The Grand Challenge of Innovation

10/4/10

Recently, the X Prize Foundation awarded a total of $10 million to three companies at the forefront of building the world’s most efficient cars. It was the culmination of a competition that began in 2008 with 111 teams and was pared down to nine finalists. The competition was rigorous: it demanded teams to engineer and design cars that get at least 100 miles per gallon on average and survive grueling real-world safety, emissions, durability and range tests.

The goal of the X Prize Foundation is visionary—to show us how small, innovative car companies can lead the way toward creating highly efficient cars that will transform the way we use energy and dramatically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

As I listened to members of the winning teams talk about the competition and the challenge, they focused not just on the specifics of the engineering task that was in front of them, but more importantly on the implications for society. They want to fundamentally change the game—to change the way we look at cars in order to have an impact on the big picture issues of creating new economic and environmental opportunities in this country.

The nonprofit X Prize Foundation, with its theme of “Revolution Through Competition,” is representative of a new mindset that focuses on the intersection of engineering and technology to solve seemingly intractable problems.

In early October, on the campus of the University of Southern California, X Prize CEO Peter Diamandis will join a group of scientists, policy makers, educators, entrepreneurs, business leaders and communicators who will converge at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges Summit to discuss real-world solutions to some of the most pressing and complex issues of our time.

The summit is part of a bold movement in the world of engineering—two years ago, the NAE launched the idea of 14 Grand Challenges in Engineering. The grand challenges are ultimately tied to fundamental societal needs and priorities: sustainability, vulnerability, health, and the joy of living. They cover a wide spectrum of issues—making solar power more economical, providing access to clean water, engineering better medicines, preventing nuclear terror, securing cyberspace and restoring and improving the urban infrastructure, among others.

The grand challenges are encouraging us to tackle issues surrounding the environment, healthcare, and technology, issues that clearly interest professional engineers and issues that will inspire future engineers. We are in a new era in which engineers and technologists work with their counterparts from other disciplines to understand relevant problems, help classify and analyze them, understand the constraints, and help design solutions that will address these problems.

During a time when we see gridlock in the world of politics and experience the uncertainty of a stubborn and difficult economic recession, there is still great potential to actually solve pressing societal issues.

At the X Prize event, there were a host of luminaries from the political world who acknowledged this gridlock and called on innovators to lead the way. U.S. Senator Mark Warner from Virginia, where the Edison2 team based in the town of Lynchburg captured the $5 million X Prize for mainstream vehicles, voiced the sentiments many Americans share.

“We need a few more real engineers,” Warner said. “These are the next great innovators who will lead our country forward.” I could not agree with him more.

I believe that engineering can empower society by creating new tools, devices, methodologies, and ways of thinking, of innovating and communicating. Removing constraints and outside the box thinking are fundamental qualities of the best engineers, and I believe the results of this kind of thinking will be a fundamental driver in technological and societal change.

Yannis C. Yortsos is dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California. Follow @

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  • kas

    “We need a few more real engineers,”

    now thats a good one….