, Volume 1, Issue 1–2, pp 1–3 | Cite as

The Era of Engineering Grand Challenges

  • José R. Silva
  • João F. Justo
  • Vanderley M. John
  • Emilio C. N. SilvaEmail author
Introductory Article


The history of technology is mixed with the history of humankind. Technology has been the crucial ingredient in most major global historic events, and as time passed, it has occupied an increasing role into society. Nowadays, it is impossible to perceive a developed or even emergent country without a major focus on technology. While the competitive advantage of technology has put humans in this status quo, it has also contributed decisively on current environmental degradation, shortage of natural resources, and social instabilities. While humankind faces unprecedented challenges, technology still represents the best shot to overcome them. Labeled as engineering grand challenges, they embody the focus on research and development for the next decade, on issues covering health, food, urban infrastructure, energy, mobility, environment, access to clean water and sewer systems, and security. Those challenges are particularly peculiar: they are global and multidisciplinary, which requires scientists and engineers from a wide range of specialties. Considering such scenario, it is timely to dissect in depth those grand challenges and the respective technologies that could address them, covering research, design, development, practice, maintenance, and even the social-related elements.


Grand challenges Engineering design Planning 

Since early times, technology has been present in everyday human life. The proper notion of society has been intrinsically associated to technology, in such a way that humans cannot live in organized societies without it (Marx and Smith 1994; Bijker et al. 2012). In order to understand how profound technology has been embodied within society, one must first inquire on what technology stands for. Within several sociological interpretations, technology could be defined as the organized knowledge of human activities to develop a tool, system or procedure, in order to benefit from natural phenomena and improve human life.

Technology has been the crucial ingredient in most of the major global events within human history, from the agrarian revolution in pre-history, which provided food production surplus and allowed the complex social settlements, to more modern developments, such as the industrial revolution, which allowed mass production of goods and fostered global trade (van der Vleuten et al. 2017). As time passed, technology has occupied an increasing role into society, and more complex social structures became possible. One important point is that any successful technology provided such a decisive competitive advantage and was incorporated within society with such an impact, which it was socially irreversible, there was no turning back. Technology has been intrinsically linked to socioeconomic development, progress and organization, participating on power play and policy (Oosterlaken 2015). It has established itself to a point that nowadays it is impossible to perceive a developed or even emergent country without a major focus on technology (Hughes 2004).

Engineering comprises the practice of technology, in order to invent, design, build, or improve a system, from structures and machines to processes. Therefore, as well as technology, engineering represents a major driving force for economic development and social welfare. Engineering roots could be traced back to ancient times, with central government sponsorship for collective activities and developments, such as irrigation, construction, or welfare. This kind of sponsorship distinguished considerably from that of ancient natural sciences, which has its roots associated with activities without government support. As a result, their specific goals were considerably different: while natural sciences aimed to understand nature, engineering aimed to benefit from nature to develop useful things. Those two branches of human knowledge started converging to a single branch only after the Renaissance, and more intensively only after the industrial revolution in the late XVIII Century and the establishment of academic institutions (McClellan and Dorn 2015). The Enlightenment and positivism, the social and philosophical movements that followed, helped to put science and technology in a central position within society. Since then, they have been generally perceived as the main road for development and the solution for humankind grand challenges, generally benefiting from strong public support.

As a result, the XX Century emerged as the era of science and engineering, a period in which scientific knowledge allowed unprecedented control over nature, promoting major social and economic developments (Williams 2002). Along that Century, a new movement of specialization of technological and scientific knowledge took place, leading to a deeper understanding on the specificities of each field. In some sense, the convergence between natural sciences and engineering and the specialization led to more systematic procedures and methodologies to design and develop any new technology. However, it came out with a hefty price: a certain detachment of natural sciences and engineering from the real and socially relevant technological challenges. Nowadays, there is a growing perception within society that technology is partially guilty on the major environmental challenges that humankind is facing, such as environmental degradation, shortage of natural resources, and social instabilities, which further contributed to such detachment. Technology became victim of its own success. While the competitive advantage of technology has put humans in this developed status quo, it could lead to their demise. Although this is certainly true, science and technology still represent the best shot to overcome such contemporary grand challenges (Mulder et al. 2017).

In the late 80’s a new movement started within academic institutions and government agencies in establishing priorities and driving funding for research and development, by setting up a set of lists of technological grand challenges. The first of such lists of grand challenges was built by The Presidential Office of Science and Technology Policy in the United States (Traub 1988). Although it was specifically elaborated to determine challenges for the field of computer science, it set a new tone for planning and implementing government initiatives to sponsor research. At the same period, another list of grand challenges was elaborated by The European Union/European Commission to Support and Foster Research in the European Research Area (OECD 2008) (

More recently, the American National Academic of Engineering (NAE) has elaborated a list of fourteen grand challenges for engineering (Perry 2008): Advanced Personalized Learning; Make Solar Energy Economical; Enhance Virtual Reality; Reverse-Engineer the Brain; Engineer Better Medicines; Advance Health Informatics; Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure; Secure Cyberspace; Provide Access to Clean Water; Provide Energy from Fusion; Prevent Nuclear Terror; Manage the Nitrogen Cycle; Develop Carbon Sequestration Methods; Engineer the Tools of Scientific Discovery.

No matter which list one takes, any of them captures the essence of the coming challenges for humankind, and serves as a guide for future scientific and engineering investigations. Any list includes the focal points to be addressed, associated to health, food, urban infrastructure, energy, mobility, environment, access to clean water and sewer systems, and security. As never before, the current grand challenges are interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, and no over-specialized science or engineering field could alone address any of them. And it is important to stress that those challenges transcend a pure competitive advantage for a country or society, they are all global. The stakes are much higher as in any time in history, humankind is now fighting for its survival.

Over the last few decades, scientific knowledge has evolved at a much faster pace than in any other period in history. Many new branches have emerged, such as artificial intelligence, big data, new industrial processes, internet of things, implantable systems, robotics, nanotechnology, and quantum computing. Result of the ongoing information revolution, labeled the fourth industrial revolution (Schwab 2017; Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2014), those new technologies are integrating the physical and digital worlds, opening a wide range of new frontiers for knowledge. Their combination will certainly be required to solve those engineering grand challenges.

Additionally, by addressing the grand challenges with those new technologies, one must take into account their potential impacts on society and environment. The difference is that those impacts now must be taken into account in the design stage of development, not afterwards. The current engineering-related developments, such as 4.0 industry, additive manufacturing, and e-commerce, will cause a major impact on the relations between workforce and capital, between citizens and corporations. This will certainly reshape humankind interrelations, promoting an entirely new social structure (Bijker and Law 1994).

Considering such scenario, it is timely to dissect in depth those grand challenges and the respective technological-related topics that could address them, covering research, design, development, practice, maintenance, and even the social-related elements. This journal will foment all such topics from different angles of engineering knowledge, fostering discussion, technical proposals, authoritative research, and trends on the major challenges that humankind will face over the next decades. Each issue of this journal will focus on a specific problem within interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary mindsets and applying emerging technologies and solutions, with a broad approach and global reach. The journal introduces a new perspective on research reviews, more adherent to the emerging engineering knowledge, i.e., focusing on the problems rather than on the specific subject areas from which solutions could emerge. As a result, the journal is primed to treat such topics manifold, aiming to become an important source for students, researchers, practitioners, and all those committed with the advancement of engineering and, ultimately, with the humankind progress.


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Copyright information

© Escola Politécnica - Universidade de São Paulo 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • José R. Silva
    • 1
  • João F. Justo
    • 2
  • Vanderley M. John
    • 3
  • Emilio C. N. Silva
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Mechatronics and Mechanical Systems EngineeringUniversity of São PauloSão PauloBrazil
  2. 2.Department of Electronic Systems EngineeringUniversity of São PauloSão PauloBrazil
  3. 3.Department of Civil Construction EngineeringUniversity of São PauloSão PauloBrazil

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