Kelvin Willoughby, Professor of Innovation and Intellectual Property at Skoltech, recently became a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a global institution of more than 423,000 members in over 160 countries. Professor Willoughby described the appointment as, “a great honor, especially given that I am not an engineer.”
Originally from Australia, but already a United States citizen for over 20 years, Professor Willoughby has had an extensive career spanning several decades and has been a member of the IEEE since the mid-90s; it was then that he conducted his first courses on management and innovation that crossed over with engineering courses.
How do you feel about your recent elevation to senior member of the IEEE?
“I’m really proud of it. It is not easy to become a senior member, and you can only become one if other senior members select you. The IEEE invited me to apply, I had to write a motivation letter, send a history of my activities, get support letters from senior members, before meeting with a committee. In other words, it is a prestigious thing to become a senior member. The fact that the IEEE is, I believe, the largest professional technical organization in the world makes this all the more prestigious. It includes scientists and engineers from all fields, and is independent of government and universities; it hosts many of the most prestigious technical conferences in the world, as well as a large number of journals on technology, engineering and science.”
How were you involved in the IEEE prior to this selection as a senior member?
“I was a faculty member of the University of Utah back in the 90s, and I created a graduate program in management and technology jointly between the engineering and business schools. Many of my students were in engineering or science fields and were involved in the technology business; I helped them create new technology companies. I also conducted research on the creation of new technology companies and their strategy for success. As a teacher, I regularly gave counseling concerning problems in managing startups, and I have been working with engineers throughout my career.
Earlier in my career, my main area was management of technology; over the last 10 years, I have been focusing primarily on intellectual property. I discovered that success in the technology business requires prowess in intellectual property, and, based on my professional observations, the most successful [engineering] companies are those that recognize this. The ones that do not place as much value on innovation and intellectual property are far more likely to fail. You need to understand law in order to deal with intellectual property; so, at the age of 50, I became a student of intellectual property law, having made an educated guess that combining my existing expertise with intellectual property law would facilitate my career in the field of intellectual property management.”
What are the responsibilities of an IEEE senior member?
“On a basic level, it is a title that confers prestige and recognition. I’m also now able to write reference letters for other members applying to become senior members. I am expected to nurture young engineers and pioneers of technology and encourage them to become members of IEEE as well. IEEE has multiple societies that cover many fields of technology. For example, artificial intelligence, advanced materials etcetera. I’m a member of a group called “Technology and Innovation Management.” We have annual conferences and have our own branch when there is an IEEE conference. I would encourage young engineers and entrepreneurs to take part in that kind of circle, because there is an academic side as well as a practical side.”
What was the main trigger for your appointment as senior member and how do you see the IEEE’s role as a global institution?
“I think it’s the fact that I’ve been a member for over two decades and have been an active participant; as well as helping engineering faculty and students with their new businesses, I am also a reviewer for journals, such as “IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management.”
The IEEE plays a major role in the technology sector; it has a huge number of publications, and many of the technology conferences that Skoltech researchers attend are often IEEE conferences. The organization also has a major online technical library system to which Skoltech subscribes.
Another field that I teach in is “management of technical standards,” a huge part of technology development, which I lecture about here at Skoltech. The IEEE is one of the main organizations that controls technical standards internationally in almost every technological field. For example, an IEEE-controlled technical standard governs Wi-Fi. It is an independent private organization, yet it has a major influence on the formation, management, agreement and maintenance of technical standards in telecommunications, transportation, construction, safety and so on. You need a standardized interface worldwide when you have an electrical appliance, enabling harmonious integration of parts that are manufactured in multiple countries prior to assembly. That is what a technical standard is – it is what allows the parts that go into making a mobile phone work together.”
How does your field cross over with technology and engineering?
“Engineers solve real world problems that affect peoples’ lives. A significant portion of engineers actually care about the social and environmental impacts of their work, so there are forums, conferences and societies within the IEEE that look at these kinds of questions. Many engineers get involved in working for startup companies or for large corporations, so much of engineering ends up being about management and strategy. That is why there is a whole division in the IEEE devoted to that. That is where I’m most active, because a large proportion of IEEE members get involved in starting companies. The human organization, economic impacts of technology, and the ways of managing new technology development are one of the central concerns of the IEEE, and that is my particular niche.”
“To finish up, I’d like to say this: Firstly, this organization has been a leader worldwide in recognizing that management, strategy and organization plays an extremely important role in technology development. Technology is more than just engineering; it involves design and the incorporation of multiple factors such as the economy, the environment, and people.
Secondly, there is real value in young people entering the field of technology to get involved in a truly international organization such as the IEEE, no matter where they are in the world. You can learn and measure yourself against your peers internationally – that is why I encourage young people to join.
Thirdly, having an independent, non-government, global technology organization is very important in today’s society when there’s conflict between countries, companies and different factions within society (pro-technology, anti-technology), mega-companies and little companies and so on. For this reason, it is good to have a global organization that is a vehicle for conversation.
On a final note, Skoltech is committed – as one of its core principals – to a subject about which I am passionate, which is connecting deep science and technological innovation. My whole career has revolved around facilitating this connection in a way that nurtures local economies and communities, benefits people and respects the health of the natural environment. Thousands of technical professionals in the IEEE also share this passion.”
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