Global Trade and Collaboration on Big Systems

| Frans Vreeswijk, David Law

Standards are more important than ever

A couple of years ago, whenever I talked to business people or regulators, I was often disappointed by how little they knew about Standards and the role they play for governance, business and in daily life. However, more recently I find that awareness and understanding are increasing. I believe that this is due to two major factors that are related to global trade and increasingly big challenges that can only be addressed through big systems that require broad collaboration. In this context, the IEC and IEEE are developing joint-standards that provide solutions industry needs and avoid unnecessary duplication.

Profound changes in global trade

Over the past years we have seen profound changes in trade dynamics. On the one side, trade tariffs are lower than ever. The average tariff applied by WTO (World Trade Organization) members in 2013 was just 9%. At the same time the failure of the Doha round has sparked an unprecedented number of bi-lateral and regional trade agreements. Those have the potential of endangering previous multilateral agreements by excluding other trade partners and especially developing countries. In this context non-tariff measures such as Standards and regulations are increasingly important to overcome potential technical barriers to global trade. This is particularly significant in electrotechnology where offshoring and outsourcing has resulted in global value chains which can only work if every participant applies the same harmonized rules.

Today, electrical and electronic devices and their subassemblies transition through many countries before they are consumed by the end-user in a given market. The fact is that electrotechnical products are no longer “made in a country,” they are now “made in the world.” Raw materials, components and parts have to be exported, imported, and re-exported multiple times before the final product is assembled and shipped to that end-user. With this, the interoperability of products along the value chain becomes extremely important. Standards that ensure quality and compatibility are therefore more important than ever before.

Second biggest trade good

Electrical and electronic devices and components are the second largest group of goods traded globally. According to UN trade statistics, global trade in electrotechnology represents more than 12% (USD 2,382 trillion) in value and this doesn’t even include lighting, optical electronic and photo devices, medical devices and aircraft. In comparison, raw energy – the biggest trade good – represents 16% (USD 3,209 trillion). Automotive and fashion, which are by most people perceived as very big, really only represent 7,2% respectively 2,5% of total trade value.

Increasing consumption of electricity

But changes in trade are not the only driver for the increasing importance of International Standards. The penetration of electrical goods and with it the consumption of electricity is steadily increasing everywhere in the world. According to OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) projections, by 2050 developing countries will use double the amount of electricity developed countries use today. With the huge integration of electrotechnology in traditional and many new and innovative applications, the number of industry sectors that can benefit from International Standards is growing exponentially.

Cooperation more important than ever

Another trend that directly correlates with the need for International Standards can be seen in the increasingly fierce way companies compete today in the electrical and electronic industries. It may sound counter intuitive, but despite of this competitiveness, companies now have to collaborate more than ever before in order to deliver the technology solutions that are needed for the Smart Grid, Smart Cities, Smart Transportation and other increasingly big integrated systems. In reality, the speed of innovation has accelerated to a point where individual companies are no longer able to develop everything alone. Complex systems require large integrated technology solutions beyond borders.  International Standards are a key enabler of this cooperation…across industries and national frontiers.

Collaboration in standards development

The same is true for standardization work. Today, no single standards developing organization can develop all that is needed for increasingly complex systems. Instead we all need to bring our specific proficiency to the table to maximize resources. We have to combine our know-how beyond traditional boundaries to create a bigger whole.

The IEC works closely with many organizations, including IEEE. This ensures coordination of standardization work and helps avoid duplication of effort. The IEC and IEEE have jointly issued 50 dual logo publications and another 16 joint development projects are currently in progress. Collaboration is ongoing at all levels of the two organizations.

The aim is to achieve optimal outcomes and deliver what the end-users really need. The simple fact is: the pool of experts is limited and the companies that participate in standardization work expect clarity in order to contribute effectively and efficiently.

In this context IEC has invited IEEE to participate and support the first online community dedicated to moving cities to greater smartness.


IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission)

  • Founded in 1906
  • 167 countries – 83 Members, 84 Affiliates (developing countries who participate free of charge in the IEC Affiliate Country Programme). 98% of global population and 96% of energy generation
  • <20 000 experts from industry, test & research labs, government, academia and consumer groups
  • <170 Technical Committees
  • <9 000 International Standards in catalogue
  • >1 million Conformity Assessment Certificates issued
  • Headquarters: Geneva Switzerland. Regional offices: USA, Australia, Brazil, Kenya, Singapore

The IEC covers a broad range of technical areas, developing International Standards in support of safety, efficiency and compatibility of electrical, electronic and communications devices and systems.

The IEC uses a process to produce voluntary consensus International Standards. Each Member country, no matter how big or small, has a single vote in the IEC.

The consensus based process that is the foundation for IEC documents is a careful balance between speed in addressing market needs and consensus to build meaningful and useful results.

Globally leading multinationals, but also many, many small companies actively participate in IEC work via their National Committee.

The IEC is the only organization in the world that provides an international standardized form of testing, verification and certification. The IEC Conformity Assessment (CA) Systems are the largest and most successful multilateral recognition agreement.

Certificates of the IEC Conformity Assessment Systems are widely accepted, well beyond member countries.

Thousands of testing labs participate in the IEC CA Systems. Each of them accepts the certificates and conformity assessment reports of the other Members of a System. The ultimate aim is to reach one test that results in one certificate, which is accepted everywhere.

Frans VreeswijkFrans Vreeswijk

General Secretary & CEO, IEC

Mr. Frans Vreeswijk became IEC General Secretary and CEO on 1 October 2012, having served as Deputy General Secretary since 1 March 2012. Prior to joining IEC Central Office, he worked for 30 years for Philips in the Netherlands, Austria and the USA, notably in research, healthcare and consumer electronics areas. Previously he was President of the Dutch National Committee of the IEC (NEC) and has served on the IEC CB and SMB as well as representing the Netherlands in CENELEC.