Sunday, October 19, 2014

What Engineers Can Learn From The Ebola Crisis

The Ebola epidemic is west Africa has had an impact on my hometown of Dallas.  We have all had a grim reckoning regarding how flat the globe really is in the 21st century.  The key question for the next six months is how much worse is to come.

My input on lessons that engineers should take from this crisis:
  • Human Factors Engineering Matters A Lot - An airplane can crash for basically three reasons.  It is designed improperly, it was build/constructed incorrectly, or/and it was operated improperly/incorrectly.  The same holds for a process - for example the process and procedures necessary to protect health care workers.  In complex systems - processes, pieces of equipment, etc., and how humans interface with technology and equipment is critical.  In many respects, it is still all about people - and how they function under stress in very complex operational environments.
  • Our Systems are Very Tightly Coupled - How a problem that started in Dallas and was able to impact a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean should open eyes.  This crisis has shown the interdependencies of the medical + transportation + education systems.  We have poorly managed these interdependencies in this particular crisis.  We need better systems thinking, applications, and tools during a crisis like the Ebola crisis.
  • The Mobile Phone is Key - Mobile phones spread useful information and may provide vital data to health workers.  The CDC is tracking the location of people who call helplines in order to see where the disease is spreading.  A Swedish NGO called Flowminder has captured people's movements in the region using mobile phone records.
  • Medical Doctors are Just as Bad as Engineers When Talking to the Public - In a crisis, people want honest, complete, and clear answers and directions.  Trust is a key part of the equation. The ability to discuss Ebola 101 effectively to the general public has been a struggle throughout the crisis.  Jumping to Ebola 102 has been a complete disaster.  All our professionals, from doctors to engineers, need a better understanding regarding communication during a national or global crisis.
  • This is the Biological Century: Get Use to It - Many of our most complex global problems have constraints and opportunities embedded in biology.  From increased agricultural productions to new drugs, our future is one of biological optimization.  But Ebola also illustrates the huge challenges that remain - you can do a lot of damage with just seven really old genes.  We could be facing a century of vary nasty viruses that are immune to our current antibiotics.  Also remember that biology hinges on evolutionary change - as a virus moves from place to place and person to person, count on high rates of mutations.
  • Doctors and Engineers Are Not the Smartest People in the Room in a Crisis - From nurses to construction professionals to utility operators, we need to get much better at listening to the front line people during a crisis.  Listening + Looking = Learning - we can learn from many others during a crisis.  They have important viewpoints and ideas.
  • Infrastructure is Key During a Crisis - From airfields to logistical arrangement to tents to beds to goggles, the "stuff" makes a huge difference.  But remember money and "stuff" is of little use without staff.  People are the operational constraint in a global crisis.
  • Exponential Growth Cannot Continue Indefinitely - There are always barriers to any type of exponential growth.
  • Every Public Problem Interfaces With Politics - From Katrina to Ebola, public emergencies take place in a political environment.  Science is a must during this Ebola crisis - but Ebola infects everything, including the clarity and common sense of our political leaders.
  • A Global Crisis Is a Test - The Ebola crisis is a test for a globalizing world.  To win a war on Ebola will require a much larger effort in west Africa than the outside world has no far pledged.
  • Engineers Understand Risk - The Public Doesn't - You cannot catch Ebola by attending the same school as the cousin of the brother of the pilot of that Frontier Airline.  The public doesn't get the odds of winning the lottery.  Understanding pandemic risk is too much to ask for.

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