When an unknown illness appeared in China at the end of 2019, little did we know that in just a few weeks we’d be facing a global pandemic and the biggest threat to human health in centuries. Much of the world ground to a halt, and across the globe the fight against COVID-19 continues. Livelihoods have been interrupted, projects put on hold, careers ended, infrastructure disrupted.
And so in this edition of The Global Safety Podcast, brought to you by Lloyds Register Foundation, Tom Heap is joined by a panel of experts with unique insights into ways in which we could engineer ways to safeguard against future pandemics and protect workers around the world when faced with the threat of a virus that doesn’t respect global boundaries.
This edition of The Global Safety Podcast features insights from:
- Professor Richard Clegg, Managing Director of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation
- Dr Juliet Mian, Technical Director of The Resilience Shift
- Dr Neil Dhir from The Alan Turing Institute
- Dr Claire Pekcan, Director at Safe Marine
Listen now wherever you get your podcasts:
The Global Safety Podcast investigates the biggest safety issues facing the planet and looks at the latest science and innovations being developed to safeguard our future in an unpredictable world.
TOM HEAP [00:00:13] "Unknown Illness Hits China", read the headline in the New Scientist magazine in early January, reports of a mystery virus drifted into Western consciousness at the start of 2020, apparently emerging from the Chinese city of Wuhan. Little did we know that in just a few weeks we'd be facing a global pandemic. And on March the 23rd, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced a lockdown to save lives and protect the NHS (The National Health Service). Lives and livelihoods have been lost, projects grounded, infrastructure shaken. And so in this edition of the Global Safety Podcast brought to you by Lloyd's Register Foundation, the charity with the aim of protecting the safety of life and property, we'll be looking at how engineering can help protect our lives and our economy from future pandemics and limit the damage the remains of this one. I'm Tom Heap and welcome to the Global Safety Podcast. In this special edition, we've gathered a potent posse, all uniquely equipped to help slay the covid Dragon. So with me on Zoom once again, sadly not in person, are Professor Richard Clegg, Managing Director of the Lloyds Register Foundation. Dr Juliet Mian technical director of Resilience Shift. Julia, just while I mentioned that, can you give me a quick one sentence explanation of what is resilience shift?
JULIET MIAN [00:01:33] Yeah, sure. It's a global initiative. Our focus is actually on improving the safety and resilience of our critical infrastructure systems. We have been around longer than COVID, but obviously COVID has given us a lot to think about when we're talking about resilience.
TOM HEAP [00:01:48] Sure. We've also got Dr. Neil Dyer, who is from the Turing Institute. The Turing Institute has been working with Lloyds Register Foundation on something called Project Odysseus, looking at how London can successfully exit lockdown. And we'll come onto that in more detail later in the episode. And Dr Claire Pekcan. Claire is director of Safe Marine. And Clare, can you give us an outline of what that is, what Safe Marine does?
CLAIRE PEKCAN [00:02:10] Yeah, Safe Marine is a specialist consultancy that I set up in 2016. And what we offer is evidence based safety management solutions primarily to the international maritime industry. And we apply psychology to the understanding of the challenges that the industry faces.
TOM HEAP [00:02:31] So very much the human side and how it interacts, if you like, with with the heavy metal side of engineering.
CLAIRE PEKCAN [00:02:36] Exactly. Yeah. Yeah, you've got it in one. Yeah.
TOM HEAP [00:02:40] Well, welcome, everyone, and thank you very much for joining the discussion. So first, a quick question and a snappy response would be appreciated to get us all going. Were there engineering solutions out there that could have improved our readiness to deal with the global pandemic? Richard, what do you think today.
RICHARD CLEGG [00:02:57] From the Lloyds Register Foundation sort of angle. We're an independent global charity and our focus is on the critical infrastructure that modern society relies on, on this critical infrastructure. Some of it is a sort of stuff that you could walk up to and touch like a ship or a power station. And some of it is a bit more distributed like food supply chains. And what covid is showing us is that when these sorts of critical infrastructure is stressed, then it damages society. And there are lots of lessons that can be learned from covid about stressing such critical infrastructure. There are lots of ways in which we can stress this critical infrastructure. One is, is such things that a pandemic. But there are a lot of other ways. And could we imagine what would happen if several of these things all arrived at once? So I think there's a lot of lessons that can be backed out of this to do with making critical infrastructure more resilient and safer.
TOM HEAP [00:03:59] That's very much where we're going to go towards the end of this discussion. But Claire Pekcan, any thoughts of things we really should have done in the engineering sphere?
CLAIRE PEKCAN [00:04:07] If we think about engineering solutions and we understand by that term data driven, methodical scientific evidence base, then I believe, yes, there are a couple of things that would enable us to maybe have responded.
TOM HEAP [00:04:25] What are they, what are those couple of things?
CLAIRE PEKCAN [00:04:26] Well, I'll go back a step. Essentially, as people, we are very intuitive in our decision making, particularly when there's a lot of uncertainty and we're not very good at making rational decisions, when there's a lot of uncertainty and we tend to default to making representative cases of things. So likening the situation that we're facing to something else. And I think the trap that we fell into was to liken the coronavirus to a flu-like virus.
[00:05:00] And if we'd actually employed rational decision making, we might have come up with an understanding of where it is not like the flu virus, and then been able to respond accordingly. So I think using the principles of rational decision making be one and the other is something that I use in the in the safety sphere is the principles of behavior based safety management.
[00:05:26] To put it crudely, consequences drive behavior. And I think if we were to get more compliance of our citizens to the advice on infection prevention, then we could apply the understanding of how consequences drive behavior in order to put out the messages more clearly.
TOM HEAP [00:05:47] We'll pick up on some of those later in the program. But Juliet Mian, any thoughts about engineering kind of things that we maybe should have done already when the virus arrived?
JULIET MIAN [00:05:55] Yeah, well, I mean, as an engineer, I'm always a believer that engineering solutions are going to help in any decision. I think how we see resilience is both a preparation in advance, but also the decisions we take exactly as I was saying while we're responding, how we recover positively from a crisis. I think actually one really important thing that has been emphasised by COVID is that even for us as engineers dealing with the technical solutions, covid is all about the people, the decisions they make, how they behave. And that is a really important learning for us as engineers to be designing our solutions effectively to work with the people who are there who are going to help.
TOM HEAP [00:06:37] Neil, what do you think?
NEIL DIHR [00:06:38] I think they would have been hard initially because we didn't really know we didn't have enough data to understand how the virus propagated and how it spread around society and indeed the globe. And before we knew that, he would have been hard to suggest what solutions we would employ.
TOM HEAP [00:06:53] So you're wary about saying, you know, in hindsight, there were lots of things we should have done. We should have known.
NEIL DIHR [00:06:58] Exactly.
TOM HEAP [00:06:59] Richard, while I've got you there, let's talk about some of the specific initiatives that the Lloyds Register Foundation is involved in. I think we're looking particularly at Fish Safe Resilience Shift. We mentioned Project Odysseus and also things to do with maintaining STEM education. Now for FishSafe. We have actually done an interview with Eric Holliday, who is the CEO of the Fish Safety Foundation. He's based in New Zealand. And so I spoke to him a little bit earlier.
ERIC HOLLIDAY [00:07:25] Immediately impacted on us. And we started communicating with people on the ground and looked at how we can carry on the work that we do. There's not much we can do to stop a virus evolving. We were able to make some money available from our funds so that we could provide real basics like hand sanitiser and masks to our people that were working hard in Bangladesh on the ground. And there was enough in the kitty to be able to get them to buy and distribute to the fishers that we had been working with.
[00:08:05] There wasn't much we can do in terms of the numbers, but there was certainly something and it helped spread that message of of health and safety in Bangladesh and many parts of the world., there is no choice - they have to go and fish.
[00:08:19] It not only sustains their families, but it sustains communities and livelihoods and all types of things. So there really isn't a choice. They have to go and fish. You know, it's inconvenient for us in many parts of the world to not be able to go to the office. These guys don't have a choice. The work carries on. I mean, in safety, we talk about a hierarchy of needs. Top of the list. These is engineering, art, you know, preventing these things happening, putting safeguards in place that people aren't infected. And unfortunately, right at the bottom or the least effective way is providing personal protective equipment, which in our case, given the circumstances, is probably the only thing that we can do. We have to plan ahead. And then I'm talking not not about fishing that I'm talking about globally. We have to plan ahead. We have to get the personal protective equipment in. We have to educate people about wearing face masks, the basic basic basics that you can do when it gets to the point where the pandemic is is in the public domain.
[00:09:25] People have to follow the science and the science is very clear.
TOM HEAP [00:09:30] Richard, how is fish safe going, as far as you can tell?
RICHARD CLEGG [00:09:34] Fish Safe is a remarkable project for us as the Foundation.
[00:09:39] We can all imagine how hazardous sea fishing is, but it is particularly acute in poorer countries. And, you know, it's a really staggering fact in Bangladesh alone, which is where Fish Safe is starting out, there are 1350 fatalities a year. And these are these are those that are reported. These are the ones that we know about. These are real people who leave real loved ones behind. And the question for us, if we stand back from this is, what intervention on the ground is actually going to reduce those numbers, what could we do that would make a significant difference? Is it better technology? Is it better boats? Is it better regulation?
[00:10:26] And what Fish Safe is doing is working with communities on the ground. It's about education, it's about understanding. And it's set itself some really big targets to reduce the number of ship losses by 20 percent and the number of fatalities by 25 percent. So it's early days.
TOM HEAP [00:10:46] So Fish Safe was already going prior to coronavirus and was to do with reduction of accidents and fatalities within fishing, is that correct?
RICHARD CLEGG [00:10:53] Yes, that's right. Fish Safe was a project which has already laid down before coronavirus came. He was always trying to tackle this tragic, you know, fatality rate in the industry in Bangladesh.
[00:11:05] And why it became important to was in the pandemic was because of the networks it had built up on the ground and the trust that it got in the local communities.
[00:11:16] It was able to swim through that, to be able to work through that and distribute some of the PPP equipment and and also give advice and guidance through its networks.
TOM HEAP [00:11:26] Something I've often wondered, particularly in countries that have more unstable economies and if you like, where the risk to life is already quite severe from their job, when Coronavirus came along, did you find communities like that, like the fishing industry in Bangladesh, took it as seriously as the rest of us, or did they think, well, this is just another challenge? And compared to the other some of the other risks I'm facing, it's pretty small.
RICHARD CLEGG [00:11:50] I that's really interesting because, you know, we can, you know, from our privileged position that we're sitting in, take a very sort of white Anglo-Saxon way of looking at the world. And we so see certain risks. And we think that, you know, those are commonly shared by everybody else, that people have different things to worry about on their plate in everyday life. And also they have different trusted sources of information to understand some of these risks as well. So I think everybody has got a different perception of this.
TOM HEAP [00:12:22] But we must come on to Resilience Shift, which I mentioned at the start. Dr. Juliet Mian is technical director. And as I understand, you focus on four key areas of infrastructure, transport, energy, water and digital.
[00:12:36] And looking at that list, it's my impression that in Europe at least, they all weathered the COVID storm fairly well. But am I missing something? And what were the stresses or pinch points?
JULIET MIAN [00:12:47] I think it is fair to say that certainly in the UK and Europe, our infrastructure has proved resilient. I think it's worth saying that that that is not by luck or by chance.
[00:12:57] And there's probably been a huge amount of work, both in preparation and join the crisis behind the scenes that none of us see. And it's very easy for us to just assume that, you know, the light switch, the lights come on. And there were stories, for example, National Grid in the UK had to send their operators to stay and live in near the control centers for six week period so that they weren't exposed to the virus. They were away from their families. So, you know, the lights were kept on, but a lot of work was was behind that.
TOM HEAP [00:13:26] So they made their own little sort of self quarantined port to make sure our lights stayed on.
JULIET MIAN [00:13:29] Exactly. Whilst they are not the visible, the visible key workers that we've seen during the crisis, they were absolutely key workers to keep those services going. And I think in terms of the stresses, that's been very interesting for us.
[00:13:42] And pre-COVID, a lot of the thinking about resilience was much more about a physical, you know, a flood, an extreme storm, something physical that affects the infrastructure. What we've actually seen a quite complex things like change in demand, a move from city centers to domestic demand of water and electricity. Our transport services, in fact, being very impacted by no demand. You know, they they have revenue models based on demand, a number of users.
[00:14:09] So there have been some some really key changes to our infrastructure.
TOM HEAP [00:14:14] So take transport, for example, saying that some of them have gone bust and therefore wouldn't be available in the future, basically.
JULIET MIAN [00:14:19] Well, they have gone bust because measures have been put in place to sort of support and and keep them going. In the short term, we're all getting a clear message around avoiding public transport where we can. A lot of our work in the infrastructure sector for many years has been exactly the opposite, you know, to to reduce the use of use of private vehicles, to have people traveling on trains and other public transport. So there the longer term impacts of some of these changes are going to be significant.
[00:14:47] I think one of the important points with resilience is there's never room for complacency. Again, a message from COVID is be prepared to be surprised. And we shouldn't think because things did continue to function well during COVID that we won't be surprised by the next thing. The next thing may not be a pandemic.
[00:15:04] So if we come out of this thinking we know how to be resilient to pandemics, we're fine. We'll be surprised by the next thing. Richard mentioned something in the introduction as well that is very important about the combination of scenarios. So we're looking at the moment COVID plus extreme weather.
[00:15:21] We've without wanting to take the conversation in a different direction, but are we facing Brexit plus a second wave of COVID at the same time? And what would that mean to our supply chains and infrastructure systems? This potential for combined stresses maybe we can function under one scenario, but can we still continue to function if they two or three things happen at the same time?
TOM HEAP [00:15:43] I just wanted to ask sort of almost were we lucky? Because certainly I've done some recent studies work on that on our food system and how resilient that was. And some of the analysts said to me, yes, it did hold up, but we were quite lucky, for instance, in the UK that there wasn't a stop on what's called a short straight the Calais to Dover transport route, and that we must be careful about planning for the next war on the basis of the last one, as they say, in the military. Do you think we were a bit lucky?
JULIET MIAN [00:16:12] A combination, I think, of planning and timing, but I absolutely agree with that. No, no complacency. We've always, in resilience, talked about the uncertain future. But I think that message is we don't even know, you know, we don't know what next month's going to look like. We don't know what the end of the year is going to look like.
[00:16:30] There is so many different combinations of things that might happen.
TOM HEAP [00:16:35] One of the interesting things I want to come on to the discussion at the end is, in effect, how much we insure ourselves, how much we prepare and pay to make ourselves resilient against risk.
[00:16:44] So I think that's one of the really key questions. But I must come onto Project Odysseus, which I mentioned at the start. It was launched in partnership with the Alan Turing Institute. And Dr Neil Dhir is with us, and he's been working on the project since the beginning of the pandemic, Neil, what is Project Odysseus and what have you been up to in the pandemic?
NEIL DHIR [00:17:02] So this whole thing kicked off, let's call it January. And this is where we start of hearing sort of reports coming out all over the planet that something was happening with response to the fires. And the great majority of us were working on another project called the London Air Quality Project, where we're trying to develop machine learning algorithms and data science platforms to understand air quality in London. It very soon transpired that we had the sort of data that may indeed be useful to monitor and track the virus, and that is data such as satellite images, SCOOT sensors, which are those wires you see running across the roads. It's Oyster data and it's public transport data. It's the traffic camera data. And because we were seeing on all of that, it turned out we could be quite useful in understanding what the virus was doing.
TOM HEAP [00:17:50] Now just break that down for a bit. How is satellite information, Oyster card data and things like that? How does that help with tracking a virus?
NEIL DHIR [00:17:56] We're using all that data, pulling it together and using it as a proxy for business, which is to say where are people congregating around London and what hotspots are there? And we reckon if they're congregating where they shouldn't be, especially when there's a lockdown, there might be outbreak of the virus. That's the general idea. So if we can spot it, we can spot a big cluster appearing. We can not only say to the authorities, hey, there's a big thing going on here. People are there in real time. We can also prepare the local hospitals to two weeks down the line and say, ah, you should probably move some ventilators to that hospital because there was a massive gathering, for example, the Vietnam protests all around. There's loads of hospitals that should be prepared with ventilators in case an outbreak is happening or will happen, rather.
TOM HEAP [00:18:40] What have you been able to discover about the behavior of Londoners?
NEIL DHIR [00:18:43] By and large, they respect the lockdown very well. It was very impressive to see. So what we're using is we have three profiles, which is pre-lockdown, mid-lockdown, post-lockdown. So we've designed this alarm system that allows you to compare what London is doing right now in terms of clustering and where people are congregating and comparing it to those other three profiles to allow the likes of the Greater London authority to design interventions, for example, widening the streets. We're closing off certain streets to keep people distant.
TOM HEAP [00:19:15] If I was someone who was very worried about the spread risk and I wanted to walk from two points in London, a couple of miles apart from St Paul's Cathedral, Titus and James's Park, could you give me the low COVID route?
NEIL DHIR [00:19:27] That's a very good point, actually, because we are developing routine algorithms that do exactly that as we're working with algorithms that try to map you around the hotspots of where there are a lot of people currently.
NEIL DHIR [00:19:39] And that doesn't have to be for humans alone. That could be for traffic as well. As you can tell, the bus route to be out if there's a huge event going on in, say, Piccadilly Circus. So we're designing algorithms like that that will allow, again, the decision makers to use it or not.
[00:19:53] But that's up to them.
TOM HEAP [00:19:54] To come full circle. That's to my mind, where it overlaps with what you were saying about air quality, because I remember looking at those kind of maps a couple of years ago and seeing how I could do exactly that walk from one place to another in the lower particulates or lower nitrous oxide atmosphere.
NEIL DHIR [00:20:10] Exactly, exactly, and that's where it comes from.
TOM HEAP [00:20:12] One element of our critical infrastructure very close to Lloyd's Register Foundation is, of course, shipping. Here the virus had a rapid but largely unseen impact in many ports. Cargoes were welcomed, but crews were forbidden to land. Many thousands of maritime engineers on cargo ships may be waiters on luxury cruise liners, deckhands on fishing vessels have been caught up in what the United Nations warns is a growing humanitarian crisis has already been blamed for actually several suicides. Claire Pekcan, who we heard from earlier, is a maritime psychologist from Safe Marine. So, Clare, what is it normally like on board a liner or tanker? And then how's that changed to start with?
CLAIRE PEKCAN [00:20:53] I'd say that probably life on board a cruise liner that's offering passengers a holiday versus a tanker, probably quite different. But as seafarers, essentially, the sort of working conditions would be comparable. So there are certain characteristics about seafaring, way of life, the occupation, so they can work on board for up to 11 months in a year. But it varies typically among the seniority of the people on board. So captains and chief engineers, the most senior people on board, may only work 12 weeks on board, whereas the crew may be on for 11 months or so. And what we need to bear in mind is those 11 months don't come with weekends off. They are seven days a week working and they could potentially and legally work up to 90 hours in a week. The majority, I would say, in today's world will be on, I call "contingent contracts", the equivalent to our zero hours contracts that we have ashore. So they're only paid when they're on board.
TOM HEAP [00:22:00] What's been the effect of COVID-19 on this large group of people?
CLAIRE PEKCAN [00:22:04] Because of the contingent nature and the fact that they're governed by how long they can stay on board, every day of the week, there may be around the world hundreds of thousands of crew exchanges happening on commercial vessels and essentially the impact of coronavirus because there's no flights, because the airports are closed, because countries have pulled up the shutters on their borders. Not long after the pandemic was announced, crew changes were stopped, essentially. So all those hundreds of thousands of exchanges were stopped overnight. And so the situation is that those on board have essentially been stuck on board since the outbreak of the pandemic with no end in sight to their contract. There are some exchanges happening, but the majority of people are stuck on board.
TOM HEAP [00:22:55] And it's worth thinking what that means because we might think it's been tough to have been locked down at home. But imagine if you will locked down if your office or factory for six to 11 months. You know, that really could lead to an extremely stressful atmosphere. And there really have been serious mental health issues here and attempted suicides and things happen.
CLAIRE PEKCAN [00:23:14] Unfortunately, yes. There's been a number of cases reported where people have had the promise of being relieved only to have that promise reneged on through no no fault of their own. Companies are doing their best.
CLAIRE PEKCAN [00:23:31] You know, when it happens two, three times, particularly if you want to get home to your family, you're worried about them because like us, they'll be worried about their their loved ones back home. So it can be really powerful sense of hopelessness, which which can lead people to take drastic action to to relieve their suffering.
TOM HEAP [00:23:52] What can be done to help what what have you or others been able to do to assist?
CLAIRE PEKCAN [00:23:59] Well, I'm part of a charity that looks after Seafarers. It's actually funded by Lloyds Register, Confidential Hazardous Information Reporting Program. And we produced a publication and I just in that set out the sorts of things that organisations and seafarers themselves can do without having to change the minds of intransigent governments to get them off the ship. So they might not be able to get them off, but things like empathic leadership, giving information about what what they can do, particularly with situations of people coming on board, how do they handle that? So giving them information, advice, challenging negative thinking, which can lead to a spiral of down into a depression and providing facilitative support. So providing opportunities to have discussions with professionals through Zoom and Skype and so on and so forth, but also opening up employee assistance programs so that we've got a hotline to call if they're in dire straits and encouraging group activities on board. So encouraging them or assisting them to to support one another, the primary things that you can do.
TOM HEAP [00:25:19] And just briefly, if you would, you said shipping companies are doing their best. Could they really be doing more to say, look, we've got a serious issue here, we need to take more care of them and also pressure some of those port governments harder to say, you know, you need you rely on these people to get your food into your country. You need to give them a bit of respect.
CLAIRE PEKCAN [00:25:39] Now, that's a fair point. Certainly. I think, as I was saying before, consequences drive behavior. So if they continue to take the cargoes, continue to trade into ports by their fuel in these ports and so on and so forth, then ultimately it's the seafarers going to pay because nobody's going to change their behavior. I think the industry certainly that I work with most closely the tanker industry, that they're very wary about antitrust and and cartels and things like that, understandably and rightly so. But I think there could be a lot more collaborative action and also assistance. I think governments in developing countries might not necessarily have the resources to deal with these issues or to to understand the way through allowing the traffic of seafarers without risk to their own citizens. So I think companies have huge resources and so they can bring those to bear to assist governments in enabling the transit of their people.
TOM HEAP [00:26:42] Well, thank you very much, Clare. And I want to really bring the panel together to discover what engineering can do for us. What could we do differently with the help of engineering, I suppose, to prepare for either another wave of COVID-19 or future pandemics? It strikes me this is about how we can suppress future infectious diseases without suffocating our economy and society. Julia, what do you think - has engineering got a big role here? Give me some examples of what they could be doing.
JULIET MIAN [00:27:14] We have, as engineers in the UK infrastructure context, managed to keep working in the short term and we have managed to keep building things and constructing things and very rapidly and immediately find new ways of working so that construction sites can operate with social distancing practices in place.
[00:27:33] And the role of engineering and infrastructure in supporting the economy is always very evident. So some of these big new infrastructure projects and the sort of fiscal stimulus type spending shows how important our role is to the to the future.
TOM HEAP [00:27:49] Richard, what do you think to that? Are the things that engineers could be doing? Can we make ourselves more virus ready?
RICHARD CLEGG [00:27:57] I'd take a very sort of broad interpretation of what is engineering. We can think much wider than just thinking about mechanical engineering, oily rag solutions to pandemics.
[00:28:10] You know, in the same way that we can just look at pandemics purely from a medical standpoint, it's all about people at the end of the day and the importance of behavioural sciences, people's attitudes to risk understanding of risk. Where do they get their information from? Because at the end of the day, dealing with a pandemic, it's all about trying to get people to behave in certain ways.
TOM HEAP [00:28:33] So you think that the behaviour is as important as the sort of physical engineering?
RICHARD CLEGG [00:28:39] Absolutely. The one thing about people is that they are predictably unpredictable. And you can have the best piece of technology, you can have the best policy, you can have the best equipment. But if it's not used or adopted in the right way, for whatever reasons, whether it's distrust or just public attitude, then that doesn't work. So it is this parallel of, you know, engineering, medical solutions as well as social science, the behavioural science aspects.
TOM HEAP [00:29:08] But it strikes me you're all being surprisingly coy about the physical, the prospect of physical engineering, you know, for instance, should trains be built with the same kind of aircon that they allegedly have in airplanes that has a biocide in them, so it makes it much safer to travel in trains in the future. Surely that is an engineering style solution that could help keep society going. I mean, I just sort of picked that as an example, but does anyone want to pick that up.?Surely there are physical engineering solutions that could help, you know, society to keep going.
RICHARD CLEGG [00:29:44] And the answer is yes, of course we could through engineering solutions and spend money to solve or alleviate these problems. The question is, you know, what does that mean to the price then of a rail ticket? And it is about cost benefit. And I think one of the things in making these engineering type decisions about, you know, do we put these filtration systems in or whatever, whatever, is that we need a balanced debate in society about what the risk is and and does society think it's worthwhile, therefore, spending society's resources on solving that risk? Otherwise, what we are doing, we're spending lots of money to alleviate anxiety and not necessarily to save risk.
TOM HEAP [00:30:26] Well, this is a to my mind, some of the meat of it. Should we be, if you like, making life a bit more expensive so that it's a bit more secure? Straight question, Juliet. Should we be doing that?
JULIET MIAN [00:30:38] Always. There is a balanced decision to make, because if you if you put more money into one place, you're automatically not putting that in another area.
[00:30:49] And I do think, you know, it's definitely is becoming the theme of this.
[00:30:53] But there are some times low cost, low technology interventions, which may be cheaper and also which may I think this is important, may help with multiple shocks and stresses.
[00:31:03] If we come out of this and we're putting all our effort and our resources and our money into pandemic, we may wish we hadn't when something else surprises us.
TOM HEAP [00:31:13] We've got to be quite careful about, you know, we've seen what the world can throw at us if we really come out of this and say, look, we're happy with our kind of just in time squeaked by low cost lifestyle, we're going to have to answer if, you know, millions of us get killed by the next thing that comes along, because we can say we saw the danger and we decided to not put an insurance policy in, Neil.
NEIL DHIR [00:31:33] I think it's difficult because why are we comparing against how is this a good death count or a bad death count? It's very hard to say.
TOM HEAP [00:31:41] Good question.
NEIL DHIR [00:31:42] And compared to recent events with the technology that we have, for example, the Royal Society respond with the RAMP initiative, which pulled together all mathematicians, computational scientists to deal or not to deal, not even work on COVID-19 really fast to just understand what it is. And that was that was a really fast response. And if you're asking is, should we prepare ourselves for everything that's going to be incredibly expensive, I don't know how we would do that.
[00:32:09] So maybe just in time, is there anything we can do?
TOM HEAP [00:32:12] Richard, you had your hand up.
RICHARD CLEGG [00:32:13] Yeah, yeah. Just picking up on that point about, you know, do we invest and prepare for everything? And the answer is, well, of course we can't because, you know, trying to do that is only as good as our imagination and things happen or a combination of things happened that we never dreamt of and we call them black swans. And so, you know, rather than trying to second guess the future, what's going to occur, the likelihood of it occur in it, if it did occur, what would be the consequences of it? And to have those consequences for the past, what do we need to do and what do we need to spend? Rather than looking at it in that sort of probabilistic way, it goes back to resilience again to say bad things do happen and they will happen and they'll happen in combinations that we never really imagined and were prepared for. And so it all comes back to resilience and and just making sure that no matter what happens to a system, it can absorb, bounce back from and recover from being stressed.
TOM HEAP [00:33:11] Haven't we got to be really careful about using the word resilience as a sort of trite, OK, we need to be resilient.
[00:33:15] You know, we've just established that to be genuine, it costs money. And as a panel, you seem to be saying, I'm not sure it's worth spending that money.
RICHARD CLEGG [00:33:24] It's not about evading spending money or or sitting on the fence about it. There are finite resources in society. So what what are we going to direct them to? And, you know, the point I was making a moment ago, it's not about trying to alleviate anxiety or alleviate fear. It's about saving real risk. And therefore, we need a balanced debate in society.
TOM HEAP [00:33:45] Clare.
CLAIRE PEKCAN [00:33:46] It's about being more deft at our responses, being able to mobilize resources, strategies, contingencies, responses in a quicker way, perhaps, than what we've done and to make sure that decision making is timely and not delayed unnecessarily. And I think that takes not necessarily money, but an openness of mind and a willingness to collaborate and co-operate, with people that perhaps you wouldn't necessarily collaborate and co-operate with in normal (whatever normal may come to be) life.
TOM HEAP [00:34:24] Well you just mentioned, collaboration, I was just interested to know in some of the responses, the sort of sort of medical engineering responses we've seen to the coronaviruses, been some cooperation and some competition, it seems to me, with things like vaccines and track and trace programs. They seem to have been developed separately by companies or governments rather than in collaboration. I was just wondering if this is good or bad, is it wasted duplication or is it creative competition? Does anyone want to take that on?
JULIET MIAN [00:34:51] I think there's a bit of both. I think there are always winners and losers. But overall, my view is the collaboration is the most important thing. I think we've already been talking about finite and valuable resources. So to spend those doing the same thing over and over again, possibly reinventing wheels, I think there's also something that we've learned from COVID. We are all part of a system and we don't come out of a crisis like this, well, if the other parts of that system that we depend on don't also come out well. So, you know, we we need to collaborate and we need to actually ensure that all of society and, you know, globally will come out of this crisis successfully, not try and only, you know, not try and be the winners on our own.
TOM HEAP [00:35:35] And we saw some very straightforward kind of engineers as heroes, actions with things like ventilators and other medical technology where people worked incredibly fast and incredibly effectively to come up with life saving solutions.
RICHARD CLEGG [00:35:50] Yeah, events like a global pandemic and another global challenges facing the planet, like climate change, etc.
[00:35:58] I mean, these are global challenges requiring global solutions, and it's beyond the capability and the resource of an individual corporation or an individual country to come up with the solutions.
[00:36:11] And it goes back to your point about, you know, the need for cooperation and collaboration in order to converge toward solutions. I don't know. From Lloyd's Register Foundation perspective, we set ourselves these big challenges. You know, they're like the pole star that we're navigating towards how to make food safe, how to make the seas safe. They're so much bigger than us, and we can only achieve solutions for these by building collaborations and coalitions of support.
TOM HEAP [00:36:43] Now, climate change, many people agree that it is far and away a greater threat than coronavirus was if we look at it overall. And indeed Coronavirus has shown us what we can do if we feel genuinely threatened. So what should we be learning from this? I'm going to start with Juliet. What are the lessons learned?
JULIET MIAN [00:37:02] Everything that we've seen happen since the beginning of this year and it's been global and it's been huge, is going to be so much bigger with climate change. So if we're not learning from what we've seen now about what we're going to do differently as engineers in the future, how we're going to use technology, not just reduce climate change happening, but also how to be resilient to the extreme weather that we're seeing already, then we really haven't learned anything. And my worry is we weren't prepared for this one. And climate change is coming even bigger, but even more slowly. We saw a small reduction in emissions, for example, when everything stopped. Not enough. Not for long enough. And we need to be doing that every year, year on year with with more reductions.
[00:37:46] So we know we really need to take this seriously and work hard.
TOM HEAP [00:37:49] And it absolutely proves the boiling the frog cliche, doesn't it? Because when we put ourselves immediately into hot water, we jumped out, whereas this low threat from climate change seems to have us all going to sleep. Anyone else want to pick up on this sort of nexus between coronavirus engineering and climate change?
RICHARD CLEGG [00:38:07] The pandemic has shown us how some sort of an external a situation can impact on critical infrastructure and climate change, likewise can impact on critical infrastructure. It's about the impact of the environment on climate change is happening because mankind is impacting on the environment. But then Mother Nature bites back and that environment then impacts back on Man and is our critical infrastructure that we're reliant upon able to absorb those sorts of acute stressors. Are we designing them to absorb those tensions.
TOM HEAP [00:38:44] As we're coming to the end now, I wonder if you could sort of frames messages you'd like the audience to take away from here about how engineering fits in the the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic. Juliet, what would you say are the lessons that people should take away?
JULIET MIAN [00:39:01] To me, the importance of working across disciplines, not putting ourselves in one small silo of being engineers.
[00:39:08] We've talked a lot about people and behaviours, and I think that's a future we need to get to that we're designing technical solutions with people firmly in mind and the importance of frequently adapting to uncertainty. As you know, when I trained as a as a civil engineer 25 odd years ago, we were fairly clear. We knew what we were doing. There's a big change in thinking now about a highly complex and uncertain future, but also I do think it is more important than it has ever been. So we should, as engineers, be excited by that.
TOM HEAP [00:39:42] Claire.
CLAIRE PEKCAN [00:39:42] The lesson that we can take from what's happened for the future is that we have to build co-operation because our default position is selfishness. And we've seen that in our response internationally to climate change is, you know, I want to protect my own resources, my own economies and so on and so forth. And I and I think there is no easy solution to counteracting this selfish gene, but perhaps is to inculcate in our educational programs more looking towards generosity and altruism and how we co-operate rather than competing for the future to try to solve some of these problems that transcend beyond individuals and individual countries.
TOM HEAP [00:40:26] Neal, it's striking when I'm asking about sort of lessons learned and takeaway messages. A group of four engineers are very keen to stress the human side, not the mechanical side. Maybe my stereotype of engineers is clearly woefully misplaced.
NEIL DHIR [00:40:40] I first I would say this: I think as a community, we've come together really well during this crisis and there's been an absolute massive collaboration, collaborative effort all around the planet. And you have companies like BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, building ventilators from scratch, new designs, the same as Dyson. But as we wind down now and go back to normality, BAE is going to continue building submarines, Rolls Royce are going to keep on building jet engines, and Dyson are going back to building vacuum cleaners again. So unless we embed some sense of responsibility, perhaps not in the workforce or even just in the board of these companies, that this has been this is going to happen again and a much bigger way. We're in for a tough time.
TOM HEAP [00:41:22] I just want to explore a little bit. Do you mean that the boards of these big companies should be almost putting a percentage aside to to work on resilience projects or something like that with engineering?
NEIL DHIR [00:41:30] The collaborative effort needs to be there that they there if this happened again, they have to reach out to each other and say, hey, what rich guys do you have? Who can do this? We have these guys, you know, should we do something together rather than, as was mentioned, having a purely profit driven motive and purely selfish motive.
RICHARD CLEGG [00:41:48] I think my parting comment would be, again, it is about the human the people side of things. You know, we need to move away from this vision that, you know, engineering is all about hard hats and heavy machinery and construction sites and things like that. It is a broad church. You know, this area of behavioural sciences and the public understanding of risk is a key component.
TOM HEAP [00:42:15] Well, thank you very much, all four of you. You've definitely injected a lot of humanity into engineering today on this discussion. So thank you very much for that, as well as some real insights into what engineers can do on both the human and the mechanical side to help alleviate the impact of a future pandemic and possibly other both forseen (climate change) and unforeseen threats. So thank you very much indeed. To Richard Clegg, Julie Mian, Claire Pekcan and Neil Dhir.
[00:42:53] Next time, we'll be looking at how Lloyd's Register Foundation is encouraging innovation in the technology designed to keep us all safe.
[00:43:03] The Global Safety Podcast brought to you by Lloyd's Register Foundation, these subscribers don't miss an episode.