Incubating Emerging Technologies

Future Directions group serves as IEEE’s R&D arm

19 November 2012

The smart grid, electric vehicles, and cloud computing are established technical areas now, but they weren’t in 2004. That was the year IEEE chose them—along with several others—as emerging areas in which it wanted to become more visible. Not only has IEEE become a recognized leader in these areas through conferences, websites, and newsletters, but IEEE members are also among the experts the media now turns to with questions on these topics. This success is due in no small part to the work of the IEEE Future Directions Committee, which can be thought of as IEEE’s R&D arm. It scouts out emerging technologies, nurtures them, and suggests products and services to showcase them. The committee recently added a group of industry advisers from leading companies across the high-tech board that will ensure IEEE stays at the forefront of cutting-edge technologies.

“Activities in Future Directions are essential to IEEE’s future,” says J. Roberto B. de Marca, chair of the IEEE Future Directions Committee. “It will make it easier to increase membership because professionals will see the value in participating in discussions in areas where companies are betting their success. It also obviously facilitates establishing partnerships with leading industries worldwide.

“The initiatives fostered by FDC have also proven to be a great way to assemble communities of experts who collectively offer a broad technical perspective about a given emerging technology that often is multidisciplinary.” De Marca also is the 2013 IEEE president-elect.

Eight years ago, IEEE Technical Activities, led by its vice president, Leah Jamieson, realized that IEEE’s structure “sometimes got in the way of our ability to move quickly into new areas,” as she told The Institute for a profile in July 2012. She believes one of her most important contributions as a volunteer was putting IEEE at the forefront of new multidisciplinary technical areas. Jamieson, an IEEE Fellow and 2007 IEEE president, explained that while some IEEE societies had developed effective vehicles for exploring new areas that spanned multiple societies, those vehicles needed to become organization-wide efforts, not new societies.

“We also needed to ensure that IEEE’s presence was visible to the outside world so that we would be viewed as the place to go to for trusted information in emerging areas, as well as our established ones,” she noted. “We needed a framework for doing that through our conferences, publications, standards, and educational materials.”

That framework was set up in 2004 by the IEEE New Technology Directions Committee, since renamed the IEEE Future Directions Committee. Each emerging area started off with a working group chaired by an IEEE member expert in a given technology. Over time, some of these working groups became initiatives led by volunteer experts, with staff members serving as program directors. Each group cultivates its technology and organizes activities around it. These might include publications, standards, conferences, websites, social media sites, and newsletters. Current funding is provided through the IEEE New Initiatives Committee and through the IEEE Technical Activities Board.

“Future Directions is the research and development department of IEEE,” explains Harold Tepper, a senior program director for IEEE Future Directions who oversees the smart-grid initiative, in Piscataway, N.J. “Just like a company, IEEE has to invest in R&D activities to develop offerings that will provide added value to its members and the balance of the marketplace.”

IEEE’s initiative in smart-grid technology has proven to be a successful cross-disciplinary collaboration as featured in The Institute’s special report in December 2010. The initiative has a website, a monthly newsletter with more than 5000 subscribers, and an active social media presence with more than
12 000 LinkedIn members and 2000 Twitter followers. When India had a massive power outage in July, interviews with initiative experts Fellow John McDonald and Senior Member Massoud Amin ran in several publications. And FierceEnergy, a newsletter that tracks the latest developments in the energy industry, named three IEEE members among its 15 most influential people in the energy industry. 

“We received a great deal of exposure in the media that we wouldn’t have had unless we had first laid the groundwork,” Tepper says. “We’ve established a thought leadership position that the media and the marketplace have recognized and given a lot of exposure to—and by association, to IEEE as well.”

Earlier this year, the cloud computing initiative launched several new products and services, including a Web portal, two conferences, e-learning courses, and an online-only quarterly journal (all of which were covered in The Institute’s special report published in June).

The life sciences initiative has also picked up momentum. In addition to its portal, launched in 2011, this year it launched a monthly e-newsletter, the IEEE Life Sciences Newsletter. In October, it held the Life Sciences Grand Challenges Conference where leaders in the field discussed the convergence of engineering, life sciences, and health care. A new, open-access electronic journal is in the works as a channel for publishing original contributions by authors who may not be allied with a biology laboratory. Life sciences will be the subject of The Institute’s December special report.

There’s also IEEE’s transportation and electrification initiative, which was featured in The Institute’s special report in September 2011. It has its own portal, where you can find out about standards, publications, educational resources, and programs on these topics. From the website, you can also sign up to follow the group on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. There are also several conferences sponsored by the initiative, including the annual IEEE Transportation Electrification Conference & Expo and the IEEE International Electric Vehicle Conference.

Other emerging areas include green information and communications technology, ultra-efficient computing, and the Internet of Things, a highly distributed network of devices communicating with other devices and with people via the Internet.

“We are right in line with technology reports like the MIT Tech Review’s annual report that predicts what the next hot technologies will be,” says William Tonti, the director of IEEE Future Directions.

The Industry Advisory Committee, made up of IEEE members, is working on additional areas to explore, he says.

“We have committed volunteers who are knowledgeable in the area and well known in their technical communities,” Tonti says. “They will be a focal point as the initiatives progress.”

Adds Bichlien Hoang, senior program director for IEEE Future Directions, who oversees the life sciences initiative, “Innovation and technology are happening so fast, like a wave. IEEE needs to catch the wave while it’s growing and not decide when it’s cresting that it’s a good idea to get involved. Catching the wave does carry the risk that maybe it will crash, but we ought to try.”

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Learn More