An important development that is evident in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is that scientists, for the most part, are leading the way in formulating the public policy responses to the pandemic. Scientists are not just in the background advising other leaders. They are in the public eye, serving a major role in communicating to the public the science behind the pandemic; the potential risks of infection; the statistical facts regarding the spread of the virus; the projections regarding the potential future impacts of the virus on people and on the health care system; and the scientific basis for staying home, social distancing, and wearing masks.
A frequent observation on the pandemic is that none of us have ever experienced anything like this in our lives. Had our elected officials listened earlier to the scientific experts on infectious diseases, this crisis would not have been as much of a shock. Even before the current outbreak in China, scientific experts had warned of the potential dangers of a pandemic and the steps that could be taken to minimize the impacts. This advice was mostly ignored.
So, the silver lining of our current crisis is that the voice of science is being recognized for its needed expertise and leadership, a role that had diminished over decades and more noticeably in recent years. It is my hope that this shift becomes permanent and extends to the voice of the engineering community as well.
Those of us in the engineering community can look to the work of the National Academy of Engineering and the American Society of Civil Engineers to identify the challenges and potential crises of the future. They include transitioning our energy system, addressing the impacts of climate change, replacing our aging infrastructure, dealing with the challenges of population growth and urbanization, and ensuring that new technologies are applied in ways that benefit all of society. For all these challenges, it is the engineering community that should be influencing long-range planning and short-term implementation in the private sector and in the public sector at local, state, and federal levels. We should also be in the forefront of educating citizens, clients, and regulatory bodies, as the medical scientific community is now.
A recent article from the global consulting firm McKinsey1 contrasts the challenge of the current pandemic to the challenges of climate change. One of the key reflections in the article is the importance of systems thinking, which mirrors learnings from the work of Engineering Change Lab – USA. The McKinsey article describes the systemic impacts of physical shocks like a pandemic and climate change. The impacts are global and ripple through all aspects of society, exposing vulnerabilities in multiple elements of the systems we rely on – healthcare, financial markets, supply chains, transportation, energy, and the social functioning of our cities.
The McKinsey article also describes the steps we can take now to prevent a future climate crisis that would be far more damaging than the current pandemic crisis. These steps require the engineering community to take on a major role. Through collaborations with other scientific and non-scientific experts, we can design the most effective solutions to decarbonizing our energy systems, infrastructure, and buildings. Through similar collaborations, we can model the risks, and design and construct improvements to our infrastructure that are resilient to the impacts of climate change.
There are examples of other organizations taking on leadership roles that the engineering community can support and emulate. In education, we can support efforts such as the “Engineering for One Planet” coalition being led by The Lemelson Foundation and VentureWell that is seeking to develop a framework for environmentally responsible engineering applicable to all engineering disciplines. We can look to the American Institute of Architects and Engineers Australia who are both prioritizing action on climate change through transforming design. For a specific example of infrastructure resilience, we can look to the unique partnership of engineering firm Walter P. Moore and Rice University in the Houston area that is “breaking the frame” of traditional approaches and seeking to increase the area’s resilience to flooding from storm surge.
The pandemic should be a wake-up call to the engineering community to take on a greater leadership role in addressing the challenges of the future. This leadership can occur at all levels of the engineering eco-system – from transforming the way that engineers are educated, to adapting the codes and standards that regulate the work of engineers, to elevating the level of planning and design for private sector and public sector clients, to increasing our contributions in the public policy arena at all levels to ensure the right type of public investments are prioritized. The time for this transformation is now, rather than waiting until the only feasible response is to shut down our economy with the greatest harm being absorbed by those with the least resources.
1 “Addressing climate change in a post-pandemic world,” McKinsey & Company, April 2020