For the Benefit of Society

How the Envisioned Future strategy addresses societal issues

7 March 2008
lewis

One of my major areas of focus this year is the application of engineering, science, and technology to societal problems. This is something the IEEE must be concerned about, and it's part of the recently adopted IEEE Envisioned Future strategy platform, which recognizes that by addressing societal issues, the IEEE can affect global prosperity and the quality of life (see "New Initiative Looks Far Into the Future,"). It is an area of great opportunity.

Historically, the IEEE and the technical community have focused primarily on advancing technology and applying it to the development of products. The focus of Envisioned Future is not on technology but on the critical needs of society. Any list of major problems during the next 50 years would include generating and conserving energy, eliminating pollution, ensuring safe drinking water and a safe global food supply, protecting the environment, improving education, eliminating poverty and disease, and addressing climate change. Solving these problems will require multiple technologies and cross-disciplinary approaches with which the IEEE is very familiar.

Given the IEEE's technical scope and global presence, our societies, sections, chapters, and members have a tremendous opportunity to contribute. In fact, our members are already involved in a number of such projects.

For example, the IEEE Committee on Earth Observation has since 2005 been involved in the International Group on Earth Observations and its effort to create a Global Earth Observation System of Systems. Through GEOSS, data obtained from all sources will be used to help create accurate models of Earth's environments. Understanding what is happening will enable informed decisions that should reduce the impact of natural disasters, promote better health, improve weather forecasting, and protect natural resources for the sustainability of society.

Another effort is the IEEE partnership with the United Nations Foundation, through which members will help solve problems in such areas as health care and disaster response, mitigation, and recovery.

Of course, other organizations have been applying technology to address such issues. Two examples of nonprofit organizations with which I am familiar are at MIT and the University of California at Berkeley. At MIT, the D-Lab and Edgerton Center are leaders in creating elegantly simple technical solutions for developing countries to such problems as food refrigeration, water testing and quality, and avoiding deforestation by turning waste materials into cooking fuel. Students from the university are accomplishing much by working at the local level in areas including Africa, Central America, and India.

UC Berkeley's Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Science has been using information technology to solve problems in health care, energy, the environment, and transportation. The effort involves hundreds of faculty and thousands of students, many of whom are IEEE members.

Individual IEEE members around the world are also involved in solving societal issues, often at the local level. A related story in this issue describes how IEEE members working in Ethiopia, Germany, Kurdistan, Pakistan, and Peru are applying their technical expertise in a variety of projects with significant societal impact [see "Making a World of Difference"]. The projects involve mentoring teachers, search-and-rescue robots, a fiber-optic network, and low-cost medical technology.

These are just a few examples of what members can do, and I am encouraging members everywhere to identify opportunities where they and their sections, societies and technical councils, chapters, and student branches can become involved and make a difference. IEEE organizations can get help in launching programs to address pressing societal issues through the IEEE New Initiatives Seed Grant Process. Funding for seed projects can be as much as US $25 000. Learn more at http://www.ieee.org/web/aboutus/initiatives/sgp.html.

For the IEEE to help solve these problems requires sharing best practices and carefully coordinating what we do so that our financial and human resources are used effectively. This is a bold new direction for the IEEE and one of the most important challenges for our organization in the 21st century.

I welcome your comments at terman.column@ieee.org.

pres IEEE President and CEO

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