Engineering National and International Preparedness: Lessons from COVID-19

The Royal Academy of Engineering recently published a global review of the engineering response to COVID-19. The report brings together contributions and case studies, based on interviews with over fifty expert stakeholders working at the intersections of health, engineering, and pandemic resilience across the globe, as well as extensive secondary research. Anna Schnupp, one of the report’s lead authors and Senior Consultant at Dalberg, a social-impact focused strategic advisory firm, has summarised key findings from the report in this article for NPC, relating to how an engineering response adds a valuable perspective to traditional policy and decision-making approaches.

When considering the main players engaged in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, images of doctors and nurses on the front line or scientists developing the COVID-19 vaccine tend to be front of mind. Less obvious perhaps, is the role of engineers; the “unsung heroes of the pandemic” as described by Forbes.

This lack of visibility was something that the Royal Academy of Engineering and Dalberg sought to change in a recently published Global Review of the engineering response to COVID-19. The review, commissioned by the Engineering X Pandemic Preparedness programme, explores the full potential of engineering in pandemic resilience (both realised and missed), studying everything from data engineers mapping the global spread of the virus to supply chain engineers using drones to bring vaccines to remote communities. Three key lessons on the role of engineering in preparedness and resilience emerged from our study of how engineers responded to the challenges of COVID-19 and these are explored below.

1. Engineers are the builders behind the scenes – and the people you need in a crisis

Although the title of ‘engineer’ carries status in society, few of us spend much time thinking about ‘who’ and ‘what’ it takes to make things work. As put by a Senior Health Director reflecting on the role of her engineering colleagues during the pandemic: “The engineers are at the heart and soul of making things happen – but they are often unrecognised, working in the background on elements that are ‘out of sight, out of mind’ – the roads we drive on, the hospital we are in, the wires in the wall.”

Engineers create, maintain, and adapt the building blocks of our society, both physical and digital. This makes them key stakeholders in designing for resilience and they are often the first port of call in an emergency.

The range of engineering roles needed to respond to COVID-19 was vast. This included software and data engineers setting up early warning and prediction systems to estimate the true spread of the virus and inform policy makers; engineers working in hospitals to improve ventilation systems, build new wards, and increase oxygen supply; and biomedical engineers designing novel vaccines for mass production and roll-out.

Some of these engineers were on the frontlines. For example, the OpenO2 initiative in Malawi set up mobile workshops to travel from hospital to hospital repairing broken oxygen concentrators when supplies were low. These repairs saved the Malawi health system more than $7.5 million in oxygen costs and created enough oxygen supply to provide continuous oxygen flow to around 5,000 adults for a week.

The role of engineers was not only confined to responding directly to the pandemic. They also performed the vital role, fundamental in any crisis,  of ensuring that the basic services and systems needed for society to function kept running in the background and held strong against wider shocks. Engineers ensured that the lights stayed on, people were connected to their loved ones, and transport systems continued to run, while adapting these foundational systems quickly to the “new normal” of living with a global pandemic.

2. The engineering approach to problem solving holds key lessons for broader preparedness and resilience

What does the data engineer sat at her computer have in common with the civil engineer surveying a new railway bridge? At their core, they are both pragmatic problem solvers.

The Royal Academy of Engineering summarises the core engineering mindset as “making things work and making things better”. Universal engineering tools such as systems thinking, continuous adjustment and improvement, and creative problem-finding and solving help engineers to work on complex problems under financial and time constraints.

The pandemic demonstrated the value of this pragmatic problem-solving approach. For example, engineers were able to work together to unlock major supply constraints. In the UK, a team from UCL and Mercedes AMG collaborated to rapidly reengineer the design of a CPAP respiratory device and repurposed Formula 1 factories to manufacture 10,000 of the devices within weeks for the National Health Service. Similarly in the US, Formlabs, a major 3D printing company, recalibrated its network of printers across the country to start mass-producing nasal swabs close to the locations where they were most critically needed.

Engineers also brought innovation to new problems that had not been faced before. For example, in Greece an AI tool nicknamed ‘Eva’ was used at border entry points to decide who to test for COVID-19 in the context of limited tests being available. Eva detected 1.85 times as many asymptomatic travellers as a random testing policy would have done.

The practical, problem-solving approach of engineers is transferable across-context and across-crisis situations and should sit alongside traditional policy- and decision-making approaches when determining systems for national preparedness and resilience.

3. Complex systems will mean a growing role for engineers in preparedness

Each year, the underlying systems we rely on to connect to our friends and family, get our groceries, travel around, or put heat and light in our homes expand and improve. They also get more complex.

Although a by-product of development and innovation, these growing complexities and interdependencies expose us to greater risk of wider system failures in the event of a shock. COVID-19 demonstrated how a health emergency can have much wider disruptions – many of which we still feel today.

Engineers are trained to think in systems and, in doing so, to design for shocks and failures of interconnected parts. This mindset – anchored on interconnectedness, interdependencies, and vulnerability – is vital to preparedness. The recent report ‘Critical capabilities: strengthening UK resilience’ by the Royal Academy of Engineering exemplifies this through a series of national disaster case studies, ranging from destructive flooding to ransomware attacks on the NHS. A major takeaway of the report is that most emergencies of scale will quickly go beyond the established networks of the public sector and put pressure on private, international, research and innovation, and physical networks.

Being prepared for a crisis means having the full system sufficiently robust and responsive to bend and scale as needed in times of pressure. As a Programme Lead running drones to bring COVID-19 tests and vaccines to remote communities told us: “the hard part is not the innovation of using drones, it’s the system level change needed to bring these into a fully integrated and complex system of health care, international supply, and transport logistics”.

Redefining engineering’s role in national preparedness

Although many of the most elegantly engineered solutions are designed to be “out of sight and out of mind”, when considering national preparedness, engineering should not be.

The Global Review showed that the earlier and more effectively engineers are brought to the table, the more likely it is that systems and tools can be better designed for resilience. Yet, engineers remain underrepresented in national preparedness and policymaking bodies and processes.

Better engagement is needed not only at the level of applying their technical specialisms to a specific brief (such as a policy to minimise infection risk in the built environment and on public transport), but also in bringing an engineering mindset to the bigger picture of national preparedness (such as using systems thinking to conduct a rigorous national resilience audit and plan how key organisations can be deployed in future emergencies).

As we regroup from the experience of COVID-19 to improve our national preparedness, now is the time to bring engineering thinking to the heart of policy-making and planning.

The Royal Academy of Engineering is at the forefront of driving this effort through its involvement in Engineering X – co-founded with Lloyd’s Register Foundation – that brings together world-leading problem solvers to address some of the greatest challenges of our age. Find out more here.