For UK engineering, 2021 started as no other year in recent history. Engineering has never been more visible in the media and in the national psyche.
Chemical engineers continue to work at extraordinary pace to scale up the manufacture and delivery of novel vaccines. Telecommunications engineers are removing ‘high-risk vendors’ from 5G mobile networks, while software engineers are striving for alternative approaches that will pave the way for 6G communications networks.
The media is full of articles about the potential for digital trade, digital services and digital transformation. Urgent changes in the building sector, to address the Grenfell tragedy, are underpinned by new building regulations that will transform the industry. The HS2 rail link is under construction: the new phase will connect the high-speed service into the existing railway network, reaching Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. Advanced manufacturing technologies are replacing historic practices. Engineers of all disciplines are working on large-scale renewable energy projects in wind, hydrogen and electricity storage.
It is essential to accelerate innovation in engineering as we seek strategies for success in a post-Brexit UK, to deliver goods and services in a new, pandemic-dominated world, respond to the urgent risks of climate change and the pursuit of net zero, and to exploit the digital age’s unlimited opportunities.
One of the main lessons for engineering from the national response to COVID-19 has been that coordination of effort combined with strong government policy is more effective than innovation driven by individual corporate motivation or simple return on investment arguments. Input from engineers is essential if we are to forge a national strategy that unlocks the full potential for national renewal.
Strong commitment from government as the pandemic struck enabled rapid progress in the ventilator challenge, vaccine development, regulatory approvals, and manufacture. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with support from industry, academia and other institutions, is leading a coordinated approach to the challenge of telecoms diversification to improve the security and resilience of the 5G network.
Innovate UK, the non-departmental public body responsible for funding business and research collaboration, has made great efforts to embrace the whole eco-system in its soon-to-be-published five-year strategy for business innovation, working with industry and academia but also with national intellectual property, standards and metrology organisations. Supported by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Industry Safety Steering Group chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt DBE FREng is challenging the construction sector, clients, owners, and financiers to transform their approach to building safety through-life, from design and build to operation and maintenance, putting people first.
These are encouraging signs that we are starting to come together as a nation more frequently and more effectively to tackle the great challenges and opportunities ahead. Engineers are increasingly called upon to work with policymakers, industry leaders and wider society to agree on the desired outcome and are no longer just expected to ‘make it work’.
Time is too short to tackle national imperatives one random step at a time. For every national challenge or opportunity, engineers must step forward and work with government, industry, academia, and all stakeholders to shape, as well as deliver, the vision and strategy the nation needs. They need to do this individually, through their organisations, through the Royal Academy of Engineering and the professional engineering institutions, working in unison wherever possible, for example through the National Engineering Policy Centre. There has never been a more exciting time for engineering or for engineers. It is a whole new world. The future has begun.
Throughout my time as Editor-in-Chief, Ingenia’s Editorial Board has worked tirelessly to showcase the achievements of UK engineering. I took up the role in 2004 and after 66 issues, I am delighted to be handing over the role of Chair to Faith Wainwright MBE FREng, who will lead the magazine’s development for the next few years. What the Editorial Board and the Academy have achieved over the decades, since the first issue of the magazine in 1999, has only been possible because of the Board members, several of whom served even longer terms than I have, each making their own remarkable contribution to the promotion of the UK’s engineers and engineering. I thank them and the excellent editorial team at the Academy, who have shown an enduring commitment to the success of this magazine.
Scott Steedman CBE FREng