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What keeps engineers up at night?

Top 5 engineering challenges of the next decade

Submitted by Renee Ignacio

Engineers are a determined bunch. When it comes to solving problems (especially big, complex, or daunting ones), they rarely let anything get in their way.

With the convergence of Engineers Week in the United States (February 16-22), and Engineers Month in Canada (March) we got to wondering: what are the most pressing challenges for the engineering community in the next decade? So we tracked down some of our engineers and posed that question. Some of the responses we had expected, but there were a few that surprised us. From the responses, we created a top five list (because who doesn’t like lists?):

1)      Education
2)      Technology
3)      Creative design
4)      Water and energy resource management
5)      Infrastructure resiliency

1)    Education
Education is an ongoing challenge. It’s also a complex challenge with many parts. Heather Trantham, a principal in our Fort Collins, Colorado, office, identifies some of these key parts. “We need to communicate the importance of maintaining our infrastructure so that the public will choose to vote for taxes that will improve it. Engineers need to be able to educate the public on how hydraulic fracturing works so that people will understand the viability of this resource instead of protesting against it. Finally, we need to communicate to the next generation what we do in our daily lives as engineers so that they will be excited about careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.”

Our future depends on our ability to improve public knowledge and education about the significant role engineers play in society, attract the brightest students to careers in STEM, and figure out how to transfer knowledge between generations as a large portion of the workforce begins to retire.

2)    Technology
It seems that as fast as technology is created, it quickly becomes outdated. As this advancement continues, the legacy technology used by clients has, and will become, obsolete. How will these new technologies be applied to old systems and how will we pay for it? According to Andrew Faley, a GIS manager in our Columbus, Ohio, office, “replacing or updating these systems is often not budgeted for or not budgeted for correctly, nor is process a simple one.”

And the same goes for our own systems. David Thatcher, senior associate in our Calgary, Alberta, office comments, “As technology continues to advance, I think the way we plan and design will change drastically—will we be passive observers or active leaders?”

3)    Creative design
A number of our respondents addressed the essential role of creativity in the engineer’s repertoire in the years ahead. It will take the most determined to solve issues such as infrastructure and resource threats, while continuing to design faster, smarter, and more creatively.

“We can never see the lives we save by creating good designs, but our communities are a better place because of it,” says Jon Treen, a senior principal in our Tempe, Arizona, office. “If we can further develop the concepts…that will allow for zero harm within our industries, it would have a major benefit to society.”

Paul Malocha, senior project engineer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, agrees “As communities become more and more surrounded by the built environment, the top engineering challenge is to humanize the engineered world, never forgetting that we are serving people and human goods, not the infrastructure.”

Flexibility is key to creativity, explains Marsha Anderson Bomar. “Each generation in the workplace has different learning styles, different working styles, and different degrees of comfort with technology. The challenge is to blend these different personalities together in a positive way for our teams and our clients. Doing this can pay huge dividends if we do it right.”

4)    Water and energy resource management
Finding ways to manage our depleting or threatened water and energy resources is another daunting challenge. As our population grows, how do we sustainably provide energy and water resources to the world? When it comes to solving problems such as access to consumable water for personal use and agriculture, engineers are challenged to provide new solutions. Key among them, especially for our western United States respondents, is developing methods for the economical desalinization of water.

5)    Infrastructure resiliency
What’s the most sustainable, most efficient, and safest way to transport people, energy, and water resources? This fifth challenge made many lists as it’s one of the biggest challenges facing the developed world—the crumbling of existing infrastructure and the lack of funds to maintain it.

Andy Dalziel, a principal in our Kitchener, Ontario office sums it up: “Many of these assets are in the latter stage of their design life and many of the municipalities that are responsible for maintaining them do not have a plan for how they anticipate funding their renewal.”  

And, in addition to repairing and replacing existing infrastructure, we also have to engineer sustainable designs for the future. How quickly will new technologies such as autonomous cars become the norm, and what impact will they have on our existing infrastructure? “Self-driving cars may lead to all new roadway design elements. Traffic engineering as we know it will be transformed,” explains Richard Bryant, a senior project manager in our South Burlington, Vermont, office. 

As we look back at this year’s engineering theme, Let’s Make a Difference, and look forward to these anticipated engineering challenges, we can appreciate the obstacles facing engineers and be optimistic that they will keep finding ways to change the world.

As technology continues to advance, the way we plan and design will change drastically—will we be passive observers or active leaders?

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