The year 2050 might sound like a long way off, but it’s just around the corner for IEEE leaders. Technology developments are happening so quickly and on so many fronts that if the organization wants to continue to thrive, it needs to begin preparing for changes now.
“IEEE must become exceedingly nimble to address rapid changes in technologies and interdisciplinary needs, and to attract a broader audience,” K.J. Ray Liu, 2022 IEEE president and CEO, wrote in his December column in The Institute. In the column, he discussed his vision for what IEEE could look like in 2050, and he outlined opportunities and challenges ahead.
Last year Liu formed the Ad Hoc Committee on IEEE in 2050 to assist IEEE in meeting the needs of the future by planning now. The committee was tasked with identifying the changes the organization might need to make while beginning to develop long-term strategies for the future.
Chaired by IEEE Fellow Roger Fujii, the committee worked with futurists from around the world to gather geographically representative projections of the world in 2050. They developed plausible scenarios of the future based on the research, identified how the information would impact IEEE and its business, and explored potential strategies. The committee released its findings in the “IEEE in 2050 and Beyond” white paper.
While IEEE’s mission and vision are likely to remain relevant in the future, how the organization supports its mission must change, according to the committee’s work. According to the committee’s research, IEEE’s current structure, areas of interest, programs and services, and sources of funding are not likely to align well with the potential futures of the global environment.
“Now is the time for the IEEE to be thoughtful, bold, and take risks,” the report notes. “Expecting the future to be like the present overlooks weak signals of change and misses important potential signs for the future. It is critical that conversations around the future begin with IEEE leadership immediately and be expanded carefully and thoughtfully across the wider IEEE community.”
Here is a summary of recommendations from the report related to governance and structure, membership, publishing, standards development, education, funding, and more.
Governance and organization
One suggestion from the committee’s research is for IEEE to rethink the structure of the organization’s governance to increase its ability to be adaptable, agile, flexible, and to act with speed. Parts of the organization might consider moving from top-down leadership styles to those that are bottom-up, according to the report.
“We cannot continue to operate the way we are organized today, so that requires a shift and also appropriate governance rules changes,” Fujii says. “Also, we need to have a structure that is more agile, and that’s going to require some hard thinking.”
The white paper recommends that the Board conduct research to explore future governance and organizational structures.
Engagement and membership
The white paper explains that engagement models and membership will likely look different in 2050 from today. Traditional membership in IEEE is highly likely to decline.
Membership is apt to be more diverse and interdisciplinary, the paper says. Future members won’t just be professionals with technical degrees; they’ll have broader and more diverse backgrounds.
IEEE will probably expand beyond the 45 technical disciplines it currently supports to attract a wider base of constituents.
The way IEEE interacts with members will have to change, according to the report. Because the next generation of members is likely to be composed of digital natives who rely on mobile devices as their primary interface source, they will expect a frictionless experience. Building online platforms that allow people to quickly access what they want will be important.
The committee expects most gatherings in the future will incorporate artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and digital twins, which are virtual models of a real-world object or system that can be used to assess how the real-world counterpart is performing.
Making use of those technologies to organize meetings, including ones held virtually, will create more opportunities for engagement.
However, “despite the growth in virtual gatherings, there will still be value in physical participation in local and global gatherings,” the report said.
Many of today’s meetings are hybrid events, with conference papers being available virtually and discussions taking place in person, the report notes. But by 2050 the integration of in-person and virtual attendance is expected to be seamless.
People likely will continue to organize around technical topics of interest, the report said, but they also will want to discuss social and environmental issues.
IEEE should continue to explore the organization’s potential future engagement and membership models, and their revenue sources, the report said.
Products and services of the future
IEEE will likely maintain its reputation as a trusted, neutral provider of quality, peer-reviewed content. But how the information is curated and delivered will change, according to the report. The initial vetting of content, for example, probably will be either partially or fully automated.
The committee expects that future content will be a compendium of articles, algorithms, videos, and other media. Access to some of the material might require users to pay a fee.
Fujii says IEEE has mostly focused its publications on the research community, but for practicing engineers most of the material is not relevant. Many IEEE research papers today are meant “to advance technology in specific, narrow technology silos,” he says. But, “the younger generation is interested in solving grand challenges such as climate change, and our papers don’t address them.”
To become more meaningful to a broader audience, the white paper recommended that IEEE should focus more on how research can be applied.
IEEE has an opportunity to assist the public by curating information that fosters a better understanding of the benefits and risks associated with artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and other technologies that are expected to be used in a variety of everyday applications.
“Now is the time for the IEEE to be thoughtful, bold, and take risks.”
The report recommends that IEEE explore intelligent search-application services in collaboration with third-party developers for AI, AR, and VR.
The committee anticipates that IEEE will continue to support the educational and capacity-building needs of people who use STEM-related products, services, and solutions through on-demand offerings of multimodal modules including a combination of text, images, and audio.
AI and related technologies will be able to anticipate an individual’s learning needs. For example, specialized AI with some human insight will filter and prioritize information that matters most to learners, avoiding information overload, according to the report.
IEEE is known for its trusted and vetted content, Fujii says, and “therefore, the role of AI in future IEEE activities must comply with ethical principles and technical correctness.”
Making technical standards more relevant
IEEE is likely to remain relevant as a standards developer in 2050 and beyond. IEEE standards, for example, could contribute to a global initiative to define how AI is designed and employed, according to the report.
IEEE’s standards activity is highly likely to remain important because technological innovation is happening so rapidly. But standards development also needs to evolve and accelerate to address the rapid changes in technology, the report says.
“Standards processes will need to become faster and more modular to maintain relevance,” the white paper says. “Disruption regarding the revenue generated from standards setting is likely. It will be important to strategize and address this quickly to minimize the disruption.”
The committee’s report recommends that IEEE research how it brings together its different services and products to address mission-based topics that interest its constituents and new stakeholders.
New funding opportunities
Membership-related income could change from a dues-paying model to a subscription-based one, according to the white paper.
Instead of depending on member dues, IEEE could consider revenue streams such as skill-building programs and sponsored activities. Corporate membership could become a substantial revenue stream. Charging for access to IEEE’s research data or to its experts could help the organization thrive, according to the report.
“Shifts in traditional IEEE funding sources need to be closely monitored,” the report noted. “IEEE should begin conversations now with corporate sponsors, particularly those with an international focus. In addition, IEEE should continue to explore non-dues revenue including monetizing the applications relative to data-collection and analysis.”
Subgroups to implement recommendations
The committee has acted on the white paper recommendations by forming six subgroups to explore opportunities. One is looking at potential governance and organizational structures. Another is focused on using AI, AR, VR, and similar technologies to improve the publications business and other areas. Research is being conducted into how to improve products and services such as educational offerings and standards development.
The group on engagement and membership of the future is working on how to interest young engineers. Another group working on mission-focused activities is looking into how to engage and organize people who want to work together to address grand challenges such as climate change. A group is tracking technology trends and taking a broader look at potential drivers of change.
“The task of operationalizing the recommendations is not to be minimized,” the report concluded. “Many of these initiatives will need serious research and consideration. IEEE should consider piloting test models to make incremental changes to minimize organizational disruption. To prepare for 2050, significant change must occur.”
This article appears in the September 2023 print issue as “Preparing IEEE for 2050 and Beyond.”
Kathy Pretz is editor in chief for The Institute, which covers all aspects of IEEE, its members, and the technology they're involved in. She has a bachelor's degree in applied communication from Rider University, in Lawrenceville, N.J., and holds a master's degree in corporate and public communication from Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, N.J.