Adapting to new realities

Since this is my last President’s Message column, it is tempting to use this space to reflect on the past year in office. It has been an incredible year for me and I have been honoured to serve the profession as your president during the past Council year. In addition to the various accomplishments of Council, my greatest satisfaction has been attending the various PEO events during the year and meeting so many incredible professional engineers—especially the new generation—across this great province of ours. My only regret is seeing the departure of our registrar, Gerard McDonald, P.Eng., as he moves on to the position of CEO of Engineers Canada (see “PEO registrar to take on top role at Engineers Canada,” Engineering Dimensions, January/February 2018). As I wrote to Council on receiving his notice, I remarked that a good leader is one who leaves an organization stronger than when he or she arrived. Under Gerard’s tenure, I truly believe this to be the case for PEO. While his replacement will have big shoes to fill, he has laid the groundwork for his successor’s success. I wish him well in his new position and look forward to his continued service to the profession.

While it is tempting to look back, it is precisely because of the inspiring young engineers I have met over the year that we must keep our gaze firmly fixed on the future. As we are entering what some are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we must face the challenges of adapting the profession to its new realities.

While the roots of our profession go back centuries, even millennia, the beginning of what we recognize as the regulated engineering profession of today finds its origin in the First Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries—picture the steam locomotive, steel, textile mills, milling machines. Thermodynamics and the strengths of materials, topics familiar to all classical engineers, provided the solid foundation to engineer the big creations of the day. By the late 19th century, the next revolution was emerging fuelled by the advances of the first. It was the world of the automobile, petroleum, electrification, the light bulb. Electrical engineering came into its own, as did chemical engineering and its foundations of unit operations, and the emergence of manufacturing and industrial engineering as separate disciplines. By the end of the Second World War, the seeds of the Third Industrial Revolution—the Digital Age—were being planted. The culmination is the computer, the integrated circuit, software, information and communications technology, the Internet. It is our world, right now.

Just as the first revolution laid the groundwork for the second, the third revolution has built the foundation for an emerging Fourth Industrial Revolution. In his article “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What it means, how to respond” (www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond), Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, writes: “We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another. In its scale, scope and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society.”

So, what is this Fourth Industrial Revolution? Think self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, quantum computing. It is fuelled by the billions of people seamlessly connected by their ubiquitous mobile devices and with access to the world’s knowledge at their fingertips. Schwab goes on to say: “There are three reasons why today’s transformations represent not merely a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution but rather the arrival of a fourth and distinct one: velocity, scope and systems impact. The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management and governance.”

We as engineers see ourselves as the masters of technological innovation. We have been the driving force behind the first three revolutions—and this fourth one will be no different. Even at the University of Guelph, where I work, I see the passion of the students around me, eager to embrace the opportunities of this brave new world. As a profession, we are at the forefront of this technological transformation. Right here at home, in Ontario, this revolution is fomenting.

I had the opportunity to visit General Motors’ (GM) new Canadian Technical Centre in Markham, Ontario during its open house in January. (Full disclosure: my daughter, Lynn, works there in the Active Safety and Autonomous Diagnostics group.) This is the new global centre for GM’s autonomous vehicle development and this work was relocated from Michigan to right here in Ontario. When I hear complaints about the perceived shortcomings of our profession, I gladly point to the establishment of this centre as proof of our world-class engineering expertise in this province. The vision and technological innovations they are working on are truly transformative. And the vibe in the building was awesome: there was a swarm of millennials and not a single “snowflake” in sight!

Other such centres of disruptive innovation, large and small, are popping up all over the province. And our universities are also in play. For example, the new Vector Institute associated with the University of Toronto, headed up by Geoffrey Hinton—who also happened to be the external examiner for my doctoral thesis a while back—is a globally-recognized centre for ground-breaking research into artificial intelligence.

But with this revolution comes fundamental change. We already see the beginnings of this. The sharing, or peer economy, is taking hold. We almost take for granted Uber and Airbnb. And Amazon, ironically, is revitalizing the ancient institution of the postal service—at least in the short term, until the delivery drones arrive! 

While engineers revel in the technological marvels we are creating around us, we cannot ignore the effects on society that such disruption inevitably entails. Will income inequality continue to widen? It may be true that engineers, as members of the technological elite, will be winners in the new world order. But at what cost? Already, notions of employment and business models have changed. Engineering used to be the stable profession, with expectations of career-long employment in manufacturing, public infrastructure and utilities, or consulting. Now, so many students I hear talk of entrepreneurial aspirations. They do not expect, nor even have a desire, to work at a single company for their entire career—that’s so 20th century! Nimble and agile are the words of today.

So, how does this accelerating pace of change impact us as the engineering regulator? Our roots go back to an era where the rate of technological change occurred on a much different time scale. Innovation happened over decades, not years or even months. For example, during the First Industrial Revolution, factories were designed around a central—usually steam powered—belt system to deliver power to individual machines on the production floor. Electrification obviated the need for such a centrally delivered mechanical system. However, it took decades for manufacturing to fully switch to a task-oriented production model that took advantage of the new flexibility of individual electrical motors.

This slower pace of change allowed us time to study an issue and craft regulations deliberately and methodically. Schwab writes, “The whole process was designed to be linear and mechanistic, following a strict ‘top down’ approach.” Our regulatory framework is built around taking responsibility for sober, methodical calculations—forces, beam loading, strength of materials, energy, mass balances, stability. These are very much concepts from the first two revolutions. And we are trying to adapt to the third—what is the equivalent calculation to prove that the control software of a nuclear power station will work as designed? But, for the fourth, how do we prove correctness for a safety-critical system controlled by a deep learning neural network when the algorithm itself creates its own performance characteristics?

Schwab cautions that our current approaches to developing regulatory frameworks are simply obsolete: “Given the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s rapid pace of change and broad impacts, legislators and regulators are being challenged to an unprecedented degree and for the most part are proving unable to cope.

“How, then, can they preserve the interest of the consumers and the public at large while continuing to support innovation and technological development? By embracing ‘agile’ governance, just as the private sector has increasingly adopted agile responses to software development and business operations more generally. This means regulators must continuously adapt to a new, fast-changing environment, reinventing themselves so they can truly understand what it is they are regulating.”

Sobering words indeed. However, I believe that we have an ace up our sleeve. PEO is an organization that is completely aligned with one of the key components of the Fourth Industrial Revolution: the open source movement. As a self-governing profession, we can draw on the expertise of our over 85,000 members to crowd source our path forward. As long as we maintain the confidence of the people of Ontario, on whose behalf we govern the profession and who have entrusted us with the privilege of self-regulation, we can face these challenges and design the next iteration of ourselves. But it will take the ingenuity of all the members of the profession, from us senior engineers to the newly licenced. Given our profession’s track record in driving innovation, I am convinced that we will use these skills to move us forward, for a stronger profession.

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