Why Engineers Are Preparing for a Tough Start to 2021 | Opinion

Engineers are by necessity risk-aware professionals, often called on to both prevent and resolve challenging situations. These situations can involve combinations of unfortunate events that, separately, are perfectly manageable but which create a dangerous interplay if they happen at the same time, triggering cascades of failure. A classic example of such a scenario occurred when the devastating power of Storm Desmond hit the north-west of the UK in 2015, giving rise to widespread flooding that resulted in a region-wide power cut, leaving people in Lancaster in the dark and without modern communication for three days.

The astonishing progress on vaccine development has given us all grounds to enter the new year with a more optimistic mindset. However, in the meantime, we need to navigate the ongoing waves of the pandemic and other risks posed by the onset of winter. It was with this in mind that the Royal Academy of Engineering recently brought together a group of Fellows and experts from across the critical areas of health, water, food, energy, transport, and communications networks to consider the potential vulnerabilities that this winter may expose.

The reasonable worst-case scenario in the Academy of Medical Sciences' report Preparing for a challenging winter 2020/21 suggested that winter could see a sustained period of high instances of COVID-19 infection alongside the typical stress of winter. With lockdowns of various severity in place across Western Europe, it is clear that the virus continues to have a huge impact on health services and could result in knock-on effects for industry and essential services.

Every year winter presents a risk of adverse weather events. These are having increasing impact due to interdependencies across networks such as gas, waste management, transport, communications and data centres. The coming winter also coincides with the end of the transition period between the European Union and the UK, which could lead to disruptions, for example, to the movement of goods.

With three concurrent stresses already anticipated, the UK could be vulnerable to other shocks. For example, cyberattacks are becoming more frequent and may have more impact while we are focused on responding to the pandemic. Mass remote working changes the demands for the electricity and gas networks, along with our reliance on widespread internet connectivity. During the summer there have already been challenges in responding to a very low energy demand. Over the winter maintaining supply of these services and coping with atypical demands will be vital to both our wellbeing and productivity.

Some key themes emerged from our discussions with infrastructure experts, particularly about the importance of building resilience. Many businesses have been operating in business continuity mode since the pandemic began: Plan B has become business as usual so what is Plan C? While organisations may have drawn up plans to cope with further disruption, these are likely to be immature and untested. We also need to recognise that there could be assumptions and interdependencies embedded in these organisation-level plans that will not be immediately obvious.

In fact, network interdependence is likely to be where the greatest risks lie. Infrastructure providers plan extensively for managing disruptive events without interruption to service, but aren't necessarily in a position to identify how problems impacting on different parts of our infrastructure could combine to create systemic disruption. The current circumstances call for an 'expect the unexpected' attitude and a strong collaborative spirit across sectors and organisations. Cross-industry exercises and scenario planning, such as the workshop we held, can help to identify the greatest vulnerabilities and facilitate development of joined-up preventative strategies.

Another proactive step that we can take is to minimise uncertainty where that is possible, for example through sharing of data, information and real-time indicators that support planning. This could include early warning for predicted weather disruptions, anticipated implications of a Brexit trade deal or projected supply chain problems in particular locations or sectors. More sophisticated use of data and digital tools can also enhance our ability to model and visualise our infrastructure systems, understand their interdependencies and vulnerabilities, and test potential improvements in a virtual environment.

Finally, it's essential that in planning for the short-term, we don't lose sight of our long-term priorities. There are 'no regrets' actions that can address our immediate concerns whilst also advancing progress on key priorities such as Net Zero and economy recovery. Examples include updating ageing assets or upgrading infrastructure to meet more ambitious environmental standards or investing in the skills development needed to ensure we can continue to develop and maintain our critical national infrastructure.

In among the myriad challenges that this year has posed, it should be a source of celebration that our physical and digital infrastructure has not been a topic of conversation. Despite extraordinary changes to the patterns of demand, and the pressures of operating in a global pandemic, we have largely had uninterrupted access to broadband, transport networks and power – due to the efforts of our engineering workforce and the teams that work with them. Engineers will be continuing to work hard to keep citizens safe, warm and connected throughout this winter, an endeavour that will not be without its challenges.

Dr Hayaatun Sillem CBE is Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering in London, U.K.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​