21st Century Engineering

By Gordon Day

The following has been adapted from 2012 IEEE President Gordon Day’s keynote address delivered on 2 August 2013 at the IEEE Conference on Technologies for Sustainability and IEEE-USA Annual Meeting, held in Portland, Oregon.

Today, I’d like to talk about the future of our profession, but let’s start with a quick look backwards.  Over the past century or so, engineers have done more to improve quality of life and build prosperity than any other profession.  It’s a pretty easy case to make.

Start with electricity.  First it brought lighting, and kerosene lamps went away.  Homes were safer and more pleasant.  Refrigerators arrived, followed by freezers.  Iceboxes went away.  Food could be stored longer and was safer.  Water pumps arrived, and there was a safer, more plentiful supply.

In industry, electric motors made it possible to do more work, better and faster, and manufacturing was transformed.

Telephones, radio, television, and eventually digital communications and the internet changed the ways we interact with each other and gather information.

Computers arrived to manage information and control inanimate objects.


Audio and video entertainment changed how we spend our leisure time.

With automobiles and highways, airplanes and airports, transportation became much faster and more pleasant.

Our home environments changed.  Air conditioning and heating systems arrived, along with water and sanitation systems.

Tall buildings changed city landscapes.

New materials improved old products and enabled new ones

And modern medicine arrived.  How many diagnostic procedures can you think of that don’t depend on electronics?  Or therapies?  How many drugs have been developed without electronic instrumentation?


That is all the work of engineers and I’m sure you can add to this thumbnail history.  I don’t think you can tell an equivalent story of impact for any other profession.

Understanding the Special Relationship Between Science and Engineering

Yes, I did intend to say that “engineers” did all of this.  And yes, I’m making a distinction between science and engineering.

As I use the vocabulary of technology, and encourage you to use it, science and engineering are the basic terms.  They’re both important, but they’re different, so let me digress for a moment into some etymology.

Both words – science and engineering – have roots in the 13th century, in Latin and Old French.

Science meant knowledge, some say organized knowledge obtained from study, though that may be stretching it.  The term scientist, for a practitioner of science, came along much later, though the concept wasn’t new.

In medieval times, the word “engine” meant a machine of warfare, a catapult or a battering ram or something akin to that.  Its roots are closely related to those of the word “ingenious,” and there’s a clear implication of invention, or cleverness.  The word “engineer” arrived at roughly the same time as the word “scientist,” and the original concept was one who invents, or perhaps uses, clever machines.

I like to think of science and engineering as ends of a spectrum.  One end represents the expansion of knowledge and the other the use of knowledge for invention.  Most of us in IEEE can find ourselves somewhere on the spectrum, and maybe we’ve moved around on it.  I’ve worked at both ends, in both very fundamental physics and advanced development, and I don’t think I’m that unusual.

It is at the engineering end of that spectrum where new technologies are created, where inventions are made that change people’s lives, where new jobs are created, and where wealth is generated.

I’d like to share two quotes that help put the relationship of science and engineering in perspective.  One you may know is from Theodore von Kármán, a Hungarian engineer who came to America and helped found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  He famously said: “Scientists work to understand the world as it exists; engineers work to create a world that never before existed.”

I don’t know the origin of the other quote, but it goes like this: “Without science, engineering would have no roots; without engineering, science would bear no fruit.”

I think are both accurate and respectful descriptions of the disciplines, and I think they should frame our thoughts about our profession and technology more generally.

Tackling Unfinished Business

As we look forward, further into the 21st century – as engineers – one of the first things we should work on is the unfinished business of the previous generation, of my generation.

It is that far too many people in the world still don’t have access to the technologies that my parents first started to experience a century ago.

Twenty percent of the world still doesn’t have electricity.  You can believe that because you’ve seen the pictures of the earth from space at night.  Those are electric lights.  And you’ve seen the dark places in those pictures where you know there are people, many people, who don’t have electricity – 600 million in the unlighted parts of Africa, 400 million in India, 250 million in south-east Asia.    And if you don’t have electricity, you can’t have most of the other things that I mentioned earlier.

As the engineering community, I think we have a responsibility to both speak out about that, and to do something about it.  I’m very proud that IEEE endorsed the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative, the first time we’ve done anything like that in our history, and I’m even more pleased that we found 50 other engineering societies that would join us in speaking out.

Doing something about it is more difficult, but there’s reason for hope.  In developing countries, the penetration of landline telephones never reached more than about 12 percent.  But the penetration of cell phones went from zero to 80 or 90 percent in about a decade.  It didn’t happen because of the initiative of governments or non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  It happened because the private sector saw the opportunities; the demand was there.  Similarly, business opportunities exist for providing electricity to those who don’t have it, and I think we should be promoting those opportunities.

Innovation Is Unlimited

Beyond finishing unfinished business, what else are we going to do?

There’s a school of thought that says that all of the real breakthroughs in technology have already happened.  Some people claim that there’s nothing as revolutionary as electricity, or flight, or computers, or digital communications anywhere on the horizon.

In January 2013, The Economist magazine took that notion seriously and published a special report on what it called “dwindling innovation.”  It referred to “Innovation Pessimism” and it asked “Is the ideas machine broken?”  But if you read the article, which I encourage you to do, you’ll find that all of the people quoted are economists.

They didn’t quote people who have spent their lives creating technology, who understand that breakthroughs are often the product of incremental change and extrapolating existing technology.

They didn’t quote inventors like Thomas Edison, who said, I readily absorb ideas from every source, frequently starting where the last person left off.”

Or Steve Jobs, who said, “Creativity is just connecting things.”

Neither Edison nor Jobs thought there was a limit to new ideas, and neither do most engineers.

The Grand Challenges of Engineering

We can extrapolate some of the future of engineering from what we know about today’s engineers and the grand challenges facing society.

The convergence of computing and communications isn’t over.  We want more information and we want it faster.  We want information about everything, from everywhere, delivered anywhere.  We want it for advancing our careers, for better education and better medicine, for managing our lives better, for connecting with our family and community, for greater safety, and for more entertainment.  We want our information to be personalized, hyper-personalized even, curated just for us, because we know we can’t absorb everything. And also we want our information to be secure and private.

There’s much more to be done in the energy space than universal access.  Energy is central to our security, our prosperity and the quality of our environment, everywhere.  We know that demand for energy will grow for as long as we can foresee.  We know that we need to work on supplies, on transmission and distribution, and on the efficient use of energy.  We know that if we don’t, our standard of living will decline and the world won’t be as good a place to live.

We know that great needs and opportunities exist in transportation.  We can expect to see more cars, busses, trains and planes, and if we don’t do something about it, we will surely see more congestion.  Vehicles will become more efficient.  And along with many other inanimate things, they will be more intelligent.  They’ll talk to each other, and machine-to-machine interactions may become more important than human-to-machine interactions.

And the extrapolation I find most exciting is in the life sciences.  We’re going to see much more intense monitoring of biological systems – including people – for health and well-being.  Think about large numbers of tiny sensors on our bodies communicating wirelessly through a body-area network, monitoring our health, and sending alarms when needed. But for me, it’s even more exciting to see progress in prosthetics, in replacements for body parts and functions.

A year and a half ago IEEE Spectrum told the story of two young women.  One of them was paralyzed by a spinal injury and confined to a wheel chair.  But she had an experimental exo-skeleton – an external, mechanical skeleton – and with it she could walk for an hour or so without assistance.  The other woman had been blind for life, not even able to see light and dark.  But with an artificial retina – a photonic imaging device connected to her optic nerves – she can now see well enough to walk down her street and find her way home.

You know about cochlear implants to restore hearing.  You’ve heard about progress in artificial hearts.  And you no doubt have heard about people with artificial legs so good they may have advantages in sports.

Those are all extrapolations, and we can’t know exactly where any of them will lead, but surely some will lead to dramatic changes.  My father was born in 1907. As a young man, I know he didn’t imagine, and I don’t think he could have imagined, the cell phone I bought him for his 90th birthday.  Yet the cell phone emerged gradually from the convergence of several established technologies, and changed the world.

Expanding The Engineer’s Toolkit

Whatever technical advances may emerge, I’m pretty sure our profession will see some changes as we move through the 21st century, and I’d like to close by highlighting a couple of them.

“Sharpen your saw” is a well-known bit of career advice.  If using a saw is your specialty, then you need to have the best, most-advanced saws available. Keep them sharp, and try to be the very best at using them.

But in the 21st century, having just one specialty isn’t enough.  An electrical engineer alone cannot design a robot.  Alone, a mechanical engineer can’t design a car.  A power engineer who has spent his life designing transmission and distribution systems can’t even, alone, design a smart grid.

So the engineers who will have the greatest achievements in the future will probably be those who have more than one a sharp tool in their tool boxes.  Electrical engineers will need to know about mechanical design, and materials, and chemistry, and computers, and software.  Mechanical engineers will need to know about electricity and control systems, and so on.

Fifty years from now, I wonder if we’ll even talk about individual engineering disciplines.

The Role of Sustainability

The second fundamental change that I see looking forward is captured in the question addressed in this conference, the IEEE Conference on Technologies for Sustainability.

Is it possible “to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs?”

That’s the most widely used definition of sustainability, and the concept of needs is usually reduced to three elements, sometimes called the three pillars: social progress, preservation of the environment, and economic growth.

Energy is what connects the pillars.  Social progress and economic growth require increasing amounts of energy.  And the production and use of energy threaten the environment, perhaps more than anything else.

Scientists remind engineers that plenty of clean energy is available.  The solar energy that strikes just 0.5 percent of the world’s deserts is more than sufficient to meet today’s needs.  And that doesn’t count wind, hydro of all sorts, geothermal, and other renewable sources.

Addressing sustainability may be the most important work our profession does in the 21st century.

A Final Thought

The technical and economic challenges we face as 21st Century Engineers are significant, but solving difficult technical problems within economic constraints is what engineers have always done.  There is so much to do.  It’s going to be so very interesting, and it will have such a great impact.

If I were a young person today, I’d choose to be an engineer.

Gordon W. Day served in 2012 as the 50th President of IEEE. He is a member of the IEEE Board of Directors and served as 2009 IEEE-USA President.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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