Editor’s note: Tom Snyder is executive director of NC RIoT, a regional Internet of Things users group, and a frequent contributor to WRAL TechWire.

RALEIGH – Nearly all systems are complex.  Public health is no exception.  As we are learning hourly, COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in most of the world.  A few places have begun to exert control over the spread, through massive collaboration and behavioral change.  Where there are lapses in coordination, failure points appear.

As an engineer, I was trained in school of the importance to apply a “factor of safety” into every system.  Put simply, it is good to over-engineer a design to account for uncertainties that exist in all complex systems.  For example, it would not be prudent to design a bridge that’s “only strong enough” to support the vehicles that will drive over it.

The bridge may additionally have the weight of snow.  It will weaken over time with vibrational fatigue.  Materials may degrade under the heat of a summer sun.  There are many complex variables that are highly difficult to quantify.  So a best practice is to over-design sufficiently to guarantee safety.  For the bridge, that means designing for more weight than you predict you’ll actually need.  This drives up the immediate cost of a system, but provides much more lifetime value.

Photo courtesy of NC RIoT

Tom Snyder

Our response to coronavirus should be no different.  We have already seen how complex the global pandemic is.  The viral spread and access to healthcare is influenced by:

●       Our travel behaviors.  We physically carry the virus from place to place.

●       Our work routines.  Not all jobs can be worked from home.

●       Global supply chains.  Materials like test kits are lacking.

●       Our infrastructure.  Lack of broadband prohibits work/school from home.  Insufficient global inventory of masks and respirators hinders treatment.

●       Individual economic situations.  Not everyone can afford to stop working or to stockpile food and medicine.

●       Our social decisions.  People continue to frequent concerts and large gatherings.

●       Access to information.  Different news outlets frame the pandemic differently, sowing confusion.  Uncertainty in data complicates decision-making.

●       The potential health impact on us individually is different depending on our age and pre-existing health conditions.

So what are we to do?  What are the factors of safety that we can all apply to the designs and behaviors in our lives, to positively impact a system as complex as a global pandemic?

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Short term

In the short term, actions are simple and have been reported widely.  Social distancing is the new term that everyone has heard by now.  Practice it.  And then over-practice it.  And wash your hands.

The pandemic is spreading with exponential growth.  Exponential systems are ones that appear to grow very slowly at first – but then scale extremely rapidly.  In the start-up world, we call this hockey stick growth.  For years, a startup may have very slow growth (the blade of the stick), but then an inflection point is made and growth skyrockets quickly (the handle of the stick).

We do not want hockey-stick growth of the pandemic.  Unlike a startup, the blade of this crisis is measured in mere days and weeks, not years.  The strategy of social distancing only works if everyone participates.

This may seem an overreaction by young people for whom the health risk is lower than for older populations.  But the point of social distancing isn’t just protecting yourself. It’s to protect the people around you, including the elderly and the immunocompromised.

For social distancing to be an effective fight against this pandemic, everyone must participate.  An “exact” amount of social distancing is not sufficient.  Everyone’s participation provides a factor of safety against unintended spread of the virus.

The countries positively stemming the spread of the virus are the ones that are completely locked down early.  While our government has not made that extreme mandate, we can voluntarily follow similar behaviors and make a difference at a speed faster than the government moves.  Speed matters in exponential systems.

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Slowing the spread of the virus is well worth surviving the comments of those who will inevitably claim that we over-reacted.  The alternative is far worse.

Aside from the health crisis, COVID-19 also presents an economic crisis – particularly for small businesses.  There are also short-term ways to continue supporting your local business economy while practicing social distancing. For example:

●       Purchase an online gift card to your favorite local restaurant or shop that can be used at a later date

●       Buy a vinyl record or digital download of your favorite local artist whose show has been cancelled

●       Volunteer to drop off a hot meal to your elderly neighbor who may not be able to make it out of the house

Making these extra efforts provides a factor of safety for the local economy. In the end, the key to a positive short-term reaction is for everyone to recognize their part in the system, and to consider how they can best practice a factor of safety in their designs and behaviors.

Long term

This crisis reveals areas where we did not have sufficient factors of safety in our systems and infrastructure.  Typically, the reason systems lack a robust factor of safety is cost.  Infrastructure is expensive in the short term.  But crises like these remind us that the lifetime value—and cost burden of emergencies and pandemics—almost always eclipses the cost of building in the factor of safety from the beginning.

●       Broadband – The coronavirus is negatively impacting almost all businesses.  Workers outside our urban centers largely are unable to work from home or provide educational resources to their children due to lack of broadband.  This creates a massive economic drain.

●       Supply chain – Globalization has pushed manufacture of goods largely to very low-cost regions of the world.  This slows speed of response to crisis – and speed is the top factor in influencing exponential systems.  This is further influenced by macro-economic drivers towards short-term profitability, which inhibit carrying the cost of inventory for stockpiling equipment or goods necessary in a crisis or providing an over-supply of hospital beds and facilities.

●       Healthcare – A virus like COVID-19 is blind to who it infects.  The spread, however, is all about numbers.  Therefore, to prevent exponential growth it is important to protect and treat all people equally.  When some people or demographics have less access to healthcare, it negatively impacts everyone the same.

The good news is government and industry are coming together to fight the COVID-19 crisis.  And we’re seeing use cases—like the need for rural broadband, the importance of supply chain and industrial systems design, and the important potential of telehealth and more equitable healthcare—that should motivate our people and government to continue improving our systems in the days and years ahead.

For now, most  people are making sacrifices and adapting behaviors to social distance.  The pandemic will get worse before it gets better.  We all can be part of the short-term solution and the long-term change to push higher factors of safety into the complex system that is public health.