This former military chief is leading a project to make the nation more resilient to global crises — and he believes engineers are crucial.
Australia’s former deputy Air Force chief retired Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn AO says the nation failed to prepare for COVID-19 and must get better at adapting to a changing world to limit or prevent future crises.
The pandemic exposed a global lack of resilience caused by a collective failure to assess and act on national risks and vulnerabilities, Blackburn said.
“There’s nothing in this crisis that should really surprise us,” he told create. “We’ve talked about pandemics but we just didn’t prepare. And that’s the real fundamental problem.”
Blackburn is set to speak at the Integrated Project Engineering Congress next month about the National Resilience Project, an initiative to help identify problems Australia could face in the future.
The project has seen about 160 people take part in workshops over the last 18 months, in streams ranging from education to health, the environment, data, energy, the economy and supply chains.
A systems engineering approach
Blackburn is advocating for the military concept of ‘preparedness’ to be applied to society.
This means thinking about how ready resources need to be, what they should be ready for, and how long they need to be able to function.
“[In the defence force] they analyse future scenarios, they look at risk, they train, they experiment,” Blackburn said.
But he argues that looking at different areas of society in isolation won’t work.
“It’s not just about energy, it’s not just about the economy — everything’s connected,” Blackburn said. “We almost need to take a systems engineering approach to this.”
Engineers and project engineering are critical to addressing the complex risks we face as a nation, and to designing solutions that work together.
“Engineers are particularly good at this because they’re used to complex engineering problems,” Blackburn said.
Natural and unnatural disasters
Climate change is an example of the need to adapt to the reality of a changing world and transform how our society works, Blackburn said,
“We’ve got to understand what the risk is,” he explained.
“Because it’s not just bushfires, floods, droughts — there’s a lot more things that will happen in the next 15 years… because of the emissions we’ve been emitting in the past decade.”
If we’re going to be better prepared, we need to think about impacts beyond natural disasters. For example, how climate change can interrupt supply chains.
“That dust storm that contributed to the container ship running aground in the Suez Canal — imagine if far more severe weather events occurring concurrently started to close down things like the Panama Canal and Suez Canal, and affected shipping,” Blackburn said.
“It would give us a really significant problem in Australia because 98 per cent of all the goods we export and import by volume go by sea.”
A matter of national security
Blackburn sees Australia’s resilience as a national security matter.
He says it’s important not to depend on fuel imports from foreign-owned companies and ships.
Instead, we need to wean as much of Australia’s transportation, logistics and industry off of imported fossil fuels as possible.
“Electric cars are not just about lower running costs and less emissions,” he said.
“It’s part of a solution to make our nation more secure by being less dependent on imports we can’t control.”
Unlike the pandemic, we cannot quarantine ourselves from climate change.
“And there’s never going to be a vaccine for climate change,” Blackburn said. “So we’re going to have to learn how to deal with it.”