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Big Ideas: Educating tomorrow’s engineersJune 29, 2018

Innovation should benefit everyone, says Dr. Gilles Patry

A spark of curiosity has the power to change the world.

It’s the role of a university to nurture that spark – to help it ignite into an idea, a research project, maybe even a game-changing innovation. But it’s also crucial that today’s engineers are trained to consider the impact of their innovations on the world around them, says Gilles Patry.

For four decades, Patry has been working in or alongside the world of academia.

Nowadays, he serves as executive director of the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities, a collective of the country’s leading research universities that champions the benefits of good policy and university-based research excellence.

“Research is the fuel of innovation,” says Patry. “But innovation should benefit everyone, not just the one percent.”

From 1983 to 1993, Patry was a professor of civil engineering at McMaster, before moving to the University of Ottawa where he served as dean of the faculty of engineering and then as president and vice-chancellor of the University of Ottawa. Between 2010 and 2017, he served as president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), where he worked with universities, colleges and research hospitals to support world-class research through investments in state-of-the-art research infrastructure.

It’s a resume that offered lots of opportunity for big idea thinking about research, academia and educating today’s engineers.

The academic world has changed substantially since 1978, when Patry’s professional path shifted from being a consulting engineer to an engineering professor.

In particular, he says, both students and institutions have become more attuned to the social and environmental impacts of their research. But he believes engineering faculties must take the next step and embed that social and environmental consciousness more deeply into engineering education.

“Engineering is not only about technology, it is about people – it is about improving the lives of people through technology” Patry insists. “When we talk of innovation, we should really be talking of “inclusive innovation” – innovation that benefits the whole of society.”

Patry strongly believes that an understanding of, and concern for, the impact of engineering on society must become an integral part of engineering education. 

The shift toward graduating more well-rounded engineers has started – and Patry points to McMaster’s Engineering and Society program as one of the earliest initiatives in this area; but the shift to integrate societal considerations into the curriculum must go further, even if it requires lengthening engineering studies.

“Engineers”, Patry concludes, “must contribute to building bridges between technology, society and innovation.”