COVID-19 and Manufacturing

2 minute read


Welcome to Episode 2 of Pamela’s random coronavirus thoughts! I will say, these are even more scattered than Episode 1, and probably belong in a separate space from my OpenAI posts, but this will do for now.

Update (3/30): My tied-for-first-favorite-former-housemate Lucia published lessons learned from the Maker Movement so far. She is a literal doctor in these things and many of my thoughts here are largely gleaned from her tweets so… read that instead!

Real-time innovation

Like a lot of us right now, I’m learning in real-time about manufacturing in the US and the Defense Production Act (DPA). Tim Minshall asks whether we can innovate in real-time, dividing the options for manufacturing more ventilators into three types:

  1. Existing manufacturers of ventilators scale up productions
  2. Existing manufacturers transition to manufacturing ventilators
  3. Open source spaces enter manufacturing

A distributed approach might utilize all three of these options in different aspects of production. The DPA largely influences the second type. But, as someone who knows relatively little about manufacturing, the second also seems like potentially the most difficult.

On the flip side, there are many strong cases to be made for the open source approach. One of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is open-source as a tool for local innovation and production. How do designs shared globally get customized for local contexts? What would it mean to equip individual hospitals with tools to manufacture equipment? There are, as Minshall mentions, obviously IP concerns around open source approaches as well.

Why AI

There are a ton of efforts underway to mobilize AI expertise in service of tackling coronavirus. In the near-term though, I think that, like during the Ebola epidemic, AI innovation will be too slow to really be useful.

Civic tech is infrastructure

Plenty of cities have launched small-scale engineering efforts to build out public services for a long time, often as volunteering efforts, sometimes as government contracts. Engineers developing civic technology rarely fit the hacker stereotype of working in solitary, but rather they develop in collaboration with institutions and code in public spaces. The technology they create tends to be hyper-local and hyper-contextual, pieced together from open-source libraries and historical, cultural, and spatial geographies in their cities. As we look to our own communities for things like manufacturing medical supplies and providing home deliveries, we’ll need to rely on local aid groups and local technology.

Transit apps, healthcare websites, online systems for paying parking fines, even failed Iowa caucus voting systems, all have roots in activist volunteer efforts and all serve as conduits to public spaces. Similarly, as basic necessities become difficult to obtain, markets like Postmates and Instacart become infrastructure.