The Covid Recovery Comes Down to Engineering
Don’t believe it? Look at the logistics required for the broadband everyone teleworking enjoys.
Reopening the country in the midst of a pandemic is akin to charging an enemy position at the top of a hill. Recovery and rebuilding will test us at every step with the risk of losing hard-won ground. But an old military insight can provide us with surer footing: amateurs talk tactics, professionals discuss logistics. Epidemiology established the right methods for fighting individual battles with Covid-19, from hand-washing to social distancing, but now it’s time to talk recovery logistics.
Much of the conversation will come back to engineering, which historically has advanced public health far more than medical care has. Sanitation, water supply, electrification, refrigeration, highways, transportation safety, body scanning and mass production are a few examples. It’s easy to overlook how these technologies improve health outcomes, so consider one that’s an obvious part of many Americans’ lives today: the bandwidth necessary for telework.
In 1917, the Danish-born engineer Agner Krarup Erlang—a bookish red-bearded bachelor—published formulas to manage “teletraffic” better. Erlang worked at the Copenhagen Telephone Co. and was vexed about capacity problems from call congestion. Even with centralized switching, phone calls took around 15 minutes to be connected during peak load. If a network had more capacity than demand, service providers lost money. With less capacity, the calls would drop as surely as the patience of the callers. The queuing conundrum had been treated separately as a physics, economics or psychology problem, but it became a systems-engineering problem in 1918 when the global influenza pandemic broke out, months after Erlang’s publication.
By the early 1920s, about 1 in 8 people in the U.S. had a phone connection. Phones rang with announcements, weather reports, schedules and even lullabies for babies. Phones made social distancing possible during the pandemic. People conducted over-the-phone get-togethers, a habit being revived now as virtual meetings, hangouts and happy hours proliferate. The logistics became dependable, thanks in part to Erlang’s work.
Today many people take for granted the systems engineering needed to maintain our far more complex internet and mobile networks. As with many vital services, only the malfunctions garner attention.
But this and many other overlooked engineering systems will be vital to the logistics of reopening. Consider the stable supply of water, phone, groceries and internet. Think also of electric power grids, servers, data centers, gas systems, waste processing, express product delivery. Resources that are now primarily consumed by residential loads will see shifts back to the commercial sector as operations reopen. These demands will need to be nimbly managed against Covid-specific needs: how to mass-produce testing kits, cleaning supplies, effective vaccines and affordable therapies, as well as how to deliver them in billions under a tight schedule. While the Covid-19 episode is novel in many ways, the engineering logistics required for recuperation are fairly standard but require flexible supply chains.
Consider how engineers like Margaret Hutchinson improved penicillin from a petri-dish discovery in 1928 to its lifesaving use in World War II. Feats of manufacturing and logistics allowed the production of 400 million units by spring 1942. By fall of 1945, 650 billion units of the antibiotic were available every month for civil and defense purpose. (A dose consists of thousands of units.) The production protocols standardized then are still in use today.
Sir Ronald Ross, the polymath Nobel-winning physician who discovered mosquito-borne malaria transmission, once said that it takes at least a decade to understand a new idea. The coronavirus pandemic has compressed that calendar. We are faced with an evolving microbe, and it will require a deft response. With dozens of simultaneous emergencies, each with its own tempo and temper, it’s been a story within a story nested in another: a narrative of long-distance relationship between our lives and livelihoods; a war tale of primitive approaches versus a sophisticated pathogen; a chase sequence involving testing and treatments; a comedy on conference calls and cloud computing; a love-hate plot on the future of oil-powered commuting; and a tragedy on the loss of our confidence and competence.
Separated, specialized approaches to remake our health, economy and civics will guarantee the next breakdown. Let’s engage engineers and adapt industry practices for federally organized logistics to pave the way out of this pandemic. This is an essential service.
Mr. Madhavan is a biomedical systems engineer and author of “Applied Minds: How Engineers Think.”
Always feel free to contact me directly regarding your organizations communications and collaborations challenges.
Carlos Castan | DataWorks LLC
The most important lesson that I learned in engineering school and that I apply in business and life, is problem solving. Yes, thinking about and applying methodologies and processes to situations/challenges, that eventually lead to solutions and options!
It is this problem solving and engineering approach that is needed to help us recover from the Coroavirus pandemic, by applying our engineering approach to public health, epidemiology, and communications tools to keep our employees safe and businesses running. Please see informative recent article on this topic from Mr. Guru Madhavan " The Covid Recovery Comes Down To Engineering"