Covid’s disruptive influences… and seizing the opportunity

How can the disruption resulting from Covid-19 teach us to be more resilient to future crises and uncertainties? We share insights from the Engineering a Safer Future: Learning from crisis series of roundtables in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation.

New insights into learning from crisis in real time help us to be better prepared for and more resilient to the deep future uncertainties that face humanity.

A series of conversations in the autumn of 2020, with 31 innovators and subject matter specialists from 18 global organisations, explored meaningful insights gained from the Covid-19 pandemic, and consequent disruptions, both for their own sectors and more widely. Despite discussing subjects as diverse as safety at work, data and information systems, education, infrastructure, and public understanding of risk, their conclusions brought together common themes.

Some of these takeaways are causes for optimism. Others present common challenges and barriers to resilience and reiterate our need to seize the urgent and necessary windows of change presented by the pandemic.

We explore some of these themes below – the full conversations are explored in a series of podcasts and short reports on the five themes, along with a summary report, jointly published by The Resilience Shift in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation.

Key findings from the summary report include:

An optimistic belief in humankind

Participants were impressed by the fast response. The private sector made deep and rapid changes, government got onto the challenges, individuals and communities responded quickly. In terms of addressing this big global challenge, the world stepped up (with some snags, but it was overall a rapid mobilisation). We saw that human innovation and adaptation can be relied upon in a crisis and this is a cause for reassurance as we confront a world of ever-increasing volatility and uncertainty.

A practice run for climate disruption

The Covid-19 pandemic is a model for the sort of disruptions we can expect to result from climate change – our response is both a cause for optimism and a heightening sense of renewed urgency to fight against complacency.

“COVID is a learning moment for how we work without thorough evidence. If we wait to see the evidence for what climate change is going to do with our planet, we’ll be too late.”  Participant.

It is time for conscious choices

We have a brief window of time to make decisions about working patterns, technological platforms, education approaches and resilience measures we will implement as we move forward after Covid

Systems thinking must become commonplace

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided a global case study in the importance of understanding whole systems rather than their constituent parts and how those systems interrelate.

Our reliance on technology is its own vulnerability

Technology has proved a saviour but our rapid shift to remote working has left us even more vulnerable to disruptions of our technological systems and exacerbated and accelerated digital inequalities particularly in the global south.

Human vs automation

The transition to remote working means losing the ‘human glue’ of daily interactions in favour of highly transactional exchanges. These technological substitutions must be effective not just efficient, to best support human needs and mental health.

Resilient to expected and unexpected risks

Our inability to model specific consequences of the pandemic highlights the need for general resilience and organisational agility. Few planning models identified the specific consequences of the pandemic as they unfolded.

Data matters

We need to be sure that we are measuring the things that matter. Rigorously interrogating the narratives our data supports is critically important to shifting how we understand and value our world.

In addition to common themes, each roundtable surfaced themes specific to that sector.

Reflections on the series

Some of the themes highlighted are longstanding issues – such as balancing the need for rapid response with our human difficulties in considering and communicating risk and the additional mental burden created by traumatic disruption, to leveraging accessible solutions while ensuring obstacles posed by privilege and inequality do not become embedded, and empowering diverse and agile approaches while responding with one voice in times of need.

Others are new concerns, or are revealed as particularly significant by the Covid pandemic, such as how we handle, regulate, and rely upon data during a worldwide disruption, a growing need to ensure that our technological answers are matched to questions of human need, and how a global shock reveals the underlying stresses that pressure our daily lives – especially for the most vulnerable people.

Overall, however, our response to the pandemic has proved that no matter the sector involved, dedication, innovation and adaptability are there to be called upon in the face of global disruption.

As we move further into a century likely to be defined both by increasing systems integration and complexity, as well as by these sorts of large-scale shocks, the Covid-19 crisis has shone a light on the sort of transformational change we need to see to build true resilience into all of our endeavours.

Professor Richard Clegg, Chief Executive, Lloyd’s Register Foundation, said,

“Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s mission as a global charity is to identify global safety challenges, seek out willing collaborators who share our strong social purpose and then build coalitions that deliver long term impact for people and property across the planet.

‘Learning from Crisis: Engineering a Safer Future’ is a series that embodies this charitable purpose – collaborating with one of our long-standing partners, The Resilience Shift, to bring together thought leaders and experts from our grants community and beyond to openly reflect on the lessons learnt from the disruption of COVID-19.

I’d like to extend my thanks to all the contributors. We hope that the insights from the roundtable sessions can strengthen our understanding of how we can build resilience and preparedness to global safety challenges.”

Dr Juliet Mian, Deputy Director, The Resilience Shift, said,

“We are extremely grateful to LRF and all our participants for setting aside the time to be a part of these conversations”

“I was delighted by the path that all of these conversations took, where we reflected on our personal and work-related challenges and lessons learned, but then rapidly pivoted to the opportunities for transformation that were perhaps more difficult to identify at the beginning of 2020.  There is evidence, both hard and anecdotal, that supports the importance of whole systems thinking, of recognizing complexity and of shifting engineering thinking and practice to be collaborative, diverse and inclusive.

My only regret is that we couldn’t meet in person.  However, we would not have achieved the diversity of participants had we tried to do that`’.

The following organisations participated in Engineering for a Safer Future:

  • Alan Turing Institute
  • American Society of Civil Engineers
  • BLOC – Blockchain Labs for Open Collaboration
  • Coalition for Urban Transitions
  • eThekwini Municipality, City of Durban, South Africa
  • Gallup
  • Imperial College
  • Lloyd’s Register Foundation
  • Lloyd’s Register Group
  • National Safety Council (UK)
  • National University of Singapore, Institute for Public Understanding of Risk (IPUR)
  • Open Data Institute
  • Royal Academy of Engineers – Engineering X
  • Royal College of Art
  • Sense about Science
  • The Welding Institute
  • Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge
  • University of York

Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the Resilience Shift developed ‘Engineering A Safer Future’, a series of conversations as an antidote to the pervasive online ‘noise’ that confronts us as we seek serious discussion and meaningful insight into the impact of Covid-19. It is part of The Resilience Shift’s Learning from crisis series.

The full conversations are explored in a series of podcasts and short reports, jointly published by The Resilience Shift and Lloyd’s Register Foundation.

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