Ask an Engineer: Fix the World!

Sep 22, 2010

Kayla asks:
Q: If you--the major problem-solvers out there--could chose any major world problem to fix what would it be? You can choose anyone to work with, no time limits or budget constraints. Actual PLANS to fix these problems need not be included. I just want to know what you engineers think are the biggest and most worthwhile problems out there in the world that you'd like to wrangle if given free reign! :)

Jim - Cement Industry, Pennsylvania, USA

Headline: “BP manager, boss both ignored warnings”.  If there was one engineering-related problem I would fix, it would be the fact that engineers and managers collude to ignore risks and warnings of failure. 

Most of the failures go unnoticed by the public, but once in a while they are spectacularly catastrophic, like the BP oil rig blowout.

Engineers and managers are incentivized to take unwarranted risks.  I’m not talking about intricate technicalities or unforeseeable interactions.  I’m talking about things like “Yes, we all knew it was too cold for the O-Rings to seal properly, but we really wanted to get that space shuttle into orbit so we launched anyway.”  You know, real Darwin Awards stuff.  It happens all the time.

I don’t know how to change this behaviour.  It’s built into our system.  Maybe the engineering profession could help by promoting a more widespread use of proactive risk analysis and appreciation of worst-case scenarios, instead of acting like the lap dogs of gamble-prone managers.

For a clear and classic expose of the risk-taking phenomenon, do a web search on Feynman’s Appendix to the Challenger Report. It’s fascinating reading, even if you are too young to remember the Challenger disaster.

Dan - Diesel Engine Manufacturing - Illinois, USA

To me, one of the biggest problems in the world is in emissions and efficiency of transport (passenger and good).

If there were a way to reduce the overall carbon footprint of our major transport vehicles, that would contribute a major effort to reduce global warming. This becomes an interesting problem - electrics don't exactly cut it when you're a long haul truck or airplane, and other renewable energy can't go the distance. Unfortunately, hydrocarbons as a fuel here are king- for energy per volume, there's nothing out there that compares at the moment (though some fuels, like hydrogen, are more energy per mass, but the storage systems for them make them unusable for small vehicles).

There's two ways to help this, both of which are interesting fields right now- increasing energy efficiency of our engines that run our cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships, as carbon neutral biofuels (i.e extract the CO2 and turn it into fuels, like plants) with sufficient energy volume to encourage use over standard fuels we use today. With the combination of the two, energy use in the world would be massively reduced, and that would also help the environment.

Justin - General Contracting/Construction Management – International

I am going to cheat and give you two:

Number 1a as I see it is providing the ever expanding world population with energy.  Not just energy though; clean, renewable energy.  As more and more developing countries enter into the world industrial scene, we will tax the remaining resource to the breaking point.  If something isn't done and soon, I fear what will happen when the oil is gone, or so expensive as to prohibit "normal" people from having access.

Number 1b is similar in nature to 1a: providing the world with clean water.  We as a race require water for life, but we continue to pollute our sources and have no efficient means to catch up.  I fear the results will be the same for water as it is for energy.

Thomas - Software Consulting – Taiwan

I would teach people how money works. I would go to poor countries and explain why banks who seem to be helping them with easy loans are actually crushing them under high interest rates. I would go back home to the US and slap any person who mentions "Home Equity Loan" square in the jaw. I would stand inside stores offering EZ financing and block people from the cash register. I would do anything it takes to have people wake up and understand that they can get ahead in life by living within their means.


Dyson - Mechanical Technologist - Yukon Territories

You have a very good question and I've had to truly examine the depths of my experience to find an answer. (I know that sounds really corny but I do take questions like this seriously.) If I had unlimited funds and time, I would make beer that didn't taste the way the hindquarters of a wet muskox smells. That way, rednecks wouldn't be so bitter and angry all the time so we "tree-hugging liberals" could benefit from their experience to solve some of the larger issues that our civilization faces. We more "open minded' types tend to think an issue to death, and many problems can be quickly solved by having someone come along that can cut right to the chase and provide a really simple solution.

Johan: Software, Domotics Industry, Netherlands

 That's a tough question for me, Kayla. Mostly because I believe that the sector I work in (IT) is something of a luxury. No real world problems (poverty, drought, global warming) falls within my expertise. I'm guessing though, that with the right tools, a lot of world problems can be solved, or at least we can understand more about the world around us.I'd love to build one of those tools. Not directly for its practical applications, but FOR SCIENCE.

The idea I'm proposing is creation of a particle physics engine that can work accurately on the atomic or subatomic level. In this, we would be able to execute physics experiments without the need for an actual setup, since it would all be virtual. Given enough (processor etc.) speed, the experiments wouldn't need to take more than a few milliseconds.

Taken far enough, it would even be possible to create a copy of the world as it exists the moment the equipment is finished. It is theoretically possible, and it will give us an immense array of philosophical questions to answer.

It'd also be able to give us a more accurate weather forecast.

Angela – Sustainability Industry – Vancouver

 My pet issue, if you want to call it that, would be urban sprawl/urban planning. In North America at least, many problems (energy and oil consumption in particular) can be at least partially traced to the fact that cities sprawl for miles and miles. Everyone has to have their detached two-story single family home and personal quarter-acre, and they drive very, very far (and/or sit in gridlock) every day to get to work and back.

If we were able to do a better job urbanizing there could be better transit systems, everyone and everything would have to travel less distance, resources and city services could be distributed more efficiently. I'd decentralize the workforce - making telecommuting easier and more common, and reducing the need for travel overall. We’d use less oil, less energy, and everyone would have more free time (by spending less time sitting in their cars). It’s partially a civil problem, but at it’s core it’s really a social problem.

I won't say it's humanity's biggest problem... not by a long shot... but it's the one I dream about fixing most often.

Bruno - Polytechnique - Junior Software Engineer - Quebec (OIQ)

Wow, now that's a hard question. Being a software engineer, I couldn't make plans for the wonderful machines I can imagine. Yet, the principal difficulty of being an engineer is actually having to solve a problem with all its constraints. Removing the budget and time limits make the job really easy. I could, for instance, say that I will create a software to rule out identity theft. I don't care if it takes a thousand times the computational power we have today, I have no time limit: I'll extend my work to, let's say, in 50 years.
Or I can say that in my very utopic world, I'll irradiate poverty with a complex machine that will be able to perfectly recycle trash, doing the whole process of separating the different components of said trash to make it usable again. I am not in a hurry, I have all the time in the world to do the research and to build my machine.
See what I did there? Not the kind of answer you were expecting, for sure, but it still is what it is: I believe any problem can be fixed if given infinite money and time, but it is not what being an engineer is all about. It's about solving complex problems with a lot of constraints, negotiating for a budget and for a deadline.

Robert - Oil and Gas Industry - Texas, USA

What I really want to see happen, and yes I know I'm a science fiction nerd for wanting this, is for us to colonize space. You know, lunar bases, orbiting space stations, terraforming/colonizing other planets, space colonies that don't even have to be attached to anything and can travel vast distances while sustaining a "normal" lifestyle.

This could help address overpopulation. There's also resource scarcity, as new planets can be harvested for their resources in order to supplement and supply our own. The food shortage, in order to terraform and to create self sustaining colonies, new advances in agriculture/horticulture would need to be made. The energy problem, or at least a partial fix for it: in order to travel the distances required energy production and use would need to become more efficient, also it goes along with the resource harvesting.

So really a lot of different problems can be solved through this, however, because of resource, time and budget constraints, it really isn't feasible, then again you threw these out of the window within the question so I made use of that.

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