Guest blog: Engineering lessons from the pandemic

Jan 12, 2022

Professor Dame Helen Atkinson suggests that, despite numerous challenges, the past two years have taught the global engineering community some important lessons about best practice in the prevention, preparedness, response and recovery from pandemics.

"I think it’s fair to say that the engineering profession has had a leading role in global efforts to manage and mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope the breadth of skills that engineers have brought to bear in tackling the challenges posed by the pandemic is now much more widely recognised and appreciated in circles that previously had little knowledge or understanding of what engineering might have to offer."

When the pandemic started, the Royal Academy of Engineering launched a positive response programme to support the contribution of engineering and engineers in tackling COVID-19 challenges in the UK and globally. This included efforts to coordinate the engineering profession and advise UK government, as well as holding calls with other national engineering Academies to share lessons and insight on issues such as the manufacture and supply of PPE and medical devices, rapid diagnostics, contact tracing and reducing viral load in confined spaces. It became clear that there were issues limiting the ability of engineering to play a more proactive, strategic and collaborative role.

These included a lack of familiarity with, and access to, the engineering community among key players in the global health and international development community. Engineers too were often constrained by silos that limited a systems approach and hampered an ability to contribute to policy decisions that must factor in multiple considerations.

Launch of the Engineering X Pandemic Preparedness Programme

Engineering X launched its Pandemic Preparedness programme, led by the Academy, at the height of the pandemic to support the global engineering community. It aimed to build an evidence base and share lessons on disruptive solutions and best practice approaches so that engineers could contribute fully to response and recovery from the current pandemic as well as to the prevention and preparedness for similar events in the future. The first activity was a global rapid pulse survey to build evidence around the issues and priority areas for engineers responding to the pandemic.

Findings identified several pressing needs, including for:

- more engineering capacity-building in some countries

- more rapid prototyping, testing, and reiterating of solutions

- tools to connect engineers working in similar areas, or to connect those with niche skills to projects needing those skills

- building relationships between engineers in academia and their local communities

- documenting what worked and why, to avoid reinventing the wheel in a future public health emergency

- tackling a widening inequality gap through inclusive business and innovation

Input from the survey was used to help scope a grants call to fund innovative engineering that tackled these challenges and built connections between engineers across the world who were responding to the pandemic.

Small grants helped unlock big potential

Twenty-three grants of up to £20,000 were awarded for projects around the world with potential for significant impact where engineers could bring innovative approaches to known and emerging pandemic-related challenges. Applicants were grouped under four themes: infection control, medical innovation, collective action, and the ‘new normal’. I was fortunate to receive a grant for Cranfield to work with Q-Flo, Cambridge University and the South Central Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust on experimental airflow inside NHS ambulances under different driving conditions. The flow visualisation with lasers shows how to maximise the effectiveness of any filter or circulation.

The data showed that the existing fan in the ceiling of the ambulance should be kept on and with our results we were able to assure the national ambulance authorities that their guidance to paramedics during the pandemic had a sound foundation. Other projects offered innovative ways to meet a range of needs, bringing engineers together from across disciplines, institutions, and geographies, and finding new ways of operating as a professional community to help build resilience. For example, in India engineers developed eco-friendly, modular and rapid-assembly isolation cabins and coffin boxes made from recycled paper honeycomb panels and cardboard to address the shortage of both beds and coffins in hospitals worldwide. In Colombia, a platform was designed for inclusive communication and education, offering virtual training and accessible virtual classrooms that allow for different communication methods.

These include a Braille keyboard that enables blind and visually impaired students to connect with their teachers and receive high-quality virtual education both during and after the pandemic. Follow-on funding has just been launched for projects that can generate impact in the areas of infection resilient environments and inclusive design.

Next steps—what and why

Through its Pandemic Preparedness Programme, Engineering X is embarking on an in-depth global review of how engineers have contributed to the COVID-19 response efforts. The hope is to build understanding of the role of engineering in pandemic response among governments, the international development community and other key stakeholders, and learn key lessons from global successes and failures. Ultimately, the aim is to develop a set of principles for a more systemic engineering response to future health emergencies, and for including engineers at a high level from the outset. Even as the current pandemic continues to throw up new challenges, as engineers we must do all we can to set our role in a wider context to ensure the wider community better understands what engineering can do. We know now that time can be of the essence and misdirected effort wastes valuable resource and costs lives. 

 

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