During the early 1900s, two shoe salesmen travelled to Africa in search of new market opportunities. In their telegrams back to Manchester, the one man wrote, "Situation hopeless. Stop. They don't wear shoes." The other reported, "Glorious opportunity. They don't have any shoes yet.” Same situation, polarised responses. Where one man concluded that opportunity had not come knocking, the other chose to build a door.
Urbanisation is currently emerging as the predominant narrative of our century. By 2050, it is estimated that over two–thirds of the global population will have relocated to cities in search of better infrastructure, services and jobs. This diverse influx is forging fresh paths of opportunity and collaborative creativity.
Yet, this migrative highway is also forming deep divots: congestion, pollution, deteriorating wellness due to sedentary behaviour, aggravated demands on power and water networks, a need for more housing, higher deposits of fossil fuels increasing carbon displacement to the atmosphere. Ironically, by flocking toward prosperity, we are also destroying it.
Both realities are legitimate and undeniable. The question that remains for tomorrow’s innovators is, how do you see the world? The challenges posed by urbanisation can either sink us or project our human and technological capacities into a new problem-solving stratosphere.
We are facing either a dead end or a whole new beginning, depending on how you look at it.
Cultivating an eye for opportunity
The concept of finding balance is ingrained in our psyche throughout our entire education. Every equation we do in school and university has an equal sign – the left hand side must balance with the right hand side.
All of the laws of engineering that we learn in university are based on this same fact with the goal of finding balance. Actions trigger equal and opposite reactions; energy cannot be created or destroyed, but rather transformed; closed system entropy always seeks an equilibrium. All of these laws are about achieving balance.
On a macro level, the same forces are at work today. Since the Industrial Revolution, the scales of 21st century society have been tipped toward imbalance that manifests itself in climate change, congested cities, urban slums and mountains of waste. But, we now stand a chance to restore that equilibrium and remedy society’s formidable ills.
British banker and financier Nathan Rothschild understood that: The more unpredictable the environment, the greater the opportunity. “Great fortunes are made when cannonballs fall in the harbour,” he noted, “not when violins play in the ballroom.”
So the growing global crisis of urban congestion can be mitigated by autonomous cars. Fossil fuel pollution can be reduced – even eliminated – by the introduction of electric vehicles. Smart grids can optimise energy usage and eliminate waste. Each problem can be a blessing in disguise, offering ripple-effect solutions that benefit the human story environmentally, socially and economically.
Problems pave new markets
Winston Churchill said, 'A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.'
As an alternative to cattle farming, one of Singularity University’s brainchild companies, Modern Meadow, has created ‘leather’ through fermentation of yeast and biofabrication. Having taken animals out of the equation, the demands on land and water are almost entirely eliminated, along with a 96 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
BlueOak Resources has also found a lucrative gap. They capture an estimated $70 billion worth of precious and base metals, locked up in the 40 million tons of e-waste that is landfilled or incinerated annually around the world.
Matternet surmounts the challenges posed by poor road infrastructure to people in developing nations. They have built a network of drones (UAVs) that carry up to 2 kg packages of critical goods like vaccines, medicine, or needed replacement parts. At a fraction of the time and cost, and with high profit and value margins, goods can be moved effortlessly to isolated communities.
Sink or swim
On the backdrop of an urbanising digital reality, the US National Assembly of Engineers asked the question: What are the grand challenges that tomorrow’s engineers will have to solve to improve quality of life? Forty countries responded. A broad spectrum of recommendations was made, ranging from making solar energy economical to providing access to clean water.
In order to see these problems as fantastic stepping stones, engineers will have to recognise, realise and embrace their skill set and understanding of balance. Realising their power to use their skill set and learnings to find the balance between social, environmental and economic drivers is only the first step.
Taking meaningful action will also involve challenging the lie that engineers are too far down the value chain or subservient to other more important players. Only when they do this can they eyeball and take on the challenges of today for the betterment of the communities they serve.
Winston Churchill said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Today’s realities beg a choice: either fall beneath the crushing weight of crippling conditions, or rise to meet our finest innovative hour. It’s up to you. But choose.