The global grand challenges that transcend borders, such as climate change and accidents in complex technological systems (e.g., Chernobyl, Fukushima, the Boeing 737 MAX crashes) necessitate new mindsets and approaches, as they affect safety, security, sustainability of people and ecosystems, politically and environmentally instigated migration, famine, and infectious disease. These challenges, more than ever, require global engineers who understand and analyze multiple interconnected systems of systems involving diverse groups, technologies, and countries.
Exhibit A: Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, which were involved in two fatal back-to-back crashes, in October 2018 in Indonesia and March 2019 in Ethiopia, caused the deaths of 346 people and the subsequent grounding of almost 400 of this type of aircraft around the world. It was not only a watershed moment for the U.S. civil aviation industry but also caused a crisis of mistrust in various U.S. entities. In this case, actions (and inactions) of a U.S. company (Boeing) and a U.S. government regulatory agency (the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA) directly affected thousands of people all over the world, subjecting them to unacceptable levels of risk.
The application and incorporation of automated and algorithmic-based technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) into safety-critical systems, e.g., medical devices and autonomous vehicles, where failures could have significant consequences, will only increase in the future.
Moreover, lifeline systems, such as transportation, communication, and energy systems, need to be better prepared to deal with the rapidly growing adverse effects of climate change. Extreme events are now more frequent, with more severe impacts; in some cases, a triggering mechanism initiates cascading shocks, propagating and causing secondary effects and additional damages through and to the whole system. Indeed, as events once considered “extreme” become the “new normal,” affected industries and their regulatory agencies need to think about the unthinkable. Just in the past few years, the events impacting energy infrastructure have included the wildfires that drove the California utility PG&E to bankruptcy, the deep freeze that shut down Texas’ power grid, and the heatwaves in France rendering lakes and rivers too warm to cool nuclear power plants. Safety-critical systems should proactively develop emergency response plans to mitigate the effects of climate-induced disturbances.
These days we are witnessing the unfolding, worrisome plight of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar,1 evoking painful memories in a country still scarred by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986. This is an unprecedented and volatile situation, that can only be resolved through active, pragmatic engineering and nuclear diplomacy.
When considering these global grand challenges, engineering diplomacy2 emerges as a necessary tool for balancing between domestic sovereignty and international responsibilities. Engineering diplomacy can also contribute to further collaboration, tighter integration, confidence building, and the bridging of conflicts among countries facing common transnational threats.
- Najmedin Meshkati, “Imperiled Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant has the World on Edge – A Safety Expert Explains What Could Go Wrong,” The Conversation, August 26, 2022, https://theconversation.com/imperiled-ukrainian-nuclear-power-plant-has-...
- Najmedin Meshkati, “Engineering Diplomacy: An Underutilized Tool in Foreign Policy,” Science & Diplomacy, Vol. 1, No. 2 (June 2012), http://www.sciencediplomacy.org/perspective/2012/engineering-diplomacy.