Comment: Many lessons, but engineers can stand tall on COVID response

Professor Peter Guthrie OBE FREng reflects on what influenced the ability of engineers around the world to deliver timely and effective responses to COVID-19 and how to prepare and build resilience in case of future pandemics.

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At the end of September, I was pleased to attend the annual conference of the International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences (CAETS) in France. The event allowed for some useful moments of individual and collective reflection about the past two and half years and the impact of COVID-19.

READ: Professor Dame Helen Atkinson DBE FREng on the engineering lessons from the pandemic

CAETS is an independent, non-political, non-governmental, international organisation of engineering and technological sciences academies and this was the first conference to be held ‘in person’ for over three years. There were representatives of the engineering profession from over 30 countries present and, naturally, many conversations were about people’s experiences of the pandemic.

Personal experiences had of course been very different—good, bad, and often sad. But what was striking was how the professional experiences of engineers coalesced around a number of common themes.

A global view is instructive

I was at the conference to present to senior delegates the findings of a comprehensive review of the global engineering response. The Global review of the engineering response to COVID-19: lessons learned for preparedness and resilience, produced in partnership with Dalberg Advisors, was conceived by the Engineering X Pandemic Preparedness programme at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in November 2020. Engineering X is an international collaboration, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation, that brings together some of the world’s leading problem-solvers to address the great challenges of our age. The review was commissioned to learn lessons and to help ensure that a more systemic engineering response is put in place to improve preparedness for future pandemics.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the engineering profession has played a leading role in global efforts to manage and mitigate its impacts. Informed by data, case studies and comment from more than 40 countries, the Engineering X review highlights the breadth of contributions made by engineers and engineering globally in responding to key challenges, across sectors, disciplines, geographies, and across pandemic prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

The review highlights transformational innovations in low resource contexts as well as world-changing advances in medical and communication technologies, the pivotal role of data collection, distribution and management, and the importance of applying a systems lens to complex multifaceted challenges.

Factors that enable engineering success

Along the way, the review identifies drivers and enabling factors that made engineers especially useful and effective during the COVID-19 response. These include rallying around a shared sense of purpose, which empowered engineers to take risks and to innovate in unprecedented time frames. An excellent example of this was University College London’s partnership with Mercedes AMG on the design and delivery of CPAP breathing aids and their support for global technology transfer.

Action required on systemic barriers to success

The review identifies systemic barriers that often limited engineers’ ability to deliver timely and effective responses. These include a lack of collaboration mechanisms, insufficient data and skills, and a lack of understanding and consideration for the role engineering does and should play. Conversations I was party to at the CAETS conference seemed to support many of these findings.

A wide range of issues need to be addressed, such as updating and removing bias from datasets and data systems used for decision-making, equipping emergency response task forces with more engineering capability, and greater encouragement of open science and data sharing standards.

The review calls on governments, policy makers, public health actors, funders and engineering communities worldwide to identify and close structural gaps in resilience against future pandemics, to invest in skills, training and capacity of engineers, and to develop robust platforms for collaboration within engineering and between engineering and other disciplines.

Sharing experiences will improve global preparedness and resilience

COVID-19 has claimed over six million lives so far, and will have long term impacts on public health, education, social and economic development worldwide. The pandemic has acted as a reminder that a global emergency requires a global response and that no single country or discipline can tackle such a crisis alone.

I hope engineers everywhere will read this truly global overview of the engineering response to COVID-19 and share it as widely as possible. I believe the insights it provides will help to better integrate engineering skills and habits of mind into resilience policies and structures all around the world, to improve our recovery from the virus, and to help us on the path to a safer, more prepared and resilient future.

Dalberg Advisors (2022). Global review of the engineering response to COVID-19: lessons learned for preparedness and resilience. Engineering X (founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation). ISBN: 978-1-909327-56-6

Professor Peter Guthrie OBE FREng is Chair of the Engineering X Pandemic Preparedness board that commissioned the review