Back to the future

It is here at last: 2021. Back in October, when the UK put its clocks backwards by an hour, I reminded someone that they would be able to have an extra hour in bed. The response was: “Never mind an hour, I wish I could sleep until the end of the year and wake up in 2021!”. I think a lot of us would mirror that sentiment. 2020 was a strange and difficult year. Unprecedented is a word that has been used to describe the pandemic, and rightly so, but I would suggest that there have been other odd and difficult periods. I remember the industrial unrest in the early 1970s leading to power cuts, which had a big economic impact and disrupted everyday life. The dwindling coal stocks led to the imposition of a three-day week and electricity was rationed. School children came home from school literally in the dark because street lights were turned off. Electricity was only switched on for set periods of time and we had to read the evening newspaper to find out when the power would be turned on in our local area. Homework and other indoor activities were carried out by candlelight.

There was uncertainty over when normal life would resume and, while it did, the impact continued long after the event. In light of the changes made in 2020, which ones will we keep after the pandemic is over? The simple lesson of 2020 is the truth in the proverb: necessity is the mother of invention. It is interesting to google this proverb and to see all the different descriptions of its meaning. If we really need to do something, we will usually figure out a way to do it. Difficulty (necessity) inspires inventiveness, ingenuity and creativity. Urgency (necessity) generates a more effective response from people than their own motivation.

If you look back to last year, each one of you will be able to see how this proverb was personally applied. One of the biggest changes was communicating virtually, rather than face to face, working remotely and finding alternative activities and pastimes. We were lucky in that many technological solutions already existed and did not need to be invented, but their adoption, for most people, went from ad-hoc to everyday use. Of course, invention, or more appropriately innovation, is not just about physical items; necessity brought about a shift in views and mindsets and many people stepped up to support local communities and those in need. Oh, and we were all able to better appreciate clean air and our local fauna and flora.

However, while we have made the most of a difficult situation in the adoption of new practices, there have been some key negatives that necessity dictates we need to address in the year ahead. The biggest casualty has been serendipity. I have written about serendipity a number of times, the most recent being in December 2019, because it is valuable in offering that unexpected benefit. We have squashed serendipity in our work and our professional interactions and, more topically as I write this, in our shopping and present selections.

With the COVID restrictions on workplaces and the emphasis on working remotely, we have lost, or at least diminished, the opportunity for ‘bumping’ into people outside of our immediate teams, the opportunity for conversations based on interest rather than necessity and the opportunity to overhear someone else’s problem or solution. This will have the biggest impact on the more recent starters to the company or the profession. This year, BINDT conducted an NDT Webinar Week online and it was a great success. Being online meant that it was accessible to a wider audience, who may not have been able to attend a physical event. It also provided the flexibility to organise attendance to sessions of interest around the demands of the day job. Similarly, the BINDT Branch meetings are currently being held on Zoom. I am not sure if this is the case as I have not tried it but, in principle, someone in the south of England could attend a north Scotland meeting if the topic was of interest. The downside to joining the conference or Branch meetings virtually is that it makes it harder to connect with someone new and to be inspired by that person and their story. This again is more detrimental to new people, in both professional and geographical areas, but also restricts the exposure to new perspectives and ideas for everyone.

As you contemplate 2021, think about what of the newly acquired benefits you wish to maintain, but also think about how we can stimulate serendipity. The necessity to mother your invention is the future sustainability of the NDT profession and that of your companies. Also consider how we can get in the habit of adopting invention/innovation without it being out of immediate, desperate necessity.

I wish you all a happy New Year and I hope 2021 is better for everyone.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Jacobs or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438301; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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