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  • Writer's pictureRyan Bailis

Cheers to The Global Grand Challenges Summit!

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

What an exciting few weeks it has been! I recently attended the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Global Grand Challenge Summit in London, UK. Over the course of seven days, I had the opportunity to collaborate with some of the greatest engineers of our generation and discuss the most complicated challenges facing our world. The two questions central to the summit were: “Will AI and other transformational technologies change humanity for the better?” and “Can planet earth sustain ten billion people?”. A week filled with fantastic speakers, panelists, and mentors has led me to a few key takeaways that I wanted to share.

  1. Engineering in an unpredictable world will require that engineers and policymakers work together.

  2. Language and cultural barriers are a small price to pay for the richness in talent and diversity of thought.

  3. Data should be considered a resource, not property. Equitable access to data will help power solutions of the future.

  4. As engineering becomes more social than technical, engineers need to bring young people along on the journey.

The gorgeous view from the student collaboration lab conference center.

1. Engineering in An Unpredictable World

The world is moving toward unpredictability. Our cities are becoming denser. The climate is changing in ways history can’t forecast. General artificial intelligence becomes increasingly likely. Is there a way to ensure human prosperity in fifty years? What role, if any, do engineers have in protecting humanity from self-imposed destruction?

One of my favorite panels discussing the future of Ethical Artificial Intelligence.

These are deep seeded questions beyond anything discussed in engineering classrooms where the focus is often on “how we do this” instead of “should we do this.” But, as the world becomes more unpredictable, engineers will be called on to answer these philosophical questions. We ought to be ready for what is coming.

What I liked most about the Global Grand Challenges Summit was how, despite talking about grand challenges and global issues, the discussion remained action-oriented. As it relates to the world’s increasing unpredictability, I really liked one solution offered during the Ethical AI panel. The discussion went as follows:

We need to approach social problems like an engineer, not a policymaker. Focusing on sweeping regulation and radical legislation won’t work. Technology is moving faster than humans could ever. But the opposite of regulation surely won’t work either.
Engineers and scientists are lucky. They have the safety of a laboratory to test things before they deploy to the general public. They design, test, and ship. Never would an engineer develop a product and sell it without extensive laboratory tests and user feedback. But policymakers can’t test their legislation in the real-world. They can only design and ship. Who wants to volunteer for a government test? Yikes.
What we need is radical collaboration between engineers and policymakers. And this can take many forms, but it needs to happen so that society and technology can be more in tune with one another.

The notion of testing legislation before it becomes law made me consider how lucky I am to be an engineer. It’s incredibly convenient to have expensive testing equipment and lab-goggles to put on every time something is dangerous. While I won’t claim to be well-versed in political theory, it has become clear to me that policymakers and engineers need to find a way to collaborate and experiment about what the future of technology regulation.

Takeaway: Engineering in an unpredictable world will require that engineers and policymakers work together.

More pictures around London. It's a beautiful city!

2. The Power of Differing Perspectives

One of the most interesting aspects of the summit was the student collaboration lab (co-lab) that took place over the first four days. On the first day, country teams who had been working on solutions to one of the fourteen grand challenges pitched their ideas to a panel of judges. Many of the ideas were quite interesting and inspiring, covering everything from clean water to solar energy to artificial intelligent transportation. But there was an interesting trend that I noticed in watching the different teams present. Each teams’ country of origin dramatically changed the pitch emphasis and content. This wasn’t universally true, but something other students noticed as well.

The Chinese teams spent the majority of the time pitching the technological aspects of the project, detailing exactly how their solution might be implemented. They talked about how this technology could be used to solve a problem in their community. The UK students focused on detailing the business models and financial calculations, making sure they were able to break even and produce a return for their investors. They quantified their results and provided empirical support to bolster their ideas. And the US students focused on telling the story, the hook to the idea that inspired them to investigate the problem in the first place. They talked about the solution within the context of the community.

Why did Chinese students focus on technology, UK students on business strategy, and US students on the human element? I never found a concrete answer to this question. I imagine part of it was due to coaching from in-country mentors who have different experiences and outlooks about how to deliver the “perfect” pitch. But I wondered how many of these differences were influenced by culture and the respective educational systems of the three countries. In talking with many students about their education journey, I picked up on a few differences that were quite interesting.

My team and I plan our pitch to the judges.

The true power in these differencing perspectives was made obvious during the second part of the co-lab where students from each country were partnered up and encouraged to develop solutions to the world’s most challenging problems. Grouped with a student from North Carolina State, a student from China, and two students from the UK, my team and I developed a precision agriculture robot to eliminate the wasteful application of resources on farms around the world. The team and I worked for multiple hours across two days to understand the problem, develop a solution, and pitch our idea to a panel of judges.

I learned a lot throughout this process, but what struck me most was the power in differing perspectives. The ideas that we were able to develop in such a short period of time were a direct result of the difference in opinion and background that we each had.

Takeaway: Language and cultural barriers are a small price to pay for the richness in talent and diversity of thought.

Group pictures of the students participating in the summit.

3. Data Should Be Considered a Resource

The circular economy is a buzz-word based on the idealist model of designing without waste, keeping materials in use for longer, and building natural systems that recycle products at the end of their life. While sustainability in itself is a simple concept, it has become rather difficult to practice within the real-world complexity of profit driven engineering and manufacturing. But, if engineers could bring economic viability to the efficient use of resources, sustainable practices could start to influence long-held beliefs. The tool that will make this all possible is data, and lots of it.

One of the most interesting talking-points of the summit was that data ought to be treated like a resource, not as property. Currently, data is thought of as something that we can hold on to and use, like a house or a car. It’s owned by an individual or group of people and it can only benefit those who own it. But in reality, data should be treated like water, a resource to be shared by all. Sure, some will need more than others, but everyone ought to have access to it.

Think about it. Similar to water or electricity, data can be used multiple times, shared with others, and power insights to drive the future. Data can “stream in” from multiple places, be manipulated, routed, processed, and stored. Although data is more abstract than a physical medium, the ones and zeros making up data will define this century, just as oil did the previous.

Thinking of data as property is dangerous because it concentrates power to certain companies in certain industries. Some industries like online advertising are data rich. Companies in this sector are able to profit immensely off of the data they collect from their users. But other industries, like healthcare, have traditionally been more about the relationship between the doctor and patient. More about feeling, less about data. This is starting to change, but until data is considered a resource, change will be slow. Similar to turning on the tap or plugging in a light, data is something where access defines its usability and scalability.

Thinking about data as a resource rather than property can help humanity save earth’s natural resources and give engineers the insights they need to power the circular economy of the future. I’m not exactly sure what “data as a resource” looks like in practice, but it’s clear to me that access to data will be vital for companies looking to provide value in 2050.

Takeaway: Data should be considered a resource, not property. Equitable access to data will help power solutions of the future.

Pictures from inside Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Center where the Summit was located.

4. Focus on the Youth!

One of the most influential speakers of the summit was a brilliant inventor and businessman by the name of Dean Kamen. His famous inventions include medical pumps used for drug infusion, the iBOT mobility system, and the Segway. But for most people around the world, he is known for his non-profit organization FIRST, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

Dean Kamen addresses the Summit to talk about the future of engineering.

Having participated in FIRST in high school, I understand how much impact FIRST can have on young people. Without FIRST, it’s unlikely that I would have become an engineer. FIRST showed me that diving into the technical details of a project can be incredibly fun and rewarding. Similar to the thrill of participating in a competitive sport, FRIST competitions give students interested in science and technology a way to showcase their skills. During his talk, Kamen said, “We’re not using kids to build robots; we’re using robots to build kids.” It’s so true.

There were many other inspiration moments of Kamen’s talk that resonated with me. He has a genuinely positive outlook on the future and what the world can become when we teach kids STEM. For years, educators have focused on teaching history. The thinking goes that if students know the cruelty of history, they would be less likely to repeat their parent’s mistakes. But this seldom works. Instead, he insisted, science is the universal tool to bring people together. The laws of the universe are constant. Despite cultural factors, Kamen has shown that the world’s youth can work together to produce incredible robots.

Because of this, Kamen encouraged us to focus on the youth. Teach others what you want the future to look like. For the first time in my entire life, this made me feel old. How was I to focus on the youth if I’m only 20? But he’s right. There are grand challenges that engineers of my generation won’t be able to solve. And that’s OK as long as we pass the torch to those who will. In reality, the grand challenges of the future will require minds across generations. The most important thing we can do is encourage and support those who will follow in our footsteps.

Takeaway: As engineering becomes more social than technical, engineers need to bring young people along on the journey.

Being able to meet Dean Kamen was one of the highlights of the Summit.

For any students at Bucknell interested in attending the 2021 Global Grand Challenges Summit in China, please do not hesitate to reach out. I’d be happy to connect you with our Grand Challenge Scholars Program (GCSP) advisor. Which reminds me. An especially big “Thank You” to Professor Brandon Vogel for sending me to the global summit this year. It has changed my perspective in more ways than I can describe. I’m looking forward to advancing the GCSP at Bucknell and bringing more first-years into the program!

More fun pictures from my travels. Right: Professor Brandon Vogel and I on the grand stage. Thank you for all of your help in getting me to London for the 2019 Summit!

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