Technological innovation invites new thinking on regulatory control

The high rate of technological innovation impels engineers to look for modernized regulatory regimes to ensure the public, and the profession itself, can adapt to new conditions.

Mark Abbott, P.Eng., executive director of Engineering Change Lab, issued the challenge April 21 as keynote speaker at a luncheon immediately following PEO’s annual general meeting.

The Engineering Change Lab is a collaborative forum of individuals and organizations dedicated to examining systemic weaknesses in the engineering profession and proposing ideas to better link technological innovation with the public interest. Operated under the auspices of Engineers Without Borders, the change lab aims at promoting a global movement to update the purpose of engineering and its overall impact on society.

Abbott was specially selected by PEO President David Brown, P.Eng., BDS, C.E.T., for this year’s keynote address due to Brown’s concerns about disruption facing the engineering profession and its regulation.

The speaker outlined how technological innovation impacts society—and engineers—by citing the disruptive change inaugurated by the advent of electricity generation in the late 19th century. Although electricity brought obvious benefit to society, it also created opportunities for engineers to adapt the emerging technology for maximum effect. It also ushered in a whole new engineering discipline—electrical engineering—where before the profession consisted primarily of the mining, mechanical and civil disciplines.

“We are now at a point like that at the end of the 1800s, in that there is a fundamental shift happening with technology in society that is creating huge opportunity for us as engineers to step up and continue playing the central and vital role in the most important questions facing the future of society,” Abbott said.

But the upheaval and disruption envisioned by the Engineering Change Lab involves more than just the safe utilization of new technologies, according to Abbott. Instead, engineers and other professionals across the social spectrum are being challenged to study new innovations, such as artificial intelligence, big data and the Internet of Things, and predict how they might be regulated and controlled for a greater public good.

“Just like the electricity example of the late 1800s, it’s pretty obvious there is something big going on in the relationship between technology and society again,” Abbott said. “The technologies seem like magic today because they are so new and so powerful, and it’s mostly engineers and people with engineering degrees who are driving a lot of this technology. But as a profession, how are we embracing it all?”

Abbott cited the recent problems with Facebook’s mishandling of subscribers’ personal data to illustrate how technological innovation often outpaces government’s ability to regulate it. In turn, he invited engineers and other custodians of technology to consider proactive regulation that might head off problems associated with exponential technological advance. He even suggested organizations like PEO try to take the lead in developing an innovative regulatory regime that would better protect the public good in an era of disruption.

“A lot of professional engineers are socialized to immunize themselves from the social, human side of their work,” Abbott suggested. “But let’s face it. All engineering projects have a human, societal dimension. It’s up to us as leaders to meet these changing times in a proactive way.” Following Abbott’s presentation, PEO President Brown reflected on the importance of the theme. “You will see that it was no accident that I asked Mark Abbott to speak today,” Brown said. “What I really want to look at is moving that [regulatory] bar and looking at us as a regulator, what the government is expecting of us, and how that parallels our ability to handle it.”


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