Global Concerns Global Concerns - XXI

In a recent article in The Bridge (Vol.24, No. 4, Winter 1998), a periodical published by the National Academy of Engineering, William Wulf, President of the NAE, reflected on the importance of diversity to the engineering community. As I started to read it I expected still another admonishment about the importance of diversity and how we all have an obligation to involve underrepresented groups of one sort or another in one activity or another. Happily the message was quite different and my reaction to it is closely related to the theme of this column. Wulf's bottom line was that we will not do the best engineering work unless we ensure that diverse interests and expertise are brought to bear on our engineering problems.

I believe that it is diversity that has made IFAC so interesting and successful. In some countries diversity is preached, legislated, policed, codified, legalized, etc. Fortunately in most societies diversity is simply part of life and hardly discussed at all. From a professional point of view, the IFAC family is an extraordinary example of a diverse community of engineers and scientists. The most obvious aspects of this are the national backgrounds of its people. This year marks my 36th as an active participant in IFAC activities, and the last in which I will be an officer of IFAC. It has been an extraordinarily interesting period for me and has provided me with unusual opportunities to appreciate the values of diversity in engineering and science. Due to the structure of the organization, I have been the only person from the United States on the IFAC Council since 1987. Bill Miller, whose engineering career was with the General Electric Company, was the only person from this country on the Council from 1978 to 1987. Before Bill came Jack Lozier, an engineer and technical manager at Bell Laboratories, who served on the Council from 1961 to 1978. Hal Chestnut, a General Electric engineer and author of well-known textbooks in control and systems engineering was a member of the Council from 1957 to 1961. Of course Chestnut, Lozier, and I eventually became Presidents of IFAC. Each of us, during our service as Council members, served with a group of about 15 control engineers, most of whom did not speak English as their native language. Most of our colleagues grew up in quite different social, political, and professional surroundings. Some were victims or prisoners of war, and some were subjected to brutal political regimes during the Cold War. Yet we became close personal and professional friends and worked together to shape an organization that now involves some 5000 or so control specialists who participate in a few of some 100 meetings per year of one sort or another. Many of these colleagues are in frequent correspondence on both technical and personal matters by e-mail and post. Through all these years there has been a negligible amount of unpleasantness and only minor disagreements about professional issues. On occasion there has been a controversy about one thing or another, but the participants in such issues have either quickly resolved the issue or have quickly observed that IFAC is not a place which has a high tolerance for sustained disagreement.

I suggest that the aspect of IFAC which has enhanced its level of tolerance for different ideas is its inherent diversity. Some of us come from societies in which strong argument is tolerated or even welcomed. Some of us come from societies in which there should be no public disagreement, but rather private discussions in an appropriate atmosphere so that the public image remains unified. We have learned from each other, and all are better for it. That is diversity at work. Our technical meetings often include significant cultural events. Even the way the conference is organized displays cultural differences. We all appreciate these differences - indeed, celebrate them. And it is not because we are required to do so. It is not that we tolerate the difference; it is because we enjoy them and are eager to learn more about them. It is because we seek to learn about other ways to do things - both technical things and human things. This is a real strength of IFAC and why we proudly refer to IFAC as a family. I wish I could describe the numerous examples of kindness and support individuals have given others in the IFAC family as they have been in need - whether financial or personal. But these acts of kindness are often done either anonymously or quite privately and should not be discussed.

I have found the personal side of our profession to be a significant addition to the technical side. During the past 36 years of involvement in our control community through IFAC, I have made friends with hundreds of colleagues throughout the world, and as e-mail has become pervasive it has become ever easier to stay in touch with many of them through the decades. During this period I have changed professional positions and moved to several different parts of the United States, but the connections with these colleagues throughout the world have remained strong and rewarding.

This is the last time I shall be writing this column as an officer of IFAC. My three year term as Immediate Past President ends this summer in Beijing, and US representation on the Council will soon be in the hands of someone to be elected by the General Assembly. This 21st Global Concerns column also marks the end of my unique authorship of these biennial comments. In the future, authorship will be shared with my successor on the IFAC Council.

I hope to see many of you in Beijing this Summer. Details about the Congress may be found at About 1500 papers have been accepted for presentation in Beijing, and with all the cultural events planned, the Congress promises to be very exciting and interesting.

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