Canadian Consulting Engineer | Sept 28, 2023
Eric Wilson, EIT, B.Eng, MASc, PhD Candidate | Liaison, Indigenous Projects

The construction industry in Canada is ever-changing, facing multi-faceted challenges that demand innovative solutions. These challenges are also referred to as “wicked problems.” Wicked problems are a “class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing” (Buchanan, 1992).

For instance, Canada’s need for approximately 5.8 million new homes by 2030 to address housing affordability and accommodating immigration targets of 500,000 newcomers in 2025 pose a significant and paradoxical challenge. Alongside this, engineers have also been prompted to embrace sustainable practices, due to the pressing issue of climate change and Canada’s 2050 Net-Zero Emissions goals. It is imperative for the industry to re-evaluate its approach to construction, placing greater emphasis on the well-being of communities and residents. The way forward is clear: Engineers must undertake projects with empathy.

Many of the era-defining challenges engineers face today demand an understanding not only of technical competencies, but also of human behaviour, cultural dynamics and situational context—elements frequently overlooked in engineering education and practice. Engineers must possess a profound comprehension of both technical and non-technical factors that will enable them to contextualize solutions within the broader sociocultural context. The absence of this comprehension within complex, interconnected systems can lead to unforeseen negative consequences.

Engineers are problem solvers at heart, relying on their in-depth knowledge of scientific principles to solve complex technical challenges. However, “wicked problems” demand a different approach to produce meaningful solutions. They demand methodologies like Design-Thinking and Systems-Thinking to navigate complex challenges.

Design-Thinking and Systems-Thinking take on a human element that helps ensure the project aligns with the needs and aspirations of the people it serves. Engineering with empathy, a phrase not commonly heard, is imperative if Canada wants to set itself up for success and to meet its ambitious climate and housing goals.

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