Thursday, March 31, 2011

Warren Buffett and Engineering Ethics

Mr. Buffett once said: “Contemplating any business act, an employee should ask himself whether he would be willing to see it immediately described by an informed and critical reporter on the front page of his local paper, there to be read by his spouse, children and friends.”

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Engineering Awareness

Being insightful isn't a question of talent; it's a question of awareness.  Awareness is essentially being mindful of the cultural and social constructs that surround you and the people for whom you are creating something new.

The most important advances are the least predictable ones.  Where engineering awareness is driven by the informal, the impromptu, and by acute observation.  Engineering awareness starts with the realization and consciousness of context.  Engineering awareness is about engineers who examine the context for themselves rather than having it described by someone else.  To cultivate insights and uncover opportunities, you need to observe the telling moments that reveal what consumers actually feel and do (as opposed to what they say they feel).  It's the seemingly unbroken aspects of a situation or context that provide the richest opportunities for innovation.

Look for tension points - - the things that aren't big enough to considered problems.  Little inconveniences are classic tension points - - where engineering awareness is embedded in seeing and hearing.  Aways remember the golden rule - - opportunities are totally context dependent.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cheap Oil and Moore's Law

We are where we are because of the rise of two things in the last 100 years - - cheap oil and Moore's Law.  To do anything requires energy.  To specify what is done requires information - - information that begins with Moore's Law. 

The rise of a middle class in China and India is a fundamental demographic shift - - one of those transition points in human history.  This will put enormous price and supply pressures on oil and a host of commodities.  McDonald's hamburgers and two-car garages have the same basic input - - oil.

Consider the words of science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle as he discusses the root cause of food production and pollution control problems - -

"Food and pollution are not primary problems: they are energy problems.  Given sufficient energy we can produce as much food as we like, if need be, by high-intensity means such as hydroponics and greenhouses.  Pollution is similar: given enough energy, pollutants can be transformed into manageable products, if need be, disassembled into their constituent products."

Technology, with help from Moore's Law is going to be the input that replaces cheap energy as we deal with food and pollutions problems.  Worldwide, generating capacity from wind grew from 17 billion watts in 2000 to 121 billion watts in 2008.  Wind power, once considered a minor player, is becoming increasingly prominent.  The sun is still important - - remember that coal and oil are nothing more than concentrations of sunlight.  Solar voltaic production is growing by 45% per year, almost doubling every two years.  Worldwide, photovoltaic installation is now 15 billion watts, growing by 5.6 billion watts in 2008 alone.  Keep an eye on the price of Saharan real estate.

The real problem we face is the transition from gasoline to electricity - - and what will be the source of electricity for our electric cars and mobility.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Surplus Society and Jerry Garcia

If you are in an industry marked by intellectual or strategic laziness - - you are probably part of The Surplus Society.  Members of The Surplus Society are marked by - -

A surplus of similar companies, employing similar people, with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, producing similar things, with similar prices, and similar quality.

Or are you in an industry or with an organization that sounds like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead - -

"We do not merely want to be the best of the best.  We want to be the only ones who do what we do."

Sunday, March 27, 2011

"Being creative is just not enough"

Doreen Lorenzo, is the president of Frog Design, an innovation firm.  She has the following thoughts regarding hiring:

There's a certain personality you look for, because the business changes so rapidly and moves so fast.  As I always say, "Jump on the train, it doesn't stop."  So you're looking for people who are, obviously, very talented, very smart, who like process but understand that process has to change, and who are very eclectic in their thoughts and are passionate.  I took for people who have the sensibility.  They come from diverse industries.  They have conquered something.

They have to be very articulate, because in our business you have to explain complicated ideas.  Let's say a designer presents something to a client, and the C.E.O. asks, "Well, why did you choose that?"  You don't want somebody to say, "I don't know - - because it's cool."  You need somebody who can really explain why you're doing what you're doing.  Being creative is just not enough.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Global Poverty by the Numbers

Understanding global poverty starts with numbers.  The numbers can be overwhelming - -
  • More than 80% of the world's population lives on less than $10 per day.
  • 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, 2.6 billion people lack access to sanitation and 2 billion people lack access to modern energy sources.
  • More than 100 million people are homeless around the world.  A third of the global population lives in slums.
  • According to UNICEF, 25,000 children die each day due to poverty.
  • There are 2.2 billion children in the world, and 1 billion in poverty.
  • In the United States, approximately 95 million people, a third of the nation have housing problem, including a high cost burden, overcrowding, poor-quality shelter or homelessness.
The firm KickStart is bring low-cost technology to Africa and Central Asia - - blending technology, innovation, and activism in an effort to solve the "numbers problem."

Friday, March 25, 2011

What would a safety engineer do with an extra 20-seconds?

My review of "Second Before the Big One" by Richard Allen in the April 2011 issue of Scientific American.

We have all witnessed the power and destruction of an earthquake over the last several weeks. The recent events in Japan demonstrate the challenges safety professionals face with natural disasters. Earthquakes, unlike tornadoes, hurricanes, or other extreme weather events, historically have not provided the time and means for public warnings. Some areas, Japan is one, have early warning systems. Our most earthquake prone region in the United States, California, does not have an earthquake early warning system. California is one of the most earthquake-prone places on earth, yet it lacks even a basic warning system. A partnership of universities and state and federal agencies has proposed expanding the seismic network to cover the state. The program would cost $80 million (see California Integrated Seismic Network - -

The science and technology behind an early warning system is rather straightforward. Earthquake early warning networks and systems detect states of an earthquake and sound an alarm to warn people, companies, and government agencies of danger. Most systems rely on the fact than an earthquake comes in two parts. All earthquakes are made of two types of waves. The P-wave compresses the earth as is moves, like a sound wave but does not cause much damage. The S-wave that follows deforms rock up and down like an ocean wave. It delivers most of the tremor’s violent energy.

A network of sensitive seismometers would provide the basis for wave detection to warnings. A single seismometer can estimate the magnitude of an earthquake based on the wave science. Any P-wave with a high amplitude and low frequency would trigger a warning. False and missed alarms would be minimized with networks - - an average estimate of the magnitude would be utilized. This proposed network would provide safety professionals with maybe 20-seconds of warning. For example, an earthquake centered in the Santa Cruz Mountains would have a 30 second travel time to make the 60 miles to central San Francisco.

What would a safety engineer do with extra 20-seconds when facing the prospects of a devastating earthquake? The author outlined the following examples of what could be done:

• Commuter rail systems would automatically brake reducing the chance of derailments.

• Manufacturing plants would stop operations and switch equipment into safe mode.

• Construction sites would alert workers to move out of the most dangerous locations.

• Mobile phones and personal computers would light up with personalized alerts.

• Airplanes on approach to area airports would be given last minute “go-around” signals.

• Schools would sound an audible alarm, giving students time to get under their desks.

• Elevators in high-rise buildings would stop at the nearest floor and open their doors.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Line of the Week

Harvard Business Review this month has an entire issue on failure - - how to understand it, learn from it, and recover from it.  One article was related to a failed series of projects to bring clean water to Bangladesh.  Many factors and variables caused the failure - - but one of the most important was the following and line of the week:

Designing "for" instead of "with"

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Clean Tech Rising

From the April 2011 issue of Scientific American (Clean Tech Rising: China outshines the U.S. as the top investor, while Europe is a close third):

The U.S. has been a major player in clean energy technologies, but China is now the leader.  The top six European countries, together, are spending almost as much as the U.S.  The activity "flies in the face of skepticism about the clean energy sector," says Michael Liebreich, chief executive of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.  Given the trend, stepping up U.S. investment could enhance the country's competitiveness; an October from research firm Clean Edge concluded that China-based companies "are poised to increasingly dominate as clean tech employers."  Greater American effort would also slow climate change and improve energy independence; the biggest solar power plant in the world, it turns out, is being built in Blythe, Calf., by a German firm.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Three Little Pigs and Climate Change

In a world of sustainability and energy conservation concerns - - the pigs and their houses of straw, sticks, and brick are busily getting LEED certified.  The pigs might want to be thinking about another issue - - especially those that are planning on building in coastal areas.  A forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that sea levels may rise 59 cm by 2100 appears conservative, because it does not factor NASA-funded research published this month that indicates ice around Greenland and Antarctica is melting at an accelerated rate. 

To combat these threats, architects and engineers are designing flood resistant homes, floating islands and even cities on the water.  The Dutch are leading the way (and they always do in areas like this).  In Massbommel, Dura Vermeer has built 50 floating homes that can rise 5.5 m in a flood while staying dry inside so utilities work normally.  Hollow concrete bases keep the timber homes afloat.  The company is working on several projects for clients at home and abroad to produce hundreds of its newest type of floating house, which is partly submerged with a concrete and expanded polystyrene base that insulates against cold and water temperatures.

Consider the other global flood protection schemes:
  • The Thames Bridge in London is the main protection until 2070 when it will be upgraded or replaced.
  • Revised building codes in NYC make new developments more watertight in flood-risk areas.  Flood control features include thick walls and shields that come down in front of doors to stop water from entering the building.
  • The Coastal Councils Group in Sydney published a report in December 2010 proposing sand-mining at sea to replenish beaches that would otherwise be eroded at 10 cm per decade.
  • Singapore's Marina Barrage, opened in 2008, will keep out seawater from low lying urban areas.
  • St. Petersburg, Russia is completing a 25.4 km flood barrier that will protect the city from a one-in-l,000 year flood with a surge of 4.55 m.
After the tragic events in Japan, look for "Tsunami-Safer" houses.  Various designs allow water to pass through the building - - the structures have large windows and doors facing the direction from which water comes.  The doors and windows get blown away, leaving the main structure as it is.

The Prajnopaya Foundation charity is building 1,000 replacements for homes destroyed by the tsunami of 2004.  The pigs are correct to be working on LEED certification - - those in coastal and flood prone areas also need to be concerned with the Big-Bad-Wolf of climate change.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Get The Frack Out"

I live in Southlake, Texas - - the heart of drilling and new wealth associated with natural gas exploration.  Our city council is debating the approval of natural gas drilling within the city limits.  Even at the local level - - nothing is easy regarding energy development and production.  Many of my neighbor are sporting "Get The Frack Out" signs  in their front yards - - highlighting the concerns over the drilling technique of hydrofracking.

From Japan to the Gulf of Mexico to Southlake - - we are witnessing the end of easy energy, especially the end of easy oil.  The world won't run short of petroleum in the next few decades, but there's a limited supply of easy-to reach oil.  Between now and 2030, production from such "conventional" sources will barely rise - - from 79 million to 83 million barrels per day.

During the same period, demand for liquid fuels is expected to rise from 86 million to 106 million barrels per day.  While more than half of that extra demand will be met by other sources, such as biofuels and fuels derived from coal and natural gas (and Southlake may or not be a future source), the petroleum industry will have to make up the rest from harder-to-exact oil supplies.

To get at this oil, companies will drill in deep water to tap reserves below the ocean floor.  By 2030, the production of oil from waters deeper than 600 meters will increase from five million to 10 million barrels per day.  This year's disaster in the Gulf of Mexico - - where BP was drilling at a depth of 1,500 meters - - highlights the risks involved.

As oil gets harder to find, prices may rise, which will make riskier exploration more worthwhile.  This "higher price - - greater willingness to take risks" is an example of one such potential feedback loop.  The other potential loop was pointed out by Tom Friedman in his New York Times column today:

The world is caught in a dangerous feedback loop -- higher oil prices and climate disruptions lead to higher food prices, higher food prices lead to more instability leads to higher oil prices.  That loop is shaking the foundations of politics everywhere.

Bill Gates has also discussed the end of easy energy and oil - - "It is disappointing that some people have painted this problem as easy to solve.  It's not easy."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Deeper Talents

David Brooks has a new book out - - The Social Animal (2011).  He points out in the book that we have tended to define human capital in the narrowest manner - - IQ, degrees, professional registration, and technical skills.  For an engineer, all of these skills are critical for professional success.  But Brooks points out that a ranger of deeper talents, those that span both reason and emotion, are also critical.  Five of these are outlined below:
  1. Attunement - - The ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.
  2. Equipose - - The ability to serenely monitor the movements of one's own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.
  3. Metis - - The ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.
  4. Sympathy - - The ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.
  5. Limerence - - This isn't a talent as much as a motivation.  The conscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God.  Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Elderly - - Coping and Resiliency in a Dangerous World

One of the most striking observations coming from Japan is the impact on the elderly.  Granted, the impacted areas of Japan might have a higher concentration of elderly - - however, the statistics support a much older population overall.  Compare Japan and the United States - - the median age in Japan is 44.6 years old while the U.S. is 36.8 years old.  Look at the population segmentation between the two countries (The CIA World Factbook 2011):

  • 0-14 years old - 13.3%
  • 15-64 years old - 64.1%
  • 65> years old - 22.6%
United States
  • 0-14 years old - 20.1%
  • 15-64 years old - 66.9%
  • 65> years old - 13%
Two important things that we need to be thinking about.  The first is that the U.S. median age is going up, just like Japan and the rest of the developed world.  In another 20 years, our disaster survivors may start to look like the Japanese victims that we are watching on CNN (By 2030, Americans 65 or older will represent nearly 20% percent of the country's population).

The second point is related to the care and recovery functions associated with our future disasters.  Coping and resiliency will probably be in terms of a much older population base - - in both the U.S and the rest of the developed world.  Helping 67-year olds is far different from helping 37-year olds.  A whole new skill set and resources will be required - - from medication resupply to special medical care to different exposure constraints to rehabilitation and rebuilding. 

Our future populations looks a whole lot closer to the streets of Tokyo than to the streets of Cairo.  In terms of disaster planning and preparation - - we need to be thinking about the makeup of our future population.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Plan G

Plan G is typically the point in a disaster marked by a high level of praying for the dead and fighting like hell for the living.  It appears 50 or so nuclear engineers and technicians at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are at their own Plan G.  Our thoughts and prayers are with them.

The global disaster we are all witnessing points out several key points that engineers and the public should keep in mind.  One is that the path of forward progress is sometimes less than straight.  But long term it is generally linear and upward.  We have setbacks and sidetracks - - because bad things are going to happen, it is simply a matter of when.  In the United States, we probably need to stitch that on the flag.

Another point is that complex systems almost always fail in complex ways.  Accidents like the one at Fukushima are fundamentally at the threshold of complexity and chaos.  Remember that the greatest complexities arise at system boundaries.  In the case of Fukushima, the boundaries are where active generation interfaces with spent fuel and energy interfaces with water.

The last point might be the most important.  You learn much about a country when things fall apart.  We learned much about the U.S. during Katrina and we will learn much about Japan during this disaster.  So far, we have seen a culture steeped in dignity and resilience.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why are we surprised at surprises?

We are all guilty - - people form habits and routines and the habits and routines help them see or equally, make them blind.  At the organizational level our blindness is a little different - - there are a lot of systems in place, but we don't spend a lot of time understanding how these systems work or interconnect.  We tend to see only the tip of the iceberg.  It's when you go below the iceberg you begin to really see the factors that drive events, that give causal  explanation behind the surprise.  In order words, as we have seen on the east coast of Japan, we're surprised by some events that arguably should be foreseeable.

Engineers may well accomplish self-consistent design, but its outcome, the artifact can never be perfect in operation.  Neither humans working at the front end (e.g., operators and maintenance personnel), nor humans working at the back end (e.g., administrators and regulators) are perfect.  The system (i.e., the combination of artifact and humans with various responsibilities) therefore cannot be perfect.  It is not only the variability of human performance but also the human propensity for pursuing perfection with prescriptive rules while ceaselessly tyring to change the system for better, that makes the system incomplete and imperfect as the time passes by.

The Japanese nuclear reactor(s) accident demonstrates that safety is not a system property.  By this I mean that safety is something a system or an organization does, rather than something a system or organization has.  When you look at the pictures on CNN, remember that safety is not a system property that, once having been put in place, will remain.  It is rather a characteristic of how a system performs.  This creates the dilemma that safety is shown more by the absence of certain events - - namely accidents - - than by the presence of something.  Indeed, the occurrence of a unwanted event need not mean that safety as such failed, but could equally well be due to the fact that safety is never complete or absolute.

A system is in control if it is able to minimize or eliminate unwanted variability, either in its own performance, in the environment, or both.  The link between loss of control and the occurrence of unexpected events is so tight that a preponderance of the latter in practice is a signature of the former.  The loss of control is nevertheless not a necessary condition for unexpected events to occur.  They may be due to other factors, causes and developments outside the boundaries of the system.

It is a universal experience that things sooner or later will go wrong, and fields such as risk analysis and human reliability assessment have developed a plethora of methods to help us predict when and how it may happen.  When conditions are stable, it's easier to live with momentum and the projections we normally use.  With the potential of extreme weather events caused by climate change and the interconnectedness of our critical infrastructure systems - - the certainties of our condition have the potential to become more uncertain.  We need to start thinking about the unthinkable scenarios - - those "black swan" events and "flying cow" problems.  The challenge is that when things are very uncertain, we need to think differently because what we project based on current momentum many be the least likely outcome.  Both scenario planning and resilience engineering help point the way ahead. 

Resilience requires a constant sense of unease that prevents engineering and organizational complacency.  It requires a realistic sense of abilities, of "what we are".  It requires knowledge of what has happened, what happens, and what will happen, as well as what to do.  A resilient systems must be proactive; flexible; adaptive; and prepared.  It must be aware of the impact of actions, as well as of the failure to take action.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Project Oxygen

Google is on a quest for better managers and management.  Their goal is to engineer more successful managers.  Called Project Oxygen, Google has poured over performance reviews, feedback surveys, and award nominations, correlating words and phrases as only a data-driven company like it can do (10,000 observations about managers across more than 100 variables).

Google came up with their top eight high performance behaviors listed below.  None of this should be considered new or surprising (the owners and managers at Swords & Shields, Ltd. probably had the same list in Rome around 50 AD - - plus a weekend marathon viewing session of NBC's The Office would produce the same list - - granted the pitfalls list might be a bit longer).

What is interesting is the tension, conflict, and disconnect between the generation of a list and the execution of a list.  That will always be a fundamental challenge of humankind - - we are much better at generating lists than in the execution of salient points embedded in the lists.

Eight Good Behaviors (in priority order)

1. Be a good coach
  • Provide specific, constructive feedback, balancing the negative and the positive.
  • Have regular one-on-ones, presenting solutions to problems tailored to your employees' specific strengths.
2. Empower your team and don't micromanage
  • Balance giving freedom to your employees, while still being  available for advice.  Make "stretch" assignments to help the team tackle big problems.
3.  Express interest in team members' success and personal well-being
  • Get to know your employees as people, with lives outside of work.
  • Make new members of your work team feel welcome and help ease their transition.
4. Don't be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented
  • Focus on what employees want the team to achieve and how they can help achieve it.
  • Help the team prioritize work and use seniority to remove roadblocks.
5.  Be a good communicator and listen to your team
  • Communication is two-way: you both listen and share information.
  • Hold all-hands meetings and be straightforward about the messages and goals of the team.  Help the team connect the dots.
  • Encourage open dialogue and listen to the issues and concerns of your employees.
6.  Help your employees with career development

7.  Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  • Even in the midst of turmoil, keep the team focused on goals and strategy
  • Involve the team in setting and evolving the team's vision and making progress toward it.
8.  Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team
  • Roll up your sleeves and conduct work side by side with the team, when needed.
  • Understand the specific challenges of the work.
Three Pitfalls of Managers

1.  Have trouble making a transition to the team
  • Sometimes, fantastic individual contributors are prompted to managers without the necessary skills to lead people.
  • People hired from outside the organization don't always understand the unique aspects of managing at Google.
2.  Lack a consistent approach to performance management and career development
  • Don't help employees understand how these work at Google and doesn't coach them on their options to develop and stretch.
  • Not proactive, waits for the employee to come to them.
3.  Spend too little time managing and communicating

Monday, March 14, 2011

Word of the Week - - Megadisaster

Megadisasters can overcome society's best efforts to protect against them.  The fact is, nature often gets the last word.  Japan and the rest of the planet saw this clearly demonstrated over the weekend.

The Pacific Northwest is at considerable risk of a strong earthquake from the Cascadia Fault, which lies off the coast under the seabed.  And while the coastal zone of the Northwest does not have as much residential and business development as the that slammed by the Japanese tsunami - - the earthquake risks farther inland along the Pacific Northwest could well end up sustaining severe damage.

Consider the interface between dams and earthquakes on the west coast of the U.S.  For example, the Lake Isabelle Dam is made up of two earthen dams that straddle the Kern River Valley about 40 miles upstream from Bakersfield, California.  The dams have serious problems including an inadequate spillway and a lack of protection from earthquakes along the Kern Canyon fault, but repairs could cost $500 million or more.  A catastrophic dam failure could submerge the town of Lake Isabella (population 4,400) and send billions of gallons of water flowing into Bakersfield (population 340,000).

Lake Isabella Dam is just one example - - of the nations 85,000 dams, more than 4,400 are considered susceptible to failure.  The cost to fix both public and private dams is over $70 billion.  Given our severe fiscal constraints, the likelihood of our being able to mobilize the resources to either significantly improve the dams and to improve disaster readiness is limited.  But as we all clearly saw the past weekend, there are few issues as important.  Even preventable disasters, however, get short shrift because of our aversion to long-terms planning and commitment.

What we have recently seen in Japan needs to be our wake-up call - - nature does not care about long-term debt and deficits.  CNN has done a great job of demonstrating to the world that geology is inevitable - - at some level, the problem for engineers and policy makers is how to translate geologic inevitability into the timescale of human decision-making.  The earthquake by itself is not what poses a hazard.  It is the buildings, bridges, natural-gas lines, water systems, health-care systems, and broad socioeconomic interdependency making up modern urban living that present the potential for our word of the week - - megadisaster.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Forward Osmosis

Engineers should not causally accept the idea of trading energy for water.  Commercial desalination is usually done in one of two ways.  The first, known a thermal desalination, involves boiling seawater to 212 F, then distilling the vapors.  The second, called reverse osmosis, uses hydraulic pressure to force water through a membrane that filters out salt.  Both require enormous amounts of energy - - increasing water needs in an era where energy demand is projected to increase by 50% by 2035 (and after the events over the weekend in Japan, don't expect nuclear power to fill our needs gap)..

Given the ugly trade of energy for water - - in steps ex-Navy diver and Yale PhD environmental engineer Robert McGinnis.  His firm, Oasys Water, based in Boston has developed what is known as forward osmosis.  McGinnis claims his technology is at least 10 times more energy efficient than conventional methods.  McGinnis has developed  a "draw solution" that's saltier than seawater.  Without need for any energy, the water molecules in seawater flow across a porous membrane and into the draw solution, leaving the sea salt behind.  McGinnis's solution is as undrinkable as ocean water, but its salt compounds - - "essentially just ammonium, carbon dioxide, and some other secret stuff," he says - - vaporize at lower temperatures.  McGinnis's solution needs only 122 F to burn off salts and leave behind pure water, instead of the much higher temperatures required for thermal desalination.

Keep an eye on McGinnis and Oasys Water - - a clever idea that solves a real and pressing problem.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Seven Billion People

We'll reach seven billion people on the planet sometime this year.  Consider the metrics between the low income ($995 or less a year) bottom billion and the upper income ($12,196 or more) top billion:
  • Life expectancy at birth (male) - - 58 (low value)/77 (upper value)
  • Life expectancy at birth (female) - - 60/83
  • Deaths under age five (per 1,000 live births) - - 120/7
  • Access to improved sanitation (%) - - 35/99
  • Deaths caused by infectious disease (%) - - 36/7
  • Years of education - - 7.9/14.5
  • Literacy rate (%) - - 66/98
  • Fertility rate (children per women) - - 4/2
  • Rate of natural population increase (%) - - 2.27/0.39
  • Net migration rate (per 1,000 people) - - (-0.58)/2.57
  • Urban population (%) - - 27/78
  • Telephone subscriptions (per 1,000 people) - - 1/46
  • Cell Phone subscriptions (per 1,000 people) - - 22/106
  • Internet users (per 1,000 people) - - 2.3/68.3
  • Personal computers (per 1,000 people) - - 1.2/60.4
  • Cars (per 1,000) - - 5.8/435.1
  • Carbon dioxide emissions (per-capita, in metric tons) - - 1/13
The data comes from this month's National Geographic - - The World of Seven Billion.  The data is segmented into four categories - - Low Income, Lower Middle Income, Upper Income, and High Income.
The largest is the lower middle income ($996 to $3,945) with four billion people.  In most categories the two middle categories, representing five billion people, looks like the middle.  In others, the upper income category is a true outlier - - e.g., cars per 1,000 people for the lower middle segmentation is 20.3 as compared to the 435.1 for the upper income group.

Without question, it is important to move the lower groups up to the metrics in the upper group - - from life expectancy to sanitation to education to death rates.  A primary goal this century must be to focus on improving these numbers - - especially given the outlook for an additional two billion people.  The inputs to move the numbers toward the upper income metrics will come from three areas - - money, manpower, and methods.  Improving the numbers will require financial resources - - we need to make a collective investment.  Additional manpower will be needed - - from teachers to engineers to doctors to scientists to policy experts.  And finally, new delivery methods need to be explored and developed - - where advanced technology will play a key role in delivering educational services, combating disease, and improving infrastructure.

The key question and potential for conflict and tension relates to those things - - cell phones, computers, cars, clothing, food - - that will define the desires of the lower groups as they move into the upper groups.  From the context of sustainability - - can another one or two billion people own cars at the rate of 435.1 cars per 1,000 people?  Does the planet - - in terms of inputs (gasoline and minerals) and outputs (carbon dioxide emissions) - - have the carrying capacity to support this level of migration up the social-economic ladders?  The biggest problem to focus on this century might just be how to get every citizen of Earth roughly the same per-capita energy we in the upper income group enjoy.  Innovation and creativity will play a key role in this movement.  For without the input of technology - - we might just be at risk of the upper incomes metrics declining to the lower - - migration in the wrong direction. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Eight Doublings Away

Ray Kurzweil is an author, inventor, and futurist - - he told Charlie Rose the following this month:

Solar power actually is doubling every two years and has been for 20 years.  Regardless of all the political debates, the actual output in watts has been doubling every two years.  It's eight doublings away from meeting 100 percent of our energy needs.  So when I presented this to the Prime Minister of Israel, he said, "But do we have enough sunlight to do this with?"  I said, "Actually, we have 10,000 times more than we need."  After we double eight more times and can meet all of our energy needs with solar, we'll be using one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the earth.  So, we're actually awash in resources.  If you look at how these exponentially growing technologies are being applied, there's a lot more resources and opportunity to overcome these problems.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

It Has To Solve A Problem

Author Malcolm Gladwell had the following interesting observation in the March/April 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs (From Innovation to Revolution - Do Social Media Make Protests Possible?):
I was reminded of a trip I took just over ten years ago, during the dot-com bubble.  I went to the catalog clothier Lands' End in Wisconsin, determined to write about how the rise of the Internet and e-commerce was transforming retail.  What I learned was that it was not.  Having a Web site, I was told, was definitely an improvement over being dependent entirely on a paper catalog and a phone bank.  But taking someone's order over the phone is not that much harder than taking it over the Internet.  The innovations that companies such as Lands' End really cared about were bar codes and overnight delivery, which utterly revolutionized the back ends of their businesses and which had happened a good ten to 15 years previously.
The lesson here is that just because innovations in communications technology happen does not mean that they matter, or, to put it another way, in order for an innovation to make a real difference, it has to solve a problem that was actually a problem in the first place.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Marjorie Kaplan is the president of the Animal Planet and Science networks - - offers the following thoughts on management:

It's easy to be somebody's friend.  It's harder to be their manager.  And that was kind of baptism-by-fire experience.  You have somebody whom you like enormously, whom you had a real relationship with, and then you have to help them make the decision not to stay.

Management is also lateral.  In the agency business, so much of the job is about engaging with people who don't report to you, but you have to manage them anyway.  As an account manager, you were kind of the monkey-in-the-middle who had to manage everybody without having authority.  I think that, on some level, managing without authority is a life skill.  People do it in other parts of their lives.  I think the ability to manage really comes from being true to yourself, and treating people respectfully.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Efficiency-Services Agreements

Energy consumption is expected to increase by 50% by 2030.  Look for new delivery mechanisms for funding and financing energy conservation projects.  One firm, Metrus Energy Inc., is road testing a new financing and delivery mechanism called an efficiency-services agreement.  The agreement gets around the problem that for some commercial building owners, the problem isn't finding the money to pay for the energy conservation upgrades.  The real issue is losing the opportunity to use their cash for their core business.

Here is how Metrus structured two recent deals with BAE - - for facilities in New Hampshire and New York.  For the life of the deal, Metrus owns the new energy-efficiency equipment, not BAE.  Under the agreement, BAE continues to pay the utility bills.  But as the facilities become more energy-efficient and the bills shrink, BAE will pay Metrus an upwards-sliding see slightly less than the energy savings.  Payment becomes very much like your utility bill.

Metrus contracts with a third party to install the equipment - - in the BAE facilities its partner has been Siemens AG.  The work is guaranteed by Siemens - - they will pay Metrus if the energy savings don't materialize as expected.  Projections are that the New Hampshire facility will save over one million kilowatt-hours.

Look for more deals and delivery mechanisms like this - - the deals are both technically feasible and economically smart.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Harvesting Kinetic Energy

Getting your automobile moving takes a considerable amount of energy - - but bringing it to a stop results in the dissipation of energy.  The engineers who designed hybrid gas-electric cars figured this out and came up with a way to recover some of the energy lost in braking and convert it to electricity to recharge the hybrid's batteries.

What about something like this on a larger scale that utilizes the same ideas - - like turning the highway into a harvester of kinetic energy?  One company, Highway Energy Systems Ltd., has developed an energy-harvesting device and installed it at several sites, including airport parking garages and warehouse parking lots.  The device uses moving plates that when depressed by braking vehicles use magnates to spin a generator producing electricity - - a built-in flyweel helps maintain a constant power level.

The location is important - - one potential problem with the system is that it can lower the efficiency of the automobile.  As a result, engineers and developers intend to install them in places where vehicles are already slowing down.  This includes sites such as freeway off ramps, parking lots and drive-through lanes at fast food restaurants.  Highway Energy Systems expects to have 250 of the systems installed by this summer generating between 32 and 42 kilowatts an hour in continual traffic.

Energy independence and new renewable sources is not a quest for the silver bullet - - it is a broad quest for thousands of silver BBs.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The leading cause of death is birth

We all have an ending because we had a beginning.  The ending comes sooner for some, later for others - - but all of us have a ending.  We need a national conversation regarding the beginning and the end; the past and the future - - and how we should share our national wealth between the two.

The attached graphic demonstrates the need for the conversation - - health care spending as a percentage of GDP outpacing education spending.  The graph is just the tip - - 28% of Medicare spending is to recipients' final year of their life.  To put our obligations to the past and our dreams about the future into perspective, remember that our entitlement spending equals India's GDP -- a huge component of our economic engine looking in the rear view mirror (The other problem we face is basically the reason Bernie Madoff is in prison - - since Social Security's creation in 1935, life expectancy has increased 26%, to age 78, while the system's normal retirement age has gone up just 3%, to 67).

How we manage Medicare and Medicaid is the biggest challenge the U.S. faces in terms of national solvency.  Our ability to overall an out of control health care delivery "non-system" - - especially how we think and manage the end - - will directly influence and dictate our options regarding the need to make future investment decisions.

Health care delivery in the U.S. is a "non-system" -- where 2,500 pages of recent legislation didn't just turn it into an effective system.  It doesn't meet any definition of a functional system nor does it actually operate at one on any level (By one measure, the correlation between life expectancy and per capita health care spending, the U.S. is an extreme outlier - - spending far more than any other country, with mediocre results for life expectancy) .  Because of the "non-system" nature and status of health care delivery, we run into the following problems that fundamentally need to be corrected:
  • No national health care goals.
  • No organized leadership for improvements.
  • Cottage industry structure.
  • Defined benefit with no planning.
  • No one owning enough of the pie to enforce change.
We are marching toward a multitude of growing health care conflicts - - economic, political, and generational.  The bulk of these are associated with our aging population.  Increases in population can produce many linear outputs - - consumption of medial services is not one of them.  Consider the following - - the utilization of medical services increases exponentially with age - -
  • Age 65 versus age 45 - - increases by a factor of 2
  • Age 85 versus age 45 - - increases by a factor of 4
  • Age 95 versus age 45 - - increases by a factor of 8
If we are truly interested in the future and the dreams and hopes that we all have - - we need to start dealing with our present set of problems in the context of how we share money between the beginning and the end; the past and the future.  It is in our national interest to have a functional and fair health care delivery system that deals compassionately with the ending so as not to jeopardize the future and those investments in the beginning that we need to be making.  We need a national balance between our obligations to the past and our responsibilities to the future.

Friday, March 4, 2011

This is not about Charlie Sheen

Sorry - - if you were searching for the latest on Charlie Sheen, you got me.  Since I have your attention, how about a quick lesson on civics.  As you know (or maybe not), the key to growth is higher productivity through investment in technology, infrastructure, and education.  The attached graph illustrates federal investment in infrastructure versus GDP over time.  If investment in infrastructure is truly a key to higher productivity (I think it is) - - the graph is obviously going the wrong way (and some Charlie Sheen followers might notice that the graphic does not include state/local expenditures or private investment - - which is true, but I suspect also very small in the context of federal expenditures).  The graph illustrates that federal investment in infrastructure has declined from 1.23% of GDP in 1952 to 0.16% of GDP in 2008.  In 1950 our population stood at 150 million - - we are over 300 million today with projections calling for another 100 million this century.  Basically the two most important numbers in the context of public infrastructure investment are moving in opposite directions - - and they have for 50 years.

In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville made the observation in Democracy in America - - "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened that any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."  Clearly we have numerous faults that are in need of repair.  But we have plenty of physical elements that are a cornerstone to democracy and capitalism that need repair also - - potholes that need to be filled, airports that need expanding, dams that need reinforcing, and water plants that need upgrading.  Our future fundamentally depends on how we manage the present.  Public infrastructure is a source of our prosperity - - invest in it and we grow.  Ignore it and we decline.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The 4% Solution

In case you forgot - - this is "The Art of Making Your Point" Week.  We have seen two excellent examples this week - - where engineers can take note and hopefully learn this highly important art form.

The first is from Chief Justice John Roberts and his recent ruling involving AT&T.  In seems AT&T had trouble understanding that the adjective "personal" means something different from the noun "person."  The company had attempted to argue that the statutory definition of the noun "person" specifically included corporations and other entities.  It followed, the company said that the adjective "personal" must also apply to corporations.

Chief Justice Roberts reminded the attorneys for AT&T that adjectives typically reflect the meaning of corresponding nouns, but not always.  The Chief Justice was kind enough to present AT&T a long list of examples - - corn and corny; crab and crabbed; craft and crafty; squirrel and squirrelly; pastor and pastoral - - all examples where you have the same root but totally different meanings.

After ruling against AT&T, Roberts ended with the highlight of "The Art of Making Your Point" Week with - -  "We trust that AT&T will not take it personally."

The second master of "The Art of Making Your Point" is New Jersey governor, Chris Christie.  As reported in The New York Times Magazine last Sunday (The Disruptor by Matt Bai), Christie makes his point regarding medical insurance in the public sector:

When he was a federal prosecutor, Christie told the audience, he got to choose from about 100-health insurance plans, ranging from cheap to quite expensive.  But as soon as he became governor, the "benefits lady" told him he had only three state plans from which to choose, Goldilocks-style; one was great, one was modestly generous and one was rather miserly.  And any of the three would cost him 1.5 percent of his salary.

"You're telling me," Christie said he told the woman, feigning befuddlement, "that no matter which one I pick, the good one or the O.K. one or the bad one, I'm going to pay 1 1/2 percent of my salary?"  And she said, "Yes."  "And I said, "Then everyone picks the really good one, right?"  And she said, "Ninety-six percent of the state employees pick the really good one."

"Which led me to have two reactions," Christie told the crowd.  "First, bring those other 4 percent to me!  Because when I have to start laying people off, they're the first ones!"  His audience burst into near hysterics.  "And the second reaction was, of course I would choose the best plan," Christie said, "and so would you."

From both examples you can see that in a confrontation of ideas and debates, what is needed is the quality of seeing the point.  Engineers work in a world marked by its many-sidedness - - where engineers need to view the world as a contextualist - - with an ability to articulate a unifying purpose or theme in a particular context.  It also helps, as Roberts and Christie demonstrated, to remember that the fine art of making your point starts with the goal of never being dull or muddy.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here . . .

The world's governments are poised to spend $35 trillion (roughly $5,000 per person for everyone on the planet) on infrastructure in the next two decades.  The vast majority will go toward transport and urbanism - - much of it centered in the developing world.  This will be the largest build-out in human history - - so mark this on your calendar.

This is good news.  Too many places on the planet have been subject to the "Law of the Minimum" - - which states that by spending the minimum amount on public infrastructure you produce a civic culture of acceptance regarding the minimal performance of said infrastructure.  In many areas, where the Law of Minimum is fully developed, we need to look at previous chapters of the infrastructure book and correct the sins of our past.  The worst mistake that engineers can make is the failure to remedy those already made. 

London's Heathrow is a tremendous example of the point where the Law of the Minimum collides with short-termism and a lack of planning.  Heathrow was voted the worst airport in the world by passengers in 1982 and still was in 2009.  Almost 70 million passengers endure its lines annually, some 25 million more that the airport was made for.  The Law of the Minimum also has a temporal context - - Terminal 5 has relieved some of the capacity stress, after is was first suggested twenty five years ago.

Take a look at the video - - entitled The World's Unofficial Longest Line.  Taken at Heathrow, the clip starts at the head of a line waiting to enter a security checkpoint and pans back, and back, and back - - through the concourse, down a flight of stairs, along twisting corridors, up another flight of stairs, and emerging in an entirely different terminal before stopping at the end of the line (security lines clearly demonstrate that our future is a race between good innovation and bad innovation).  Granted public security represents an awesome societal challenge, and I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when looked at in the right way, did not become still more complicated.  But if we are willing to spend $35 trillion to disrupt the Law of the Minimum, a primary goal should be that the public gets something functionally better out of the deal. 

The song is "500 Miles" from the Proclaimers.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Eating More With Less

A good guess is that food production will have to rise by 70% by 2050.  Several variables will drive this - - from population increases to the explosion of developing countries' megacities to changes in diet.  The output part of the equation is definable - - more babies, more people, more economic opportunities equals a somewhat linear demand for more food.

Historically our collective response to food output demands has been to look at our standard menu of input options.  The Big Three of reliable agricultural inputs has typically been land, water, and fertilizer.  But the reliable three have their own constraints and problems - - in fact, the standard inputs represent our trilemma in the context of the agricultural equation.

The February 26th-March 4th, 2011 issue of The Economist has a wonderful 14-page special report on the future of food.  Looking at just one of the trilemmas, water, the article highlights the following: 

According to Nestle's Peter Brabeck, roughly 4,200 cubic kilometres of water could be used each year without depleting overall supplies.  Consumption is higher, at about 4,500 cubic kilometres a year, of which agriculture takes about 70%.  As a result, water tables are plummeting.  The one in Punjab has fallen from a couple of metres below the surface to, in parts, hundreds of metres down.  The rivers that water some of the world's breadbaskets, such as the Colorado, Murray-Darling and Indus, no longer reach the sea.

By 2030, on most estimates, farmers will need 45% more water.  They won't get it.  Cities are the second-largest users of water, and those in the emerging world are growing exponentially.  They already account for half the world's population, a share that will rise to 70% by 2050.  In any dispute between cites and farmers, governments are likely to side with cities.  Agriculture's share of the world's water used to be 90%, so it has already fallen a long way.  It will surely decline further.

The reason water matters so much is that irrigated farming is so productive.  It occupies only one-fifth of the world's farmland but contributes two-fifths of the world's food output.  Rice, the world's most important crop in terms of calories, is mostly irrigated, and is especially sensitive to shortage of water, stopping growth at the first sign of getting dry.

Water problems will worsen both because irrigated areas will suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change and because diets are shifting towards meat, which is "thirsty".  Arjen Hoekstra, of the University of Twente, says it takes 1,150-2,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of wheat, but about 16,000 litres of water for 1 kg of beef.  As more people eat more meat, rising demand by farmers will collide with contracting water supplies.

With sustainability constraints from the classic Big Three, technology must play a much bigger role.  Technology that saves water, increases yields, decreases waste (30-50% of all food produced rots away uneaten) will become increasingly important.  Some optimal combination of biology and engineering will be needed - - scale and efficiency will drive both (and hopefully sufficiency will drive our cultural norms).  The old inputs of plentiful water and cheap energy will need to be reexamined - - climate change and energy prices will impact both.

Like Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "Sooner or later, we sit down to a banquet of consequences."  A population of nine billion people will produce a whole new set of consequences that engineers will be required to sit down at the table to consider.