Program spotlight: Urban Systems with Konrad Siu
By Konrad Siu , Adjunct Professor in UBC’s Master of Engineering Leadership in Urban Systems
There is no shortage of technical engineering expertise in the field of urban systems. But given the infrastructure challenges facing our cities in a rapidly changing environment, we increasingly need adaptive leaders. We need leaders who understand the complex interdependencies of the systems that make up our built environment, the intricate considerations in decision-making and who have the leadership skills to develop a vision and empower their team members to make better decisions.
I learned this from my career with the City of Edmonton, where I led and co-ordinated the establishment of a new Integrated Infrastructure Services department and oversaw a construction unit of 360 people. Although I relied on people who understood the technical issues, what I was always looking for when recruiting talent was those who combined broad-based technical knowledge with strong leadership and interpersonal skills.
Urban system organizations need leaders who understand the big picture and are able to think strategically about the decisions that will achieve the organization’s and project’s multifaceted goals. They also need individuals who can communicate effectively with people from many different professional disciplines – including engineers, planners, architects, lawyers and accountants, as well as citizens and decision-makers – to get a project done.
The Master of Engineering Leadership (MEL) in Urban Systems was designed to fill this need. I teach the urban systems engineering class, and my aim is not to teach students the specifics of how to design roads or water management systems or transportation infrastructure, but to have them develop an understanding of how all of these systems interconnect. We explore the many factors that need to be considered when planning, designing and managing these systems – from the technical demands and economic argument to the regulatory environment, political and social considerations and environmental impacts. Future leaders need to understand and appreciate these constraints and interdependent issues when making decisions.
All aspects of the curriculum and coursework in the MEL in Urban Systems support our students’ professional development. While working in groups on complex real-world projects, for example, they define project goals, manage workflow, delegate tasks and use decision-making tools and techniques – all while learning how to communicate effectively, negotiate competing positions and be a valuable team member and leader. That’s something difficult to learn in a lecture or from a textbook. These skills are developed by doing and practising them. In 2018, one project asked students to explore and develop innovative design concepts for the Blatchford redevelopment in Edmonton, which aims to become a sustainable carbon-neutral community of 30,000 people.
Employers are interested in our graduates because they bring a different perspective than someone with a traditional MEng or MBA. Our graduates are integrators who can think broadly and strategically. They’ve also been trained on the business and financial side, as 40 per cent of the MEL coursework is taught through the UBC Sauder School of Business. Our graduates have the business foundation and the interpersonal skills to effectively lead people from a multitude of disciplines and to empower their team members to successfully deliver on a project’s vision.