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PEO volunteers envision the future of engineering


PEO’s annual 2020 Volunteer Leadership Conference (VLC) was intended to help with the development of a longer-term vision for PEO to ensure it continues to fulfill its mandate of protecting public interest in a rapidly changing world. The findings should be of interest to other Canadian engineering regulators as they face the same issues. Regulators can start thinking about their current and future relevance and how to protect the public in a rapidly changing world by continuing to:

  • Create proactive value-based standards and guidelines
  • Seek clarity about the boundaries defining public interest and the macro ethical situations that may arise
  • Anticipate newly emerging questions from the public and other stakeholders, and engage more directly to raise awareness and share responsibilities for public protection

The themes of the conference were about the regulator’s role protecting public interest in a rapidly changing world and informing a longer-term vision for the organization. Conversations and case studies addressed issues including micro and macro ethics, physical and digital engineering, the impacts of technology, and the role that PEO could play to expand its contributions to protecting the public interest.

The findings from the conference highlight the participants’ views that engineering and technology are evolving at a pace that makes it hard for the regulator to remain relevant with a status quo approach. By examining the possibilities and scenarios of the workshop, participants expressed their views about how PEO can develop a path to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future.

Based on the post-conference survey results, most participants believe PEO needs to become more involved with macro ethics and digital concerns, although there is a wide variety of opinions that underscores the need for ongoing discussions about the role of regulators in the changing world. Complementing this was a strong emphasis for more public engagement to understand how the public perceives PEO’s role, and collaboration with a broader range of stakeholders such as government, standards bodies, industry associations, and other professionals to help share the responsibilities for protecting the public.

Another theme emerging from this conference, which aligns with the views expressed by regulatory expert Harry Cayton, is about the ability for regulators to be prepared, adaptable, and resilient to a changing world. According to Cayton, the future of regulation depends on regulators undertaking visioning exercises like this to consider options and proactively create the future regulatory systems that address uncertainties more effectively. While managing so many governance and operational issues, it is important to make time for visioning exercises that proactively consider what the future of regulation should look like and what role regulators have in shaping that future to protect the public.

Like many conferences and events this year, the event was held virtually over three days in June. The conference attracted approximately 100 participants, with representation from PEO council, committees, and chapters. The conference was organized with help from the Engineering Change Lab, which promotes transformative change in the engineering community, and MaRS Discovery, a Canadian innovation hub.

Using four different workshop sessions, participants were asked to:

  • Examine possible engineering failure scenarios on a grid that measured physical and digital aspects as well as micro and macro ethical considerations.
  • Stretch their thinking about the future of engineering using a case study about implications associated with hyper-real AI interacting with humans.
  • Consider potential news stories about the opportunities and challenges of engineering in the next 20 years using a variety of prompts covering products, processes, and public protection.
  • Create a current action plan for PEO to protect the public in the future where engineering is involved.

“Technologies created by engineers continue to have a huge positive impact—fundamentally changing the way we live,” said Mark Abbott, Managing Director of Engineering Change Lab. He continued, “These days, however, the news is increasingly full of stories about technology gone wrong—with problems affecting things as fundamental as our climate and our democratic systems. Within these growing complex challenges, I think there is a huge opportunity for engineering regulation to evolve its contribution to ensuring technology is beneficial for all.”

Additional Resources:

2020 PEO VLC website:

What will or should regulation in the future look like? Presented by Harry Cayton at the CLEAR Virtual Symposium on Professional Regulation: A Risky Business – Adapt or Die! June 2020. (Slides available upon request).