IEEE Takes the Initiative on Sustainability

The initiative will contribute IEEE’s expertise to the public dialog and to strengthen IEEE’s societies’ efforts and capabilities in the field

6 February 2009

We can’t go on like this. For thousands of years, humans have been exploiting the Earth as if its resources were infinite. Today, as resources become harder to find and utilize, as more people clamor to share them, and as global warming points out the dangers of such exploitation, it’s plain that our current course is not sustainable.

“I see sustainability as a major issue of the millennium, one that’s of increasing interest to society as well as to IEEE members,” says 2009 IEEE President John Vig. “It involves many, many issues, including political, economic, and technological. Where IEEE can help is in technology.”

Vig has created the President’s Sustainability Initiative (PSI) to contribute IEEE’s expertise to the public dialog and to strengthen IEEE’s societies’ efforts and capabilities in the field.

The initiative is being directed by the new Sustainability Ad Hoc Committee, chaired by Senior Member Braden Allenby, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and of law at Arizona State University in Tempe. The committee is drafting a strategic plan for activities and initiatives IEEE can undertake, and it plans to create and manage a Technical Committee on Sustainable Systems and Technology under IEEE’s Technical Activities Board. “This two-step process,” Allenby says, “allows us to move ahead rapidly yet take the time in setting up the Technical Committee to make sure that we reflect the interests of IEEE’s membership.”

WELL SUITED Vig, Allenby, and others say IEEE’s expertise in technology and technological systems positions it uniquely to advance sustainability. They say IEEE can and should, for instance, help policymakers and the public understand technology’s true role so as to make better-informed decisions.

“Questions of sustainable systems and technology are important but poorly understood,” Vig says. Adds Allenby, “We need to bring IEEE’s knowledge of technology and its implications to the public dialog about sustainability. To make sure policymakers hear and listen is an ongoing challenge. We have to make sure IEEE is recognized as a reliable and neutral source of information on technology and systems and their implications for sustainability, and must provide information in ways that are compatible with public policy audiences.

“Much writing about sustainability implies that most technology is, by definition, unsustainable,” Allenby continues. “But technology has always been the primary means by which humans interact with each other and the environment. Our ability to support Earth’s population reliably rests on technology. A failure of tech, or an attempt not to use it, has implications that are rather frightening. Technology is a most important human attribute, positive or negative. To downplay it is to ignore what it means to be human.”

It’s vital to convey how technologies and technological systems interrelate, he adds. “You can’t just focus on, say, renewable electricity sources and emission-free plug-in electric cars without realizing that their widespread adoption requires modernizing the power grid to deal with those sources’ highly variable output and with the extra load of the cars,“ he says. “And that involves not just technology but financing—at a time when public debt is high and other infrastructure needs rebuilding—and the difficulty of building an integrated grid when no single organization has authority over it.”

RELATED ENDEAVORS Various IEEE societies, such as the Power and Energy Society and Computer Society, already have sustainability-related endeavors. Even before Vig took office in January, the Computer Society was preparing to repackage its International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment as the IEEE International Symposium on Sustainable Systems and Technology . (To be held May 18–20 in Phoenix, the ISSST will share a venue and some sessions with the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology’s International Symposium on Technology and Society .

But Allenby, who is the ISSST chair, says such activities are largely uncoordinated, not well publicized, and not all part of the national and international dialog on sustainability. So the PSI committee will work to enhance and expand all those scattered activities and ensure that the transition to the Technical Committee moves smoothly, with support from each relevant organization, he says. That integration will include consideration of appropriate system-wide standards—another role for IEEE, he notes.

“IEEE’s great strength is its diversity and the bottom-up activities initiated by members and volunteers. We plan to augment and support their efforts rather than inhibit, replace, or centralize them,” he says.

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