Engineering’s ubiquity makes it key to society’s health, happiness and safety.
- A growing urban area has a major river running through it that is little more than an open sewer. Disease, spread by this water supply, ravages the populace, and during one summer the stench is so bad that all government offices close. After engineers design and implement an extensive sewer system, health improves dramatically and London becomes a leader on the world stage, one of the most important cities of the 20th century. (Learn about improving infrastructure and providing access to clean water, two of NAE's 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering)
- A soldier loses his arm to an IED in Iraq and returns home depressed, wondering how he’ll assimilate to life with his new disability. But equipped with engineer Dean Kamen's “Luke Arm,” a full-arm prosthetic, he can feed his kids, return to work, and enjoy many of the things he did before his injury.
- A few friends set sail in the mid-Atlantic on a fishing expedition, only to find their boat taking on water 20 miles from land. An on-board GPS-enabled satellite messaging and emergency communications device – designed by engineers – sends a location-based message to an emergency rescue coordination center that dispatches the Coast Guard to rescue the group.
Engineering surrounds us, part of every aspect of our lives. From the moment we wake up, we interact with engineered devices and systems, from the obvious—the alarm clock that stirs us; lights that illuminate our way; and the car that takes us to our destination—to the more subtle—breakfast cereal from grain genetically engineered to withstand disease and brought to our grocer in a truck routed with logistics engineering; timed traffic lights; and “self-healing” concrete used in the buildings where we live and work.
Some of the very things that make us feel human are enabled by engineering. We can bond and connect with others over the internet via Skype; we can help each other, perhaps by using an automated external defibrillator in an emergency that is engineered so that even non-medical professionals can use it; and we experience joie de vivre playing Wii with our families, flying through the air on massive roller coasters, and being whisked away to 3-D worlds while at the cinema.
Engineering is so pervasive in advancements in our health, happiness, and safety that it becomes hard to separate its influence from that of other disciplines in technology like artificial hearts and computer security. The very success of engineering is in part the fact that it is sometimes subsumed. Good design seems effortless, and therefore can be invisible; this leads to the continual problem that engineers do not get the credit they deserve for their many contributions.
The challenges engineers must overcome change and evolve over time, based on the needs and demands of society. From something as seemingly mundane as a sewer, to something as advanced as satellite technology, engineers are consistently imagining solutions to our problems, creating the world we want, impacting us in every aspect of our lives. It is difficult to point to areas of our well-being not brought about in at least some measure by what can be called “engineering."
Engineers grapple with technical as well as philosophical concerns when advancing societal needs. When engineers design and create, they must take into account the potential negative unintended consequences of their innovations. Though the internal combustion engine changed the course of human history, how do its countless benefits balance with the carbon emissions it has produced and the effects of climate change? As buildings get higher and more elaborate, do engineers have a responsibility to account for such potential stress outliers as terrorist attacks? Should engineers proceed with developments in nanotechnologies before they fully understand possible adverse impacts on the human body and natural ecosystem? Dealing with these issues is part of the engineering process. When engineers anticipate them, it can lead to better-engineered devices and systems, and better serve our well-being.