Membership associations: a perspective on the future

By Lee Davies, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys


A little context. For a number of years, I have been interested in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), advanced robotics, materials science, the internet of things, etc – often described as disruptive technologies – and their likely impact on the world of work. The logical extension of this thinking, at least in terms of the day job, is the impact on membership associations.


At CIPA’s 2015 annual congress, I challenged my members to think long and hard about the way disruptive technologies, in particular AI, would alter the landscape for IP professionals.  We followed this, in November 2015, with a public debate on the influence AI would have on the IP system.  An audience of IP professionals, IP rights holders and others interested in the topic heard four speakers argue for and against the motion: ‘this House believes it is inevitable that, within 25 years, a patent will be filed and granted without human intervention’. The audience concluded that this was likely to be the case, with many ramifications for the way IP professionals work.


In May 2017, I spoke about the future of professional identity at the annual memcom conference. I argued that the world of work was changing at an unprecedented rate and that membership associations, in particular professional bodies, were sleepwalking into a far from certain future. All too often the debate about the purpose and future of membership associations is channelled through the lens of social media. That is to say that people will continue to seek out groups of common interest, but that social media will allow individuals to do so without the need for membership associations. For me, this is a gross simplification of the challenge and one which entirely disregards the impact of more disruptive influences.


I believe that human kind is entering, what I would classify as, the third and final evolutionary shift in the world of work. The first great evolutionary shift saw the development of agriculture and allowed human kind to procreate at an extraordinary rate and sustain its growth. Crops and animals fuelled the revolution.The second great evolutionary shift saw the development of machines and industry, transforming human endeavour and further accelerating the expansion of humankind. Iron and carbon fuelled the revolution. The third great evolutionary shift has started. The development of technology has hurtled humankind forward at an unprecedented rate.  Data and digital processing are fuelling this revolution.


  • In 1637 Rene Descartes felt the need to predict that it would never be possible to make a machine that thinks as humans do.
  • In the 1820s Charles Babbage began work on his Difference Engine and Ada Lovelace completed the first program for Babbage’s Analytical Engine.
  • In the 1950s Alan Turing developed a scientific test designed to prove if a machine was exhibiting artificial intelligence.
  • In 1997 IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.
  • From 2000 to 2015 there was the same amount of digital progress as there was during the whole of the 20th Century.
  • Between 2015 and 2025 there will be more digital progress than has taken place during the whole of the 20th Century plus the progress made between 2000 and 2015.
  • In 2019 you are using artificial intelligence every day. In one day you will be exposed to more information than your great grandparents experienced in a lifetime.
  • By 2023 IBM predicts that its Blue Brain project will create a full human brain simulation, accurate at cellular level.
  • By 2040 many artificial intelligence experts believe that artificial intelligence will be deemed to be human-level.
  • If you are 58 or younger it is reasonable to believe that human-level artificial intelligence will exist in your lifetime.


I read a lot around the subject of the future of the world of work and was particularly taken by this quote from the futurist Stowe Boyd.


“The central question of 2025 will be: what are people for in a world that does not need their labour and where only a minority are needed to guide the bot-based economy?”


Concepts of professionalism and professional identity are changing forever and I do not think that membership associations are even close to being ready for what lies ahead. Here, however, we can use what has happened in the world of chess, since Deep Blue conquered Kasparov, to gain some insight into what the future might hold. Rather than retreat into a state of despair, Kasparov became the champion of a new form of chess – freestyle chess – where the players can be human, machine or a combination of the two: a centaur.


Freestyle Chess

  • Games won: AI = 44% Centaur = 56%
  • The best chess player in the world is a Centaur – Intagrand.
  • There are more people playing chess than ever before.
  • The number of Grandmasters has doubled in the two decades since Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov.


I think that we can draw from this the inevitable conclusion that future professionals, particularly in fields which are highly technical, will be centaurs.


But what does this mean for membership associations?  If you read around the future of membership associations, you will quickly come to the conclusion that most, especially those where networking and knowledge sharing feature prominently in the compelling narrative for membership, are doomed. The rise of social media and a new crop of ‘millennial’ professionals, who place less value on formal and traditional means of networking and prefer instead to establish their own relationships in their own ways, will see to that.


I believe, however, that this is a transient threat and that the real challenge is radically different.  The capability of disruptive technologies WILL continue to increase exponentially. The dependence on human expertise WILL decrease rapidly.  All professions WILL be mechanised, digitised, commoditised and deconstructed but, if we recognise the challenge now and accept that the future will look very different, professional identity WILL be in our hands – it will be what we choose it to be.



Lee Davies is the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys, a role he took up in February 2012.  Prior to this, Lee held the position of Deputy Chief Executive of the Institute for Learning, where he was instrumental in reforming and refocusing professional identity in the further education sector. Lee found himself working in the world of membership by accident in 1999, when he became the Secretary and Executive Director of the Thames & Solent District of the Workers’ Educational Association, without realising it was a membership association (the clue being in the name). Lee describes himself as an association leader who knows stuff about professional identity, leadership, governance, membership and the like. Lee is a passionate advocate for the association sector and is Vice-President and Chair of the Institute of Association Leadership (IAL), where he leads the Chief Executives’ Forum. Lee has experienced association leadership and governance from both sides of the fence, being a Past President and Board member of the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE). 

Lee is chairing Stream 7 – Influence – at the upcoming memcom conference on June 20th. Tickets for the memcom full day conference can be purchased from Eventbrite. Launched in 2000, memcom has consistently led the way in thought leadership in the membership sector for over two decades.