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Engineering for Change in a Post-COVID World

Engineering for Change in a Post-COVID World

Engineering design is historically influenced by behavioral change. Most behavioral change has a foundation in social change, while other components are driven by the economy. For example, the desire for larger social communities and denser organization networks facilitated our migration to cities across the globe. This behavior greatly influenced how the built environment was planned and designed. From the economies of large wastewater treatment plants, to increasing the capacity of our highways, our designs were based on the movement of goods, services and people in increasingly denser living and working arrangements.

Fundamental change, both social and economic, has the potential to accelerate in a post-COVID-19 world.  Design professionals, facility owners and infrastructure owners will begin to focus on three main elements of potential change. These are changes associated with the work from home (WFH) movement, the change in global supply chains and finally, the social and economic changes associated with a need for greater organizational resilience and agility.

Change and The Work from Home Movement

COVID changed life across the world. WFH mandates and recommendations changed decades of behavior seemingly overnight, and engineers and architects are racing to figure out what is needed in an uncertain world. Transportation engineers are contemplating adjustments to mobility considering a radical change in social behavior. Water professionals are preparing our infrastructure for a large shift in water consumption patterns. Architects are strategizing how to design “healthy” buildings to prepare for workforce re-entry.

The WFH movement is one of the most unpredictable events of our generation. There are questions about how WFH will impact organizational culture, team chemistry and individual productivity. From the valuation of commercial property, how we tax and fund transportation projects, to changes in the geography of water consumption – everything will be impacted. 

A recent study by KPMG estimated that Americans may indefinitely drive around 9% less – as much as 270 billion fewer miles a year – as work and shopping behaviors evolve. This anticipated behavioral change has accelerated the efforts to develop new ways to fund transportation improvements. For example, the Federal Highway Administration recently awarded $15.1 million in grants to five states for further testing of new alternatives or add-ons to finance highway construction. Many communities are now taking steps to prepare for anticipated funding opportunities, but without readily available funding, some have integrated creative approaches, such as Tactical Urbanism. This involves using short-term, low-cost, scalable interventions to help improve neighborhoods and gathering places, such as closing or limiting through traffic on roads to provide additional space for pedestrians.

Change and Global Supply Chains

The pandemic impacts have prompted us to examine what is made where and by whom. After decades of free market momentum and expanding globalization, governments in developed countries are embracing homegrown industrial policies. 

Engineering will play a key role in this new and exciting era of redefining global supply chains This points toward increased opportunities for design professionals to reshape a new economic world. The first strategic priority might be reshoring critical medical technology, equipment and pharmaceuticals. New facilities will need to be planned and designed. New domestic supply chains will need to be developed and organized. New logistical support infrastructure will need to be funded and procured. These new facilities will provide jobs, opportunities and strengthened tax bases for many communities. 

Change and the Need for Greater Resiliency and Agility

The pandemic caught most organizations and institutions off guard. Most didn’t have a playbook to deal with the scope and scale of this situation. Now, we know the importance of managing the unexpected in a rapidly changing environment.

Resiliency management focuses on detection, prevention and response when dealing with uncertainty.  New technologies and services will help organizations be forearmed and forewarned. Burgess & Niple heavily invested in network technology that allowed for effective and efficient WFH arrangements. This preparation resulted in companywide resiliency and flexibility that not only has helped us through the pandemic but will continue to be critical through a broader societal change. As we saw from our technology investments, coming up with meaningful future scenarios that provide insight into potential social and economic behavioral change is critical for developing a resilient organization.

Preparing for the Unknown

Although the future is uncertain, we should use this time to investigate and understand these new conditions to prepare us for life after the pandemic. By using historical data in addition to the shift in human behavior and our environment, we have strong indicators of how to prepare our world’s infrastructure to accommodate our new way of life. 

I offered my thoughts on how organizations should plan to recover in this recent article, “The Four ‘S’s’ of COVID-19 Recovery: Survival, Stabilization, Salvation and Stimulus”. The agile and determined engineers and design professionals at Burgess & Niple have been spending months during quarantine helping our clients imagine what the future of our built environment looks like. Change is inevitable – will you be ready when it comes? Contact our experts to strategize your plan.

Steve Sanders, PE, PhD, Director, Utilities Infrastructure

Steve Sanders, PE, PhD 
Director, Utilities Infrastructure