The IEEE President’s Sustainability Initiative

By Brad Allenby1Image of an illustrated city ckyline

At the beginning of 2009, incoming IEEE President John Vig announced his President’s Sustainability Initiative, or PSI, intended to begin the process of institutionalizing sustainability as a major focus of the IEEE. This article explains the background of that Initiative and its current focus, and suggests some possible future projects. In doing so, it draws from a White Paper that resulted from a planning workshop, convened on September 8, 2008 (the White Paper can be obtained here.)

Most readers of Earthzine are well aware of the concept of sustainability and its two major themes, environmental protection and social equity. Within the engineering community, the idea of sustainability as an element of modern engineering is also gaining in acceptance. Thus, for example, the American Society of Civil Engineers has launched a Committee on Sustainability as well as PERSI, an initiative to explore Practice, Education and Research for a Sustainable Infrastructure. Similarly, the American Institute for Chemical Engineering has created an Institute for Sustainability. Universities have established programs: Arizona State University has founded a School of Sustainability, and a School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, and Columbia University has created the Earth Institute. The National Science Foundation has funded the creation of a Center for Sustainable Engineering, a consortium involving Carnegie Mellon University, Arizona State University, and the University of Texas aimed at encouraging the development of sustainable engineering education at the undergraduate and graduate levels. There’s one at Yale and at UC Santa Barbara. And, of course, initiatives are proliferating among non-governmental organizations, online communities, and other entities.

Historically, the IEEE also has already been doing a lot in this space. For example, there is the IEEE International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment (ISEE), which began in 1993, and which over the years has probably been the best resource anywhere on Design for Environment (DFE), the application of life cycle assessment (LCA) methodologies to complex manufactured products, and applied industrial ecology. A sampling of more recent conferences would include those on the Hydrogen Economy (2004), Electric Ships (2005), Wind Power Symposium (2006), and Energy 2030 (2008), as well as a large number around the world on renewable energy. So the challenge was not to develop a completely new program, nor to address areas of sustainability that were already well covered. Rather, it was to determine what the IEEE could, and should, do that would not duplicate or inhibit the good work that was already going on, and that would provide value for the IEEE, its members, and society at large.

It was against this background that the September 8 workshop was convened. In preparation for that workshop, IEEE staff and volunteers prepared a review of existing sustainability institutions and the current state of the sustainability public dialog. This review indicated that much of the sustainability discussion tends to emphasize the environmental domain heavily. Not only is this true of technical approaches such as LCA, “green engineering,” “green chemistry,” and DFE, but it is generally true of many of the university programs, such as those at Yale, Arizona State University, and the University of California at Santa Barbara. This is not surprising, of course, given that much of the sustainability community, and sustainability theory, has grown out of environmental organizations. The few exceptions, such as the Earth Institute at Columbia University, which is heavily coupled to the United Nations, tend towards a development economics approach. Private industry initiatives, in turn, reflect these weightings because they tend to be responsive to stakeholders, and that’s what the stakeholders are concerned about.

It is notable that technology and technological systems tend not to be priorities for many of the institutions and communities engaged in the sustainability discourse. In part, this reflects the skepticism towards technology that tends to characterize some elements of the environmental and sustainability communities; in part, this simply reflects the relative youth of the discussion. Still, it is remarkable how little attention the sustainability community, institutions, and dialog pay to questions involving emerging technologies. For anyone who is familiar with the developments generated by the accelerating technological frontier, especially in the foundational technologies of nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, information and communication technology, and cognitive science, this must be regarded as an increasingly problematic gap. To take just one example, most readers of Earthzine will know that electrical engineering and computer science models and algorithms are being combined with advances in biotech to explore the possibility of radical extensions of human life expectancy in developed economies (some say, for example, that the first cohort to live to 150 in such countries has already been born). If this scenario is achieved – and all such possibilities are best regarded as scenarios rather than predictions – it has obvious implications for resource and energy consumption patterns, for population levels, for economic and social stability – in other words, for sustainability. More prosaically, the potential for substituting ICT for more material and energy intensive options in areas such as transportation has long been recognized, but rigorous studies of the systemic implications of such socio-technological shifts are lacking. Informing technology and sustainability assessments of these and many other challenging scenarios arising from the accelerating progress of emergent technologies is an important but currently unfilled role.

In short, we have an institution, the IEEE, with significant strength in technology, technological systems, and technology policy, and a sustainability dialog with a critical, yet underappreciated, corresponding gap. It is not surprising, then, that the workshop and the subsequent White Paper concluded that the IEEE has a useful and perhaps unique role to play in creating the deeper understanding of technology and sustainable systems that is a precondition for serious progress on sustainability issues. Accordingly, it recommended establishment of the PSI, which President Vig did in January of 2009. While the PSI has just been established, there are some projects that would appear to be useful, and that are under consideration. One is migrating an existing conference supported by the Computer Society, the Annual Symposium on Sustainable Systems and Technology (the successor to the ISEE conference mentioned above) to be a large IEEE-wide annual conference, which would not only provide substantive content addressing the technology-sustainability gap discussed above, but would serve as a mechanism for generating collaborative initiatives with organizations such as the AAAS. Recognizing that the many entities within the IEEE already generate a substantial amount of valuable knowledge in this area, a second initiative would be to index and distribute more broadly the material that is already available. A third is to migrate the PSI itself over to a Technical Committee under the IEEE Technical Activities Board, thereby institutionalizing the sustainability initiative itself. There are many more possibilities, of course, and the PSI is actively seeking ideas from the IEEE and elsewhere.

It is obvious that this is a difficult and complex time in many ways, with challenges ranging from a global recession, to changing natural cycles and systems, to emerging technologies that offer unprecedented promise and, perhaps, peril. But in some ways that means that technologists and engineers, trained to be problem solvers in the messy and complicated real world, are more important than ever. Certainly, helping to unleash that potential is a large part of what we hope the PSI can contribute to, and the IEEE will continue to do.

1 Brad Allenby is founding director, Center for Earth Systems Engineering and Management, Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, and professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering at Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, 85287, USA. He is currently chairing the PSI. This article reflects the views of the author, and not necessarily those of any other person or organization.