October 14, 2020

From fire safety codes, building codes, ‘standards of care’ in health care to IEEE 802.11 (which makes WiFi a reality) standards are present in virtually all aspects of our daily lives. Technical standards ensure that our devices work efficiently and safely. IEEE standards focus on a variety of technical disciplines and sectors, for example in power, communications and computing. They have been and continue to be developed through an open, consensus building process which includes perspectives from experts worldwide.

In honor of World Standards Day, we’re focusing on some recent IEEE SA efforts on standards development that include protection of the people and the planet, in addition to safety concerns.

IEEE Senior Member Maike Luiken discussed the different types of standards and IEEE efforts in this area.

IEEE: How would you describe what standards are and what do they do?
Maike Luiken: Standards are documents that describe in detail specifications and procedures to ensure the health and safety of the user, the optimal performance of the process or product as well as enable interoperability (where applicable). For example, the IEEE 802.11 standards, popularly known as WiFi, lay down the architecture and specifications of wireless networks. The adoption of the standards by manufacturers and organizations allows us to use our smartphones and tablets using WiFi around the world, even though the devices from different manufacturers do not all use the same type of plug for charging. Imagine, if the world had adopted one standard for domestic electrical systems and devices, we would not have to travel with a host of plug adapters and power transformers, when we travel the globe.

IEEE: How do standards help “clean up” our technology practices?
ML: First, there are many types of standards, ranging from technology standards to what we call ‘standards of care’, which focus on health. Examples of technical standards helping in the sustainability effort would be ones that address energy efficiency of devices, thus leading to a lower greenhouse gas footprint when a device built to such a standard is in use. Another example are labeling standards that include labeling of a product including instructions for the safe and efficient use and maintenance of a product during its lifecycle, as well as its proper disposal, thus lowering environmental impact.

True long term progress toward a more sustainable world benefits greatly from the use of standards that include specifications and procedures that include addressing the social, environmental and economic impacts of the use of the devices and services under consideration. We need to implement socially and environmentally responsible ‘activities/projects’ to achieve (more) economic viability and grow economies to support our populations in a sustainable way.

We talk about a ‘circular economy’ and ‘circular use of resources’, for example, ultimately challenging us to take any device and re-use all its material at the end of its usable life. Standards and further standards development dealing with this type of requirement — for example, ‘de-manufacturing’ devices to drastically reduce e-waste — would be very helpful to “clean up” our technology practices.

Another area for “cleaning up” our technology practices is our tendency to store ‘a lot of data’, and multiple copies, that we may never look at again — data, documents, images, videos — wasting storage capacity and energy.

IEEE: What would happen if we did not have standards around sustainability and “green tech”?
ML: Not having standards would be a huge challenge – un-imaginable. It would slow down, if not halt entirely, the deployment of technology that is expected to enable sustainable development – i.e. clean electricity, internet connectivity, ubiquitous access to the internet, internet for all.

Consider the internet: devices would not connect to each other (no data transfer). It would be like people speaking different languages trying to make sense of what was said and not understanding each other at all.

Beyond that, we would not know whether a device would be ‘green’ or the use of a device would be ‘green’. If we do not have standards, we have no metrics; no way to measure that we have achieved any progress or have lost advances we made previously. Standards are necessary to keep progress moving forward.

IEEE: What types of IEEE standards are helping to drive sustainability efforts?
ML: There is work being done on standards supporting sustainability in various areas. These range from standards and projects addressing clean energy and emissions to energy efficiency and human well-being, supporting the three pillars of sustainability–economic, environmental and social.

IEEE also drives global actions toward sustainability, including playing a role in the recent WSIS Forum, where I discussed the topic “How to Make Tech Development Work for Sustainable Development”.  And, very importantly, the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems and Digital Inclusion, Identity, Trust, and Agency program are aligned with sustainable development. Learn more about IEEE SA sustainability efforts:


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