The work of engineers and geoscientists in BC is impacted by changes in tools and technology. How is the landscape of our work changing, and what disciplines are emerging? In this Centennial Collector’s Edition, Innovation looks at biomedical technology, nanotechnology, seismology, climate change, artificial intelligence, and big data.

Biomedical and Nanotechnology

A vibrant, active, fertile ecosystem for biomedical and nanotechnology engineering is emerging in British Columbia, building the province’s reputation as a burgeoning, world-class biotechnology hub.

“It’s a really exciting time to be working in this field in BC,” says Dr. Stephanie Willerth, P.Eng., engineering professor and Acting Director of the Biomedical Engineering school at the University of Victoria. “The way healthcare is going, we’re going to need better solutions to bring down the cost of healthcare as people live longer. From my experience in stem cell research and working with diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, I think we’re going to find that a lot of these diseases have a bunch of different causes and it’s going to take some personalized-medicine approaches to treat them.”

And, she says, biomedical engineering and nanotech will help get us there.

The industry’s growth involves a feedback loop between the province’s universities and private enterprise. Research from the province’s two biomedical engineering schools, located at UVic and UBC, is leading to new patent applications, new business startups, and clinical trials to test new, locally developed therapies and devices. For example, STEMCELL Technologies Inc. and StarFish Medical—two Canadian biotech leaders—emerged from the universities’ research labs, as did nanotechnology firms Precision Nanosystems, Aspect Biosystems, Accelera Canada, and others.

That, in turn, is attracting investors and support, prompting established companies to set up offices in BC, and drawing talent to the region. And that feeds back again into the universities, leading to new funding, new opportunities, and expanded programs.

“A really large cohort of new biotech companies has spun out of the university engineering departments,” Willerth says. “And they’re hiring many of our grads—which just shows that this is a growing industry here in BC. I think we’re going to start seeing really big transformations across the region in the coming decades as these technologies start to contribute to the economy.”


“Science and technology are driving seismology and earthquake engineering forward very quickly,” says Dr. John Clague, P.Geo. “We can do things now that we were unable to do even 10 years ago.”

Those advances, Clague says, are reshaping BC geologists’ and engineers’ work in seismic-related fields.

For example, growing networks of new, smaller, less expensive seismometers in the province’s coastal urban areas will collect better data, at highly local scales, about seismic ground motions—velocities, accelerations, intensities, and directions of ground-shaking, and about how the networked buildings respond to the motions.

“In the past,” Clague says, “the general tendency has been, ‘The ground shakes: it shakes the same everywhere.’ But empirical evidence shows the strength of shaking can differ by up to a factor of five, depending on topography and earth materials below the surface.”

The seismometer networks will allow the province and municipalities to tailor earthquake design to the seismic requirements of specific locations, instead of applying a one-size-fits-all approach across the region. Coupled with seismic inventories of the region’s existing infrastructure, the data will help local and provincial governments and authorities identify which infrastructure needs what kind of seismic upgrades most urgently and prioritize funding accordingly.

It will also pinpoint where water mains, fuel lines, sewer networks and other underground infrastructure are at particular risk from ground shaking and liquefaction, which occurs when solid, wet soils suddenly behave like liquids.

The province’s network of automated earthquake early warning systems is also expanding. Depending on how far away an earthquake’s epicentre is, automated systems connected to the early warning networks may have anywhere from a few seconds to a minute to sound alarms, shut down fuel lines, power sources and water mains, close bridges and tunnels, and start up emergency backup systems before shaking begins. That may be just enough to limit damage, prevent fires and flooding, and save lives.

(To learn more about how earthquake early warning systems work, see the March/April 2016 edition of Innovation.)

Clague also predicts emphasis in seismic engineering will shift in the coming decades. Today, buildings are designed primarily to prevent injury and loss of life during an earthquake. In the coming decades, they’ll also be designed to remain functional.

“In the [February 22, 2011] Christchurch earthquake, only two buildings collapsed, but many others had to be torn down—they were uninhabitable. Christchurch’s urban core has essentially been gutted.”

To limit social and economic disruption after an earthquake or other disaster, the region will need to continue functioning. To do that, it needs usable buildings—and functioning water and sewer systems, roads, bridges, airports and marine ports.

Climate Change

Over the past few years, Conor Reynolds, P.Eng., Division Manager with Metro Vancouver’s Air Quality and Climate Change Policy group, and Mark Porter, P.Eng., Struct.Eng., Associated Engineering Ltd.’s National Practice Lead for Building Services, have seen the conversation around climate change among their peers shift to emphasize both climate change adaptation and mitigation.

“There’s much more recognition that the two are co-joined—that we need to have both in order to have better solutions,” Porter says.

Reynolds says consensus is emerging in BC’s engineering and geoscience community that society needs to be carbon neutral by 2050 if we’re going to avoid the worst and most disruptive effects of climate change. “That means when we design infrastructure that’s going to last for 20 to 30 years, maybe 50 to 100 years, we’ve got to think about, (a) in 2050, will it be a net-zero emissions producer? And (b) in 2050 and beyond, will it be resilient to the increasing climate-related impacts?”

The two engineers, chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Engineers and Geoscientists BC’s Climate Change Advisory Group, say combining climate change adaptation and mitigation goals deepens the complexity and challenge for BC engineers and geoscientists, and will require changes in how they do their work, how they approach doing their work, and the range of other experts they work with.

“We’ll need to think about climate impacts beyond exactly what we’re looking at in front of us at the table,” Porter says. “We’ll need to consider the broader impacts the project is going to have, what cascading impacts it will have on the wider, bigger picture, and who we need to bring into the conversation to help us understand those things.”

Systems-wide, contextual, risk-based approaches to projects will be essential.

For example, when engineers design a piece of infrastructure in a particular location, climate science indicates the range in which temperature and precipitation will likely increase in that region. With that information, Porter says, “We can start asking,

‘How vulnerable will this infrastructure be if the environment changes? If wildfire risk increases, how does that affect our design? If precipitation increases, do we need to consider what we’re doing to manage flash flooding?’ We don’t know exactly what number to use to assess risk, but we’ll know enough to ask how it will affect our design.”

This, he says, will be “a real change in professional practice—it won’t be a blanket, prescriptive method.”

He notes that engineers and geoscientists will need to consider cumulative impacts of multiple climate-induced risks—wildfire, flood, sea level rise, and so on—on projects. Potential failure will be another important consideration—how, for example, a power outage caused by a windstorm might affect broader community safety, resilience and functioning, and how project design might lessen those cascading effects.

Choice of energy source will become as important as a project’s energy efficiency—with preference given to carbon-neutral sources. Choice of materials used—and where they come from, how long they last, and what happens to them at the end of their lives—will also figure prominently. Engineers will need to design things to be long lasting and adaptable, not disposable.

In the coming decades, tools such as Engineers and Geoscientists BC’s Climate Change Information Portal—the association’s centralized source of climate-related information—and new professional practice guidelines will help members stay informed about the latest climate science affecting their professional practice.

Despite the unfolding challenges presented by climate change, Engineers and Geoscientists BC members should expect many new opportunities to emerge in the coming decades.

“We’re the go-to people when clients and the public ask, ‘We have to get to this seemingly transformed place—how do we do that?’” Reynolds says. “In the past, innovative engineers and geoscientists might have had ideas, but there was less receptivity to those ideas. That’s changing. Opportunities are opening

up for engineers and geoscientists to use their really innovative skills to help society change the way we do things and make this a better, more resilient place to live and work and play.”

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Big Data

Technology has always shaped how engineering and geoscience work is conducted. The introduction of handheld scientific calculators, for instance, made manual calculations using a slide rule obsolete. Lasers in the 1960s led to LiDAR, followed by the broader availability of GPS and inertial measurement units in the late 1980s. Improvements to computer processors made CAD broadly (and affordably) available for design work across a range of disciplines.

Today, technology is advancing most rapidly in the areas of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and big data—areas that are certain to transform the future work of engineers and geoscientists. The advent these technologies could bring about bigger changes than any other technological development in history. (To learn more about the impact of big data on the mining industry, see the January/February 2019 edition of Innovation, at

To Robin Fell, Senior Director, Strategic Technology Solutions at Newmont (formerly Newmont Goldcorp), these three areas are changing both the “how” and the “what” of the work of engineers and geoscientists.

“A lot of the [exploration] techniques weren’t even feasible five years ago,” said Fell. “Technologies like machine vision, predictive algorithms, querying in 3-D [means that we can] take drilling data, look at assay results, and then work backwards to predict what the future results will be with different inputs. There is no reason why datasets in the exploration world can’t be combined using previous data, LiDAR, geophysics, reports and other unstructured documents,” he said.

Fell says that a computer can be assigned to quickly scan and link all these datasets—“massive datasets…petabytes of data”—and artificial intelligence and machine learning can “reveal something that [humans] haven’t seen.” Data, he says, is becoming an asset.

Fell thinks that technology is also changing engineering design. “In the golf industry, Callaway used AI to simulate all kinds of different driver heads, and last year they released a driver that was designed by AI,” he said. “This means that a computer can do all that work—tens of thousands of simulations with various inputs to arrive at a particular result.”

But while Fell believes that the work of engineers and geoscientists is moving away from what he calls “human experience and tribal knowledge,” “janitorial data manipulation,” and a “purgatory of data grinding”—he also believes this type of work is shifting towards interpretation, modelling strategies, and knowledge guidance. To Fell, engineering and geoscience work will involve less manual manipulation of datasets, and more guidance about how to strategically approach the work.

Read the original article in Innovation, January/February 2020

Comments closed.

%d bloggers like this: