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Global Engineering

Global Engineering [pdf] [ppt]

Gang He
Department of Technology and Society, Stony Brook University
Global Forum, April 11, 2018

Thank you Wolf for inviting me, it’s a great pleasure to join such a distinguished panel to discuss global engineering. I’m not going to talk about engineering, rather I’ll talk about global. As Wolf said, I have a background in geography, and geographers like to ask: what scale. Global seems like a big scale compared to our day to day lives, but if we look through the interstellar scale, then globe is just a "Pale Blue Dot". This image of Earth was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on February 14, 1990 from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles). In the image the Earth is a mere point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. You can hardly find the Pale Blue Dot, “Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives”, as Carl Sagan put it nicely. Today, companies like SpaceX are talking about multi-planet species, however, it repeatedly shows the Earth is still the only planet that is livable.

So, why global engineering? To me, two fundamental goals of human being on the “pale blue dot”, human happiness and earth sustainability, both rely on global engineering. Let me talk about human happiness first. Human needs clean energy, clean water, and clean air to survive, this is especially true for the global poorest, and the unborn two billion population as Dr. Ben Hsiao put it, most of those will be in Africa. Here are a few more examples, more inclusive economic development, health in an aging society, and social equity and safety. From earth sustainability perspective, climate change, cross-border pollution, and global biodiversity losses, those challenges are cross borders at regional and global scale, and global engineering has a role to play.

Engineers solve problems, that’s the strength and beauty of engineering. There are also two fundamental challenges for engineering. First, sometimes we solve a problem without knowing what is the problem. Or more specifically, the causes of the problem. "We don't know the problem, but we solved it", that a problem. Second, we solve a problem by creating what later turns out to be a bigger problem. The use of DDT is a great example. DDT is very effective to kill pests and mosquito, but later turn out to be poisonous to our ecosystem as it accumulates through the food chain. Climate change is another. We address the energy shortage problem by burning fossil fuels which are the root of climate change.  Electrification is listed as the greatest engineering achievement of 20th century by National Academy of Engineering, however, the electric power sector contributes about 40 percent of global carbon emissions. 

Therefore, global engineering as we are discussing here. “Global” shows the scale and scope of the challenges, and “global” also represents the new thinking and practices to address those challenges. We used to talk about think globally, and act locally, yes, we still need more of that, at the same time, we need think and act globally. That’s when global engineering really jumps in. Global engineering is engineering with humanity, which backs to the starting point of engineering: improve the living quality of human being, and enable human capacity to continue doing so. Global engineering is also engineering for earth sustainability, which addresses the unintended consequences of human engineering systems. 

How can we do global engineering? Here I listed four, no, five “I”s, interdisciplinary, internationalization, integration, innovation, and I, each of us, we. I did not invent those “I”s. CS Kiang, Steven Chu, and many other thinkers are talking about those ideas. Global engineering integrated those thoughts are a way to survive and thrive in the grand challenges we face.

I’ll take a few examples to share what “I” do? Thank to my Dean and Chairs’ mentoring policy, I’m lucky to have two wonderful mentors, and they advise me to promote research at all possible occasions. So I’m proud to share what I do related to what I have talked about today, briefly. 

The first is a class that I have been working with my colleagues: Grand Challenges in Energy and Environmental Policy. Dr. Gerry Stokes, who is the graduate program director in the Department of Technology and Society took the lead, and together with Dr. Elizabeth Hewitt, we created this class with the hope to give the students both the trees and forestry about the grand challenges we face: climate change, renewable energy, nuclear and proliferation, energy-water nexus, urban development, national innovation systems, and so on. We have faculty, and guest speakers with student contribution and field trips, we really hope the student can think big while starting from the ground. This is a nice group picture when we led the class to visit BNL’s NSLS facility in 2016.

The second is a project is on Sustainable Energy for All. In 2015 China achieved access to electricity for its entire population—the first of the large emerging and developing countries to achieve that landmark goal that most advanced industrialized countries met decades earlier. I work with Chinese stakeholders to investigate some key experiences and lessons to be learned from China’s successful program to provide electricity for all and work with African and Southeast Asian organizations, to design and implement their programs. Yes, engineering solutions are very important, for example, cheap distributed off-grid technologies. However, there is also an emphasis on political, economic, and institutional components to make the technologies work. I was invited to share this work in EIA Energy Conference 2017, DOE’s flagship conference, and the IAEE International Energy Conference. 

The third one is some work on the cross frontiers of energy, water, air, and human health. Global clean power transition faces two significant hurdles: increasing penetration of variable renewable energy resources (VERs) while achieving system flexibility and reliability; and the energy-X nexus challenge, X including the water stress, air pollution, and human health impacts of power generation. Current research often addresses the two challenges independently, and often focuses more specifically on carbon and climate in the energy-X nexus discussion. This project develops an integrative modeling tool to study the energy-X nexus and explore how can we make decisions under multiple resources and environmental constraints.

Another example, is the visiting scholar program that I initiated and has hosted eight visiting scholars by 2018. They are from interdisciplinary backgrounds, economics, environmental, systems, and so on, and they are international. In addition to their innovative work. They come to Stony Brook which enriches the academic and cultural exchange, creates networking opportunities and sparks international collaborations. This program is impossible without the support of the Chair and the amazing staff both in my department and in Visa and Immigration Service (VIS).

Those are just some examples of my work related to global engineering, if you are interested, I’m very happy to talk more. I’m lucky to be surrounded by wonderful colleagues who are doing incredible work on energy transition, urban development, data for sustainability, leadership, human-computer interface, and engineering education. Those are exactly the role of our department, the Department of Technology and Society, that bridges engineering and humanity, and enables engineering for social good. 

With that, thank you and I’m happy to join the panel for discussion.

Note: this is the transcript of my speech for the Global Forum: Global Engineering on April 11, 2018. Please visit http://www.ganghe.net for more information about my research.