UNB Alumni
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Engineering the challenges of the 21st century

Author: UNB Alumni

Posted on Nov 15, 2023

Category: UNB Fredericton , Engineering , Inspiring Stories

Alex Miller (BScSE’79) is a pioneer in transforming geography and mapping into a 21st-century digital tool used by millions around the world. As president and founder of Esri Canada, the leading geographic information system (GIS) company in Canada, he believes that collecting and using information through a unifying lens helps us see systems within our whole living ecosystem and is crucial to solving our current challenges.

“Humanity is at a crossroads as the breakthrough systems of 19th and 20th century engineering are no longer capable of sustaining human society and even more dire, are now destroying the earth systems that support us. Waste of scarce resources, enormous overuse of chemicals, massive loading of CO2 into the atmosphere, and failure of societal institutions threaten our very existence as a species.  Fortunately, the technological explosion of the early 21st century continues to accelerate and gives us hope that our existential planetary challenges can be addressed and we can create an even better society with sustainable prosperity shared by all.”

He says we’ve reached a stage in human history where we “can’t fix fundamental flaws by poking at the parts.” He explains, “Take the climate crisis, for example. Engineering designed unbelievably successful systems for using fossil fuels as energy, which has been phenomenal for humans, but catastrophic for ecosystems. The mechanization of agriculture, as well, by overusing chemicals and genetically modified crops, has turned agriculture into a planet-destroying industry just within my lifetime. We’ve created comfort but now our world systems are falling apart, and most importantly, nature is being destroyed. We have to step back and ask ourselves what are we trying to achieve here.”

Alex says that common information systems can help us engineer the solutions.

“We got the whole thing wrong, and we somehow need to change direction. Engineering, mapping and systems can help us do that. Engineering is an interesting and challenging profession, because at one level you need to make sure individual things work absolutely reliably. But when you step back to look at the world as a whole system, you can see all of our systems behave together as a living organism. We need to figure out how to build a common information system that will allow us to understand that living system.”

Growing up in Creemore, Ontario on a dairy farm, Alex came to appreciate nature and living things that surrounded him. With no desire to work on the farm long-term, he found himself on a surveying job for the Ontario Department of Highways. “It was a serendipitous opportunity, because I ended up working with a man who I learned was the former dean of engineering at the University of Prague, who had come to Canada and was learning English and passing qualifications in this country. I began teaching him English and he taught me geodesy.”

The experience led Alex to a company that needed surveyors for work in northern Nigeria and Algeria. His boss had hired graduates from the University of New Brunswick survey program, known as one of the best in the world, and in 1975 sent Alex to Fredericton for a degree.

“Since I already knew surveying quite well, when I was at UNB I focused a lot of energy on learning computer science, property law, mathematics, aerial photogrammetry and digital mapping. UNB’s engineering faculty was fantastic at encouraging multidisciplinary learning and thinking, which has proved invaluable. Angus Hamilton, John McLaughlin and Sam Masry were huge influences on me and my career. John took me to Toronto when he was advising the Ontario government on building a land registration system. At that time, New Brunswick was famous worldwide for their land registration information service, and was one of the first places to build a geodetic network – thanks in large part to people at UNB. I ended up consulting with the Ontario government over the next five years, and learned management consulting as a result.”

After graduation, Alex, still with the company that helped put him through school, moved to Toronto with his wife Mary-Charlotte (McCormack) Miller (BA’77), whom he met at UNB. After heading up his employer’s photogrammetry and mapping department and becoming an associate partner, he and Mary-Charlotte founded their own company, Esri Canada.

Esri’s GIS solutions were traditionally used for land-use planning and natural resource management, with early users of the technology including J.D. Irving Ltd. Advancements in GIS technology fuelled Esri’s growth, and their digital mapping, electronic cartography, geographic analysis and systems management expanded into other industries, from government to education to transportation to telecommunications to utilities to healthcare. An advocate for strengthening communities, Alex initiated The Community Map of Canada, a free, comprehensive map that is constantly updated with data from authoritative sources. His support in mapping the longest trail in the world, Trans Canada Trail, helps preserve Canadian heritage and makes the Great Trail more accessible to everyone.

Today, among other things, the firm is helping businesses and communities create digital twins of real environments for better decision-making. “There has been an explosion in the AEC industry (architecture, engineering, construction). The three parts are coming together rapidly through digital technology and that allows engineers to expand beyond design into understanding the context of the whole. We need to design holistically, to fit with all of the pieces throughout the system. What I’m striving to do is build a community of communities – all working in concert within the ecosystem. I hope it will help bring things back into balance.”

Alex is optimistic that the challenges of today’s systems and society can be solved. “I strongly believe that renewables will take over 100% of our energy needs by 2040. We need a better transmission network to accomplish that, but there is an engineering solution when we work together across traditional silos to see the system as a whole. By using common information systems and “common” sense, we can start solving the enormous problems we face.”

Alex reiterates that the long legacy of integrated thinking in the Geodesy and Geomatics program at UNB has been helpful in his career. “If you understand where you fit into the world, you can accomplish great things. I couldn’t have done it without Mary-Charlotte. Our work is what drives me and gives me a sense of purpose, which is critical for both humans and businesses.”