Thursday, September 30, 2010

Underinvestment In Infrastructure

The World Economic Forum publishes an annual risk assessment. The 2010 report (Global Risks 2010: A Global Risk Network Report) looked at the interconnectedness between our global risks. The report commented on three global themes - - (1) The increase in interconnections among risks means a higher level of systemic risk than ever before, (2) The biggest risks facing the world today may be from slow failures or creeping risks, and (3) Poor global coordination on issues such as climate and energy polices have produced serious global governance gaps.

The report listed the top three global risks. What was interesting was risk #2 - - Underinvestment in infrastructure, both new and existing, and its consequences for growth, resources, scarcity, and climate change adaptation (#1 was our global fiscal crises and the social and political implications of high unemployment, while #3 was chronic diseases and their impact on both advanced economies and developing countries).

The World Bank has put global infrastructure investment needs at US $35 trillion over the next 20 years. The US spends approximately 2.4% of GDP per annum on infrastructure, compared with approximately 15% of GDP on health. Underinvestment in infrastructure, especially the US produces barriers to growth and development. The culture of the US has a foundation in our endless dreams and possibilities (and sustainability issues may change the context of some of these endless possibilities). We have all come to learn how complicated and costly it can be to sustain a dream. It really boils down to a simple fact - - endless possibilities and unbounded growth require adequate infrastructure (all this lost a little meaning when we dropped public works for infrastructure - - like in many avenues of our democracy, changing a word changes citizenship responsibilities).

The report addresses infrastructure needs in the context of the following areas:

  • Agriculture -- Approximately 75% of the world's poor continue to live in rural areas. Storage and transportation systems are critical to move agricultural resources from Point A to Point B. Improving water efficiency and irrigation systems are also critical to our global agricultural needs.

  • Energy Security - - The long-term trend of energy consumption is upwards. Needs in this area range from existing oil and gas infrastructure projects to investing in renewables. Once the global economy starts growing again, look for substantial price jumps in our energy resources associated with our underinvestment.

  • Climate Change Adaptation - - Roughly 15 of the world's 20 mega cities are coastal. Climate change is unavoidable -- investment in infrastructure is needed to manage raising sea levels and extreme weather events. This is a very good example of the social, political, economic challenges associated with creeping long-term risks.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Diamond

Innovative thinking involves stretching the mind. In many ways, the mind of the typical engineer can be described as an "Inch wide and a mile deep." The education of an engineer has concentrated on the construction of "silos" - - vertical storage units with a narrow knowledge base. Transportation engineers that focus on just transportation. Water resource engineers that focus on just water resources. Energy engineers that focus on just energy issues. Don't get me wrong, some level of specialization is required. Every farm needs a silo - - but at the same time someone needs a holistic view of the entire farm and various processes. This person typically is an "Inch deep and mile wide" thinker.

The problem you run into is that most of our truly complex problems cross a wide spectrum of our technology and cultural landscape. This runs counter to the engineering mind of information narrowness but logically deeper thinkers. We seek out far less information - - then having gathered it, we strive for logical consistency amongst the various pieces of information we have deemed relevant. We are trained to look for ways in which our observations connect to what we know. Engineers look for the logical implications of what we already know or believe in order to decide what new beliefs to hold out for testing. We look for connections of the logical and causal type among facts and quasi facts, rather than just associations and connections.

Engineering needs to think about a key question as we approach huge problems such as sustainability - - In what circumstances should logical depth dominate information breadth, and vice versa? In the context of a multi-disciplinary problem such as sustainability - - is more thinking better than more foraging or more asking, given that one can only think (or forage) more if one forages (or thinks) less?

Engineering typically rewards individuals for specialization - - the mile deep mind historically has been valued for the ability to explain "a lot by a lot" or even "a little by a lot." That worked well, as long as messy, complicated, and contradictory problems didn't cross vast oceans of knowledge. But problems relating to climate change, sustainability, and new energy systems are going to cross such oceans.

Some core group of engineers should have a focus on "Squaring the Mind" - - stretching depth and breadth into a diamond. The group needs to resist the desire to make easy tradeoffs -- between the ability to explain a lot by a little and the ability to see and observe a lot. The core group should have the ability to switch between thinking deeply and thinking broadly, and being able to integrate between the two. We need engineers that have an ability to think about thinking while thinking. In the context of sustainability - - we need engineers to think about what they are thinking about - - about the complexity of the problem they are trying to solve, while at the same time, thinking through various solutions to the problem.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Balancing Paradoxes

Engineering is becoming more about balancing paradoxes than solving problems. Some of our paradoxes are associated with national and local fiscal constraints. Other paradoxes are embedded in resource constraints and our natural limits to growth. Finally, an increasing focus on sustainability issues places many of our current ideas and projects into a rather small paradoxical box.

Mobility and transportation improvements are a central theme in civil engineering. The historical goal has been the efficient movement of people and goods from point A to point B. The paradox of this goal is the carbon footprint of our current transportation system and energy insecurity in an era of resource constraints due to improvements in the developing world and global climate change. Is it truly in our best social, economic, and environmental interests to make driving a more pleasurable experience? We are faced with a double paradox on this particular issue - - additional capacity in the highway system encourages more driving in an era where we should have system controls and market mechanisms that encourage public transportation. For so many reasons, driving to work with one person per automobile needs to be a more unpleasant experience.

Housing development at lower and lower densities at greater and greater distances from urban centers is another example of our paradoxical relationship with society. We need to be thinking in terms of higher densities in central urban settings - - energy economics and constraints combined with sustainability goals will drive this requirement. Seeing no limits in a world subject to increasing resource constraints seems contradictory, unbelievable, and absurd. Is it our professional role to be seen as the public face and facilitator of the absurd?

Engineering needs to be thinking about our collective paradoxicalness. Solving our energy problems in the context of national security and climate change concerns is a huge problem without a silver bullet. It has a solution matrix with lots of silver BBs - - where the goal becomes addressing and balancing the various paradoxes. This balancing act can produce complexity and ambiguity - - where the most talented engineer and manager feels a loss of control. We need to work at not ignoring complexity and paradoxes by producing simple cause-and-effect relationships. The fundamental goal needs to be a richer understanding of the total system of interest and the interrelationships between sub-problems.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Climate Change - - The Oceans

The other carbon dioxide problem - - ocean acidification. The problem is a function of carbon dioxide reacting with seawater to form carbonic acid. As the oceans become more acidic, corals and animals such as clams and mussels have trouble building their skeleton and shells. A much more threatening problem is the impact raising acidity has on growth and reproduction.

As in most areas of the climate change debate, there are facts and fiction. In terms of ocean acidification the facts are clear - - as outlined in the August 2010 issue of Scientific American by authors Marah Hardt and Carl Safina:

The ocean's interaction with carbon dioxide mitigates some climate effects of the gas. The atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is almost 390 parts per million (ppm), but if would be even higher if the oceans didn' soak up 30 million tons of the gas every day. The world's seas have absorbed roughly one third of all carbon dioxide released by human activities. This "sink" reduces global warming - - but at the expense of acidifying the sea. Robert H. Byrne of the University of South Florida has shown that in just the past 15 years , acidity has increased six percent in the upper 100 meters of the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Alaska. Across the planet, the average pH of the ocean's surface layer has declined 0.12 unit {scale is logarithmic}, to approximately 8.1, since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

The article is blunt in closing with -- "Only a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel use can prevent further carbon dioxide emissions from contaminating the seas."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Intellectual Diversity

Many organizations have mission statements dedicated to diversity - - yet, actually defining and measuring diversity typically produces a fragmented and hazy central message with an unclear agenda. Diversity discussions have historically been limited to ethnic and racial diversity. While these two aspects are important, often diversity is boiled down to public relation stunts involving people of different complexions taking a picture together.

Engineering should have a need and requirement to push the boundaries of the current diversity definition and engage the various professions in a larger conversation about the effective implementation of a refined diversity strategy.

Engineering fundamentally needs to embrace a broader spectrum that is often overlooked in the context of diversity - - intellectual diversity. Innovation comes about when people with different perspectives and backgrounds come together and contribute to a larger discussion about a problem facing humanity. Development of a trans-disciplinary forum throughout the engineering professions would be a bold step toward a more diverse, complete and innovative future.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Picture This

How many words have been spoken and written regarding health care reform? Maybe a million? Could be 10 million? Have you ever seen a good drawing or graphic on health care health (and you will not find one on Capital Hill - - it is the home of some of the worst graphical representations in history - - just watch a Senate hearing)?

Health care reform illustrates the world of words that we live in - - a culture that relies too heavily on words and eloquent language (I know, I am writing about a culture that promotes people who are verbal experts that are good at describing our problems as narratives or linear lists of facts - - I probably should have drawn this all out).

But sometimes the complicated and the complex are best described as systems - - systems that have parts that interface with each other. Systems, not of words, but systems of lines, and drawings, and graphics - - systems that have two and three dimensions. Systems that engineers understand, maybe not so much in words - - but in lines and connections.

The Back of the Napkin (2008) by Dan Roam should be mandatory reading for every engineer in the United States. If you want people to have the same mental model of a problem or issues - - do you write 300,000 words? The absolute quickest way is to draw it out - - a picture drawing is not childish and should not be given a backseat to verbal agility. Buy a pad of paper and pencil (yes, we still have these) or get an iPad or go to Graph.Jam - - but do something to practice placing your ideas on the back of a napkin.

Roam has health care graphics at:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Essential Skills for the 21st Century

The current issue of Wired has a list of seven essential skills that might be of interest to engineers - -
  1. Statistical Literacy - - Engineers should excel at this. Be sure and take a statistics class. Learn to embrace uncertainty.
  2. Post-State Diplomacy - - As the world becomes evermore atomized, understanding the new leaders and constituencies becomes increasingly important. A key question - - How do you practice statecraft without states? How do you reconstruct nation-states in unstable environments and regions.
  3. Remix Culture - - In a world of advanced technology based writing, aural, and video tools - - people don't start with blank pages. They start with preexisting works - - the goal being building something new out of cultural products that already exist.
  4. Writing for New Forms - - You can write a cogent essay, but can you write it in 140 characters or less? Engineers need to be messengers - - and learn how to adapt your message to multiple formats and audiences - - human and machine.
  5. Waste Studies - - Sustainability and efficiency will drive everything. Waste is the single biggest drag on our productivity - - and it's everywhere. How to become a smarter engineer in a limited world with bounded constraints comes center stage.
  6. Applied Cognition - - You have to know the brain to train the brain. As engineers, how do we think and make decisions? How do we maintain our knowledge and continue to grow and develop?
  7. Domestic Tech - - We need to get better at fixing stuff. Tech schools should be overflowing with students - - where the key question is how to apply hard sciences and engineering with our eyes, hears, and hands.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Equal Parts Engineer, Hustler, Fixer, and Diplomat

Floods in Pakistan have impacted an estimated 20 million people, an eighth of the population. Millions of dollars of crops and livestock have been lost. No region has escaped the destruction. Nearly 10 million people are considered short of food and their situation will remain precarious. The people of Pakistan face a triple treat - - loss of crops, loss of seed for the next planting season, and loss of a daily income.

Pakistan may represent the "new normal" in a world where the hydrogeologic cycle produces wild extremes caused by climate change. If not floods in Pakistan, then droughts in eastern Africa and raising sea levels in Bangladesh. The various governmental institutions have had a long and storied history of helping others in times of need and crisis. But our resources and capabilities to play the role of global protector and crisis manager may be coming quickly to an end. As Tom Friedman pointed out in his New York Times column of September 5, 2010 (Superbroke, Superfrugal, Superpower?) -- the United States could be entering a period of retrenchment. The focus becomes internal versus external. If so, who and what steps into the void in places like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sudan? This void is critical because washed-up paupers may provide hands for the jihadists.

The what could be a global network of freelance engineers. The who are individuals motivated and skilled in equal parts engineering, hustling, fixing, and diplomacy. Individuals that want to help - - ones that understand the only way to get things done in a crisis is no paperwork, no pointless meetings, no red tape, no BS.

Freelancers - - engineers that want to act responsibly, honorably, and nobly - - the ones that you can drop into trouble spots and hit the ground with improvisational zeal. Freelancers that know the score and can keep score - - who look at places like Haiti with appalling disapproval and see the failures of governments and major NGOs (UNICEF, Oxfam, and American Red Cross) that have been able to only construct 5,500 of 127,000 scheduled "semi-permanent" structures allowing for only 28,000 of the two million Haitians affected by the earthquake to be relocated from the tent cities.

Freelancers that are remorselessly industrious. Overflowing with certainty - - the ones that hate the world of corporate performance reviews because they cannot measure the soul of a person like you. Freelancers - - proudly pragmatic problem solvers, unideological - - the ones with the ideal of the life engaged in common service.

The future depends on what we do in the present. In a world of rising individuals and declining governments - - good social outcomes are what matter, and they matter most to those societies far from our shores. Those with difficult geography, complex social structures, overwhelming problems - - with an understanding if an undertaking was easy, someone ease already would have done it.

If your thing is helping people - - and you are equal parts engineer, hustler, fixer, and diplomat - - freelance around the globe. Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Drinking Grandma

The boys at Monty Python probably said it best about the funeral business - - "We can bury her, burn her, or dump her." In the context of sustainability, which is best - - bury, burn or dump? Consider the following facts (from Exit Strategies: Green funerals, The Economist, September 18, 2010) - -
  • Cremation produces 160 kg of carbon dioxide, while burial emits 39 kg of carbon dioxide. But this is misleading - - because mowing lawns and the like makes the carbon footprint much, much larger.

  • Coffin makers utilizing hardwoods are on the rise - - especially woods like mahogany.

  • Vaults are cumbersome and expensive.

  • Formaldehyde leaking into the groundwater can produce potential health risks. Cremations can produce mercury emissions from dental fillings.

  • Approximately 20% of all AARP members want greener burials. Greener might be - - sharing hearses or using homegrown flowers and coffins made with cardboard or willow.

  • Some want to be buried in natural habitats - - no headstones, plot, or vaults (a more civilized version of "or dump her").

  • Water cremation is catching on overseas - - where a corpse is placed into a heated solution of water and potassium hydroxide (look for product placement in the next Bond movie). After a few hours, Grandma is ready to be used as liquid fertilizer.

  • Freeze drying via liquid nitrogen, then vibrated so that it dissolves into a fine powder (maybe like Saw VII for this one).

Look for the ideas of sustainability to run into the walls of cultural norms and political forces (as LBJ demonstrated - - even the dead vote).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Looking to Patton, Carson, and Gandhi

We still don't have a strategic and holistic energy policy. The threats embedded in our energy insecurities and failures are quickly becoming an issue in three areas - - security, economic, and environmental/social. We are fast approaching a day of reckoning - - pollution, climate change, health, and cost colliding with a world of two billion emerging customers.

In the September/October 2010 issue of World Affairs looks at this issue (Our Energy Future, Now by James Woolsey, Rachel Kleinfeld, and Chelsea Sexton) from the context of three voices from the past - - General George S. Patton, Rachel Carson, and Mahatma Gandhi. The authors write the following:

The first is General George S. Patton, the hard-bitten standard-bearer for crushing our enemies and ensuring American security, who worries about our weakness and vulnerability to those with malevolent intent. What sort of country have we become, depending on an electrical grid that is routinely hacked by the Chinese (not to mention American teenagers)? And how did we get into a situation where every gallon of oil we buy enables Saudi Arabia to increase a global commodity price that pours money into the coffers of Russia, Venezuela, and Iran - - and finances schools of terrorists.

Rachel Carson, our second ghost, woke the world to the fact that the chemicals and pollutants were creating miraculous new plastics and pesticides were also destroying human health and natural habitats. But from her perch in the afterlife, she has also noticed that although SUV-driving soccer moms surely have nothing against Bangladesh, their carbon dioxide emissions may nonetheless be slowly causing it to sink into the sea. She worries about the unintended consequences that our energy choices have on our health, pollution, and climate. She believes there are "malignant problems," caused not by malevolent intent, but by complicated, interconnected systems causing inadvertent side effects.

For the third set of problems, those faced by the wretched of the planet, we call upon their greatest spokesman: Mahatma Gandhi. The masses he spoke for live where the energy grids do not reach, or where corruption and neglect have left such grids useless. It is on these regions that farmers struggle to survive as climatic changes undermine the arability of the small plots of land they depend on for subsistence. It is in their villages that girls must decide whether to sleep in the cold and eat unheated food, or risk the chance of rape that accompanies the daily search for firewood. And it is in their huts that women die early of lung disease after years of crouching over the smoke of dung fires. Gandhi is also a spokesman for self-sufficiency and what it can do for prosperity in the village, as well as against tyranny. His charkha - - the small spinning wheel at the center of India's flag - - embodies these goals.

"Savage Seizures Of I Who Shall Be Called Queen"

And of course, King, Prince, and Princess. Power is gender neutral. One of my favorite columns is the Schumpeter column in the Economist. The September 11th, 2010 column is entitled - - "The will to power - - Why some people have power over companies and others don't." This is really nothing new. The old questions of "How do you get power?" combined with "How do you keep power?"

The key points of the article - -
  • The world is not just. There is considerable rubbish in the notion that the best way to win power is to be good at your job. The linkage between rewards and competence is loose at best.

  • Competence is a distant competitor to the projection of drive and self-confidence.

  • Work for a department on the rise - - follow the shifting sands of organizational power.

  • Manage upwards - - master the art of flattery. Studies have looked at the point where flattery is ineffective - - there is no such point.

  • The ability to network. Set yourself up as a node and become the link between separate parts of the organizations or clients. Power lies in and with the nodes.

  • Loyalty - - better the insider than the outsider. Loyal insiders are power centers.

  • The key to keeping power is to understand its corrupting effects. The powerful need to cultivate a combination of paranoia and humility - - paranoia about how much other people want them out and humility about their own replaceability.

  • Know when to quit - - know when to step off the throne and remove the crown. People who jump before they are pushed have a good chance of leaping to yet another aphrodisiacal throne.

Important That You Bury People With It

The current issue of Fortune (September 27, 2010) has an article on what I think is a great area of study - - cultural anthropology. The article, Intel's Cultural Anthropologist: Genevieve Bell helps the chipmaker analyze a complex system - - humanity. Bell has the cool sounding title of "Director of Interaction and Experience Research." She basically helps Intel's engineers with right brain issues - - helping the chipmaker power new devices, make new software, and enter new markets by providing its technologists with a better understanding of how people all over the world use computers, phones, and other gadgets.

Engineers, especially those that design products where high technology and people interface, need a better understanding or appreciation for the basic concepts of anthropology and ethnology. Pick up a book on the current research on cultural anthropology or take a class on ethnology. Think and reflect on the intersection of technology and humanity. Next time at the mall, just watch people and crowds - - is technology changing us or do we choose to be changed by it? Consider Bell's observations on her many global field trips:

She recounts meeting a Muslim boy in Kuala Lumpur who used his phone to orient him toward Mecca for prayer. She relates the story of coming across a ceremonial store in a city in Malaysia that had paper facsimiles of the latest cellphones. The paper models were burned so that dead relatives could talk to each other in the afterlife. "Technology is starting to manifest itself in every part of our lives," Bell says. "Not just at work and home but in religious practices, our love lives, and how we keep our secrets."

The words "stickiness" and "additive" are terms that accurately describe are individual and collective connectedness to technology. Bell has a very broad view of "stickiness" - -

If you do it right, if you make the thing in such a way that people love it, it will be part of everything," Bell says . It sounds macabre, but it has to be so important that you bury people with it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Triple Bottom Line

Look for engineering in the future, whether engaged in the public or private sectors, having a requirement and desire to establish a framework for discussing sustainability. Historically, the framework for project or product selection decisions have been based on a methodology embedded in engineering economics. The goal was to develop a single bottom line - - money in the context of profit or rate of return. Even public sector cost-benefit calculations have been monetized to a single bottom line.

The idea of a Triple Bottom Line provides for a broader approach that encompasses three areas. The first is the traditional economic. Optimizing financial resources with the goal of producing the greatest return. But the economic bottom line is bounded by two other ideas. The second bottom line is related to environmental goals. Given the economic bottom line, goes the project or product provide for a sustainable future? Does the project or product (1) endanger the survival of humans, (2) impair human health, (3) cause species extinction or violate human rights, or (4) reduce quality of life or have consequences that are inconsistent with other values, beliefs, or aesthetic preferences? The second bottom line is not the narrowness of an environmental impact statement - - it is the expansiveness of a holistic view of our global environmental systems in the context of establishing a sustainable future for multi-generations. The third bottom line is social justice. What are the social consequences of the project or product? Have the ideas of social equity been taken into consideration with the idea of sharing our available resources in a sustainable manner?

In the future - - The Triple Bottom Line may become the foundation and framework that defines and measures the ideas and concepts embedded in sustainability.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Waterproof Mascara Is A Must

The following is from the blog (as reported in the October 2010 issue of Harper's Magazine) of British surgeon Karen Woo, one of ten aid workers with the International Assistance Mission killed in August by the Taliban while providing medical care in northern Afghanistan.

Sunday, December 20
I'm now slowly morphing out of my London life, no sexy dresses and high heels here; I find myself blending in with the blokes. It's strange, in a way, as I feel quite at home, though I know that life here for most of my friends back home would seem like one hellish choice. All my life I've planned for a less than easy environment. For a good couple of years as a child I refused to go to bed without underwear on just in case I got kidnapped during the night. I was, of course, immune to my mother's protests that it was unhygienic to sleep in your underwear. I just couldn't bear the idea of being taken out through the bedroom window, nightdress billowing and no clean pants.

Thinking back on the things I liked best, really it was the torches and the penknives, the CB radio and the camping kit. Saying that though, I was also probably the only tomboy who also loved makeup and was very happy climbing trees outside the house in my electric blue miniskirt and full 1980s kohl-black eyes. So for now, I'll continue to cause a stir by putting on my makeup in my combats; waterproof mascara is a must for any hostile environment.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Don't Choke

We are getting close to World Series time - - so here is a list of tips for performing in clutch situations:
  • Focus - - Focus projects and programs with the vision required to see the real issues. Separating facts from minutiae can be difficult so you have to ensure you have the information needed to properly frame the issues.

  • Discipline - - In its simplest form, discipline means staying on message. Equally important is the ability to evaluate "choices in the present, without interference from the past." Scenarios change - - the reasons behind a drought or flood last decade may not be reasons behind a recent drought or flood.

  • Adapting - - Learning from a mistake requires adaption. So does learning in a rapidly changing situation. Adapting on the fly involves keeping your eye on the goal, not the original plan.

  • Being present - - This is a learned behavior that incorporates the clutch traits and adds self-confidence - - but not cockiness or arrogance. Preparation boosts confidence by ensuring that you control you actions and reactions.

  • Fear and desire - - Both are great motivators. Fear equates to living a life without a Plan B. It works for the short term, but life without a backup plan has no inherent goal. It's running scared. Desire looks for the long term. Desire is never content.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Plaid with a Modern, Human Touch

The magazine from the Wall Street Journal recently ran a profile of Burberry's CEO, Angela Ahrendts. Several interesting notes from the profile:

Angela is very different, very modern, very human. She gets people to work harder than they ever have just by letting them know how important they are, how much the team relies on them.

In meetings, which Ahrendts often attends back-to-back for 12 hours a day when she is in London, she listens intently and, as a fan of classic management books like "The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader," by John Maxwell, has trained herself not to interrupt or seem rushed. Her eye contact never wavers, and while she insists she couldn't function without her briefing folder, she never seems to need to look at them.

To expand on her readings and interest, Maxwell's 21 are as follows:
  1. Character - - Be a piece of the rock.

  2. Charisma - - The first impression can seal the deal.

  3. Commitment - - It separates doers from dreamers.

  4. Communication - - Without it you travel alone.

  5. Competence - - If you build it, they will come.

  6. Courage - - One person with courage is a majority.

  7. Discernment -- Put an end to unsolved mysteries.

  8. Focus - - The sharper it is; the sharper you are.

  9. Generosity - - Your candle loses nothing when it lights another.

  10. Initiative - - You won't leave home without it.

  11. Listening - - To connect with their hearts, use your ears.

  12. Passion - - Take this life and love it.

  13. Positive Attitude - - If you believe you can, you can.

  14. Problem Solving - - You can't let your problems be a problem.

  15. Relationships - - If you get along, they'll get along.

  16. Responsibility - - If you won't carry the ball, you can't lead the team.

  17. Security -- Competence never compensates for insecurity.

  18. Self-Discipline - - The first person you lead is you.

  19. Servanthood - - To get ahead, put others first.

  20. Teachability - - To keep leading, keep learning.

  21. Vision - - You can seize only what you can see.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Tory Burch and The Last Mile

My wife loves Tory Burch shoes. I am not picking on Tory Burch shoes with this posting (a pair of Cabela's hunting boots has the same issues - - so don't send me hate e-mail) - - but they provide an excellent example of "The Last Mile" problem in the context of sustainability and our supply chains as we approach Peak Oil (or Peak Cheap Oil).

I am assuming the shoes are manufactured in China, like a large portion of our clothing and footwear market. The distance between China and Dallas, Texas is roughly 7,400 miles. The logistics chain to transport the Tory Burchs involves huge economies of scale in the context of energy utilization and consumption. From ships, to rail, to truck, to airplane - - the energy consumption on a per pair basis (call it BTUs per Tory Burch Shoes (TBS) or BTUs/TBSs) is driven lower by the fact that 4,999 of other Tory Burch shoes are traveling with my wife's one pair as they make their way across the 7,400 miles.

The problem is "The Last Mile" - - and in the case of our family, the last 40 miles. The 40 miles represents the round trip to the Neiman Marcus at NorthPark Center to try on the shoes and make the purchase. When we drive my truck (Yes, two people - - I will be making the trip also), we consume roughly three gallons of gasoline (approximately 300,000 BTUs per TBSs or approximately 58 pounds of carbon dioxide per TBSs). This doesn't sound all that bad - - except when you are at NorthPark on this particular Saturday, you see 5,000 other families that have also blown the economies of scale in "The Last Mile."

Maybe the Internet and online shopping helps to solve "The Last Mile" problem - - UPS has much greater economies of scale than my truck. But their last mile is still worse than their first mile - - and UPS is going to have the same problems I have in the era of Peak Oil. As we move into a world with a greater emphasis on system sustainability, how we address and manage "The Last Mile" problem becomes critical. The problem is embedded in a huge portion of our retail logistics chain, but also in other parts of our national and international infrastructure. From high speed fiber optics, to wastewater collection, to solid waste removal services - - the problems and deteriorating economies of scale associated with "The Last Mile" needs to be addressed in a world with a greater focus on sustainability.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Burden is on the Innovator, Not the User

Engineers and scientists working on new products face two very different process development alternatives. This is especially true in the context of developing markets. Timothy Prestero, founder of Design that Matters (D&M), a nonprofit design consultancy for social enterprise, describes the two processes in Innovations (Winter 2010 - - Better by Design: How Empathy Can Lead to More Successful Technologies and Services for the Poor).

The two approaches can be categorized as the Invention Approach (Specify the Technology, Develop the Product, Find the User, Market) and the Design Approach (Specify the User, Context & Need, Define the Requirements, Develop the Product). Prestero argues that the design approach is an effective alternative to the invention approach in the developing world. Prestero writes:

The most basic difference is that where invention often leads to a technology is search of a user (or a solution in search of someone who has that problem), design starts with the user and then goes in search of the technology. In design, specifying the user involves conducting direct and indirect research to define who the user is and what they want - - sometimes described as "consumer pull."

Two words are extremely important when discussing the difference between the two approaches - - the first is empathy. Prestero explains the role of empathy as follows:

The first component of empathy is the understanding that there are no "dumb users," only dumb products. For example, my cell phone, which was clearly developed by a bunch of engineers, contains dozens of amazing features that after two years I have yet to figure out. Hearing this, the cell phone engineer might reply that I am merely lazy - - that all of the clever features buried in multiple sub-menus and behind cryptic key combinations would be intuitive if only I would bother to read and memorize the 45-page product manual. In great design, the burden is on the innovator, not the user, to justify every quality and feature of a product.

The second word is context - - do you, as a designer, have an understanding of the setting, meaning, and world of your design? Prestero writes the following:

The second component of empathy in design is the appreciation of context. Again, an engineer might complain when a user shorts out his cell phone in the rain, arguing that the device was only intended to use in dry weather (however, absurd that claim). The qualities that define a product or service become either virtues or liabilities as a function of context. Many products are developed with embedded cultural assumptions that prove to be crippling liabilities in the context of a developing country. Examples include general assumptions about the availability of spare parts and trained maintenance, or very specific assumptions about a user's familiarity with the standard iconography of consumer electronics.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Chicken, Cow, Grass

The world is not only getting flatter - - it is also developing a tilt to the East. Because of their economic power combined with their tremendous growth rate - - the world is shifting more toward Eastern thinking modes while developing an enlightened appreciation of Eastern culture. Engineers need to be aware of this, especially the thinking part, as we attempt to adapt to this changing environment.

Consider the simple example. The chicken, cow, and grass - - which of the three does not belong? A majority of Western respondents answer, grass. Chicken and cow are both forms of meat that we eat, while grass is not. Western thinking is logical, teleological, and seeks causal links and categories - - very similar to the way engineers are trained to think.

A majority of Asian respondents answer, chicken. Cow and grass form an ecosystem, as cows eat grass. Eastern thinking is holistic, systemic, and seeks relationships - - the attributes that one typically associates with thinking in terms of sustainability and complex systems.

Which way of thinking is needed? Both - - especially in a global economy. Engineers need both - - we need the logical skills that can link unrelated events in cause-and-effect chains. But perhaps even more important, engineers need the holistic skills that help them understand complex systems and how the various parts link together - - because global goods, labor, capital, and information markets form an intricate ecosystem whose interactions are complex and not easy to grasp.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Who's In Charge

We had another gulf drilling explosion last week and this week we have seen the first of what will be many reports start to come out on the BP Gulf oil spill.

The August 30, 2010 edition of The Wall Street Journal reported an exchange between BP and Transocean in a hearing that gets to the heart of the matter very quickly:

In hearings last month, Transocean attorney Miles Clements repeatedly pushed one of BP's managers on the rig, Ronald Sepulvado, as to who was in charge.

"You were the top, top ranking man on the rig in the hierarchy, were you not, sir?" Mr. Clements asked.

"Well, you know, everybody's on the same level," Mr. Sepulvado replied.

Mr Clements tried again: "Would you say the buck stopped with you on the rig?"

"Well, sometimes it did and sometimes it didn't," said Mr. Sepulvado, who added that workers talked through any disagreements.

"Sure. And at the end of those discussions, would you be the one to decide what to do?" Mr. Clements finally asked.

"Yes," came the answer.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Efficient Relationship Paradox

Customers and clients typically come in basically three varieties. All three types are a function of time. The first is the customer or client of the past - - the one you see in your rear view mirror. This is the customer or client that you lost - - for a multitude of reasons and explanations. The second is the customer or client in the present tense - - the one you just had a meeting with today. The third is the customer or client of the future - - the one on the other side of the mountain.

The Financial Page of the September 6, 2010 issue of The New Yorker has a great take on customers - - past, present, and future:

The real problem may be that companies have a roving eye: they're always more interested in the customers they don't have. So they pour money into sales and marketing to lure new customers while giving their existing ones short shrift, in an effort to minimize costs and maximize revenue. The consultant Lior Arussy calls this the "efficient relationship paradox": it's only once you've actually become a customer that companies put efficiency ahead of attention, with the result that a company's current customers are often the ones who experience its worst service. Economically, this makes little sense; it's more expensive to acquire a new customer than to hold on to an old one, and, these days, annoyed customers are quick to take their business elsewhere. But, because more companies are set up to focus on the first sale rather than on all the ones that might follow, they end up devoting all their energies to courting us, promising wonderful products and excellent service. Then, once they've got us, their attention wanders - -

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mapping The New Terrain

The McKinsey Quarterly recently came out with a list of new technologies that we should keep a close eye on in the coming years. Trends and technology are important - - but just as important is an understanding as to how these new and advanced capabilities fit into existing management and organizational structures.

The list of 10 technologies include the following:
  1. Distributed cocreation moves into the mainstream - - How can companies create value in Web communities? Wikipedia moves mainstream, where customers are an active part of knowledge creation and customer support. The "crowd" becomes the expert to mark a path and solve problems.
  2. Making the network the organization - - The world becomes the talent pool. Organizations tapping into a global market of flexible networks. Look for organizational boundaries to be stretched across internal and external lines to find the best people with the best answers - - regardless of who, where, why, what, and how.
  3. Collaboration at scale - - How do you improve the efficiency and effectiveness of knowledge workers? Web conferencing and video links will increasingly play a key role in cementing connectedness and collaboration. In addition, internal blogs, podcasts, and open-collaboration databases will also be important collaboration tools.
  4. The growing "Internet of Things" - - The things will be sensors, actuators, and communication capabilities. Connecting dumb assets to create smart networks. A huge area with tremendous potential - - networks with greater efficiencies, new product capabilities, and novel business models.
  5. Experimentation and big data - - Finally arriving at a world where all the Internet and network has utilization. The era of using all the information to analyze new business opportunities - - experimentation, modeling, risk profiling, and developing data driven performance metrics.
  6. Wiring for a sustainable world - - The "Green Data Center" - - linked to smart meters, senors, and smart networks. Utilizing IT capabilities to manage a world where "doing more with less" is a key foundation of global sustainability.
  7. Imagining anything as a service - - Customer acceptance of Web-based cloud services will allow customers the opportunity of "paying only for what you use." Genetech, for example, uses Google Apps for e-mail and to create documents and spreadsheets, bypassing capital investments in services and software licences.
  8. The age of the multisided business model - - Moving from a world of one-on-one traditional transactions to a world of multisided business models (think three dimensional chess). Facebook is a great example, the business model is multisided - - Facebook as the platform facilitator, you as a user, the huge network, and revenue generated from advertisers and services.
  9. Innovating from the bottom of the pyramid - - Look to advanced technology playing a role in the context of innovation in places like Africa. Mobile-phone service that also provide remote banking services in villages in the interior of Africa and other third world countries.
  10. Producing public good on the grid - - The planet will undergo vast urbanization in the coming decades. Look for smarter grid tools to help reduce economic and social strains of population density - - managing traffic congestion, improving the reliability of mass-transit systems, and senors in water distribution systems to measure water quality.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Next 10-Years

The September 3, 2010 issue of The Chronicle Review ask numerous experts what the defining idea over the coming decade could or will be - - this is what they came up with:
  • The End of Human Specialness - - The role of each human shifts from being a "special" entity to being a component of an emerging global computer. A new sort of "nerd" religion based around a core belief that a global brain is not only emerging but will replace humanity.
  • The Internet Will Set You Free - - Over the next decade, closed cultures will find it increasingly difficult to keep their members from seeing and contacting people who live in more open societies.
  • Abandoning Disciplines - - Breaking down disciplines with the goal of solving multidisciplinary problems with multidisciplinary discussions, debates, approaches, and solutions.
  • Humility, Chutzpah, and the Future of Democracy - - "Humility" means knowing I must listen to others - - specially to those who seem most alien to me - - in order to understand and feel at home in a diverse world. "Chutzpah" means knowing my own voice and having the courage to speak it - - with respect for others and in confidence that my voice counts.
  • Revalorizing the Trades - - Jobs, jobs, jobs. We need a sweeping revalorization of the trades. In a world of either the college educated and professional ellites or not - - we need something in between, like the guilds of old.
  • A New Cosmopolitanism - - We need to regain our self-confidence, our dignity, as cosmopolites - - all young children must be taught that they are inheritors of the best in human thought.
  • The Maddening Crowd - - The tension between the individual and the collective will result in handwringing about the value of expertise and that elusive element, genius. What good is a professional restaurant reviewer when the crowd can provide wider (if not necessarily deeper) coverage?
  • Equity for Women (Still) - - The deeper question is whether we really believe men and women are equal.
  • Declining Infrastructure, Declining Civilization - - We are collectively $2.2 trillion in the hole. Potholes know no politics; they will continue to develop as surely as rain turns to ice in winter. Infrastructure is a fancy contemporary term for what used to be known as public works. The change in terminology may have helped distract the voting public from seeing it as their collective obligation and a civic responsibility.
  • Elemental Accounting - - Companies and governments alike could benefit from such "elemental accounting." Knowing what material and energy is going in and what is needed to retrieve the material can help companies look for new business opportunities for the retrieved material while helping regulators keep track of pollutants and enforce quality standards.
  • Soul Science - - It became clear that the fundamental questions in the sciences overlap with questions in the arts and humanities, enabling collaborations between like-minded individuals in their respective fields.
  • Putting Ideas to Work - - What about giving the government the right on granting patents (or copyrights), but then to purchase those patents at a fair price and place them in the public domain?
  • Enough Already! - - The challenge of the next decade is to enlarge our minds and expand our souls, to be more mindful of the common needs of all humans and all creatures. Humans are the ultimate invasive species with an appalling record of exploitation and destruction. We cannot yearn for more and more and more in rising spirals of ruthless acquisition and expect to succeed.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Can't Listen, Can't Lead

Anne Berkowitch is a co-founder and the chief executive of SelectMinds, a social networking company based in Manhattan. She has several truly insightful points regarding leadership:

It's really being able to listen to people. So much of leadership, I've come to learn, is about being able to bring together a group of people, get the best out of them and get them to work as a unit toward some goal post. I think the building blocks that go into that are listening to people, really understanding what motivates them and getting them to push themselves beyond their comfort zones.

I think if you come at leadership with an attitude of, "I'm going to do this, and these people are going to follow me and be my support team," you'll lose.

Once you get the listening part down, move on toward the question part - -

Ask a lot more questions and make a lot fewer statements. Leadership is really about asking questions and letting people answer them. I think it's the only way you get teams to think. If you're constantly talking at them, they don't have to think. And as important as it is to ask questions and not make statements, you've also got to make the decisions, and faster.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Refusal to See and Set Limits

Citizens of the United States typically will summarize our national core values with three words - - freedom, liberty, and equality. Of the three, freedom rings the loudest. Freedom combined with out aggressive capitalistic system has produced more than a national abstraction - - it has produced a system and culture where freedom has been monetized. In essence, freedom has come to mean a refusal to set limits. Many people view this, for example in the context of water, as a right and freedom to utilize any quantity of water that they deem necessary for their particular lifestyle. The ability to pay for a public resource becomes a private right and freedom (and given our inability to adequately value and price water resources - - easily done).

This refusal runs directly into the limits of what our planet can provide. The essence of sustainability looks at our limits - - where professional engineers with an ethical and moral requirement to protect and monitor the health, safety, and welfare of the global public need to understand that they are fundamentally the guardians of the future against the claims of the present.

The September 2010 issue of Scientific American highlights the limitations of our more limited natural resources (How Much Is Left?):

  • Oil - - Peak Oil in 2014. You can argue endlessly about this - - but the recent disaster in the Gulf demonstrates the limitations of our current technical knowledge combined with the increasing levels of risk that we are being forced to take. Maybe not peak oil - - but "Peak Cheap Oil." Once you hit Peak Oil - - does that also mean Peak Roads, Peak Suburban Development, Peak Low Density Development, etc. - - we really need to be thinking about this issue in greater detail.
  • Water - - 2025. Climate change, pollution and population growth are putting a significant strain on supplies. Poverty, overfarming, overgrazing, deforestation, and increasingly erratic weather patterns will contribute to the conservative prediction that, if the world's temperatures rises as little as two degrees by 2100, as many as 250 million Africans will be left without adequate drinking water. Water is still the most important and improperly valued resource on the planet.
  • Indium - - 2028. The element in all the flat-panel television and computer screens. At current production levels, we have 18-years of reserves. How many Indians and Chinese, as their two countries rapidly develop, want that new television set?
  • Silver - - 2029. Find grandma's old silver service set - - because silver also naturally kills microbes, and it is increasingly used in bandages and as coatings of consumer products.
  • Gold - - 2030. Probably about 20-years of easily mined gold left. The global financial crisis was boosted demand for gold, which is seen by many as a tangible and lower-risk investment.
  • Copper - - 2044. The "in everything element" - - supporter of the electronic age. Probably the backbone infrastructure as we move into a potential new era of electric cars.
  • Productive Farmland -- 2050. Feeding a warming planet - - maybe longer growing seasons in some parts, while others will face more extreme weather events and possible agricultural pests. The issue is the new winners and losers and the shifts that will occur.
  • Coal - - 2072. Is anything virtually inexhaustible? The issue again becomes the advances in technology, the risks associated with those advances, and the impact of market forces as we search and development non-carbon based fuel sources.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What is a Gigaton?

In 1990, the world emitted 18 gigatons of carbon dioxide. It is projected that by 2050, we will be emitting 40 gigatons.

Any significant proposal for starving off global environmental, economic, social, and political disruptions caused by climate change call for reductions in carbon dioxide. Some scientists have suggested we need to get below 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide.

So what is a gigaton? A really, really big number. One gigaton of emissions is like putting 142,857,142 African elephants into the atmosphere - - enough elephants to stretch from the earth to the moon and halfway back.

Source - - The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth (2010) by Eric Pooley. This should be a must read for all engineers. An insightful view of the really messy, complex, and confusing process of how the forces of politics, economics, and environmentalism attempt to solve or don't solve a national and international problem. Not a pretty picture with very much encouragement.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Faith Competition

When it comes to religious competition, population is a key asset. Especially with Islam and Christianity - - where both are locked in a worldwide quest to covet and convert as many souls as possible.

Eliza Griwold in her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From The Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (2010), explains this best in the context of the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator:

Growing population intensify these competitions. Due to the explosive growth of Christianity over the past fifty years, there are now 493 million Christians living south of the tenth parallel -- nearly a fourth of the world's Christian population of 2 billion To the north live the majority of the continent's [Africa] 367 million Muslims; they represent nearly one quarter of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims. These figures are an effective reminder that four out of five Muslims live outside the Middle East. Indonesia, with 240 million people, is the most populous Muslim country in the world. Malaysia is its tiny, rich neighbor; the Philippines, its larger, poorer one. Together, the three countries have a population of 250 million Muslims and 110 million Christians. Indonesia and Malaysia are predominantly Muslim countries, with vocal Christian minorities. The Philippines - - with a powerful Catholic majority (population 92 million) mostly to the north of the tenth parallel and a Muslim minority (population 5 million) to the south - - is the opposite. It has been a strongly Christian country ever since Ferdinand Magellan planted a cross on an island hilltop there in 1521. Yet Islam, which arrived hundreds of years earlier, has remained a source of identity, and rebellion in the south for the past five hundred years.

Africa's and Asia's populations are expanding, on average, faster than those in the rest of the world. While the global population of 6.8 billion people increases by 1.2 percent every year, in Asia the rate is 1.4 percent and in Africa it doubles to 2.4 percent. In this fragile zone where the two religions meet, the pressures wrought by growing numbers of people and an increasingly vulnerable environment are sharpening the tensions between Christians and Muslims over land, food, oil, and water, over practices and hardening worldviews.