When the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation launched an international, multidisciplinary coalition on the safety of complex physical systems in London last October, the coronavirus was still in hiding. Now, COVID-19 has a prominent place in the “Engineering X” program, according to team member Judith Hackitt.

The new Engineering X coalition aims to harness international expertise to develop practical, sustainable and accessible global solutions for pressing issues concerning engineering, safety and sustainability. International partners so far include institutions from China, Colombia, India, Jordan, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey.

The coalition is about “the interconnected nature of all systems” explained Hackitt at an online meeting by the Institution of Civil Engineers this week. She is the U.K. government’s independent advisor on tall building safety.

The Engineering X team will analyze the COVID-19 crisis, which Hackitt calls “the biggest and most complex system problem any of us have ever had to face.”

However, Hackitt’s main interest in systems safety has been developing new tall building safety regulations for England, sparked by the 2017 London Grenfell Tower fire.

Before the tower disaster, “I don’t think anyone ever believed a fire would break out and 72 people would die,” she said. The many faults behind the fire are still under official investigation, though the choice of flammable cladding and the quality of its installation have been identified as the prime drivers.

“Concerns about safety of some of the features of Grenfell Tower … were well known to a lot of people before the disaster happened,” says Hackitt, blaming the “broken system” of fire and structural safety in tall buildings.

With a track record in the chemical industry and a seven-year stint as chair of the U.K.’s Health & Safety Executive agency, Hackitt says she was “shocked [by] the extent to which the [construction] industry knew its behavior was wrong [and] knew corners were being cut, but didn’t seem motivated to do anything about it,” she says. Safety regulations were “all about seeing how little you could do to comply with the rules … a race to the bottom.”

Hackitt led a review of regulations following the Grenfell fire. The government agreed with her May 2018 recommendations. The government announced plans to legislate for the new regulations in December 2019, but parliament has since been slowed by the coronavirus lockdowns.

Dismissing current regulation as weak and prescriptive, the new regime will be driven by the need to demonstrate that a building is safe on an ongoing basis, Hackitt says.

“The only way we can assure people of safety is if we can be confident ourselves that we know it’s safe,” says Hackitt. But “we cannot do it unless we have the information and we have the methodologies.”