Global Voices

IEEE can become a greater force for change around the world

7 September 2012

During a recent visit to Brussels, an IEEE member told me, “Farmers come to Brussels all the time; technologists don’t.”

We in the IEEE community understand that the path to a better quality of life and greater prosperity is through technology and innovation. But how often do we explain it to those who make public policy decisions?

How often do we point out that access to technology is one of the strongest differentiators between rich countries and poor? That technology defines quality of life today and innovation now will define it for tomorrow? How often do we offer ideas for expanding access and stimulating innovation?

Photo: IEEE

The man I spoke with in Brussels is both a technologist and a policy expert. He does not need to be convinced. But policymaking is a political process—a process of building consensus—and his efforts could be enhanced through the advice and support of some of the nearly 60 000 IEEE members who live in European Union countries.

I believe we have a responsibility, as individuals and as an organization, to share our expertise and knowledge with those who make or influence decisions about how technology affects people’s lives.

For about 40 years, IEEE has helped its members in the United States examine current technology policy issues and explain their conclusions to leaders in government. Each year, our office in Washington, D.C., facilitates about 300 individual visits by IEEE members to congressional offices. We also provide policy briefings, and our staff reaches out to policymakers on our behalf. Through events and publicity, we share our views with the public. Over time, it makes a difference.

But we have little experience in doing these kinds of things elsewhere, even though there are many issues that transcend borders, issues on which we can speak with a global voice. I’ll suggest a few.

As much as we may agree on the importance of innovation, there’s less agreement on how to stimulate it. I believe that one answer lies in recognizing that innovation comes from people, not institutions. Every country that wants to advance must develop and maintain a talented, well-educated, high-tech workforce. And this suggests that investments in engineering, science, and mathematics education should be the first piece of any innovation strategy.

Research Investments
A friend recently shared this thought: “Without science, engineering would have no roots. Without engineering, science would bear no fruit.” As incomplete and oversimplified as that may be, it helps us understand that research investments are needed across the full spectrum of science and engineering and not, as is often argued, just in “basic” research.

Digital Communications
Broadband access is still a major quality-of-life and opportunity differentiator. For many of the same reasons that telephones, radio, and television became essential as they became ubiquitous, high-speed data communications must be extended to every part of the world. And there should be no lingering doubt about whether to focus on fixed or mobile solutions. The answer is both.

Energy Supplies
Per capita energy usage in India and sub-Saharan Africa is about one-third of the worldwide average and about one-twelfth of U.S. usage. Increasing per capita usage just to today’s worldwide average, in just those two areas, would require new energy supplies equal to more than the total presently used in the United States. We need to lead a discussion about how to provide developing countries with the energy they need to advance.

Energy and the Environment
Global warming is measurable, and its effects are visible. While others study and debate the future impact, it is time for our community to explain how greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced, the benefits of improving efficiency, the value of expanding renewable and nuclear generation of electricity, the future role of fossil fuels, and why it is important to electrify transportation.

Those are global issues, but many other technology policy issues are national or regional, and advice must be tailored accordingly. What is wise advice in Washington, D.C., may not be so wise in Brussels, New Delhi, or Rio de Janeiro. We must empower our members to be advocates where they live and work. We need to find our global voices.

I believe that the most promising approach is to build partnerships with our peers around the world, with national and regional engineering societies, especially in places where there are many IEEE members. There is evidence that engineering societies want to work together where they have common interests. Recently, more than 40 engineering societies headquartered in 20 countries joined us in expressing support for the United Nations’ designation of 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All.

I believe that, working with the broader engineering community, IEEE can become a greater force for change, and we can do it globally.

gday Gordon W. Day
IEEE President and CEO
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