EQUITY ACCESSIBILITY DIVERSITY INCLUSION – What role do engineers play: Faculty perspectives

We asked some faculty members to weigh in on how engineers and academics help to make the world a more equitable, diverse, inclusive and accessible place.



Bryan Karney 

Engineers practice their trade is characterized by an almost overwhelming diversity and variety. Indeed, it has been said with considerable accuracy that no two hydroelectric projects are ever really the same. Such a statement of variation is surely also valid about most infrastructure projects and about every city within which civil engineers design buildings, conceive transportation networks and build water handling systems.
Thus, why would we as civil engineers expect things to be any different when considering the people for whom the acts and achievements of engineering are directed and intended to benefit? People too are remarkably diverse, characterized by an almost unfathomable variation of characteristics, skills, interests, tendencies and backgrounds. As successful engineering demands that the engineer attend, account for, and in some sense celebrate the variations of the natural system, and of the materials we employ, so too we should strive within our professional practice to account for – to deeply and profoundly embed – our understanding of the human dimension into our professional designs and actions.
Aldo Leopold was an articulate writer, thoughtful educator, influential conservationist and an outdoor enthusiast. One of his best known ideas – his so-called “land ethic” – calls for a synergistic and caring relationship between people and nature. In Leopold’s Sand County Almanac he makes a profound and often quoted statement: “To save every cog and wheel is the first precaution of the intelligent tinkerer.” This is certainly true of watches and machines – and makes the point profoundly for each species within the ecological systems that Leopold had in mind. But this principle is surely true also for the other domain in which engineers work – that in human society we should keep as many voices and perspectives as we can at the table where they can be attended to and thoughtfully considered.
But there is perhaps another aspect of the engineering background that is essential to bear in mind. Enzo Levi, in his painstaking history of our human understanding of water science, said of the hydraulician that they must entice water “to agree to our will, respecting its own at the same time”. That is, that water engineering – and indeed all engineering – must ultimately be a kind of “negotiation” between human desires and wishes and nature’s response. No human decree, no amount of wishful thinking, will stop water from being water nor steel or concrete from having real limits on their elasticity and strength. Indeed, I firmly believe that one of the greatest merits of an engineering education is the instilled and deep knowledge that the physical world truly exists and exercises hard constraints on human aspirations and designs. We don’t just create and elaborate our designs after a conversation with a client, or even as a creative act arising from human aspirations alone, but from an active consideration of what the laws and properties of what matter and energy make possible.
But if we do our jobs well – with diligence, and care, and with an understanding of the human and natural worlds – we perhaps have more capacity and responsibility than many to change the world. As we can mar it by our worse acts, supressing its characteristics and its diversity, so too we are capable of enriching the world and improving the lives and experience of many people. May we be the kind of engineers whose actions and design both protect and enhance the world we precariously inhabit even as we seek to improve the lives and experiences of that remarkable variety of people we seek to serve.

Equal access to safe, affordable and resilient housing around the world is possible

Contstantin Christopoulos 

Many natural disasters happen in developing countries whose populations can include the world’s poorest people. These people live in slums and improvised housing, and are further marginalized when a disaster like an earthquake happens. In addition to the loss of life, these people usually lose all of their property and ability to access a livelihood, and are affected to the point where they may not recover for decades after such a devastating event.
Our research group is working with the Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN) to examine shelter for the most disadvantaged populations around the globe. We ask ourselves, “If we have all of this sophisticated engineering knowledge and capabilities, is it possible to solve some of the problems in developing areas and provide workable solutions that are going to actually have an impact on the lives of millions of people?”
One significant barrier to building resilient housing in the developing world is cost. High-end, sophisticated systems, which require skilled technicians and engineers, to design, build and install, are not viable solutions for the millions of people who live in the poorest conditions. So we need to look to the idea of “frugalizing” technologies if we really want to impact the lives of these people.
The concept of frugalization is to look at the fundamentals of a really good idea, which has been developed as a high-end solution, go back and say, “Okay, if I had to redevelop this and take advantage of the physics behind this idea, but implement it in a way that it can be done at extremely low cost, and in a construction environment whose engineering, inspection and quality control practices are not as sophisticated as our own, how would I go about reinventing this technology?”
So, one of these technologies we’re focusing on, for earthquake-resilient mass-housing projects, is seismic isolation. Isolation consists of adding a very flexible layer between the structure and the ground such that the effects of ground shaking is not transferred to the structure, thus protecting it.
Our solution is actually a very simple one. Instead of highly-engineered seismic isolation bearings that grace the column-bases of bridges, buildings and other resilient, critical infrastructure, we are investigating the use of a thin, flat, polymer pad, with very low friction – think along the lines of Teflon – installed at the base of each structural post. The pad, a few millimeters thick and about the area of a square foot, isolates the structural elements of the building when the ground is shaking, rendering the building, not only safe to re-enter, but also safe to re-occupy and use immediately after an earthquake.
While we are still testing different materials, the cost is only as high as C$10 per pad, or roughly C$2,000 for a typical 10-20-storey apartment building. The simple solution is also prescriptive, requiring installers to have minimal training and expertise in the technology. It would only be one additional step, or layer, added to the building process, which we hope will be easy to adopt by local contractors.
Our goal is not to disrupt the entire local construction industry or to impose a solution, which will not work with existing practices and building designs. So what we’ve done is work with IC-Impacts (the India-Canada Centre for Innovative Multidisciplinary Partnerships to Accelerate Community Transformation and Sustainability) to develop a seismic solution that integrates seamlessly with the construction industry in India. To this end, we had visitors from India help us define buildings as they are constructed in India, so we know our solution would work with standard buildings there. Doctoral candidate Farbod Pakpour is completing his PhD on this challenging project and has travelled multiple times to India to investigate local construction practices and interact with researchers at the Bombay Institute of Technology, one of India’s leading engineering schools.
For now, India is an ideal partner country to develop this technology because the government is building vast numbers of subsidized housing to accommodate the millions of people who live in slums, and hundreds of millions more who are expected to move to the cities in the coming decades. While India is the focus right now, the technology we are developing has the potential for widespread use, whether in other developing countries or even in Canada where seismic isolation has only been applied in a handful of structures.
Ultimately, whether abroad or at home, everyone has the right to housing. We, as engineers with the necessary ability, knowledge and skills, can develop and implement technologies that will ensure the safety and security of millions of people.



Marianne Hatzopoulou

“We hold the evidence,“ says Associate Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou. “I think one of the roles civil and mineral engineers have in this world is to inform policy decisions. As professors, or researchers, we have a duty to play a role in decision making about how cities evolve, how infrastructure decisions are made, what we build in our cities, what gets priority and what should be funded.”
Hatzopoulou believes the role of engineers has evolved to a more all-encompassing and responsible one beyond the already complex task of building something durable and structurally sound. “The face of civil and mineral engineering is changing a lot.
The new reality holds more than engineering skills. “What they don’t realize is there’s also a lot of politics that come into play. How do you make your voice heard? Clearly, equity and diversity are not the only driving decisions in this world – people are not winning political campaigns only on equity and diversity. But how do make sure these things have a voice around the table?”
“Now you look at our Department, as an example of that, some of us are looking at the health impacts of environmental damage. We’re looking at new technologies in transportation, new intelligence, and new ways of optimizing traffic. The questions that the world is asking have become so complex that single dimension approaches to solve these problems are no longer possible. So civil engineering inherently has to become more diverse in terms of the things we look at. “
“There are different ways in which we define accessibility. In transportation, accessibility represents the opportunities and jobs as well as services, like health care and leisure, that people can access. The kinds of opportunities people can access based on where they live in a city, defines the city and it is certainly one of the primary responsibilities of an engineer to design urban environments that promote accessibility.”
“We are able to provide evidence to support these decisions. We have tools, we have models, we have data, we have insights that truly can shape what kind of policy directions our government should be taking, what kind of regulations we should be enforcing, and which ones are going to help steer us, towards more sustainable, equitable, accessible, and diverse cities and societies.”
Engineers have more than an opinion, since it is backed up by research. “Everyone else can have a voice, but our voice is also supported by tools and numbers that are credible, and which reflect research that we have been doing for years,” she says. “And making sure our evidence is there.”




Kim Presnail

The 50th Anniversary of an amazing engineering achievement, Apollo 11, recently brought to mind a side bar story of J. Morgan. A Life magazine photo recorded the Cape Canaveral control room on launch day. It included Morgan, an instrumentation controller sitting at a console. In addition to the astronauts making history that day, JoAnn Morgan made history too. Wearing a “navy dress amid a sea of white shirts and skinny ties”, she was the only woman in the Control Room.
I was recently reminded by Marta Escedi, that our graduating class of 7T6 had 99 students – but only four were woman. Thankfully, we have come a long way since then. In the graduating class of CIV1T9 over 35 per cent of the graduates were woman. These changes have occurred as people’s attitudes have changed. These changes in attitude have been helped along by people like Dean Emerita Cristina who sought to actively encourage woman in engineering. During her tenure from 2006 to 2019, the number of women faculty members almost tripled and the percentage of women in First Year Engineering rose to an all-time high of 40 per cent. Thanks to her determination, and the determination of many others, woman are continuing to break barriers that should never have been there, and their numbers are growing. Although there still is a lot more work to be done, there is hope for true inclusiveness.
With the rise of women in engineering, societal and ultimately family attitudes are changing. Behind each engineering student, whether male or female, you will very often find a very supportive family dedicated to seeing that the next generation succeed. There may have been a time when a women were discouraged from entering engineering. However, as more and more women rise to positions of prominence and influence in the profession, long-standing attitudes are changing.
I was recently challenged by a young engineer who told me the board of directors that I had been on was “an old boys club”! Really? In the face of such a prejudicial allegation, I didn’t know how to reply so I remained silent. After all I was ‘an old man’ and when I served on the board, there was only one woman. So I must be guilty?
I did a little soul searching and I began questioning my own attitudes. I had never kept score before, but I decided to count the number of woman who had worked with me doing graduate work. I had worked with them not because they were women, but because they were bright, hard-working and I thought that I could help them with their studies. Well, the total came to 11. All are very successful in their career pursuits and all, including two professors, are in positions where they can inspire others to follow in their footsteps. So, yes, we have a lot of work to do, but people’s attitudes are changing. When I consider these women emissaries, hope springs.




Amer Shalaby

“We evaluate any civil engineering project on the triple bottom line, if you will,” says Professor Amer Shalaby in answering what has changed for engineers. “Now we see engineering actions have implications on the environment, on the economy and also on social fabric… and social equities.”
Whereas it was previously enough to build a structure to function properly, and to last, it now falls to engineers to consider much more in terms of cost, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, sustainability, etc. Now, added to that list, is inclusiveness, diversity and accessibility.
Shalaby, who specializes in transportation, expands on the TBL (or 3BL), “Transportation, for example, is responsible for one-quarter to one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions. So we need to make sure, environmentally speaking, when we plan our transportation network, we evaluate the impact on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. This is just one example pertaining to the environment. To the economy, obviously, transportation as well really plays a big role on the economy.”
“The third one, as I said, the social equity impacts have been traditionally either qualitatively assessed or once they are assessed qualitatively, they’ve been sort of superficial or not really catching all the impacts. And we play a big role really, as civil engineers. We need to be able to capture those impacts, and try to minimize them.”
While a great deal of effort goes into planning for the bulk of public transit commuters at rush hour, it is often the most vulnerable who suffer the most when the main service falters. In Toronto, for example, a downtown subway line may experience a disruption to service that is compensated for with buses brought in from more remote routes. This, in effect, removes service from the lesser-served outlying areas resulting in the greater number of “richer” rush hour commuters receiving service at the expense of the disadvantaged regions.
As a concept for considering different socioeconomic needs, Shalaby elaborates, “In the field of transportation, the focus of social equity impacts is just to ensure people have equitable access to jobs, job opportunities across [large regions], but there wasn’t really any focus on what quality of service people are being provided. So people who live in richer neighborhoods might have higher quality access. So it’s not just the access, but really the quality of that access. Are buses coming on time, or not? Are they crowded, or not, for those disadvantaged communities, and so on. It’s also really trying to go beyond that, to look at what role do new technologies like shared mobility, Uber and Lyft, and so on, play. And also the future of automated technologies, what role can they play in order to fill the gaps and the social equity?”
“So with transportation projects most of the assessments in the past have been qualitative. And when they were quantitative they were a little bit sort of superficial. What we’re trying to do now, when we’re looking at those issues, is try to develop newer quantitative methods to enable transportation planners and transportation authorities to evaluate social equity impacts of transportation investments in a more quantitative manner, and also to really capture other aspects of the service, not just, you know, travel time.”
“So it’s not that it wasn’t done in the past, but it was done probably in a little bit more superficial manner,” says Shalaby.