Canadian Consulting Engineer


The world changes as it turns

Brief reflection on major shifts in the Canadian consulting engineering industry over the past three decades

From the December 2016 print issue, page 4.

The surprise election of Donald Trump south of the border has really shaken up the world, setting it on an unpredictable and, some feel, scary course. What we can be sure of is that we will see change.
When people retire they often reflect on the changes they have seen in the world over the course of their careers. At the risk of sounding like a typical old-timer, I’m following the pattern. For this my last editorial comment I felt bound to record the trends I’ve seen shaking up the world of consulting engineers in Canada over the last 30 years that I’ve been an editor on construction magazines (the last 19 years with CCE).
One obvious change is corporate globalism. When I started with CCE, consulting engineering companies were smaller and much more like studios. It was a simple thing to call and speak directly to the partners. That culture has faded as countless small and medium-sized firms have been gobbled up by large international companies. The culture of a global company is inevitably less personal and more restrictive, controlled by corporate policies set in head offices thousands of miles away.
The built landscape itself has changed dramatically. Thirty years ago Post-Modernism was at its heyday One of the first buildings that fascinated me was the Mississauga City Hall with its peaks, pediments and solid walls. Architects subsequently reverted to Modernism, but now we’re seeing another escape from the rectangle, especially in tall towers with more curvaceous and tactile profiles (see pp. 10 and 14). We’ve also seen walls and walls of glass condominium towers spring up everywhere, despite their energy costs — see p. 16.
Environmentalism has completely transformed engineering in the pages of this magazine, if not entirely in the wider world. The buildings we publish today are almost all LEED or otherwise green-certified. Transportation and other big infrastructure projects take great pains to reduce their impacts. This curatorial role is a far cry from the days when engineers saw their role as manipulating and dominating the landscape.
Then there’s technology. Rows of men bent over drafting tables have given way to rows of people staring at computer screens. Two-dimensional CAD is giving way to virtual BIM models and fly-through videos that let you experience a project before it’s built. Information is available instantly and communication is seldom by phone. We’re all tuned into the Web, reliant on the Cloud. Time and space seem compressed. Simultaneously we’re all more strapped for time, pushed to work longer hours, more impatient with our tools and with each other.
We should be cautious when embracing a super-technological world. As the consulting engineers told me for the article on Engineering Education (p. 22), it’s not enough for new graduates to be computer whizzes who can churn out solutions in a flash. They still have to be able to think logically. They have to be able to see the bigger picture if they are going to become consulting engineers who truly add value to their companies, projects and society at large.