By Regina Stracqualursi

A lot of lessons have been learned throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. From how supply chains are managed to how technology is utilized, leaders across every industry have learned something from the pandemic that they will carry over long after it subsides.

With support from the National Science Foundation, a collaborative team of researchers is investigating the ways engineered structures have exacerbated the societal challenges resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Led by David Mendonca, professor of industrial and systems engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the team recently published an article in The Journal of Critical Infrastructure Policy illustrating the need for engineers and social scientists to reapproach their research in order to improve long-term pandemic mitigation.

One example of the built environment’s impact on the pandemic is the high rate of infections that has occurred in spaces engineered to house a large volume of people, such as prisons and nursing homes. “The work of engineers is fundamentally concerned with the organization of space and time in order to serve people — and it is precisely this organization which strongly determines the spread of pandemics,” the researchers wrote.

The team also explored other issues that arose during the pandemic, such as strained supply chains. Traditionally, highly centralized systems are aimed at efficiency and cost reduction, so when faced with a sudden change, the systems couldn’t adapt.

“We designed the supply chain, then we refined the design, which means we identified and eliminated inefficiencies, and we ended up with systems that are brittle,” Mendonca said. “So, you get a catastrophic event, and you get catastrophic failure.”

Researchers involved in this project include Ann-Margaret Esnard, professor of public management and policy and associate dean for research and strategic initiatives at Georgia State University; Tracy Kijewski-Correa, associate professor jointly appointed in the Keough School of Global Affairs and the College of Engineering at the University of Notre Dame; and Julio Ramirez, the Karl H. Kettelhut Professor in Civil Engineering at Purdue University and director of the NHERI Network Coordination Office Center.