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View from Manchester: Covid-19 is a time for systems thinking

Image credit: James Tye / UCL

Technology moved beyond point solutions long ago – sadly western politics still haven’t.

Oh, to still be in England, now that April’s gone. After necessary apologies to Browning, being briefly at home has offered a close-up view of what British engineering is doing in the battle against Covid-19. For example, this month’s Teardown explores the UCL Ventura breathing aid. This brilliant work is helping thousands of coronavirus patients.

But as the crisis has continued, an increasingly fraught relationship between science and politics has been exposed in both the UK and the US. If you thought things were bad before...

Some leading technology players have blundered. We have seen controversies over working conditions at Amazon and Elon Musk’s giddily libertarian attempts to restart his Tesla factory in California. The politicians’ actions, however, are those that truly beggar belief.

Where do you start with Trump? There are the things he makes up and the insults he slings – though we have been living with those for a while. But now add in an attitude towards China that goes far beyond justifiable criticism (including egregious attacks on Americans of Chinese heritage) and his dullard ramblings on topics such as downchuggable Domestos.

But what about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s efforts? To his credit, there is plenty of evidence that the PM and his fellow Cabinet members are sincerely doing what they believe is best for the country as a whole. But they have made big mistakes.

Popularising the mantra that they had been following ‘the’ science was one of the biggest. It suggested that they had a definitive solution to, natch, a virus that had barely been characterised. Every diversion they have since had to make from their original course has undermined both the government’s credibility and that of its scientific advisers.

Whitehall’s attitude to sharing data and methodology in a timely fashion has not helped either. It is fair to ask whether such information and strategising – with no obvious national security requirement for secrecy – can be considered ‘scientific’ if they are withheld from peer review. This problem is being addressed, we are told, but it should not have taken so long.

Then, beyond these two concerns, there is a third, present on both sides of the Atlantic. Covid-19 is the greatest challenge our complex global system of interconnected economies and peoples has faced in living memory. And the key word here is ‘system’. Washington and Whitehall are not the only failures here, but all too often they have delivered what we in engineering can see are point solutions to systemic problems.

Consider UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s generally powerful job-retention measures. They still leave out hundreds of thousands of people. While he could never catch everyone, those who are excluded might well take on work when they should not.

Sunak has defended his approach because of the risk of fraud. This is revealing: it shows a Treasury-led approach is being taken. The problem is that Covid-19 is a healthcare crisis. The economic costs of superspreaders emerging from within that overlooked group could be far greater than any attributable to benefit cheats.

As I write, the Prime Minister has just set out initial steps towards loosening the UK lockdown. There was confusion over what they meant, but even some of the specifics are problematic. There was specific encouragement for a restart across construction, subject to strong health-and-safety assessments. Well, one result of such assessments has inevitably been to identify a widespread need for personal protective equipment, often the very same PPE that is suffering from distressed supply chains because of demands on the NHS. Again, did anyone really think this through?

Technology has long understood the increasing complexity of human systems. As Einstein said, in an hour you spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem, and five minutes on the solution. As much as tech’s leaders can nudge politicians towards engineering solutions, perhaps they should be administering a few kicks when it comes to methodology. Because until Whitehall focuses on the bigger picture, this crisis may go on for longer than is already necessary.

This time, yes, the economy still matters but ultimately, it’s the system, stupid!

This column first appeared in E&T volume 15, issue 5, June 2020

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