3.8: Managing Urban Infrastructure: a Transdisciplinary Problem for Engineers

Susan Nesbitt

Workshop Introduction

Professional Engineers are increasingly challenged to work with non-engineers on managing ill-structured, value-laden, ambiguous and complex problems. How do we prepare students for their future practice? During this session, an educator explores this question within the context of municipal engineering.

Presenter: Dr. Susan Nesbit, B.A., Ph.D, P.Eng.

Susan has over twenty years of experience developing and teaching sustainability learning activities for engineering programs at the University of British Columbia.  She is a co-author of UBC’s sustainability graduate attributes and was UBC’s senior sustainability fellow in 2015.  She is the co-director of the Masters of Engineering Leadership program in Urban Systems, and recently she partnered with the Municipal Natural Asset Initiative (mnai.ca) in developing guidelines on natural asset management for practicing engineers and natural asset management learning material for engineering students.


The content shown is taken from a seminar recording presented by Dr. Susan Nesbit with an accompanying PowerPoint. If you wish to access the full PowerPoint presentation, a PDF version of the slides is available at the link below. Clicking it will take you to a google drive containing the full PDF.

Key Takeaways

  • Some major issues faced by cities are driven by rapid population growth, followed by the resulting increase in consumption and material use. These factors contribute greatly to problems such as climate change and an increased demand for municipal services.
  • On top of this, the cost of providing these services provided by this urban infrastructure is going up, with a lack of increase in infrastructure investment. If we wish to continue to provide the same level of services we currently do in the future, we will require a significant increase in investment into this infrastructure within the next 20 years or so.
  • Wicked Sustainability Problems are very complex and multifaceted, often being context-dependent and lacking in clearly-defined solutions. These situations involve a high degree of uncertainty, and thus students in engineering must learn systems thinking and transdisciplinary skills to be able to start tackling these issues, in addition to the traditional hard/technical skills.
  • Transdisciplinarity can be defined as the transcendence of disciplinary knowledge towards an overarching understanding from which emergent knowledge, shared by diverse team members, is formed. A case study of Interdisciplinary Sustainable Architecture (ISA) Labs (2017 – 2019) tried to facilitate a transdisciplinary approach to problem-solving among Master’s students from multiple universities by placing them in multidisciplinary teams to work on a conceptual design problem provided by a community organization. Through this study, it was observed that most teams came together to create a final deliverable that was an emergent artifact of the team’s transdisciplinary experience, that could not have been accomplished with only one pool of knowledge.
  • Implementing this with first-year engineering students yielded similar results. Systems thinking was developed via causal loop diagrams, multi-criteria decision making and streamline life cycle assessments. Empathy and Metacognition was developed using exercises in project stakeholder role plays, team building, and video/oral reflections.