As 2020 comes to an end, all of us are reflecting on a year unlike any other in recent history.
• Early in the year, the world was hit with the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, more than 18 million Americans have been infected, over 300,000 Americans have died earlier than they should have, and our health care system has been strained to the breaking point. The pandemic has caused major loss of jobs and has had worldwide economic impacts that will be felt for years. There have been social and cultural impacts on the way we live and work. The greatest economic and social impacts have been absorbed by those with the least resources.
• In May, the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of the police triggered nationwide demonstrations and an awakening to the impacts of racial injustice, including recognition that systemic application of public policy has contributed to this injustice.
• We experienced another year of devastating impacts from extreme weather events, particularly wildfires and hurricanes, that were exacerbated by the continuing effects of long-term climate change.
• The 2020 election was unlike any other. Record numbers of Americans voted despite the pandemic. The election highlighted the sharp political polarities in our country and the dangerous impacts of conspiracy theories and misinformation spread using technology platforms.
• At the end of the year, we experienced a cyber-security attack that reached deep into multiple federal government agencies and infrastructure-related industries with still unknown impacts.
What has 2020 taught us about the future of engineering?
Part of the answer to this question may lie in learning from a recent book, The Upswing, How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. In this book, author Robert Putnam uncovers and examines four important historical trends over the last 125 years in the areas of economic equality, political polarization, social solidarity and communitarianism. From the period of the early 1900’s to about the 1960’s, society in the United States was characterized by major shifts in all these areas.
• From economic inequality to greater economic equality.
• From intense political rivalries to less political polarization.
• From isolation to a stronger sense of civic engagement and social connectedness.
• From a culture of individualism to a community-based culture.
The period of the 1960’s to the present has seen a reversal of all these trends.
• Greater economic inequality.
• Increased political polarization.
• Less social connectedness.
• More of an individualistic culture.
Robert Putnam refers to these trends as the “I-WE-I” curve.
Is there meaning in this historical perspective for the engineering community? Think about the engineering challenges that the world faces in the 21st Century – challenges that we have learned about in the work of Engineering Change Lab – USA.
• Climate change and the need for transformation of our energy system combined with investments in adaptation and resilience to the changes that cannot be reversed.
• Population growth, urbanization, and deteriorating infrastructure.
• Threats to the value provided to society by the natural world.
• Application of rapidly emerging technologies in ethical ways that provide the greatest benefit to society.
• Social inequality and environmental injustice that is often closely tied to public policy impacting the practice of engineering.
2020 has confirmed that these challenges are not long-term but are already being experienced and require immediate action.
Dealing with these challenges, and with future years that will resemble 2020, will require a “WE” approach from society and from the engineering community. WE, the engineering community, must increase our contributions in communicating the scientific and engineering facts that underlie these challenges and threats. WE, the engineering community, must increase our contributions to the public policies that both increase and re-prioritize our investments in infrastructure, especially toward infrastructure resilience and economic justice. WE, the engineering community, must ramp up our investments in purpose-based innovation and entrepreneurship and commit more of our resources to the engineering needed to address these challenges.
There are significant clues from 2020 that illustrate that the shift from “I” to “we” is possible. One of these clues was the election of Joe Biden as President, by a small margin, with Biden’s primary message being unification. Another clue was the emergence of the importance of science and engineering in understanding the pandemic and in the development of vaccines. Across the country, significant steps were taken at the local level to address climate change, with utilities continuing to make bold commitments to decarbonization, and climate action initiatives being approved in the election. 2020 has demonstrated that American citizens from across the political spectrum will invest in “WE” initiatives when the need is clearly communicated.
What has 2020 taught us about the future of engineering?
Clearly, there is a need to continue to bend the “I-WE-I” curve documented by Robert Putnam and move society in the “WE” direction economically, politically, socially, and culturally. Our experiences from 2020 confirm this need. The engineering challenges of this century, that are already upon us, also confirm the need. WE, the engineering community can play a key role in catalyzing this shift.
Happy Holidays to all, and I am grateful for those who have contributed to the work of Engineering Change Lab – USA in 2020.