Disruptive change is here

IEC needs to become fit for its challenges

IEC President James E. Shannon address to Council

Jim Shannon at IEC GM, Busan, Korea
IEC President James E. Shannon addresses Council at IEC GM

At the start of this talk, Shannon thanked the Korean National Committee, the Korean Agency for Technology and Standards (KATS) and the Korean Standards Association (KSA) for a superb job of hosting and organizing the IEC GM in Busan. He also thanked his predecessor, Dr Junji Nomura, who finishes his term as Immediate Past President at the end of the year, for his steadfast support of the IEC not only during his presidency, but throughout his whole career.  

Shannon then underlined the importance of broad collaboration with other organizations in general and with ISO in particular. “While both organizations have different scopes, approaches to governance and substantially different participants, IEC and ISO have also much in common, sharing the same values and understanding that there are many areas where both organizations benefit from cooperation.” One such area is IT. Over the past year, closer alignment has been achieved in a number of areas, which will directly benefit stakeholders on both sides.   

Hereafter a transcript of the later part of his address to Council:

“Technology and society are changing more rapidly today than ever before in history. Organizations that do not recognize those changes and adapt to them will not succeed in this new world. This is the reality of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Klaus Schwab, chair of the World Economic Forum, contrasted this industrial revolution to its predecessors this way. He said: “We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”

Schwab said that “the fourth (industrial revolution) is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.”

At IEC we have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to meet the needs of this new world we find ourselves in. The honest answer is that none of our existing institutions are fully prepared for the rapid changes in technology that we are now experiencing any more than any of us were prepared for the backlash that has resulted.

None of us would have predicted three years ago that by 2018 the United States would have withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, the United Kingdom would be leaving the European Union and the world would be on the brink of a trade war that threatens all of our economies.

In order to continue to be a leader in bringing about technological advancement in the world we have to recognize that the old way of working will not succeed in this new age.

We don’t have a choice on whether to collaborate with other organizations. We can no longer fulfil our mission effectively if we are not willing to bring down the walls between us and other organizations who share our values. We have to recognize that much of the new economy is powered by small and medium sized enterprises and we need more of them participating in our process to get the full range of expertise that the new economic realities require.

We have to devise better ways to work with people who have not been involved in traditional standards development and conformity assessment activities. Our structure and our process were built for an earlier industrial model not for a world where, for instance, organizations like consortia play an important part and where industries that never had to work together now find themselves connected.

Strategies to ensure that we continue to get the right people involved in IEC are issues that the Standardization Management Board and the Conformity Assessment Board are already dealing with, but this imperative will call for greater creativity and flexibility from all of us in the decades ahead.

We should also recognize that the same technological disruption that has caused us to rethink our processes has had huge economic, political and cultural effects on the whole world. The movement against multilateralism and toward nationalism that I spoke about last year in my address to this Council has continued unabated. This is an issue of concern not just to IEC but to all organizations that are established to foster global cooperation and global participation in standards, conformity assessment and other areas that are the pathways to international trade. While we are adjusting our own internal processes to better address 21st century needs we must not ignore the serious threat that these global trends pose to all that we do.

Since IEC came into being 112 years ago under the leadership of our first president, Lord Kelvin, it has stayed true to values that are just as relevant today as they were in 1906. We believe that the whole world should be able to benefit from the advancement of technology. Our commitment to that idea was evident from the very beginning with the work of the IEC to bring electricity to everyone in the world. And we have to remember that that goal is not yet achieved. The role we play today in bringing environmental, renewable energy and medical technology to people everywhere is just as important. We believe in consensus and we believe that technical decisions should be based on science.

We bring experts to our table from over 170 countries and ask them to share their knowledge and expertise. Our participants are asked to evaluate the technical merits of the issues before them without regard to who offers those solutions or which country they come from. We recognize the importance of our work in advancing international trade and global markets for products.

I find the debate about whether we need a global approach to the economy baffling. The marketplace is already global and it is folly for anyone to try to deny that reality. The best way to advance the health, safety and well-being of the whole world is to maximize the chance for people in every corner of the world to benefit from this progress through more international trade.

So these are challenging times and the process of making IEC a more nimble, transparent and collaborative organization to meet the needs of these fast changing times has only just begun.

I am proud of the progress we have made together over the last year but as I said a few minutes ago we have a lot more to do to create an organization that we can confidently say is fit for the challenges that we must confront. But I know that we will succeed.

My confidence in the future of IEC comes from my experience working with all of you. IEC is not just a technical organization that is located in Geneva. It is a movement consisting of tens of thousands of people dedicated to our mission to improve the safety and well-being of people all over the world by advancing consensus based technical solutions.

All of you are IEC. Your active support of our work in your own countries and your willingness to share your expertise and experience in our process are the reason the reputation of IEC is so great. In these dynamic and challenging times we need your commitment to IEC more than ever. Thank you.”