IEEE on the World Humanitarian Stage

Executive Director Attends Clinton Global Initiative

24 October 2012

Heads of state, Nobel Prize laureates, industry titans, philanthropists, and government leaders—these were the movers and shakers who attended the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting, held in September, in New York City. Rubbing shoulders with them were IEEE Executive Director James Prendergast and IEEE Fellow Karen Panetta.

Established in 2005 by U.S. President Bill Clinton, the initiative convenes global leaders to create and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing humanitarian challenges. Participants analyze the issues, discuss the most effective solutions, and build partnerships that enable them to create positive social change. Each CGI member creates a Commitment to Action, which is a plan to address a major global challenge. CGI members have made more than 2300 commitments, affecting the lives of over 400 million people in more than 180 countries, according to the organization. IEEE will be committing the time and talent of its volunteers.

Prendergast represented IEEE, which became a member of CGI this year. Panetta, the editor in chief of IEEE’s Women in Engineering magazine, was a participant in the workshop Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in Developing Countries, which explored how to boost the number of women in these fields.

Last week, Prendergast went over some of the highlights of his visit with me. “So many impressive people were there,” Prendergast said. “Because seating was random, I got to sit with a lot of different people at various events, and some of them were quite influential. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for IEEE to interact with them. I came back very inspired.”

He said the overall mission of CGI aligns well with IEEE’s mission: “We can bring a skill set to the initiative that can be synergistic to both organizations. CGI is putting massive effort into tackling big problems. Together we can do some really great things.”

He attended the plenary session, Designing for Impact, which discussed how CGI members could provide reliable and safe energy to those in need. Moderated by President Clinton, participants included Michael Duke, president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores; Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group; and Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations.

He also sat in on a workshop called Integrating Social and Environmental Value Into Core Business, which had CGI members sharing lessons on developing business practices and partnerships that created jobs, protected the environment, and promoted social equity. Participants included Antony Jenkins, group chief executive of Barclays; Mindy Lubber, president and CEO of Ceres; and Eugene Ubalijoro, managing director of Caribbean and Americas Export for Heineken.

Queen Rania of Jordon gave a speech about the need to improve overall education because countries are teaching yesterday’s skills. “There was a lot of discussion about how e-learning was out of date and how we need to move to digital learning, which gets people more fully immersed in the information,” Prendergast said. “That’s something that falls within the purview of the IEEE Educational Activities Board."

Jim Yong Kim told the audience that organizations must seriously consider the issue of scale when designing a humanitarian solution. They should ask themselves whether they can realistically make changes based on their size and financial resources, according to Kim.  One example he gave was of a doctor whose hospital had been working very hard to make and distribute hearing aids to underprivileged children but just could not keep up with demand. To show the doctor the scale of the problem, President Clinton took him to a school in Haiti for the deaf and found out that all but two of the children needed hearing aids. “It was an incredible story,” Prendergast said. “The real power of CGI is that it can bring scale to a project through its resources and President Clinton’s influence.”

Even though he was only able to attend on the afternoon of 23 September and the morning of the 24th because of his travel schedule, Prendergast said he came away full of ideas about how IEEE can help CGI accomplish its goals.

He listed three areas: helping to boost the number of women engineers by promoting the IEEE Women in Engineering group and the work Panetta and WIE members are doing in that area; finding ways to provide safe and reliable energy; and publicizing Engineering for Change (E4C), the global community of organizations—including IEEE—and individuals that promotes sustainable and accessible tech-based solutions to problems facing poor and underserved communities.  

Prendergast said E4C could help make it easier to share information about humanitarian activities, a topic of discussion at CGI.  “Engineering for Change has a good story to tell,” he says. “We are trying to tackle a lot of humanitarian work individually and we’ve had some great successes, but I really think that if we partner with an organization like CGI, we can have a much bigger impact.”

As far as reliable energy sources, Prendergast observed that there was a lot of misunderstanding among the attendees about photovoltaics. “Some people thought it was a new technology, but I informed them that IEEE has been running the Photolvoltaics Conference for more than 50 years,” he said. “We know photovolatics and are also involved with the smart grid.”

I asked Prendergast why it’s important to have IEEE and engineers at the table of these kinds of global initiatives. “You just have to look at our tagline: ‘Advancing Technology for Humanity,’” he said. “We have a number of priorities when we take on humanitarian projects. We want to improve the capability of things, but we also have to think about how we are affecting humanity and our overall impact on the world. Engineering can have negative impacts as well as positive ones. Just about anything that we engineers develop can probably be used for something bad as well as good. But when others talk about solutions, engineers have to be part of the discussion.”

Prendergast added: “We have a world that has a number of shortages, including clean water and energy. The best-selling book, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think (by Peter H. Diamond and Steve Kotler), discussed how to turn around these shortages. In most cases there isn’t a shortage, we just need the engineering skills to extract what we have. For example, if we could get the salt out of the oceans, we could have potable water. If we solved the fusion issue, we would have as much energy as we want. Engineers have to be part of the solution.”

As a final thought Prendergast shared this comment made by President Clinton: “We need to go beyond just stopping bad things from happening and begin to focus on making good things happen.”

Should engineers be involved with initiatives that tackle global issues? Do you think engineers have an obligation to try to solve humanitarian problems?

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the bloggers and do not represent official positions of The Institute or IEEE.

Photo: Eva Serrabassa/iStockphoto

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