“Futurecasting” IEEE

IEEE needs to anticipate changes in technology and business landscapes

7 June 2013
Photo: IEEE

Imagine you awake from a very deep sleep and it’s the year 2030. IEEE is now the best organization of its kind—not just better than today but the absolute best. What do you see?

That is precisely the question the IEEE Board of Directors wrestled with at its January and February meetings. With the help of IEEE Member Brian David Johnson, an Intel futurist, the board engaged in “futurecasting,” an exercise in envisioning an organization’s future. Some examples of the ideas that emerged include: Half of all IEEE members will be women; IEEE will be No. 1 in bio- and health-care engineering; and IEEE will be a household name.

Whether those 2030 forecasts come true or not, a key strategic priority that emerged from the discussions is that IEEE needs to anticipate changes in the technology and business landscapes that might disrupt our operations.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Larry Downes and Paul F. Nunes discuss “big bang” disrupters of business: innovations, new products, and even new markets created in brief spans of time that capture enormous attention from consumers and wreak havoc on ill-prepared businesses.

Perhaps the best example the two cite is the pinball machine—an entertainment staple from the 1950s to the 1990s. In 1993, pinball machine sales were among the highest they had ever been. A few years later sales plummeted nearly to zero, forcing pinball-machine manufacturers to dramatically rethink their businesses or shut their doors.

What was the big-bang disrupter that took down the electro­mechanical pinball machine? I daresay you, your children, or your grandchildren are all too familiar with it: the Sony PlayStation. Where pinball machines sold for thousands of U.S. dollars, the PlayStation cost hundreds. Where pinball machines offered but a single game, a PlayStation offered many. Where playing pinball meant having to leave home, the PlayStation console was ubiquitous and instantly available beside your TV.

IEEE recently took steps to mitigate a potential big-bang disrupter to its publishing operation: open access. We now provide authors with an open-access publishing option. Upon acceptance of their article, authors have the option of paying a fee to have that article published and to allow anyone who wants to read it to do so without charge. This action reflects IEEE’s responsiveness to changes in the publishing landscape and a willingness to meet significant changes to traditional business models head on. Although we have been proactive in responding to this potential disrupter, we must continually ask ourselves: What’s next?


IEEE members have contributed to the discovery, development, and delivery of almost every technology in our world today. It’s also a pretty good bet that IEEE members will be involved in the invention of a technology that will prompt IEEE to reinvent the way it operates. So, how does IEEE anticipate disruptions to our operations?

Our community must envision what IEEE could be like by 2030—and then each and every one of us needs to actively engage in anticipating disruptions and fine-tuning that dream. Once that is accomplished, we ought to set our sights on 2050.

As IEEE continues to write its future, disruptions to our efforts must not only be anticipated but also subsumed into our on­going endeavors. What were once seen as disruptions will merely become variables to consider as we move forward.

With almost 430 000 mem­bers from nearly every corner of the world, our organization is un­paralleled in terms of collective backgrounds, skill sets, and experience. If our entire community turned its focus to this strategic priority—even briefly—I believe significant, creative possibilities would emerge.

Our collective thinking has never been more important. And it starts with you. In the coming months, whether on your own or at an IEEE meeting, engage in an hour or so of futurecasting.

Then, when you have time, share your thinking with me on your vision for IEEE in 2030 and the next potential big-bang disruption. You can reach me at president@ieee.org or through my blog.

We all need to participate in charting the path of IEEE’s future.

pstaecker Peter Staecker
IEEE President and CEO
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