Analysis & Opinions - Technology+Policy | Innovation@Work

Engineering the Future

| March 18, 2013

The rise of emerging markets is heralded as a force that will change the global balance of power. But behind the rise of the new economies lies a strong commitment to leveraging engineering as a foundation for economic transformation.

Engineering provides the basic foundations for economic growth such as energy, transportation, irrigation, and telecommunications. Yet the men and women who build and maintain these systems are hardly recognized.

The announcement of the inaugural Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering will go a long way toward helping the international community appreciate the role that engineers have played in making modern civilization possible.

Five engineers who created the Internet and the World Wide Web have jointly won the inaugural $1.5 million prize "for ground-breaking work, starting in the 1970s, which led to the internet and worldwide web. The internet and worldwide web initiated a communications revolution which has changed the world." More than a third of the world population—over 2.5 billion people—now use the Internet. There are about 50 billion websites worldwide.

The prize is "shared between Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web; Marc Andreessen, the co-author of Mosaic, the world's first true web browser; Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf, who developed the TCP and IP protocols that underpin the internet; and Louis Pouzin, whose research was a huge influence on Kahn and Cerf's work."

The spread of the Internet and the web are transforming societies around the world. As Bill Gates, philanthropist and former CEO of Microsoft notes: "It would be difficult to point to any significant human endeavour that has not been touched profoundly through the invention and deployment of the Internet."

He rightly notes that we "are living today in only the beginning of the transformations that will come through this enabling technology." Take higher education for example. A decade ago the dream of accessing quality education from the world's leading universities was largely reserved for elites in African countries.

A few years ago MIT pioneered the Opencourseware movement that enabled African countries to gain access to the university's teaching material. But to reach Africa the material had to be downloaded onto hard drives and shipped individually to African universities, with many of them getting mislaid along the way.

With improvements in fiber optic connectivity and open internet platforms, Africa is on the verge of becoming a major beneficiary of the massive open online courses (MOOCs). There is a real possibility for Africa to dramatically improve its teaching—especially in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)—through the deployment of MOOCs.

The opportunity to leapfrog into digital education is inspiring African countries to start developing their own access devices. For example, young engineers at the Mauritius-based technology company, Hiobo, have developed a low-cost, Adroid-based laptop for use in schools.

The Internet and the web are also helping to foster a new culture of technology-based entrepreneurship in African countries. Cities such as Nairobi (Kenya) and Lagos (Nigeria) are emerging as sources of new internet-based solutions. Leading technology-based firms are starting to locate their regional facilities in these cities.

IBM Research, for example, has established its 12th global laboratory in Nairobi. "IBM Research's presence in Kenya will encourage and strengthen an innovative culture, and engage local entrepreneurs and innovators to develop solutions to the challenges faced by the people of Kenya, the surrounding region and other fast-growing markets around the world."

In another example, BlackBerry has entered into agreement with the Lagos State Innovation Advisory Council to develop apps for the African market. Lagos is possibly the first megacity in the developing world to establish an advisory council that focuses on science, technology, and innovation.

None of such benefits would be remotely possible without the efforts put into building the Internet and the web by a global network of engineers led by the winners of the Queen Elizabeth Prize.

These nascent developments are part of a larger pattern of the integration of African countries into the global economy. What is notable is that the leadership is being provided by regions rather than by federal or national governments. This is largely because the decentralized and network architecture underlying the internet and the web expand opportunities for regions to become players in the global economy.

In addition to economic benefits, these technologies are also helping to transform interactions between citizens and governments. They are fostering free expression, transparency, and accountability. As a result, they are expanding popular participation in democratic transition.

The Internet and the web are already helping to foster international cooperation in a variety of fields. As Lord Broers, Chair of the Judging Panel for the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, emphasized: "Engineering is, by its very nature, a collaborative activity and the emergence of the Internet and the Web involved many teams of people all over the world."

The global nature engineering was echoed by Anji Hunter, Director of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering:  "Engineers are often the unsung heroes whose innovations have made phenomenal contributions to society. We need more skilled engineers to solve the world's most pressing problems, which requires not only excellent education and inspirational role models, but more attention focused on highlighting the wonders of modern engineering, wherever they may be."

Probably the most important impact of the Queen Elizabeth Prize will be to promote cooperation among young engineers around the world to work on finding solutions to global grand challenges in fields such as energy, transportation, health, nutrition, and environment.

Calestous Juma (@calestous)is Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School and author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa(Oxford University Press, 2011). He co-chairs the African Union’s High Level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation and served on the judging panel of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Engineering the Future.” Technology+Policy | Innovation@Work, March 18, 2013.