Engineering Futurists

November/December 2019

Engineering Futurists

BY DANIELLE BOYKIN

What is the future of the engineering profession? How will technology change engineering practice? If we wanted to design a licensing system from scratch, how would it work?

Some people may shy away from such big questions. A group of engineering-thinkers, however, has created a new forum where these questions are eagerly contemplated as a way to provoke action on the profession’s biggest challenges.

Engineering Change Lab-USA, launched in 2017, is the “social change laboratory” where it’s all taking place. The organization’s summits have become a space for idea exchange, and NSPE members have played a significant role in the ECL-USA summits from the very beginning.

The lab idea originated in Canada. In 2015, Canadian engineers spearheaded an effort to address technological and social changes with the creation of Engineering Change Lab-Canada. Leaders within the US engineering community took notice and forged an alliance with the group to learn how the same idea could be carried out here.

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So far, the concept is working, says ECL-USA Executive Director Michael McMeekin, P.E. The ECL has become a venue for forward-thinking leaders to address licensure, ethics, entrepreneurship, and public policy in a setting that might not occur during a typical professional society or engineering organization forum. Plus, the focus is on the entire system of the engineering community—academia, the public sector, private practice, government, and industry.

“We provide the opportunity for people to learn individually and then take that learning back to their organizations to instigate change. That’s the reason why we exist,” says McMeekin, an NSPE member and chairman of the board of directors at Lamp Rynearson in Omaha, Nebraska.

The creation of ECL-USA closely followed the rollout of NSPE’s Future of Professional Engineering Task Force in 2016. The task force’s goal was to identify areas in which the practice of professional engineering is facing change and determine how the profession can continue on a path that is successful and sustainable.

The task force issued a report in 2018 offering recommendations to help mobilize NSPE members, state society partners, and others to address the following: threats to licensure, licensure mobility, emerging technology, public policy, engineering education, the role of certified engineering technicians and technologists, PE engagement in the public sector, alternative project delivery methods, and the value of the PE.

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When ECL-USA was formed, it was perfect timing, recalls Rick Guerra, P.E., F.NSPE, who was serving as president of the Texas Society of Professional Engineers and on the Future of Professional Engineering Task Force. “This group was looking at how technology is going to change our future as a profession, which was exactly what we were doing at NSPE. It was a perfect match and I needed to be there.”

Guerra has been hooked ever since. He recently attended his sixth ECL-USA summit, which was held in Boston in October. Summit #7 focused on technological driving forces that are transforming the way engineers do their work and on the future of consulting engineering.

As a business leader, Guerra benefits from the deep discussions around the future of consulting engineering. But he also appreciates how ECL-USA allows him to engage with a more diverse group of professionals. “So many of our groups and organizations focus on one major area and we all come from the same perspective,” says the president and CEO of Jose I. Guerra Inc., and NSPE board member. “This is the one place where we can come together from different facets of the profession and talk about the issues that we face.”

A Social Change Lab Experience

Engineering Change Lab uses a “social change laboratory” approach, focused on making large-scale system transformation to address complex social challenges. The approach relies on participants working together and using experiments to inspire learning and innovation. ECL has looked to the work of researchers and authors like Zaid Hassan, who has written widely on social labs, for help assessing the engineering community’s needs and establishing clear goals, plans, and performance benchmarks.

ECL-USA steering committee member and architect Kyle Davy got his first taste of the social change laboratory concept by attending an Engineering Change Lab-Canada workshop as a speaker. After the workshop, he knew that a version of the experience was needed in the US. “Given the challenges that we face, which are real and significant, we are looking at how does the engineering community change to help society while helping our community cope with those challenges,” says the owner of Kyle V. Davy Consulting, an AEC leadership and management firm based in Berkeley, California.

A fundamental premise of social change labs is to look closely at the part of the system that needs to be changed. The summits feature experts or provocateurs who assist with that deep dive by sharing their unique perspectives about specific topics. “A provocateur,” says Davy, “is someone who can help the group early on move outside of the typical box.”

On a Mission

Engineering Change Lab-USA’s mission is to serve as a communications hub and complement the good work and best practices of stakeholder groups in the engineering community—not to duplicate the good work. Some of this sharing and examination of critical issues could lead to new collaborative initiatives.

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“[ECL] is allowing people—whether they are coming from industry, private practice, government, a licensing board, or an association perspective—to have new insights about where they are headed, what challenges they will face, and what can be accomplished,” says Davy.

As a result of its first exploratory summits, the ECL-USA steering committee determined that the organization should take on initiatives for the following topics: engineering education; the future of consulting engineering; a new model for engineering licensure; technology’s impact on the engineering community; engineers and public policy; and tools for making better decisions about technology.

ECL-USA will also direct attention to the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering and feature a NAE provocateur to address some aspect of the 14 challenges during regular summits.

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Lauren Evans, P.E., an ECL-USA executive board member, believes that the organization will attract people who want to be proactive about the future of engineering and want opportunities to collaborate across disciplines and sectors. “There are too many silos in the engineering community, so ECL is primed to serve as a clearinghouse for what’s going on in other industries and organizations,” says the president of Pinyon Environmental Inc., headquartered in Lakewood, Colorado.

Licensure Models and Public Policy Engagement

Two areas of focus for ECL-USA will likely be of great interest to NSPE members: professional licensure and how to empower engineers to engage in public policy.

The New Model for Engineering Licensure Committee started with the question, “If we had to do it all again, what would licensure look like?” This led to the development of a framework question last year during Summit #4 in Denver: “Imagine a future, where the practice of engineering is regulated in a simple and transparent manner that enhances public health, safety, and welfare and technological development for all. What would that look like?” Attendees were tasked with contacting several people to gather feedback and reaction to the inquiry.

At Summit #5 held in Kansas City in March, the licensure workshop attendees discussed small changes to the current licensure model, the regulation of future engineering disciplines, and professional regulation and how to best protect the public. At the recent Summit #7, the licensure group continued to build on the previous workshops with a focus on licensing emerging disciplines.

The Public Policy Engagement Committee wants to help engineers and students to understand the importance of taking a role in the development of good public policy.

During Summit #4, discussions focused on the following public policy goals:

  • Increase the participation of engineers in public policy leadership via public service;
  • Establish valued advisor relationships with elected and appointed officials;
  • Educate the greater engineering community on the value of engagement in the development and implementation of public policy;
  • Educate the greater engineering community on successful public policy engagement techniques;
  • Increase the participation of engineers in public policy via leadership in initiatives by private-sector engineers and/or groups;
  • Establish a clearinghouse for sharing ideas on best practices and successes related to local and state infrastructure funding initiatives; and
  • Form a group of engineers to educate and advocate for science-based and fact-based solutions to major societal problems that impact engineering businesses and the practice of engineering, such as climate change, energy policy, health care costs, national debt, and immigration.

Summit participants were advised to use NSPE’s report The Future of Professional Engineering and Citizen Architect, a documentary about late architect Samuel Mockbee and his Rural Studio design/build education program, as public policy resources.

Michael McMeekin hopes to see more engineers influence public policy in ways that reflect big-picture thinking, and it can start on the simplest level. Serving on appointed boards and running for local positions is where McMeekin believes engineers can make the most impact. He has used his expertise to influence community design standards in Nebraska by participating with the group Omaha by Design.

Having served as a state commissioner on two Colorado boards, Lauren Evans is all for ECL-USA’s push on public policy work. While important, she emphasizes that there are ways to get involved that don’t require running for elected office or lobbying your representatives. “It’s important that engineers are at the table and that our voices are heard. A lot of the problems that our country is facing have a technical component to them, and we need to be there explaining what the options are for those problems.”

ECL-USA is always looking for fresh voices and new people to attend future summits. “It’s a really open organization for people to share their ideas for how to make our profession be what we all want it to be in the future,” says Evans. “To make sure that we are still in control of that and not letting [outside] forces push us to where they want us to be.”

Learn more about Engineering Change Lab-USA and access summit reports.

Sharing the Insights

What are some of the important lessons and insights coming out of the Engineering Change Lab–USA? Here’s a snapshot of some of the takeaways from a recent ECL-USA summit.

Summit #6—Ethics and Entrepreneurship

The ECL-USA Summit #6 held in Berkeley, California in July concentrated on ethics and entrepreneurship in the engineering community.

One part of the summit on “Engineering Ethics in a World of Rapid Technological Change” addressed the ethical challenges that are coming from technological advancements—whether it’s in artificial intelligence development, machine learning, or in the development of smart cities. NSPE Deputy Director and General Counsel Arthur Schwartz, Esq., served as a provocateur alongside Rosalyn Berne with NAE’s Center for Engineering Ethics and Society and Greg Hart with Thin Air Labs in Calgary, Canada.

The summit also put a spotlight on the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems as offering a best practice with ethics and emerging technology as it seeks to ensure that stakeholders involved in the development of autonomous and intelligent systems are educated, trained, and empowered to prioritize ethical considerations for the benefit of humanity. IEEE finalized the first edition of  Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Well-being with Autonomous and Intelligent Systems guide in May.

Some of the key ethics takeaways were

  • Macro-ethical decision-making requires engineers to develop skills in facilitating systems thinking—adopting a holistic viewpoint and recognizing context and complexity.
  • Engineers need to develop reflective thinking skills—pausing to consider the bigger pictures, thinking long term, and recognizing unintended consequences.
  • Engineers need to be aware of the limitations of “technology goggles,” focusing solely on technical solutions. entrepreneurship segment of the summit featured provocateurs Tom Byers, professor in Stanford University’s Department of Management Science and Engineering, and Ikhalq Sidhu, faculty director and chief scientist at the University of California-Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology. They addressed how engineering programs have boosted their leadership and ethics components to the entrepreneurial curriculum.

The discussions around the topic revealed some of the following insights on the roles of engineers as entrepreneurs:

  • “Engineer Entrepreneurs” can offer value beyond traditional economically oriented engineers because of their professional mindsets, value systems, and ethics.
  • The trend of engineering schools teaching entrepreneurship and adding robust ethics components is positive for the future.
  • There are significant gaps in engineering licensure by engineer entrepreneurs. How can our licensure model adapt to accommodate engineering entrepreneurs?