Comment: Tackling the engineering challenges of tomorrow

3 min read

Dr Andy Lawrence, Joint Head of Engineering at EPSRC-UKRI, introduces a key new report exploring how the engineering research community can help identify and address the grand societal challenges of the future. 

Engineers have always created and realised solutions for some of the world’s greatest problems. In the UK, Engineers have long been at the heart of technological revolutions and to this day continue to transform the way that we live our lives.

At EPSRC-UKRI, as the main UK funder of engineering research and skills, we build on our engineering heritage by investing in long-term ambitious research that tackles the big problems to provide a strong foundation for future generations of engineers.

Read the Tomorrow’s Engineering Research Challenges (TERC) report here

Helping the planet and its people

Back in 2015, we invested in several Engineering Grand Challenge programmes following the inaugural Global Grand Challenge Summit in 2013, organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering. The topics of these flagship programmes represented some of the major global challenges that could be met by engineering in the years to come, such as Water for All and Future Cities. Many of these successful funded programmes drew to a close in 2021, but it seems that our planet and its people are now facing grand challenges at an unprecedented scale, following a global pandemic and the urgency of the climate crisis becoming more apparent. This again is where engineering researchers can step in to push the frontiers of innovation to provide creative, novel and sustainable solutions to overcome these challenges and anticipate future ones. This seemed to be an opportune moment to embark on a journey to identify and explore Tomorrow’s Engineering Research Challenges. 

World-leading research community

For this initiative, we wanted to gain a credible and informed view of the most important challenges of the next 10-15 years and how engineering research can confront these. We strongly believed that this vision needed to come from and be led by our world-leading research community. So, we were delighted to secure the influential leadership of Professor Dame Helen Atkinson and Dr Peter Bonfield to spearhead this activity and to work with us to provide valuable experience, enthusiasm and direction to this significant community engagement exercise.

As a consequence, over the past nine months we have convened a wide diversity of voices in an inclusive environment to allow open, honest and challenging discussions throughout. It is one of the largest engagements that we have managed to date involving representatives from academia, industry, professional engineering institutions, early career researchers, PhD students, engineering equality, diversity and inclusion groups, international representatives and UK Government chief scientific advisors. Ideas were received from over 300 individuals representing over 100 different universities, companies and organisations, with over 150 representatives of the UK research community directly participating in the workshops and roundtables to contribute towards this vision of the future.

The time for action

Working with Peter and Helen, we have now accumulated these contributions and converged them into three tiers of research and community challenges with clear recommendations for action:

  • High-level priorities that highlight the most pressing actions for the wider engineering community to enable researchers to address future challenges, including the need for inclusive approaches to engineering, mechanisms for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research and the promotion of diverse, agile and impactful skills.
  • Cross-cutting themes that were extracted from our engagements, where engineering and engineers have a key role to contribute across all sectors and technologies, such as achieving net zero and sustainability, faster digital design, understanding complex systems and increasing human resilience.
  • Technological challenges, derived predominantly from the series of workshops, describing ambitious challenges where novel approaches and creative engineering research will be vital to make progress across specific domains: space, transportation systems, materials, health and wellbeing, robotics and AI, responsible engineering, nature-based engineering and global engineering solutions.

Inspiration for the future

In the report, we have tried to be concise in our presentation of the content but were compelled to retain the insightful detail behind the challenges that we have meticulously gathered throughout our engagement. The annexes provide the comprehensive supporting evidence that will form the basis for ongoing discussions with the community and serve as inspiration for what comes next.

Importantly, the recommendations set a trajectory for future action. Whilst we at EPSRC-UKRI have initiated this activity, these actions are not for us to progress alone. We hope that those willing participants and organisations that have been involved in the process so far will continue to work with us to progress these challenges. And, we also hope that we can stimulate new conversations with diverse and motivated researchers and organisations from across the UK to allow the challenges to grow, evolve and shift in the future.

We are excited to publish this report that represents the visions from the UK research community. Above all, we are determined to move forward in partnership with the whole engineering ecosystem to enable UK engineering research to flourish and provide the solutions to Tomorrow’s Engineering Research Challenges.

Dr Andy Lawrence, Joint Head of Engineering, EPSRC-UKRI