A Flatter World

It’s time to address the challenges of universal access to technology

5 March 2012

Theodore von Kármán, the early 20th-century mathematician, mechanical engineer, and aerospace pioneer, described the work of engineers as creating a world that never before existed. That’s not hyperbole.

Think back over the history of the 20th century.

Start with electricity, which began to reach homes and businesses at the beginning of the century. Electric lights replaced kerosene lamps. Refrigerators replaced iceboxes. Electric pumps brought better and safer water supplies. Washing machines, electric irons, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, and other labor-saving products appeared. Electricity made life easier, safer, and more pleasant.

Then think about how the limits of time and distance diminished with advances in transportation—advances that made it possible for people and things to move quickly around the globe.

Photo: May Truong

Think about how communications technologies—telephones, data communications, radio and television—increased the velocity of information to the fundamental limit, while expanding our access to knowledge, education and entertainment, building businesses and communities, and improving safety and security.

Think about how computers process vast amounts of information and control complex systems and how microprocessors are now ubiquitous, present in even the most mundane products.

And think about health care. Recognize that most diagnostic procedures are enabled by electronics; that drugs and other therapies are developed using electronic instrumentation and computers; and that advanced prostheses are electronic and mechanical marvels.

Those are just parts of the story of technology in the 20th century, but they are enough to claim that in most parts of the world, quality of life in the last century was defined by the creativity and ingenuity of engineers.

I often share these thoughts with engineering students. I tell them that as their predecessors shaped the 20th century, they will shape the 21st century. And I ask them what they will do with that responsibility.

Few students seem to have thought about their role in this larger sense, but they’re ready to do so. When pressed, they speak about opportunities in energy and the environment, in health technologies, and in the continuing convergence of computing and communications. Indeed, these fields are ripe with needs and opportunities, and I share with the students my hope that the vision and creativity of 21st-century engineers will be as revolutionary as those of the 20th century.

But then I remind them of the unfinished business of my generation, that the extraordinary benefits of technology are not yet universal.

More than half a century after electricity, clean water, modern sanitation, airports, and fast highways reached the last corners of developed countries, these things are still rare in many parts of the world. Twenty percent of the world’s population—1.4 billion people—do not have electricity in their homes. The numbers for clean water and modern sanitation are similar or worse. In these respects, and in income and other aspects of quality of life—with apologies to Thomas Friedman—the world is not flat.1

We are the profession that can make the world flatter. Data on telephone penetration in developing countries shows that it can be done. The number of landlines in developing countries never rose above about 12 percent of the population. But in just the past decade, the number of cellphone subscriptions across the developing world has risen from 8 percent of the population to 80 percent; in some countries the growth is even more dramatic. It’s happening because high-tech businesses saw opportunities, and it can happen with other technologies.

And we need to do more than just help developing countries play catch-up. As technologists, we understand that innovation is the path to prosperity​—​­everywhere. So, while we address the overdue challenges of universal access to technology, let us also help build long-term capacity to innovate—everywhere.

Countries, companies, and universities can develop fertile environments for innovation, but innovation comes from people—talented, well-educated, and creative people. At IEEE, it is our purpose and our opportunity to support the global high-tech workforce. We should work harder to attract young people to our profession and support the schools and universities that educate them. And we must continue to improve the tools and resources we provide to help technologists thrive throughout their careers.

As members of the largest and most global organization of applied technologists, we have a responsibility to be advocates for technology and for technologists. And we need to live up to our motto, “Advancing Technology for Humanity.”

gday Gordon W. Day IEEE President and CEO

1 Friedman is a New York Times columnist and author of The World Is Flat, in which he argues that globalization has “flattened” the world.

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