• COVID-19 sparked the rapid development of a range of technologies.
  • Engineers need new training to ensure to take moral and societal impact of their technology into account to work as ethically and nimbly as possible.

COVID-19 has forced organizations around the globe to move their operations online to ensure business operation continuity. Through this rapid digitalization, the cyber-attack surface has expanded drastically, with hackers and cyber criminals taking advantage. Every day, new reports come of attacks on healthcare systems, video conferencing tools, and even global organizations coordinating COVID-19 response efforts. Cyber risks have become more likely even in the eyes of experts, who participate in the yearly Global Risks Perception Survey.

Daily life and global issues become not only more and more intertwined but also complex and dependent on each other. Software and computer engineers are building algorithms and devices that control and influence almost every part of our daily lives, from financial matters to supply chain mechanisms or communication and subsequently, human interaction.

In the light of the current pandemic, those who design and execute digital solutions – namely the software engineers – have become more crucial and influential than ever in shaping our daily lives. The crisis has forced quick pivots and hasty scale-ups to satisfy drastically increasing demand. However, speedy upscaling comes with a price: trust. To retain that trust, new support and training for engineers will be key.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

The problem at hand

Engineers are often time pressed and are often not given the necessary time to design digital products adequately. Rushed, they cannot spend enough time understanding their users and their needs or the market demand. Under time pressure, they cannot always adequately decide on the correct foundational building blocks, as well as think through economic aspects such as viability and sustainability.

To put in civil engineering terms, when calculations are not done right and corners are cut in civil engineering, bridges fail and projects collapse. Processes and best practices provide support - and help prevent catastrophe. In technology, inadequate designs can lead to misused data, high-cost mistakes or even lack of user trust. In fact, 85% of consumers in in one poll to say they mistrust companies with their data.

Top 5 Global Risks
Top 5 Global Risks
Image: World Economic Forum

Computer and software engineering are precise sciences and require the ability to translate business problems and solutions into a code or an algorithm. Success is only possible if engineers are highly efficient, agile and innovative. At the same time, the engineer must understand not only the business processes but possess attention to detail, and code with the highest safety and ethical standards at all times.

The need for new training and support

While engineers will never have the time they’d prefer, better support and training can ensure they are equipped with adequate societal tools and capacity. New codes and technologies need to be developed with more consideration on how they will impact human behavior, decision-making processes and influence society as a whole. Engineers need to be trained in a deepened understanding of social behavior and sciences, not only from a market perspective but also from a holistic societal view, e.g. avoiding algorithm bias and allowing for diversity approaches.

The new future-oriented ethical standards and societal understanding for software and computer engineers need to go beyond moral standards discussion and be based on a wider understanding of societal questions, including possible political, economic, and social consequences of their inventions. They should be developing by applying an interdisciplinary approach, involving multiple dimensions of technology and its implications to society.

Given our dynamic, multi-conceptual world, the curriculum and subsequent discussions should not be limited to one approach. These discussions need to be adaptable to varying regional and cultural differences, without minimizing fundamental human rights as set forth in international treaties and bodies.

Providing a holistic training to the engineers is a responsibility of employers, governments and trade associations. Developing and training current computer engineers and the next generation has to take an ecosystem approach and involve variety of different stakeholders to ensure that the highest standards are applied when designing new technology. Public and private cooperation should be the backbone of this education-focused initiative ensuring that a holistic approach is taken when developing training practices for computer engineers.

"Engineers need to be trained in a deepened understanding of social behavior and sciences."

Technologists have played a key role in the pandemic and they will play important roles in crises to come. Those with a better understanding on how their developed tech will influence society, especially, its most vulnerable members, will be able to develop the most just and nimble solutions.

To ensure that the average digital user trusts the online giants and those developing the algorithms behind them, we must ensure that the next generation of software engineers is trained across disciplines with an increased sensibility about what the societal implications of some lines of code can have. Trust comes at a price, but that price is adequate holistic training, a price society and businesses should be willing to pay.