Was 2020 a year to remember or a year to forget? Most of us would say the latter. It’s easy to find the downsides in 2020, harder to find the upsides, especially if grief has become personal. But many have also made big transitions in their lives: got married, changed jobs, received their exam results, started school, college or university, even started new dynamic businesses in response to the year’s challenges.

For those of us with a lifetime behind us, one year out of many might be OK to regard as just a year that has drifted by, keeping safe in our bunkers. For our four grandsons, 2020 was between a quarter and an eighth of their lives.

Looking forward, 2021 is full of hope, as vaccines get rolled out, tinged with worry, perhaps, as new variants emerge, but there is no doubt that amazing progress has been made. Progress that would not have been possible without a positive attitude from our best talent engaging in research programmes to find vaccines that work, inventing new medical devices to help treat patients, providing new ways to connect people digitally, or solving logistical issues and problems to keep economies moving. The practical appliance of science to better understand and address real world issues has shown us that positive action is a far better response than passive acceptance. And that is why engineers have made an impact.

But as I said in a blog in July: “The Covid-19 world will be different. But the planet-sized risk of climate change has not gone away. We need to use our thought leadership and our networking to help to make a better, smarter world with no increased risk to life – not just in the short term, but in the very, very long term.” If there is a message from 2020, it is that we have not only to put Covid-19 behind us, but to deal with Climate Change and its consequences, and for us not to forget that even greater existential threat.

Who is going to help us provide solutions? In whom should we invest to preserve the futures for our grandchildren? If you do have more spare time over the Christmas holiday, I strongly recommend listening to Mark Carney’s 2020 Reith Lectures on the BBC. In his fourth and final lecture, he identifies three essential challenges that we need to conquer for a successful future: engineering, political and financial. What a superb endorsement of the value of engineers and engineering. And what a heavy responsibility. Associated with these challenges is his call for a fundamental redefinition of value in our societies to “resilience, solidarity and sustainability”; and redefining value is a political, corporate but also a personal issue.

If there is anything positive about 2020, perhaps it might be that we have re-examined our personal definitions of value in the face of an existential threat: we should know now what REALLY matters to us; the faith and the beliefs that we hold to be true, and the ethical principles that guide us. And if we have made a positive redefinition, or a reinforcement, of our values to align with resilience, solidarity and sustainability, we are well on the way to engineering our better future.

May that we can all make a positive difference, in some way, in 2021.

Gordon Masterton,
Master, The Worshipful Company of Engineers