IEEE-USA Annual Meeting and Inaugural SusTech Conference: A Big Deal

By Chris McManes

How big a deal was the early August IEEE-USA Annual Meeting in Portland? Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, M.D., proclaimed 1 August “IEEE Oregon Sustainable Technology Day.”

Dr. Kitzhaber’s proclamation, which coincided with the start of the inaugural IEEE Conference on Technologies for Sustainability (SusTech), recognizes the key role IEEE Oregon Section members play in the state’s technology sector and economy.

Two of those members led the 2013 Annual Meeting planning: Lee Oien (general chair) and Ed Perkins (SusTech general chair). They received high marks for leading a team of dedicated and talented volunteers.

“We had five absolutely fantastic keynote speakers, and I have to compliment the organizing committee for finding them,” IEEE-USA President Marc Apter said at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Portland. “I think they were appropriate, they were interesting, and they got us thinking about a lot of things.”

It was Perkins who secured the governor’s proclamation by applying through an Oregon state Website: “I highlighted the number of IEEE members we have in the state; I thought that would get their attention.”

SusTech featured technical papers and panel sessions on Smart Grid, alternative energy, electronic materials, energy efficiency, quality of life and electric vehicles. The traditional Annual Meeting that followed was organized into three tracks: Sustaining the profession, sustaining the professional and sustaining innovation.


“Addressing sustainability may be the most important work our profession does in the 21st century,” IEEE Fellow Gordon Day said in his keynote speech, “21st Century Engineering.”

Day and his fellow keynoters challenged the 220 attendees to continue thinking innovatively, while considering sustainability, which the United Nations defines as “the pursuit of environmentally sound development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the future.”  

Day portrayed science and engineering as two ends of a spectrum.

“One end represents the expansion of knowledge, and the other the use of knowledge for invention,” the former IEEE-USA (2009) and IEEE (2012) president said. “It’s at the engineering end of that spectrum where new technologies are created, where inventions change people’s lives, where new jobs are created, and when where wealth is generated.”

Innovation with a Social Conscience

U.S. IEEE members probably don’t hear anthropologists speak very often, but they did on the meeting’s final morning.  Dr. John Sherry, who holds a B.S. in computer science, and a Ph.D. in anthropology, was the first anthropologist Intel hired–in 1997. The company was one of the first to look more closely at how people interact with technology in their daily lives. Tech firms today also hire sociologists and psychologists to form social science teams.

Sherry, director of Business Innovation Research at Intel Labs in Hillsboro, Ore., is pleased to be an employed anthropologist. “I don’t think my parents ever believed that was possible,” he said amid laughter.


The tone turned serious when Sherry told the story about a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation effort to improve the vaccination rate of a small town in northeastern India, where only 30 percent of the children are fully vaccinated in their first year of life.

“That’s a terrible number,” he said. “It’s a source not just of a lot of death, but a lot of suffering and the loss of productive growth.”

The Gates Foundation worked with Sherry and his colleagues to understand how vaccines are delivered, and why health care workers are unable to reach so many children. Sherry’s team conducted a three-month study in the town, and looked at how they could use cell phone technology to improve the immunization rate.

“And how do you design it in such a way that it actually fits with the “¦ lack of infrastructure, lack of money, lack of availability of the technology to the locals?” he said.

Sherry spoke alongside “Whurley,” aka William Hurley, a co-founder of Chaotic Moon Studios, a mobile app and interactive development company in Austin, Texas. Whurley plays a key role in the studio’s social innovation efforts, many of which focus on raising global awareness of women’s issues.

Chaotic Moon Studios helped produce the award-winning short film Sahasi Chori (Brave Girl), to bring to light the recruiting and trafficking of young Nepalese girls into prostitution.

Whurley and Sherry discussed–and sometimes debated–The Future of Innovation. Sherry said innovation has two main sides.

“One is understanding the needs, or problems, or gaps in the world,” he said. “The other is the engineering side, the technical side–creating possibilities.”

Whurley, an IEEE member, spelled out the difference between invention and innovation.

“Inventing is incredibly hard,” he said. “It’s very difficult to create some new material or new composite. Innovation is not hard. Innovation is getting all the things around you, [and] putting them together “¦ in a unique way.

“Innovation is really about something [we do] as engineers, and that’s capturing people’s imagination.”

Sustainable Energy & Workforce

Day said that when he served as IEEE president, he was “very proud that IEEE endorsed the U.N.’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative, the first time we’ve done something like that in our history, and that we found 50 other engineering societies” to join. The initiative has three main goals:

  • Ensuring universal access to modern energy services
  • Doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency
  • Doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix

Dr. Thomas P. Seager, associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at Arizona State University, delivered the opening keynote address, Systems Thinking for Sustainability.

After seeing a video from the folks at, “a global community of people helping each other repair things,” Seager discussed the propensity of people in the United States to throw away electronics, rather than fix them, “because they become technologically obsolete,” he said. “This is because of the way we design them, they’re not necessarily upgradeable or adaptable.”

Electronics in landfills can damage the environment and hurt people –often in developing countries–who strip them of their valuable metals.

“A strong sustainability view is related to the status quo, that we need to conserve what we’ve been endowed with for future generations,” Seager said. “A weak sustainability view says technology moves forward, future generations will be richer; they will also be clever [and] we don’t need the exact same resources–for example, the oil or coal in the ground. What we need is the capability; we need the functionality.”

Julie-Ellen Acosta, vice president, Phantom Works Prototyping and Supply & Operations Chain, Boeing Defense, Space and Security, was the lunchtime speaker on day three of the four-day conference. Her topic was, Workforce Sustainability through Diversity.

“When we talk about workforce sustainability, there is no question in my mind there is very much a system engineering approach to that,” Acosta said. “It’s very deliberate and intentional, and it’s absolutely imperative–at least in the aerospace business–that we take this very deliberate approach to ensuring that we have the right type of workforce, as we go forward.”

At the final wrap-up session, Apter gave his fellow volunteers their marching orders:

“It’s time to take what you learned and put it to work.”

Sidebar: 2014 IEEE-USA Annual Meeting Heading to Providence

The 2014 Annual Meeting will be in Providence, R.I., 15-18 May, and will once again include a technical conference, InnoTek 2014, on 16 May. IEEE-USA President-Elect Dr. Gary Blank pointed out that the meeting falls perfectly on the May calendar: Two weeks after the Kentucky Derby and two weeks before Memorial Day.

Blank said one of his main goals as president will focus on U.S. membership.

“Come 2014, we will stop the loss of membership,” he said. “I can’t do it by myself; I need all of your help to make the year ahead of us a very special year.”

Chris McManes is IEEE-USA’s public relations manager.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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