B.C. engineer advocates for ‘systems thinking’ approach

Eric Wilson believes engineering education needs to be expanded to address problems holistically.

A decision to replace an aging bridge with a culvert on Vancouver Island had massive impacts on First Nations people. – Eric Wilson

Key Takeaways:

  • Engineer Eric Wilson says engineering education needs to be expanded beyond just solving technical problems.
  • He believes issues like housing and climate change are too complex and have so many stakeholders that they require a different method of problem solving.
  • Currently he is working with a nonprofit and an engineering firm to apply a ‘systems thinking’ approach to First Nations housing projects.

The Whole Story:

In the 1970s, a bridge that served Vancouver Island First Nation was starting to deteriorate. 

Government officials and engineers decided the ideal replacement for the creek would be two culverts as this allowed infrastructure to run through it. 

First Nations people were not consulted and the unintended consequences were devastating. Water flow slowed, causing sediment to drop out early. This destroyed the gravel base at the mouth of the creek, ruining salmon spawning areas. Pollution flowed down the creek into the bay, killing off shellfish. 

Not only did it hurt wildlife, it interfered with the traditions of the First Nation. While the bridge had allowed canoe access, the culverts blocked it, depriving First Nations people of a critical area for teenagers to receive intergenerational knowledge.

“From that one decision you had these cascading downstream effects that are still felt today,” said Eric Wilson, indigenous projects liaison with RJC Engineers and IPCA infrastructure and systems lead with IISAKK OLAM Foundation. “The culverts are still there and it demonstrates the need to understand context and people.”

Improving education

The culvert story was told to Wilson by an Indigenous leader. He believes it highlights the need to expand engineering education to include more holistic way of thinking about problem solving. Wilson says it’s an approach that is particularly important for engineers who work on projects in Indigenous communities.     

Wilson had originally been studying engineering at the University of Victoria with a focus on energy performance but this shifted after taking design thinking classes aimed at business students. 

He was taught about “systems thinking”, an approach that helps one navigate the intricacies of the world by focusing on complete systems and their interconnections, rather than breaking them into individual components.

He believes that many of the problems today’s engineers face, including housing, climate change, have many stakeholders with conflicting values. And implementing the wrong solution, even something small like the culverts, can have massive downstream impacts. 

“One of the things I realized is that the engineering education that is most prevalent is the engineering science model,” he said. “It does a great job of teaching students how to do with the technical components but it is not a good job of dealing with the social aspects of these interconnected challenges.”

Combining engineering and the nonprofit sector

Wilson’s research and studies now focus on exploring collaborative, empathy-driven projects. He partnered with RJC Engineers and the IISAKK OLAM Foundation to apply the systems thinking approach to First Nations communities that are facing complex housing issues. The unique collaboration combines the engineering industry and the nonprofit sector so problems can be addressed in more holistic ways.

The team is currently working on a major project with a Vancouver Island First Nation that has faced flooding issues that have damaged homes. Rather than approaching it just as a technical problem, the team has been listening to the community about the causes of the flooding, how it has changed over the years and what other impacts it’s causing.  

“Right from the start we wanted to go in with this empathy-driven approach,” said Wilson.

The team heard about how the watershed has changed, how logging might be contributing, how the health of residents was being impacted. They also heard a desire for capacity development for sustainable livelihoods. Now apprenticeship programs and watershed restoration are being explored in addition to homebuilding. 

“We don’t pursue any avenue of the project without the approval of the Nation,” said Wilson. “We don’t pursue it unless it’s supported. We are there to support their housing goals and needs.” 

Wilson praised RJC for integrating this approach into their practice and urged other firms to do the same. He noted that more and more RFPs, especially those from government, are now requiring firms to have a plan for working with and benefiting Indigenous communities. 

“It is going to be challenging for organizations who aren’t doing this, but it’s much more than that. It’s just the right thing to do,” said Wilson. “The biggest positive is that it supports First Nations partners, their self determination and being a good ally in industry that answers the call from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.”


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