Research challenges for engineering schools: Anticipating the future

A recent article from McKinsey & Company Insights & Publications discusses global economic scenarios for 2015–25. Its thesis offers guidance for research intensive engineering schools in how discovery should be fashioned to meet the needs of a complex and globalized world.

First, energy markets could be transformed soon, since the current excess production capacity of oil, which has led to a price decline, will help maintain stable oil prices for some time.  The future for solar photovoltaics is also bright.  If government subsidies continue for some time, solar photovoltaic facilities could be cost competitive within a decade. It is possible that the combination of inexpensive oil, concern over climate change, and the disruptive potential of solar power and wind energy will significantly change the way utilities produce and transmit electricity in a few years.

The next driver is an aging working population. Workers will have to support a larger number of retirees due to longer human life spans and lower birthrates. By next year, 2016, elderly people over 65 years of age will outnumber children under the age of five for the first time in human history. This demographic change will require new technologies, e.g., for unobtrusive, in-home monitoring to improve the daily lives of elderly peopleadaptable in-vehicle systems for older drivers, and workplaces that are suitable for older workers.

The third factor is connectivity. By using ubiquitous devices similar to tablets and phones and leveraging the Internet of Things, our world is entering a new era in the way systems collect data, interact, and improve the running of everything from machines to cities. The changes that are thus induced in the global economy require that organizations of all kinds improve digital access, connectivity and productivity. This digital focus will reduce technological and economic barriers, promote innovation, increase prosperity and, ultimately, enhances the quality of life for all.

These three issues – changing energy markets, an aging population and connectivity – will lead to significant opportunities for solutions driven by engineering research. At McMaster, we are addressing these openings by actively hiring new faculty members in three priority areas of micro-nano systems (also related to energy and connectivity), smart systems (connectivity, energy and aging), and biomedical engineering (aging).

Our world will change, as will many of the technologies that it will demand. By carefully anticipating this future, it might become possible to productively ride the waves generated by the coming disruptions instead of sinking under them.

(Recommended readingShifting tides: Global economic scenarios for 2015–25.)

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