The post-pandemic world can be safer, more equitable, and increasingly sustainable – and engineers are ready to make it happen. That’s my takeaway after participating in today’s BBC World Service panel titled The Engineers: Re-Engineering the Future.
The COVID-19 pandemic has confined us to our homes and driven us away from freely using public transport, testing our personal resilience and that of our infrastructure. It has also given many of us the extraordinary opportunity to experience cleaner air and space to reassess the priority that we place on our environment as well as what we want from future infrastructure. What can the engineering profession do to bring this once-in-a-generation paradigm shift to reality?
Rapidly deploying solutions
People around the world are united in their drive to reduce vulnerability to COVID-19 and possible future pandemics. With the rail and aviation industries among the most impacted, transport passengers and operators are grappling with solutions for safe passenger services and improved resiliency in the future. Engineers are making alterations to accommodate social distancing, touchless journeys, and enhanced ventilation and cleaning. Operators are considering the space within their vehicles and whether fleet sizes need to be altered. Owners are revisiting the materials with finishes that can withstand more frequent and faster deep cleaning, self-sanitizing materials, and use of UV light as well as chemicals. Auto-dispensers and other auto-detectors are being deployed.
Cities including London are rapidly retrofitting, enhancing, and promoting walking and cycling with new cycle lanes, widened pavements, and newly created pedestrian-only areas. These solutions give able-bodied people another option for traveling short distances – and take the pressure off roads and public transport.
As governments explore rapid steps to protect people and plan how to distribute a vaccine when found, logistics will be tested. Large infrastructure construction projects, like those Bechtel delivers, can offer expertise in addressing this enormous challenge, including using established routes and embedding the necessary specification checks and controls. Big data will help optimize this process.
Accessible to everyone
Long-term, the aim must be to create a healthier and a more equal society. Public infrastructure that is safe and accessible to everyone is key.
During the pandemic, 21st century communication technologies have been invaluable to keep us connected. However, the pandemic has highlighted the divide between the communities with and those without reliable digital infrastructure. There are lots of challenges to solving this, including financial and technological constraints, but I believe levelling up this access is paramount to ensure that no one is left behind.
We have been supporting customers for decades to provide mobile, wireless, or fiber connectivity that reaches some of the most remote corners of the world. Population growth and the rapid pace of technological change will escalate this need. By 2050, it is predicted that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. We are also responding to our customers’ requests for cleaner energy and transport with strategic investments in smart new technologies and using big data and analytics to help optimize the return.
Alongside the need for digital connectivity, leaders also need to consider how solutions will be accessible to everyone. We must be mindful of closing rather than accelerating the ‘digital divide’ between those people who have and those who do not have the skills and resources to adapt to the ‘new normal.’
This pandemic has shown how humankind can unite to solve the world’s most intractable problems. Now that we can see the clear skies and breathe cleaner air, will climate change be the next challenge we embrace together?
Bechtel’s customers are setting ambitious targets to decarbonize their transport systems and play their part in the global effort to reach net zero. Whether electrifying transport; creating new or upgrading existing journeys to remove private vehicles from roads; or capturing energy released from vehicle and passenger movement, we passionately support these initiatives and we will strive to innovate world-leading solutions.
To enable people, including Americans like me, to ditch their cars for public transport, large cities, including Sydney, are also evaluating ‘door to door to door to door’ solutions to streamline interchanges between networks and operators to ensure customer information is available for a passenger’s entire journey. London is advanced in this service, giving people confidence that when they set out on their journey, they will be able to complete it on one ticket. This confidence in journey completion is fundamentally important, especially in new networks like those under construction in the Middle East, where people may be using public transport for the first time.
An opportunity to reimagine infrastructure
In the mid- to long-term, solutions will need to be worked into the infrastructure itself. This may mean eliminating all contact with surfaces altogether with controls being operated by proximity sensors or by feet (rather than hands), as we are already seeing in elevators in Thailand. We’re also likely to see more density control systems that use weight measures to advise passengers to move to another train carriage or vehicle. Contact with other people may also be reduced, perhaps with more facial recognition, although that comes with privacy trade-offs. We could also see the development of cycle and walking routes higher on the agenda when master planning new regions and cities.
I’m hopeful that this pandemic is an opportunity to drive more collaborative planning between the different organizations that control transportation. Fast and confident delivery of new infrastructure should be a priority and decision makers may need to develop new private-public relationships or frameworks that put this objective at the core. Technologically advanced, sustainable, and resilient infrastructure can pave the way for a post-COVID economic recovery. According to the World Bank, low and middle-income countries alone could see a net benefit of $4.2 trillion from investing in infrastructure that prioritizes future-focused resiliency. Moreover, integrating technologies into the infrastructure as it is designed, built, and put into operation can significantly lower the cost and improve its functionality. Customers are looking at solutions including artificial intelligence, advanced data analytics, new materials, and modularization to change the global infrastructure landscape.
The world’s renewed love affair with science and engineering
Alongside society’s renewed appreciation of and respect for scientists and solution finders, I hope that more young people from all backgrounds will join the vital science and engineering fields. When I travelled around the globe as the Institution of Civil Engineers Brunel International lecturer, I met hundreds of engineers who are designing and building a better world, but we need more.
World leaders have envied the female Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, and relied on the COVID-19 tracker created by Lauren Gardner and the female-led divisions at Johns Hopkins. One of my fellow panel members, Rebecca Shipley of the UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering, led her team in reverse-engineering a CPAP ventilator. They made 10,000 available to U.K. hospitals within one month – an impressive example of combining engineering and medicine. I’m hopeful that young women will be inspired by these females and so many others who have shone at the forefront of the pandemic response. The last few months have shown that if you want to change the world and save lives, engineering and STEM disciplines are the way to do it.
Now is the time for us to act. I call upon all engineers to continue to push boundaries and find creative solutions to the challenges we face together. This is the pivotal moment in the history of our planet that we cannot squander. Time will tell and history may well judge us if the experience of lockdown profoundly realigns action around infrastructure and improves how we travel, stay connected, and live more sustainably to enable future generations to thrive.
Listen to Linda and other leaders discuss how engineers are reinventing our world for the better in this BBC World Service program with the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.