What Are the Biggest Engineering Challenges?

Finding new ways to solve problems and approach challenges is a significant part of the engineering industry. Engineers rely on science and mathematics to solve everything from power generation to how to build the world’s tallest skyscraper without it falling over. What are some of the biggest challenges engineers will face in the next decade, and what can they do to solve them?

1. Aiding the Developing World

We often hear people joking about “first world problems” when their Wi-Fi won’t connect, or their local Starbucks doesn’t have soy milk. While some problems in the developed world would require the skills of an engineer, it isn’t the only place engineering changes lives and the world.

By 2050, the global population will reach more than 9.7 billion, and many of the countries experiencing this population boom don’t have the infrastructure to support their citizens. The United Nations has designated 48 countries as least developed, with 27 of them in Africa. It is up to modern engineers to aid the developing world, creating the infrastructure necessary to provide food, water, transportation, health care and power.

At this point, 2050 is only 30 years away, but by then we’ll have a whole new generation of engineers just entering the workforce. It’s up to current engineering professionals to pave the way by finding ways to help the developing world before growing populations further outstrip existing resources. We need to stop thinking of these as “first-world” or “third-world” problems — they’re simply problems that need to get solved.

2. Fighting Climate Change

Climate change isn’t just an engineering problem, but engineers will likely be the ones to find the best solutions in the limited amount of time we have available. According to the UN in 2018, we had 12 years to make the changes necessary to prevent damage caused by climate change from becoming irreversible — but it’s more than just a 12-year deadline. The world needs to reach zero-net emissions by 2050 — and needs to reduce that amount by 45% by the 2030 deadline.

This won’t reverse climate change, but it will hopefully limit the planet’s temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celcius. Part of this challenge lies in the hands of lawmakers and legislators who will need to make laws, but engineers will need to deal with the rest. These minds will be the ones that discover how to reduce our environmental impact and become a zero-net emissions species by 2050.

3. Improving America’s Infrastructure

America’s infrastructure is falling apart, much of it more than 50 years old and all of it in need of a serious and expensive overhaul. Collectively, the country’s infrastructure received a D+ rating in 2019 — the same grade it received six years before in 2013. President Trump unveiled an infrastructure plan that would offer $200 billion of federal funds for much-needed repairs and refurbishments while trying to incentivize private investment in the country’s roads, bridges and waterways.

The country will need to spend $4.5 trillion between now and 2025 to restore its infrastructure to its former glory — but no one knows if the money will come from the government, private investors or a combination of the two. This will turn into one of the biggest challenges for engineers in the next decade, because much of the country’s infrastructure is in desperate need of repair, with roads crumbling, bridges threatening to collapse and dams that could wash away homes.

Engineers must figure out how to fix these problems without threatening homes or creating traffic jams that are worse than the ones commuters already face. New technologies, such as self-healing concrete and asphalt, might prevent the infrastructure from reaching this point again once it has been restored.

4. Combating Water Scarcity

Earth is a little blue marble, with 75% of it covered with water, but only 3% of it is drinkable. Of that 3%, 2/3 of it is frozen in the planet’s polar ice caps. Water scarcity is becoming one of the world’s biggest problems. Right now, in 2019, 2 billion people live in areas with high water stress. Nearly half the global population experiences water scarcity at least once a month.

Some engineers are already working toward addressing this challenge through the use of solar desalination plants such as the one that GivePower, the non-profit branch of Elon Musk’s Solar City company, recently set up in Kiunga, Kenya in 2018. This solar-powered plant desalinates seawater, providing fresh drinking water for up to 25,000 people a day. The solar-powered plant provides freshwater where traditionally powered desalination plants might fail due to a less than stable local power grid.

This is just the first step toward combatting water scarcity, and engineers are at the helm. 97% of the planet’s available water supply is in the world’s oceans. With enough functional desalination plants, we could potentially combat water scarcity as the planet’s population climbs and temperatures continue to get higher.

Looking Toward Tomorrow

Engineers will face many challenges in the next decade. Climate change and water scarcity are going to change the shape of our world, and we’ve got a limited amount of time to make the required changes to save lives. Engineers have spent their entire careers coming up with solutions to the world’s most challenging problems. The next decade won’t be easy for those in the industry, but we’re sure they’re all up to the challenge.

Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance STEM writer and blogger. She's the editor of Schooled By Science and regularly contributes to sites like The Naked Scientists and Inhabitat. Keep up with Megan by following her on Twitter and subscribing to her blog.
Megan Ray Nichols

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One thought on “What Are the Biggest Engineering Challenges?”

  1. Hi Megan,
    I like the overview about the biggest engineering challenges. They should be the concerns of all engineers and your approach reminds me what I learned in a course with Delft University of Technology on edX: Next Generation of Infrastructures. The course introduced the participants to all the challenges (economical, political, cultural, geopolitical, environmental, social, technical, physical etc), we are facing as engineers in all kinds of infrastructures: transportation(air transportation, ground transportation, water transportation, etc), energy, ICTs, water resources, etc. It also focused on how to deal with them. It was about climate change adaptation and mitigation, urban development, building resilience of communities and infrastructures, governance and decision-making and sustainability. In this context, we need think of infrastructures as systems and due to their complexity, their interconnectedness, the uncertainty associated with them, their physical or technical and social characteristics, they need to be considered as complex systems.
    To deal with the challenges, we have to put together all the fields mentioned above and as Project Management Professional(PMP) I think good project management should be added in the list.

    Best regards

    Winder Dorismond
    Port-au-Prince, Haiti
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