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Collaborating for a fairer world

Benjamin Franklin famously observed that “out of adversity comes opportunity.” As governments begin to assess the economic costs of COVID-19 and communities remember those whose lives were cut short by this devastating virus, it is important to assess – and act upon – the opportunities to ‘build back better’.

The potential of engineering to transform and protect lives was thrown into sharp focus by the pandemic. In the initial stages, supply chains struggled to cope with demand for essential products. PPE shortages made the headlines: but with 40% of pre-pandemic PPE production based in China, this was inevitable. Concerns over how long it would take to develop an effective vaccine and issues over distribution and matching supply with demand also emerged. It was clear that our existing models of manufacture - based on proprietary technologies, restrictive IP practices and just-in-time supply chains - were not fit for purpose in the face of a rapidly evolving global crisis. As outlined in a Wilson Center report, the situation not only prompted a remarkable response from the engineering community but also led many people outside the sector to appreciate how truly collaborative engineering can accelerate positive change.

Coming together

Many of the early medical breakthroughs could not have been achieved without collaborative working. Scientists may have sequenced the genetic structure of the virus within weeks, but it required a lot of support from optical, electrical, mechanical, computer and chemical engineers to make it happen. Similarly, engineers collaborating across borders played a vital role in the scale-up of vaccine production and the logistics of transportation. How else could we go from small-batch dosing to immunising millions of people around the world in such a short period of time?

Lockdown presented more challenges: the massive shift to home-working, the increase in online shopping. While broadband, wireless communication, 5G and Zoom existed prior to the pandemic, the demand for these services increased exponentially during lockdown and engineers made sure they continued to keep people connected. Meanwhile, other platforms such as crowdsolve.net emerged to give organisations a better way of tapping into a diverse talent base to resolve problems more quickly. The ability to communicate in real-time and share ideas across borders and academic disciplines has been a major factor in dealing with a truly global crisis.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this coming together was the sudden outpouring of open-source designs - from individuals sharing designs for face shields to 3D printing of ventilator components. Engineers actively reached out to offer their expertise and resources. Private companies committed at scale: switching from clothing production to PPE and beer production to ethanol. Academic engineers also made a significant contribution, supplying or developing medical equipment, opening up their specialist facilities and providing expert advice, analysis and engineering skills. This level of collaboration was possible thanks to open hardware (OH), which enables a distributed alternative to centralized technology design. OH promotes sharing of ideas co-creation of designs by allowing practitioners to exchange knowledge via online platforms, adapting and resharing to adapt the technology to their own needs, rather than adapting their needs to the available solutions.

Sustaining Change

It is clear that working together can achieve amazing things. The big question now is how to sustain collaborative working to address the challenges that still face society. We need to be faster, smarter and more agile than ever. Using open hardware to share and evolve ideas purposefully in order to build on the work of others and not reinvent the wheel is essential. But more importantly, we need to change the role of engineering in society. The events of the past 18 months have laid bare the vast inequalities that mean many people - especially those who are vulnerable, displaced or living in poverty - are disproportionately affected by crises: whether the threat is a global virus, climate change, or conflict.

Engineers Without Borders UK has developed a strategy that we believe can deliver a better, fairer future for everyone by building on the lessons we have learned during the current global crisis. Our Decade of Action to 2030 encourages engineers to consider their work within the broader, multi-layered social, disciplinary and environmental ecosystem in which it will function. It provides four primary pillars, asking engineers to act responsibly, to act with purpose, to be inclusive of all communities and to apply their discipline to regenerate the environment, rather than simply mitigate impacts. COVID-19 has shown us how quickly engineering can respond to create solutions and save lives. If engineers can embrace that same spirit of collaboration and inclusion on a permanent basis, we can better solve the major problems facing humanity today.

Join the movement at www.ewb-uk.org.

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