes from a rich aunt, or whether that comes from the government or a large corporation, probably all of those things. We’ve set the goal. Now we just need people to step up.”

Fact: According to the IPCC, the planet is already 1°C warmer than pre-industrial levels and will hit the 1.5°C limit set by the Paris Agreement in 2040. Nasa says: “If warming reaches 2°C, more than 70 per cent of Earth’s coastlines will see sea-level rise greater than 0.2m, resulting in increased coastal flooding, beach erosion, salinisation of water supplies and other impacts on humans and ecological systems.”

Champion: Charles Adler is a designer, entrepreneur, and co-founder of Kickstarter.

3. Diversity

Engineering and science must be inherently inclusive. All engineers should feel equally at home in the modern, diverse engineering sector, and have equal opportunity to progress within it, irrespective of ethnicity, belief system, age, disability, gender, or sexual identity.

We are not at that stage yet, but Dr Shini Somara believes that not only does such a goal reflect basic human rights, it also has benefits for the engineering community. “Diversity is really important because not only does it bring different perspectives to the table – or the drawing board – but it also means we’re broadening our understanding of a wide range of people’s experiences,” she believes. “I think it’s really important when it comes to engineering because effectively we are problem-solvers; [we need to] really understand and empathise with different people’s perspectives and experiences of that problem. And so to have more diversity within engineering just means that there’ll be better, more well-rounded solutions.”

While skills and abilities are definitely becoming the main determining factors in job applications, it doesn’t mean the opportunities are equal for all. Somara says: “I think we are getting to a point where women know that they’re very capable within STEM subjects, but they’re having to choose between various life priorities. So it’s really important to make engineering attractive to women, creating an engineering that supports people from minority groups; giving that encouragement to say, we really want you to be part of our industry because you bring something valuable to the table.”

The actual Critical Target, says Somara, is a long-term challenge: “I graduated in 2004 and have seen change, but it’s taken time. This isn’t just about more students applying for engineering degrees and apprenticeships; it is about changing mindsets and changing perspectives on women in engineering, people of ethnic minority in engineering.

“I think these targets are great because it gives us something to work towards but I’m hoping that we see a speeding up of increased diversity before 2030. We have major global events and issues like Black Lives Matter, which can be a massive catalyst to change, so I hope the world embraces this idea of more diversity, and within male-dominated subjects, but I haven’t seen it yet. So great if we meet that target in 2030, but even better if we can really create the change sooner.”

Fact: The UK population includes 15 per cent of ethnic minorities, while according to EngineeringUK representation in the engineering sector is just 8.1 per cent.

Champion: Dr Shini Somara is a mechanical engineer, fluid dynamicist and broadcaster.

4. Trust and truth

Technology develops at an astonishing pace, sometimes leaving the human aspects of life in its wake. Modern communications have given people access to almost limitless information, unprecedented contact with each other, new ways conducting business, finance, and retail. However, along with it comes a whole new set of problems that include cyber crime, potential invasions of privacy, lack of human decency and compassion on social media platforms, ethics in clinical decisions and the need to set confines for artificial intelligence.

“Cyber crime is absolutely enormous,” says Professor Kevin Warwick. “A lot of people really don’t know how to deal with it and it’s hitting certain sectors of the community harder than others. I hate to use this sort of ageism, but there are a lot of older people who are not perhaps that familiar with the technology and the networking capabilities, and lack trust in what they see on social media platforms.”

Warwick concedes it’s not just older people at risk. “It is very problematic for everyone to trust in what you’re doing and seeing. Interacting with technology is a big issue now and criminals have moved in in a big way and are making an awful lot of money.”

There are plenty of other issues surrounding advanced technology. As a scientist who has experimented with cyborgs, including implanting devices into his own nervous system, Warwick believes ethics bodies in science are pretty good, despite scientists looking to push the boundaries. Artificial intelligence could be one discipline where public trust is not high. “We have to be clear, some AI is just computer programs, it’s not really AI,” says Warwick. “But if it really is intelligent, there are dangers that go with that. How is it controlled, how is it operated, particularly within networks, you’re not going to be able to switch it off and switch it on when you want to... So we have to be wary that there are potential dangers where a machine system is thinking for itself, learning from its own experience. You don’t want a machine deciding to do something else in a military system. You can see there are dangers there, but also in finance systems in everyday life.”

While there are a host of differing aspects to Trust and Truth, the Critical Target addresses traceability and accountability on social media platforms, which despite all of their advantages do provide a haven for bullying, misinformation, racism and much more. “It’s really providing a lot of problems that we can’t trust, we can’t trace, that people are not necessarily accountable,” claims Warwick. “We need to understand the problem more, but if somebody is creating mischief I say we should be able to get to them, but at the moment we can’t. There are a number of reasons for that, some of which we can tackle fairly quickly – responsibility of the providers, responsibility of the network companies. One has to accept there will be privacy issues, which need to be dealt with in a different way, but I think the challenge is fantastic – coming up with a set of rules and laws that must be obeyed. Internationally, obviously.”

Fact: A 2018 Pew Research study revealed 59 per cent of all US teenagers suffered from cyber bullying.

Champion: Kevin Warwick, Emeritus Professor at Reading and Coventry Universities.

5. Inspiration

“Inspiration is so, so important,” says Fran Scott. “Without the next generation of engineers coming through, we’re just not going to solve the problems that engineering needs to solve.”

So how do we engage the next generation of engineers, scientists, and technologists? Some will be inspired by space travel, great civil projects, or even the heroic role that scientists played in developing Covid-19 vaccines at record pace, or in developing the communications technology that has revolutionised modern life over the past two decades. Others will be inspired by people, explaining the challenges faced by humanity and how engineers are solving them.

“In my opinion engineering is the best job sector that no children have ever heard of. It’s not just necessarily role models but also actually just getting the word out about engineering,” observes Scott.

This is not just important for the STEM sector; this is crucial for the future of society, she says. “We’re looking at multi-generational solutions. We’re not going to solve global warming in one generation, so we’re going to need people coming up the pipeline – skilled, talented, interested people from all walks of life – to be able to do these engineering solutions.”

Meeting the Critical Target will sound daunting, believes Scott, but is realistic and achievable. Moreover, it should not be viewed as a chore: “It’s a way to make a difference, but also the things you will get back yourself and that your company will get back will be immeasurable. It’s an opportunity to actually get this amazing feedback – this amazing way for your staff to engage, and they get so much from going out into schools.”

It goes beyond schools, however. The whole STEM community needs to ensure that everyone knows about the work behind technological achievements. Scott says: “While there has to be a focus on children, – they are the future of technology – all people of all ages are stakeholders in the welfare of the planet and it is a message that needs to reach every one of them. STEM is the star of human achievement.”

Fact: The latest figures from HESA (academic year 2018/19) indicate that of the 424,540 UK degrees awarded, only 27,580 were for engineering and technology. Of these, just 4,810 recipients were female.

Champion: Fran Scott is a scientist, broadcaster and businesswoman, best known for providing the pyrotechnics on such programmes as ‘Dick and Dom’.

6. Global family

“Every human being should have access to a home, food, medical support and a good education,” believes Dr Poppy Crum. “Technology plays a key role in providing all of those, but it has to been done with a view to providing for all, not just those that can afford it or are in a position of privilege.”

Problems in under-privileged countries of clean water, lack of medication and nutrition all have existing technical and engineering solutions. However, the Covid-19 pandemic and the roll-out of vaccines is highlighting global inequality. The medical technology, the global resource and the political will have to combine to support the global family.

“We need to democratise capability and share ideas,” Crum continues. “That’s about understanding of the problem, and who has the capacity to solve those problems and be able to proliferate them in the world.”

There are roughly the same number of mobile phones as there are people, and around three billion are smartphones. It provides incredible potential for the collection and dissemination of information that could benefit people around the globe. Crum says: “Suddenly the mobile device has become such an important part of healthcare IT, or in many a third-world country becomes a link that takes an individual, then takes a community and then pulls in capacity from other communities that might have more resources. It’s enabling these technological links to empower individuals, and then allow those problems to be solved.”

What of our Critical Target – clean water for all? “It’s a novel target, it should be realistic,” notes Crum. “Enabling access to clean water has ramifications across everything that’s relevant to the global family home, with medical support and good education. Today, there are so many people who die of waterborne illnesses that are entirely preventable. But it’s not just impacted healthcare – when you don’t have water supplies to schools the quality of education goes down, and lower education can have other far-reaching impacts on food supplies and wellness in the community.

“We need to come together, financially and as a global population, to support implementation of these technologies.”

Fact: A report from the World Health Organization reveals that every minute the lack of safe water and an unclean environment causes a newborn child to die from infection.

Champion: Dr Poppy Crum is chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories.

7. Future mobility

The desire to migrate and explore is an inherent trait of being human, and (pandemics apart) in the 21st century we have unprecedented access to the furthest corners of the globe. But how we move about, even on a daily basis, is having a detrimental effect on the planet to the extent that it has to change if we are to meet greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, transport accounts for 14 per cent of GHG emissions globally, although this figure is doubled within some developed countries, notably the USA.

Do we just have to stop travelling so much? “It seems people don’t want to stop moving around,” says Professor Sven Schimpf. “So our first priority from Fraunhofer as a technological institute is to find a technological solution for this CO2 emission, rather than stopping people moving.”

He continues: “The railway, the car – transport plays a major role as an enabling technology. It enables innovation, bringing people together, allows decentralised production, and so on. So getting forward in CO2-free mobility is a major step towards let’s say, enabling us to remain on our planet. It’s really an essential topic area to work on.”

Along with electrification of cars, innovations in autonomous driving are needed to transform the way we view and use personal transport. Schimpf thinks that owning a car may not be necessary in future: “You just order it; it drives autonomously to your place. And our guess is that we will see many more business models around the time that you have available during travel.” Work, socialising, entertainment, rest, will all have to become part of the transport offering.

While the roadmap for road transport seems clear, the path for air transport is less so. The energy density of current battery technology is not enough to offer a route to sustainable air travel, which alone accounts for around 2 per cent of global GHG emissions. Recognising this, the Critical Target for Future Mobility is for an airliner carrying 200 passengers to travel nonstop from London to Los Angeles, powered by non-fossil fuels by 2035. “I hope that we will get there,” says Schimpf, “and I think we have to get there.”

Fact: Air transport currently accounts for around 2 per cent of all GHG emissions. However, the International Air Transport Association predicts that the pre-pandemic annual number of individual journeys by air – 3.7 billion – will nearly double to 7.2 billion by 2035.

Champion: Professor Sven Schimpf is managing director of the Fraunhofer Group for Innovation and Research.

Now open

E&T Innovation Awards

At this year’s E&T Innovation Awards each of the seven Critical Targets has an equivalent category, moving away from the more vertical categories of previous years. “I do think it will change the focus in a positive way,” states Professor Danielle George. “It puts an important focus on the important challenges we are all facing, not just engineers. Engineers will solve the problems for us but it is not just an engineering problem. So it more closely aligns with what you might hear people talking about in a park, in the pub or on a train. It’s helping to make engineering much more accessible which is a great thing for everyone everywhere.”

Why should individuals, teams or companies enter these awards? “Particularly if you are a finalist then your work will be promoted to our community of 168,000 scientists, engineers and technology experts around the world,” says George. “I think this new format of aligning the awards with the Critical Targets is going to give us more coverage as well, because it feels like non-engineers will be able to feel a connection with them as we are going outside that engineering bubble. We are showing a global audience the difference that engineers are making with their work and what radical thinkers and trailblazers they are.”

What would George like to see the E&T Innovation awards achieving this year? “What I would really like to see continuing with these Awards is the increasing diversity of our entries and our entrants as well,” she says. “We know that diversity enhances creativity and we should promote that as much as possible – I think the Awards do that really well. But I would also like to see the Awards make a measurable impact on these Technology Critical Targets, so we can measure that success.”

Entry for the E&T Innovation Awards is now open and will close on 29 June 2021.

For a full list of categories and more information about the Awards and how to enter, go to:

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