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Knowledge, technology and the related infrastructure play a central role in a country’s economic growth and global competitiveness. Higher education institutions constitute an important part of science, technology and innovation (STI) infrastructure of a nation by educating and training new generation of scientists and engineers to meet future demand by knowledge-intensive industries for high-skilled workers. A key indicator for an economy’s knowledge- and technology-intensive status is the share of knowledge- and technology-intensive industries’ share of gross domestic product (GDP). This presentation attempts to give an overall assessment for the innovation ecosystem, and the key role the engineers of the future will play in it since engineering is almost synonymous to innovation.

With the advent of the scientific and industrial revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries, science and technology (S&T) has been the most powerful dynamic in societies for change. S&T has been central to our lives, and it continues to shape our world in more ways than ever before. There is hardly any segment of life that has not been affected by the S&T. The innovative goods, services and processes have been a driver for knowledge-intensive economic growth and the accumulation of wealth. The developments in S&T has transformed every aspect of the world, from routine daily activities to global market place.

The age we live in is correctly called the knowledge age. The societies are turning into knowledge societies, and the economies are becoming knowledge-based economies. Globalization has turned the whole world into a village, and being competitive locally requires being competitive globally. The products that possess the highest added value are the ones that are the most technologically advanced. This puts increased emphasis on the science, technology and innovation (STI) infrastructure of companies and countries, including the highly skilled work force, and developing globally competitive STI policies.

There is no doubt that we live in a fast-changing world. The only thing that does not change is change itself. In this dynamic environment, those who do not change actually go backwards and remain behind. Science and technology is the driver of this change. The high-pace of change will continue as long as there is demand for the better, and engineers will continue to design and manufacture new products to satisfy the thirst of consumers for novelty.

In 1950s and 1960s, for example, Black and While TV’s were technological wonders. In the following decades, colour TVs with remote controls became the norm, with LCDs and 3D TVs becoming the new norm. With the advent of holographic technologies, we will probably have TVs, tablets and smart phones with holographic images instead of screens in the near future.

On the automotive side, IEEE projects that by 2040 about 75% of cars will be autonomous. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology that slows and even stops cars when sensors detect crashes are imminent is already in use. All major automotive manufacturers have aggressive development programs for electric and/or hydrogen cars.

Change is also an intrinsic trait of humanity. Unlike animals, humans are changing beings. Honey bees continue to make honey the way they did a thousand years ago. But there is continual progress in what humans do, limited only by their imagination and the laws of nature. If we were content with what we already have – the smart phones, ultralight notebooks, 3D TVs, cars, airplanes, etc. – and do not ask for more improved products, then there would be no need for engineering and engineers. The technicians, workers, and the industrial robots would continue to manufacture the best products we already have forever. As human beings, we always ask for the better, and thus there will always be a need for technology developments and engineering.

When we examine the human history, we see that people lived as ‘agricultural societies’ for a long period. The measure of wealth, power, and prestige at those times was the size of the land owned, and the road to more wealth was through the acquisition of more land. Change was very slow, and the required skills and competences were simple. The life of products and professions (farming, crafts) were also very long, passing from fathers to sons.

The invention of the steam engine in 1712 by Newcomen marked the beginning of the industrial age and thus the ‘industrial society’. Industrial revolution redefined wealth and power, and industrialization that imparted raw materials many folds of added value has become the new measure of wealth. The speed of change in this age was relatively high, and the required skills and competences were varied but mostly mechanical. The measure of wealth, power, and prestige during industrial age was the amount of industrial goods produced. Farming didn’t disappear after industrial revolution; it simply became mechanized and thus more efficient. Industrialization was the new measure of competitiveness. The industrial age saw the rise of the working class and the creation of new crafts and professions.

The invention of transistor in 1948 at Bell Labs marked the beginning of information age and the transformation to ‘knowledge society’. Since the 1950s, with new emphasis on scientific research and technology development, the generation of knowledge has moved to the forefront and knowledge has become the most valuable commodity. For this reason, the countries that realized that this age is the age of sciences and reason are striving to realize knowledge-based economies.

The information age did not end industrialization; it simply changed the nature of industrialization from being labour intensive to being knowledge laden. Scientific knowledge and the new technologies developed as the outcomes of research and development resulted in the development of new products. Now the new measure of wealth, power, and prestige is the new knowledge generated and new technology developed. Also, new technology is a major source of employment. Therefore, there is great emphasis on developing new scientific knowledge, new technology, and new innovative products through research and development (R&D) activities.

In this fast-paced information age, the life of products as well as professions is getting shorter and shorter. Developing a new product and producing it for years to come is becoming a thing of the past. This age requires highly trained and highly skilled workers and a culture of innovation, with an ecosystem to maintain it. The share of intangible intellectual property of the world’s top 500 companies S&P 500 rose from 17% in 1975 to 84% in 2015. According to World Intellectual Property Organization WIPO, cross-border royalty licensing and royalty income rose from $2.8 billion in 1970 to $255 billion in 2013.

A good indicator of a knowledge based economy is the average unit price of exported goods produced. The higher the level of knowledge economy, the higher the price of exports per unit mass. For example, Mitsubishi Electric of Japan has built two satellites in 2013 and 2014 for Turkey (Turksat 4A and 4B). These two satellites weigh 7700 kg and cost a total of $571 million. That is, the unit cost of the satellites per kg is about $74,000 dollars, which is much higher than the unit price of pure gold (about $50,000/kg). Considering that the cost of the materials such as copper, iron, and plastic used in the construction of satellites is just a few dollars per kg, it is clear that the real value of satellite stems from the knowledge and technology it uses and the skilled workforce.

The primary language of the new information in the world is English, which made English informally the universal language. Most web pages on the Internet, for example, are in English.  Knowing the ‘World Language’ has now become part of being a ‘World citizen’. A publication must be in English if it is to attract world attention. It is no surprise that almost all international scientific conferences as well as diplomatic meetings are in English. Having a defacto global language makes it easier to communicate, cooperate and coordinate at a global scale.

Education and innovation are closely related, as education provides the proper setting to stimulate innovation. But sometimes entrepreneurship may play a bigger role. It is interesting that the greatest technological innovators of our time are not even college graduates. Among these, Steve Jobs who dropped out of Reeds College founded Apple (2016 revenues: $216 billion), Bill Gates who dropped out of Harvard while studying Pre-Law founded Microsoft (2016 revenues: $85 billion), Mark Zuckerberg who dropped out of Harvard while studying Psychology and Computer Science founded Facebook (2016 revenues: $28 billion), Michael Dell who dropped out of University of Texas while studying pre-med founded Dell Computers (2016 revenues: $51 billion), and Lawrence Ellison who dropped out of University of Illinois founded the software company Oracle (2016 revenues: $37 billion).

As ‘imagination is more important than knowledge’ in Einstein’s words, above and numerous other examples show that ‘entrepreneurship is more important than plain knowledge’ as well. But it should be pointed out that these high-achievers did not succeed because they dropped out of college; they dropped out because they achieved success while they were still in college, with highly innovative activities dating back to their grade school years. Indeed, these college drop-outs and their firms hire the brightest graduates from the best universities instead of college dropouts, and many entrepreneur people hired by these companies quit their high-paying jobs and start their own companies after a while. These entrepreneurs stand as models for the aspiring engineers of the future.

Steve Jobs co-founded Apple Computer in 1976 when he was 21 and, with his childhood friend Steve Wozniak, marketed what was considered the world’s first personal computer – Apple II. In 2007, he transformed the cell phone into a handheld computer, music player, messaging device, digital wallet and of course a cell phone. Apple frequently tops the list of most innovative companies with Google, Tesla, Microsoft, and Samsung, although for Apple it is a different kind of innovation. As Ross Rubin points out, “Apple’s innovation focuses on bringing together different parts of an ecosystem and tightly integrating them together with meticulous attention to detail.” Packaging existing hardware in a distinctive way with intuitive software into a new competitive product with utmost usability, functionality, and ergonomics is no small innovation.

The wealthiest nations in this information age are also the ones with the most brain power rather than those with the most natural resources. Most powerful firms are those that invest in R&D and develop new technology. Countries that read the values of time correctly and realize the importance of highly skilled human capital do whatever is necessary to attract brain power. Countries that are centres of attraction and thus are in the best position to attract the most brain power have the competitive advantage, and they rip the benefits of enhanced brain power.

In the U.S., for example, immigrants have founded 52% of Silicon Valley’s companies and created millions of jobs. MIT Economist Lester Thurow makes the point that Silicon Valley is just the shell of the creative thought and not the core: “Today, knowledge and skills now stand alone as only the source of comparative advantage. Silicon Valley and Route 128 are where they are, simply because that is where the brain power is.”

A report from the Partnership for a New American Economy indicated that in 2011, 76% of patents awarded to the top 10 patent-producing American universities had at least one foreign-born inventor. The countries that have suffered brain drain for decades are now trying to reverse this trend by doing whatever is necessary to attract the best minds. China, Canada, and Germany have initiated programs with generous funds to reverse the brain drain. Football is a good example for global competition for best players among the most competitive teams.

Universities are the environments where the concentrated brain power nourishes the best. On November 9, 2012 Bloomberg News reported the findings of a study that almost 40,000 active for-profit companies trace their roots to Stanford University, and if they formed an independent country, it would be the world’s 10th largest economy, with combined annual sales of about $2.7 trillion. Since 1930s, thee companies have generated an estimated 5.4 million jobs. A similar study conducted in 2006 found that living MIT alumni had created 25,800 still active companies, which employed 3.3 million people and produced annual global revenues of almost $2 trillion. The magnitude of economic impact a single university can have is truly remarkable.

Universities contribute to the economic development of a country by (1) developing technologies that are commercialized by the private sector, (2) educating young people and equipping them with skills needed in a knowledge-based economy, and (3) partnering with industry and offering their accumulated expertise to the private sector. An economy with inadequate workforce that lacks the necessary skills cannot be globally competitive. Therefore, it is essential that the infrastructure to meet the skilled workforce needs of an economy be in place. If the domestic infrastructure is inadequate, then the country needs to make up for the skilled workforce deficit by importing labour or by importing education (or exporting students).

As the world economies become increasingly technological, having the manpower with the required skills in sciences and engineering is becoming more and more important to enhance a nation’s innovative capacity and thus economic competitiveness. As a result, attracting young people to science and technology fields, equipping them with the required knowledge and skills and retaining them in the highly competitive and mobile global workforce environment have been a priority for nations.

Transformative or disruptive innovations are technological developments that truly transform the market – like digital photography rendering films obsolete and resulting in the bankruptcy of photography company Kodak in 2013 that employed 145 thousand people at one time. Likewise, when the transistor was invented in 1948, no one could even imagine that the world will not be the same. Development of such novel technologies often requires a good understanding of the basics and the capability to manipulate them, which can be done through basic research as opposed to applied research and product development.

Engineering and technology development are creative activities, and nourishes best in lands of freedom. As Einstein said,Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labour in freedom.” Therefore, no scientific breakthroughs can be expected from people who live in societies that lack basic freedoms like the freedom of expression. So, it is no surprise that the countries that are leaders in sciences and technology are also leaders in democracy and personal rights and freedoms, including academic freedom. One cannot speak of innovation and real engineering in closed and oppressed societies, and the number of patents is a good indicator of this.

Engineering is about innovation, and the basic human trait that drives the development of new technologies and new products, processes, or services is creativity. This innate ability can be activated and mined, but it is not something that can be taught. Creativity can be enhanced through exercises that make use of this trait. Humans are imagining beings, and people are as big as their imaginations or dreams. By the power of imagination, humans bring non-existing things into existence in the world of imagination. Imagination and creativity form the foundation of innovation. Bringing the imagined things into the physical world is done with skill and knowledge.

The lack of imagination has caused embarrassment for some prominent people who spoke too soon: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” (Charles Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office, 1899). “I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers.”  (Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943). “It’s a great invention but who would want to use it anyway?” (Rutherford B. Hayes, U.S. President, after a demonstration of Alexander Bell’s telephone, 1877). “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; all that remains is more and more precise measurement.” (Lord Kelvin, mathematician and physicist, 1900).

In his March 7, 2004 article in New York Times, Thomas Friedman summarized the secret of the success of the U.S. innovation system as follows: “America is the greatest engine of innovation that has ever existed, and it can’t be duplicated anytime soon, because it is a product of multiple factors: Extreme freedom of thought, an emphasis on independent thinking, a steady immigration of new minds, a risk taking culture with no stigma attached to trying and failing, a non-corrupt bureaucracy, and financial markets and a venture capital system that are unrivalled at taking new ideas and turning them into global products.”

It is often stated that high school students in Asia often do better than American students on international math and science tests (like PISA). Schools in countries like China and South Korea do better at preparing students to take tests. Yet some of these same countries want to learn what makes American students good at creativity and critical thinking. Physics professor author Michio Kaku makes the distinction that “In Asia, the students often have test scores that soar beyond those of their counterparts in the West. However, much of that learning is book learning and rote memorization, which will take you only to a certain level. To reach the higher levels of science and technology, you need creativity, imagination, and innovation, which the Eastern system does not nurture.”.

Knowledge is of course important. But no progress can be made with knowledge alone without imagination and creativity. A computer may contain more information than any person can ever learn. But that computer cannot do anything of its own because it lacks comprehension and imagination. It has value only in the hands of ‘thinking’ (creative) people. This shows how important it is to digest what is learned and to improve the power of imagination at schools together with rote learning. Being able to answer questions about a subject is important. But being able to ask imaginative questions about a subject is more important. As Alice Rollins puts it, “The test of a good teacher is not how many questions he can ask his pupils that they will answer readily, but how many questions he inspires them to ask him which he finds it hard to answer.

From conception to a commercial product/process/service to economic activity, innovation is a chain which is as strong as its weakest link. The conduciveness of the general R&D environment and the vitality and robustness of the support mechanisms are essential for a sustainable innovation ecosystem that will spur significant economic growth. The scientists and engineers constitute an important part of the highly skilled human capital needed for knowledge-intensive economy. Therefore, it is important that they are equipped with the 21st century skills and work in an environment that makes them most productive and efficient.

The gold standard for 21st century engineering education is the ABET 2000 criteria, which lists the required student outcomes that prepare graduates to attain the following program educational objectives.

(a) an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering

(b) an ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data

(c) an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability

(d) an ability to function on multidisciplinary teams

(e) an ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems

(f) an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility

(g) an ability to communicate effectively

(h) the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context

(i) a recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in life-long learning

(j) a knowledge of contemporary issues

(k) an ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice.

There are also various sets of qualities that an engineering graduate should possess in order to excel in engineering profession. One of them lists the 10 qualities a practicing engineer should have is as follows:

  • Ability to acquire and apply knowledge
  • Technical competence,
  • Ability to solve problems,
  • An aptitude for design (innovation, creativity),
  • Being ethical and professional,
  • Good communication skills,
  • Being a team player,
  • Ability to see the big picture (global, economic, environmental, social aspects, etc.),
  • Willingness to learn,
  • Ability to function in the industry.

There is ever-increasing emphasis on soft or social skills such as critical thinking, leadership, collaboration, problem-solving and communication. With innovation at the center of engineering, the traits imagination and creativity are becoming more and more important. In the long run, the best predictor for success and happiness is the person’s character which is desired to be stable, positive and refined. With problems increasing in complexity and projects having multiple aspects and thus involving more people of diverse backgrounds, team work is becoming a must. Therefore, the engineer of the future is expected to have the temperament to be a team player with a diverse background. The desirable qualities of a team player are positive and upbeat personality, optimistic, responsible, understanding, easy to talk to, respectful, being team-centered and having high ethical values. The engineer of the future should also be equipped with the 21st century skills such as communication, technology literacy, life-long learning, creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership, perseverance, and social intelligence.

The world is entering the ‘smart everything’ age, and the engineers of the future will have to function effectively in the changing work environment. Artificial intelligence AI is making inroads into all areas of life. In the near future, people will live in smart homes with everything connected to each other, to home control center and to the outer world through the internet. All devices and appliances will be smart devices that talk to each other, to other devices and to people. Current power grids will be replaced by smart grids where electric generation plants, consumer devices, storage systems, security systems and sensors are connected, and supply-and-demand analyses are made. People will live in smart cities with interconnected homes, transportation, energy, health & security systems equipped with AI, learning and decision making. Goods will be produced in smart factories running on Industry 4.0 platform which combines artificial intelligence, big data, machine-to-machine interface and machine-to-people interaction. Learning algorithms will be common features, and automation and robots will reach new dimensions. The current electronic personal assistants give some indications about what the future is holding. To survive in this high-the environment, the society at large will have to embrace change and acquire new skills associated with society 5.0. The World Economic Forum lists the top 10 necessary skills to be functional in the Industry 4.0 environment as follows:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Creativity
  • Complex Problem Solving
  • People Management
  • Coordinating with Others
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Judgment and Decision Making
  • Service Orientation
  • Negotiation
  • Cognitive Flexibility

With AI reaching new levels and becoming in widespread use, most jobs will be handled by robots. Jobs that involve repetitions will disappear. Therefore, humans will have to train for jobs that only humans can do. The future engineers are expected to possess the necessary technical and social skills, and integrate them. They will have to develop a creative mindset and focus on producing original ideas and inventing new goods and services. The super smart machines will force the future engineers to be even smarter, and lifelong learning will take a new meaning.

Note: This presentation is partially based on the publication: Çengel, Y. A., “Universities as cornerstones in science, technology and innovation ecosystems,” Int. J. Research, Innovation and Commercialization, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2017.