Global Concerns Global Concerns - XVII

I was reflecting the other day on what we euphemistically call the "big picture". In my present position as Chancellor of a university, I am constantly confronted by people with conflicting points of view. More often than not, the basis of the conflict stems from the breadth and scope of their vision. One side will concentrate on minutiae while the other keeps a problem in context and reasons from the basis of "the big picture".

I recall from about 1982 to 1984, there was a debate in the US control community, especially within the American Automatic Control Council, about the value of making a bid to host the 1996 IFAC Congress. There were two other National Member Organizations (NMOs) bidding for the Congress - NMOs of China and Spain. There were Americans who argued that we had never hosted such a "large" and "expensive" conference in our field in the US and therefore there was substantial financial risk to making such a bid. Besides, who needed an IFAC Congress again in the US? After all, there had been one in 1975. Further, we had our own meetings, especially the JACC/ACC, which were successful and drew in many participants from outside the US. (If you are asking yourself "What is a JACC?" you are one of the younger readers of this Newsletter. The first name of what we now call the "American Control Conference" was the "Joint Automatic Control Conference". The JACC was run by one of the AACC Societies, in turn, on a multi year cycle. The name changed when the AACC took over management of the JACC - another example of people with a "big picture" mentality prevailed. But that is another story.)

The group which prevailed in the IFAC Congress discussion realized that not only were larger size meetings in the control field feasible, but also that they were inevitable and that a ten year planning horizon ensured that a carefully designed Congress in the US in 1996 could surely succeed. The planners were prudent and fiscally conservative as is appropriate for a scientific society. The AACC Societies which share ACC annual surpluses (or subsidize ACC annual shortfalls in case they ever occur) decided to invest in the 1996 IFAC Congress by retaining a portion of annual surpluses in a Congress contingency fund - just in case. This fund was to be paid back by Congress proceeds in 1996 but would be available to ensure a first class experience for Congress attendees in case it was needed. In the middle 1980s, average ACC and CDC attendances were 600 to 800. By the early 1990s, those meetings were drawing nearly 1000 participants. In the late 1980s, I called for a Congress planning estimate of 2000. The pessimists thought I was smoking something while the optimists were cautiously encouraged. The planners vision included a venue in the most attractive conference city in the US - San Francisco, and a meeting format which was inclusive yet maintained high quality. The worriers were concerned about earthquakes and economic downturns which might interfere with the Congress. Just as an aside, I understand that the AIAA Conference in flood-ravaged Reno in January 1997 was its usual success. I recall an IFAC conference in Udine in 1976 just after the big earthquakes. It was also a success. Engineers are a tough group.

The 1996 IFAC Congress in San Francisco was a great success. 2500 papers were submitted, 1500 were presented, and attendance was 2000. The Societies recouped about double their investment. AACC and the US control community stood proud. Maybe US President George Bush was on to something when he referred to "the vision thing".

People with vision who base their actions on the big picture are important in our communities, even in our small corner of the world called "the control community". Our professional societies should seek them out and look to them for leadership. Their optimism is infectious and uplifting. To paraphrase Norman Cousins, former distinguished editor of Atlantic Monthly, "Optimism is what drives society; pessimism is a waste of time."

I like to think of our control family including AACC, its constituent societies, and IFAC as being driven by an optimistic vision of what our field can contribute to society. If each of us will do our part, the family will certainly be successful.

This is the time this page has been accessed since March 7, 1997.