Logo: University of Southern California

USC Viterbi School Hosts Highly Successful "Grand Challenges Summit"

Grand challenges meet great minds as summit explores the promise of engineering empowering society — and the obstacles to empowerment

October 12, 2010 —

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering was front and center in the national spotlight October 6-8, 2010, and demonstrated, in the words of Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, “that important issues properly addressed can change the game."

Viterbi School Dean Yannis C. Yortsos addresses NAE summiteers in Bovard Auditorium. (photos: Steve Cohn)
The electricity of intellectual innovation filled Bovard Auditorium October 6-8, 2010, as leaders from a variety of disciplines met to explore the National Academy of Engineering’s 14 Grand Challenges.

More than 1,000 innovators, engineers, policy makers, educators, executives and students were on hand as moderator and broadcast veteran Miles O’Brien, CNN’s former Chief Science and Technology Correspondent, fielded questions from audiences harnessing a number of social media including Facebook posts, a live blog, a live webcast, and a Twitter feed, helping bring the Grand Challenges to life.

The Grand Challenges are 14 issues identified by the NAE as areas where engineers, in concert with key stakeholders, can make the greatest impact to society, worldwide. A powerful line-up of panelists provided solutions from six different perspectives — Technology, Innovation, Policy, Communications, Education and Business — all looking at how engineering empowers society and affects a broader societal landscape.

In introducing the event, Yortsos said that “the second annual Summit is not only a forum on technology, but also one that will shine a light on the multitude of forces that need to be marshaled to solve crucial societal issues.”

For an archived webcast of the NAE Grand Challenges Summit please visit www.gcs2010.org/webcast or click on the image above

USC President C.L. Max Nikias provided the context for the discussion. “The solutions of these Grand Challenges will not be solely technological,” Nikias said. “They cannot be solved only by engineers and scientists. No single discipline can solve them alone - it will require a unified front.”

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USC President C.L. Max Nikias: "The solutions of these Grand Challenges will not be solely technological...
NAE President and keynote speaker Charles Vest focused on an underlying master challenge: the supply of engineering talent. Vest hoped for more engineering students in the new generation, noting that 21 percent of students in Asia receive degrees in engineering, 14 percent in Europe, and only 4.5 percent in the United States. “As a nation we are moving in the wrong direction,” Vest said. “Where we used to be number one, we are falling down the scale.”

The issue of both improving engineering education and attracting more bright people to technical careers was a continuing theme. The Grand Challenge Scholars Program is part of that effort, as is the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition, newly-established at the Viterbi School. which will award $50,000 each year to enterprising Viterbi students, funded by a $1 Million endowment from the Massiah Foundation.

Additionally, a remarkable student program organized by Viterbi Associate Dean Louise Yates highlighted the next generation of engineers. The October 6 student day included a K-12 student competition, three demonstration sessions, an address by Dean Yortsos, a special meeting with NAE President Vest, and networking activities that attracted a capacity crowd.

Technology Panel keynote speaker Jean-Lou Chameau, President of the California Institute of Technology, framed the discussion by describing a fundamental difference between the 20th and 21st Century. “The 20th Century,” Chameau explained, “focused on progress; the 21st Century must focus on sustainable progress, and this new approach should define the way we approach technological innovation. The United States needs to spark an innovation arms

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NAE President Charles Vest: “As a nation we are moving in the wrong direction”
race,” he said.

During the Innovation Panel, X Prize Foundation Founder and Chairman Peter Diamandis stated, “We are living in an extraordinarily magical time right now. To create an innovation environment, you have to be tolerant of risk. Fail often, fail early.” Paul Debevec, recipient of an Academy Award for his work on Avatar, and Associate Director of the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC, added, “As a culture, we need to value innovation. We need to reward systems that reflect the value of innovation.”

The Policy Panel discussion focused on how engaging and effectively communicating with policy makers may be one of the greatest challenges facing engineers and educators. Daniel Schnur, Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, explained that policy success requires communicating and recommending action from policy maker’s perspective. “You need to show the policymakers why your idea solves their problem.” UCLA healthcare economist Dana Goldman gave an example from his specialty: saying that policymakers must understand that healthcare innovation in the form of advanced medical technology or electronic medical records will ultimately lead to savings costs and improved healthcare delivery.

At the Communication Panel, Moderator Miles O’Brien called upon the engineering community to “toot your own horns. Good ideas are not enough - you have to sell them and sell yourselves.” O’Brien added that communicating science and engineering to a broader audience is itself a challenge and an opportunity. CNN Chief Business correspondent Ali Velshi added that “we have to explain complicated things in a way that the audience can understand. What I want to do specifically is connect them to ideas, innovation and inventions that will change the world.”

The Education Panel focused on the challenge of educating our future leaders in Science-Technology Education-Math (STEM) and emphasized that innovation and education go hand in hand. One example is the expansion and regional development of the NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program. Susan Hackwood, Executive Director of the California Council on Science and Technology, stressed that educators must also think about ways to use digital education to reach students with STEM education and that the digital classroom of the future could augment traditional schools.

The Business Panel focused on how bringing the Grand Challenges to life requires corporate investment. Peter Williams, CTO for the IBM-Big Green Initiative, emphasized that “we need to think of each of these Grand Challenges as a business rather than a grand idea.” One example came from Alexis Livanos, Corporate Vice President and CTO of Northrop Grumman, who stated that his team is emphasizing one Grand Challenge: securing cyberspace. Livanos described a process to develop flexible systems and flexible architectures that can respond to an evolving threat in cyberspace. His team is working on “Observe, Orient, Decide and Attack” (OODA), processes loop to address security issues.

Summit organizers in addition to USC Viterbi included Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, the Olin College of Engineering, and the California Institute of Technology. Lockheed Martin was presenting sponsor, along with 25 other major corporations.

For more information please visit http://www.naegrandchallengessummit2010.org/