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Canada’s First National Engineering Summit looks at the big picture for engineering’s future

There's nothing like starting out with big ideas, and that's certainly what the first National Engineering Summit g...


There’s nothing like starting out with big ideas, and that’s certainly what the first National Engineering Summit grappled with in Montreal, May 19-21. The conference was the first organized by a collective of the major engineering organizations in Canada —  Engineers Canada (the umbrella for all the provincial licensing associations), ACEC (the Association of Canadian Engineering Companies), the Engineering Institute of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Engineering. From academia the sponsors were the National Council of Deans of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Canadian Federation of Engineering Students.

Conference chair Pat Quinn, P.Eng. of Engineers Canada launched out with the grand objective of plotting “a vision for the future to inspire future engineers.” Sessions over the two days reflected the conference’s broad framework, with tracks to identify how engineers should respond to societal changes in areas such as health, the environment, the economy, and safety and security.

In the opening address, moderator Allan Gregg (a broadcaster and social commentator), talked about demographic forces that are reshaping Canada: the ageing population and vastly increased immigration levels. He suggested that alarmist stories about baby boomers becoming a huge burden on society and the health care system might be unfounded because baby boomers are still living active lives – Mick Jagger is still singing “Satisfaction” at 65, he noted. Mandatory retirement might not happen, and there will be “legions of octogenarian consultants.” Seniors are wealthy and empowered, while their children in their 20s are still living at home, often without stable careers. So the familiar and traditional expectations and predictions based on demographics might no longer be relevant: “Age has become a poor predictor,” he said.

Immigration, being used by government as a means of offsetting Canada’s declining birthrate, is having profound effects, Gregg said. Unprecedented numbers of immigrants are coming to Canada – 260,000 this year, compared to 70,000 or 80,000 per year in the 1980s and 90s. Gregg said that we need to invest much more in integrating these people, because otherwise “ethnicity is informing democracy.”

Thomas D’Aquino, president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, focused on the world’s economic crisis. He didn’t offer much comfort. The world has been going through periodic recessions for 800 years, he said, but this one is different because of the speed with which it happened, and because it is worldwide —  a result of globalization.

To say that the current deep recession has badly undermined the financial system “is perhaps an understatement,” he said. The high priests of finance “were drinking the same Kool-Aid,” and they had come to realize the limits of economic models and theories. He believes that the recession will take on a “U” shape, rather than a V, W or L shape, but that “the reality is no-one knows the answer about when this will end.” There is “just a dense fog of confusion.”

The most profound changes wrought by the crisis are threefold, d’Aquino said:

– it has weakened the U.S., Canada’s closest partner.

– it has strengthened China. Some now talk about the “G2”

– it has vastly empowered governments.

The Reagan-Thatcher economic model is in retreat for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, D’Aquino said. What we will probably see in future is a modified form of entrepreneurial capitalism, “which is not a bad thing.”

During the question and answer, D’Aquino admitted, “Economics is not a science, it is a bizarre art.”

Many engineers would leave the Engineering Summit thankful they work in an arena where the outcomes rely on the laws of physics and can be calculated with confidence.