From Stanford: “Stanford Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions focuses on 10 global challenges”

Stanford University Name
Stanford University

February 16, 2017
Michael Freedman

The Stanford Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions plans to award $12 million to four interdisciplinary teams, each committed to working in collaboration on projects that will make headway on one of 10 global challenges.

Senior research engineer Jennifer Hicks, right, in discussion with Ilenia Battiato, assistant professor of energy resources engineering, at a workshop in the designed to help faculty meet one another and start to identify common research interests as part of the Stanford Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

When Stanford Engineering conducted its school-wide strategic planning program two years ago, one of the main outcomes was the identification of 10 major global challenges on which it would like to have a significant impact.

10 Grand Challenges

How can we ensure that humanity flourishes in the cities of the future?

The world’s urban population is projected to increase from 3.9 billion to 6.3 billion by 2050, making up 66 percent of the entire global population. Today’s urban areas provide a disparate quality of life and quality of services to their populations, and they inflict a mostly adverse impact on our natural environment. Our challenge is to design and re-engineer our urban environments for the future to provide modern services in ways that allow humans and nature to flourish.

How can we engineer matter from atomic to macro scales?

The history of human civilization has always been associated with new materials. However, materials are necessary but not sufficient: They need to be affordably and safely manufactured at scale and integrated into engineered devices and systems to create value for society. We seek to engineer matter – at all scales – for affordable and sustainable energy conversion, storage and use; new ways to improve human health and quality of life; and new approaches to creating affordable, clean and drinkable water.

How can we use autonomy to enable future technologies?

In an era of continued industrialization, urbanization and globalization, much higher levels of autonomy in a variety of engineered systems are emerging. But the scientific, technological, legal and ethical knowledge required is not yet available to infuse higher levels of autonomy into many of these systems. Moreover, the societal implications of much higher levels of systems autonomy in our daily lives – such as the potential for significant loss in employment – are not well understood. To address such challenges and achieve effective solutions, it will be necessary to integrate engineering disciplines with expertise throughout the university.

How can we use our strength in computation and data analysis to drive innovation?

In recent decades, computation and data analysis (CDA) have become critically important in nearly every field of science and engineering. CDA is also increasingly widespread in medicine, the social sciences, the humanities and beyond. Our challenge is to harness domain expertise throughout the university, especially unique access to large data sets and high-performance computing, to provide opportunities for CDA-based innovation that cross traditional boundaries.

How do we achieve effective yet affordable healthcare everywhere?

Health care concerns pose tremendous challenges to humanity, but evolving technological trends present tremendous opportunities to address these challenges. New products and processes are emerging that will change how we deliver health care, and remote monitoring and telemedicine are creating a sea change in the role of the physician. Leveraging ongoing transformations in healthcare data, personalized medicine, and preventative care to provide low-cost, high-quality health care globally will require a new level of interdisciplinary collaboration.

How do we create synergy between humans and engineered systems?

Engineering exists to serve humanity, and as advances in information, communication and sensor technologies permeate our lives, the interface between us and our technology is becoming both richer and more complex. But how well do these technologies understand what we want? Our challenge is to manage the complex interface needed for technology to discover, understand and adapt to individual, social and cultural values over time.

How do we secure everything?

For all the good the digital revolution is producing, it also is bringing new threats and increasingly sophisticated attacks on everything from personal finances to national elections. We currently lack a deep enough understanding of how to engineer such systems securely, and yet many physical systems, once deployed, will remain in place for decades or longer. We must therefore figure out today how to ensure security into the future and how to rapidly deploy those solutions once they are developed.

How do we sustain the exponential increase in information technology performance?

Exponential advances in the performance, integration density and energy efficiency of computing systems fueled the information technology (IT) revolution of the 20th century. However, predicting the fate of IT systems from our current trajectory raises more questions than answers. For example, there is no clear roadmap for how we will manage the exponential growth of such data without consuming excessive amounts of power. Solving challenges such as this will require coordinated breakthroughs from materials to the underlying mathematics of computing.

How do we provide humanity with the affordable energy it needs and stabilize the climate?

One of the greatest challenges humanity will face this century is providing the world’s growing population and economy with the clean and affordable energy it needs. In a business-as-usual scenario, there are no solutions to provide this energy while reducing greenhouse emissions so that the global climate can be stabilized. Our challenge is to combine technology, financing, market structure, business models, policies and studies of consumer behavior to accelerate deployment of carbon-free energy generation while dramatically reducing consumption of electricity and transportation fuels.

How good can we get at engineering living matter?

A global research community has formed with the goal of making biology easy to engineer. We can now foresee achieving exponential improvements in our capacity to engineer living systems and more powerfully harness life’s intrinsic capacity for organizing atoms. Such capacities could be used to remake our civilization’s supply chains; open new frontiers in medicine; and enable the otherwise impossible, such as exploration on Mars. However, positive outcomes will require that ethical, political, and cultural implications of these new technologies are henceforth considered as an essential research activity alongside the science and engineering.

But how? The issues highlighted were exceedingly complex, focusing on things like how to ensure humanity flourishes in the cities of the future and how to achieve effective yet affordable healthcare everywhere. Solving them would require not just ingenuity but the ability to bring together expertise from multiple disciplines and perspectives from Stanford, industry and the public sector.

To help achieve this audacious goal, the school has now launched the Stanford Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions. To start, the initiative will provide up to $12 million to four teams, each of them committed to working in collaboration on projects that will make significant headway on one of the 10 grand challenges.

This spring, Catalyst director John Dabiri and his team of advisors will identify and fund the first two projects, each receiving up to $3 million over three years, with two more teams to be identified for funding in early 2018.

Leveraging expertise

“This is an exciting opportunity to leverage Stanford’s expertise across all seven schools in collaborative pursuit of solutions to big challenges that are normally addressed piecemeal if at all,” said Dabiri, a professor of mechanical engineering and of civil and environmental engineering. “The Catalyst represents a bold investment by Stanford, and it has already proven to be a powerful convening force, bringing together faculty from nearly every discipline, most of whom are meeting for the first time.”

The proposals, due March 17, will be evaluated in part on teams’ willingness to take risks and explore ideas beyond the bounds of traditional research, according to Dabiri, and to an equal measure on their plan to “initiate and sustain meaningful interdisciplinary collaborations within the School of Engineering, across the university and beyond.”

Teams must include at least one member of the Stanford Engineering faculty as a member of the project leadership team. Beyond that, Dabiri said, teams should be composed of those best suited to working together to solve the problem rather than from any particular background. Teams are required in their proposals to address how every member of the team will interact with one another, and show how each individual is integral to the success of the project.

Jenny Suckale, assistant professor of geophysics, listens as law Professor Amalia Kessler shares during an exercise in the Catalyst seminar at the (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

To kickstart the initiative, Dabiri and his team recently held a series of workshops during which several dozen faculty members from throughout the university participated in a series of collaborative exercises to help faculty from different schools and departments meet one another and start to identify common research interests.

“Communicating across disciplines is not always straightforward,” said Executive Director Sarah Stein Greenberg, who led the workshops and serves on the Catalyst advisory board. “So we are engaging participants with a variety of tools to help foster unexpected connections and encourage new ideas to start to flow.”

In one warm-up exercise, Stein Greenberg asked participants to share in small groups how they’re known in their fields and how they’d like to be known. The goal, she said, was to help participants accelerate the normal rate of getting to know one another and to have a forum to explore their own aspirations and motivations and expose themselves to potential collaborators.

In another exercise, she asked participants to sketch out their disciplines to show the various intersections with other areas of expertise. In small-group discussions, participants explored how their individual disciplines combined, overlapped or stood apart from other fields. Participants began to see how the complex challenges of the world are most often solved in collaboration rather than in isolation.

“The workshop was a great opportunity to meet fascinating people from other schools and departments across the university whom I would never encounter through the normal course of my research and teaching, given how specialized we all tend to be,” said law Professor Amalia Kessler.

Meaningful collaboration, bold risks

At the workshops, organizers asked participants to consider in small groups and bring their own expertise to bear on the issue of how humanity can flourish in the cities of the future. “It was very interesting to see that despite our disciplinary differences,” Kessler said, “colleagues specializing in civil engineering and risk management and I ended up agreeing that a core hindrance to meaningful change of any kind is deep-rooted, institutionalized forms of structural inequality.”

Doctoral candidate Chris Ford, Professor Larry Leifer and Assistant Professor Sindy Tang, all of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, work on one of the exercises in the Catalyst workshop. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Economist Garth Saloner, former dean of the Graduate School of Business, said that one important feature of the Catalyst initiative is that it will provide workshops, forums, conferences and dinners to facilitate the formation of cross-disciplinary teams that don’t already exist.

“Many of the societal challenges that social scientists are interested in require a deep understanding of technology or have solutions that are in part implemented through technology. Enabling faculty in different schools who have different pieces of the puzzle to find one another will be a unique and core feature of the Catalyst model,” said Saloner, who serves on the Catalyst advisory board.

Dabiri notes that the outcome of the projects will vary depending on the team. For some it may include development of a new technology; for others it may be the implementation of a policy mechanism. The key, he said, is that by providing funding that explicitly requires meaningful collaboration and encourages the kinds of bold risks that do not normally get funded, the Catalyst can be a model for high-impact and interdisciplinary research.

An equally important outcome, he said, is that it will create a new network of faculty, staff and students working collaboratively to solve the world’s most urgent challenges.

“Our primary goal at this stage is to encourage participation from all parts of the Stanford community through the program funding and other activities to come,” he said.

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