Three Engineering Challenges for Society's Future

Mark Koschmeder
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Here’s the bad news: in the future, you won't have a flying car. Jetsons-style engineering projects have always been a little unrealistic, which is part of their charm. As much as people might wish it, flying cars, vacations on the moon, and day trips to Jupiter aren’t on the menu for tomorrow’s top engineering talent. Rather, the engineering projects of the next century will—barring some extraordinary breakthrough—largely be a refinement and a continuation of the great engineering projects of the last century. Indeed, many of tomorrow’s engineering projects will be conceived in an effort to control the negative consequences of what humans have accomplished already. Knowing what to look for will help you get a leg up on the engineering projects that will be winning bids for decades to come.

Sea-level rise is one of the most pressing realities human beings will be adjusting to in the future. Temperatures are projected to increase globally by an average of 3 degrees C (and with a corresponding sea-level rise of 2.3 meters per degree) over the next century, and that’s putting hundreds of cities around the world under threat. The higher global temperatures will do more than melt ice. Warm water expands, so warmer seawater will rise to menace low-lying coasts. Over the next hundred years, tens of thousands of miles worth of dykes and levees will have to be built, flood plains will have to be prepared, and urban environments near the coast will have to be redesigned.

Speaking of which, the world’s population is now primarily urban. As of the late 1990s, for the first time in history, more people live in cities than live elsewhere. Increasing urban density brings a madhouse of logistical headaches for issues as wide ranging as food distribution, waste disposal, and mass psychology. Keeping billions of ordinary people fed, clean, and sane in these urban canyons will command the attention of the best engineering talent in the world.

One way to ease the strain of future engineering projects is to slow the rate at which damage is inflicted. This is the logic behind green engineering projects. From developing cars with higher fuel economy to changing the way industry consumes chemical solvents, green engineering has the potential to make life easier for generations of future engineers.

Unless something happens to rewind the clock on human civilization, people are going to carry on building big for the foreseeable future. Many of these futuristic megaprojects will create their own issues with environmental impact, waste, and good old-fashioned unintended consequences. What’s surprising to think about is how many of tomorrow’s engineering projects will be intended to address those consequences.



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