This report is the result of an initiative of the National Academy of Engineering that attempts to prepare for the future of engineering by asking the question, “What will or should engineering be like in 2020?” Will it be a reflection of the engineering of today and its past growth patterns or will it be fundamentally different? Most importantly, can the engineering profession play a role in shaping its own future? Can a future be created where engineering has a broadly recognized image that celebrates the exciting roles that engineering and engineers play in addressing societal and technical challenges? How can engineers best be educated to be leaders, able to balance the gains afforded by new technologies with the vulnerabilities created by their byproducts without compromising the well-being of society and humanity? Will engineering be viewed as a foundation that prepares citizens for a broad range of creative career opportunities? Will engineering reflect and celebrate the diversity of all the citizens in our society? Whatever the answers to these questions, without doubt, difficult problems and opportunities lie ahead that will call for engineering solutions and the talents of a creative engineering mind-set.
Because precise predictions of the future are difficult at best, the committee approached its charge using the technique of scenario-based planning. The benefit of the scenario approach was that it eliminated the need to develop a consensus view of a single future and opened thinking to include multiple possibilities. This technique has proven its worth for private and public entities alike in helping devise flexible strategies that can adapt to changing conditions. Specific scenarios considered in this project were (1) The Next Scientific Revolution, (2) The Biotechnology Revolution in a Societal Context, (3) The Natural World Interrupts the Technology Cycle, and (4) Global Conflict or Globalization? The story form of each scenario is presented in Appendix A. These sometimes colorful versions only partially capture the vigorous discussions and debates that took place, but they serve to illustrate and document the thinking involved in the process. Each in its own way informed the deliberations about possibilities that can shape the role that engineering will play in the future.
The “next scientific revolution” scenario offers an optimistic future where change is principally driven by developments in technology. It is assumed that the future will follow a predictable path where technologies that are on the horizon today are developed to a state where they can be used in commercial applications and their role is optimized to the