It has been over a fortnight into 2021. My conversations with friends and family augur towards status quo. They say that nothing much will change this year, that we must orient towards a work from home culture, that we must learn to accept sudden lockdowns as a harsh reality, and that get-togethers will continue to be impersonal—held over the silver screens of our laptops and phones. With the prevailing pandemic not yet brought to a full stop, they exclaim that there is nothing so upbeat about the coming year and this year will just add an extra number to their age.
However, not all is grim. As an engineer, I have great faith in observing data and fundamental changes in assumptions first before framing conclusions and recommendations. So, let me present my perspective with this approach: Consider 2020 to be a year of unintended experimental data. The cause for the disturbance in our steady state system being triggered off by a widespread viral pandemic and the corresponding effect not only eliciting paradigm shifts in our behavioral responses and economic activity but also revealing choices we kept pushing off for a fine day in the future. There is no doubt that even before COVID-19, every industry was moving, the only question was when the right time would come to completely pivot.
Take for example, the amplified leaps in the digital world—especially the drastic migration towards online learning. To think of it, the inflection point was not some new technological breakthrough but school closures across the world in an effort to control the spread of virus. In fact, at its peak in mid-April, there were nationwide school closures in 190 countries, putting 1.6 billion students out of classrooms. Universities went online for most of 2020. Several massive open online course (MOOC) platforms have emerged and opened a new range of possibilities for students lacking university continuity. I am sure that even you may have taken on a new learning challenge on platforms such as Coursera, Linkedin Learning, Udemy, or for that matter even SWE Advance at some point during the pandemic. No wonder the overall number of courses taken in business, technology and data skills has grown considerably in the last few months. This is also evident in the revised growth forecasts for the fast-growing EdTech sector which is expected to reach $ 404 Billion, with a CAGR of 16.3% by 2025 against the pre-COVID estimate of 342 Billion with a CAGR of 13.1% by 2025. But more importantly, it has brought to the forefront inequalities between the haves and have-nots of technological access. If not for the pandemic, perhaps our digital evolution would have progressed with this inherent divide, leaving out underprivileged children, ethnic minorities and female students from developing economics out of the equation. 2020 gifted us awareness and 2021 will be about acting on those insights to make remote education a strength rather than a deterrent to equality and inclusive growth by providing low-cost access to basic digital infrastructure.
Let me give you another example, which is closer to my current field of work. For years, we have been long dependent on fossil-fuel driven economy. In the last one year, efforts to contain the global health crisis cascaded a paradigm shift in our energy consumption patterns. According to the IEA, with travel restrictions accompanying every wave of the pandemic, global road transport activity fell to 50% of 2019 levels at end of March 2020; In otherwise buzzing cities of New York, Paris, Mumbai, Mexico, Sao Paulo, Istanbul and Toronto, peak congestion in mid-March was down by 50%-60% as per navigation device maker TomTom; the global aviation industry collapsed with air travel coming to a halt. On a slightly positive note, this stand-still city life combined with decreased industrial activity has led to a decline in energy-related CO2 emissions by 7% (about 2.3 Gt/year), taking us back to levels a decade ago. Although plans for shifting over from traditional fuels to lower carbon sources and renewables such as wind and solar existed for a long time on paper, there was a long drawn inertia on account of technological breakthroughs in hydrocarbon extraction and continued demand for cheaper mobility costs.
The backdrop of receding demand during the pandemic compounded by policy efforts to mitigate climate change through Conference of the Parties 21 (COP21) Paris agreement spurred investor interests in the opposite direction—away from big oil. This thus paved the way for leading oil majors such as Shell, Total and Equinor to accelerate the energy transition towards renewables, charting a new sustainable growth path. Not to mention the steady rise in electric vehicle adoption with lowering costs of battery packs (I am sure you must have actively followed Tesla Inc’s meteoric year and Elon Musk’s grand plans for the world!). If not for the pandemic, such major moves towards Net Zero Goals would be offset for another fine day in the future, when the effects of climate change are knee-deep and there is no going back. 2020 was definitely a year of awakening to maneuver towards informed choices and thoughtful decisions for a decarbonized future. 2021 will be about taking the momentum higher—engineering solutions for making electricity renewable, affordable and accessible. It would be about adapting our existing manufacturing capabilities to cater to new material requirements of economies powered by hydrogen, solar, wind and biofuels.
It is true that the year 2020 in rewind feels like a raging storm now finally easing off with breakthroughs in vaccinations. The uncertainty of ‘what’s next’ was undeniably frightening and tiresome. But pessimism and remorse did not get humankind so far, is what I explain to my friends and family. I believe that we are at crossroads of making great changes and the end of 2021 will look completely different from where we started off. As we kick-start this year, let us start it on a high note. Let us appreciate the new chances and opportunities in front of us and why not make resolutions focused on these new revelations?
Which brings me to a question for all of you: What engineering resolutions are you going to make this year?
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