While constant conversation surrounds innovation and sustainability within the field of engineering, merging the two may not be as easy at it seems, according to Western engineering graduate Michelle Chislett.
“Sometimes technological innovation brings us good things like medicine, communication, DNA technology. But sometimes it brings destruction and causes us to reflect about ethics and morals because innovation has such tremendous impact on us as a society,” says Chislett, who returned to her alma mater to speak at the Lynda Shaw Memorial Distinguished Lecture Series.
As vice-president of solar development for International Power Canada, Inc., Chislett, BESc'03, says the creation of sustainable innovation brings tremendous responsibility that can’t be ignored - especially by engineers.
With the enormous pace of innovation since the 1990s, our lives have drastically changed. Going forward, the accelerating rate of innovation will have even more an impact on society, she says.
“Innovation is a special kind of power and as engineers and students we hold that special power as we go out into the workforce,” Chislett says. “It continually affects and reshapes our environment, our values and therefore our future. Innovation brings power; of course the power brings responsibility.”
While not a fan of the word sustainability - with so many different definitions confusing the public - Chislett likes to look at it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations.”
“This too has implications for responsibility. There is a duty and obligation to take into consideration the economy, society, the environment all at once, which is not an easy task. The engineering oath has an even bigger obligation going forward. Its not just designing within your expertise, it’s now seeing how the innovations you are working on will affect society.”
She says, for example, while the car was heralded as a major innovation for its time, it is now being seen as a major pollutant, with work on hybrids and more fuel-efficient vehicles now the norm.
“The responsibility for science and engineering will become even more onerous in the future. You can’t just think about design and technology, but its implementation,” Chislett says. “We need innovation to help solve some of today’s issues, but we need engineers to make things sustainable.”
With growing concerns around population growth, clean drinking water, rising food costs and energy generation, there is no shortage of areas in which change will need to be made.
As far as energy generation is concerned, she admits even in her field of solar power, nothing is perfect. While solar power has come a long way since the first commercial panel was built in 1963 – it’s efficiency extremely improved - solar technology is still very expensive.
“It’s not that any one technology is better than the other, it’s that no single energy source simultaneously can check the three boxes: cheap, secure and clean,” Chislett says. “We don’t have that right now even where I’m working in solar energy. It doesn’t click the cheap box. So a lot of innovation is needed here as well.”
Chislett’s advice to students as they prepare to graduate is to be “part of the solution,” regardless of their career path.
“Innovation can have positive and negative effects and we have to be mindful of these effects on society … on values, how we communicate and how our children are raised. There are many big issues facing our future and you need to find something you enjoy and are passionate about. Use your education and apply it to solve some of the world’s issues today, don’t be a contributor to them. Make sure what you are doing is helping to improve society.”
By: Paul Mayne
Read the complete story: Western News
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