Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Your Virtual Community

The California Management Review (Summer 2011) provides an overview of how companies and managers can foster and sustain customer engagement through a firm-sponsored virtual community (How to Foster and Sustain Engagement in Virtual Communities by Constance Elise Porter, Naveen Donthu, William H. MacElroy, and Donna Wydra).  The bottom line - - a sponsor must understand consumer needs and motivate members to cooperate by making them feel embedded and empowered.

The following are the various needs that members fulfill via virtual communities:
  • Information - - Virtual community members find value in a community that provides access to information that helps them learn, solve problems, and make decisions.
  • Relationship-Building - - Virtual community members seek to build productive relationships through interaction with others within a community.
  • Social Identity/Self-Expression - - Virtual community members want to achieve self-awareness that they are a member of the community and are gratified by the emotional and cognitive connection with the community, as a whole, as well as their ability to express such connection.
  • Helping Others - - Virtual community members are grateful by helping others within a community, especially those with whom they have developed a personal connection.
  • Enjoyment - - Virtual community members are gratified by achieving flow states, while interacting with others by having control over their experience with a community.
  • Belongingness - - Virtual community members desire a sense of attachment to a community, as a whole, and are gratified by having their contributions to the community respected by others.
  • Status/Influence - - Virtual community members seeks status and influence among others within a community.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Re-Inventing America's Urban Water Infrastructure

The Center for Re-Inventing America's Urban Water Infrastructure is an interdisciplinary, multi-institution research center whose goal is to change the ways in which we manage urban water.  The Center is funded through the National Science Foundation's Engineering Research Center Program.  Partner institutions include Stanford University (lead), University of California at Berkeley, Colorado School of Mines, and New Mexico State University.

The research program focuses on fundamental investigations and applied research to create a suite of successful water management options and decision-making tools.

Several specific aims of the research includes the following:
  • To incorporate resource recovery and energy production into engineered water systems.
  • To engineer natural systems to improve water quantity, water quality, and habitat.
  • To overcome impediments to adopting new urban water management strategies.
  • To develop technologies in concert with companies involved in the Center's program.
  • To provide improved decision-making tools to decision makers.
You can break their research focus down into two areas - - engineered systems and natural systems.  In the context of engineered systems, the Center is looking to enhance the efficiency and resiliency of these systems.  The focus in the context of natural systems is to effectively employee them into urban water infrastructure.  Several key terms and words that show up in the Center's literature - - resource recovery, resiliency, and demand management.  These are all good words to help define the issues, constraints, and opportunities as water becomes "the issue" in the 21st century.

Drought management and assessment strategies appear also to be a focus.  On-going collaborations with the University of New South Wales provides the Center with the potential to address research needs in this particular area.

A video on the center is at the following link - -

Monday, August 29, 2011

Make-Do Resignation?

The Executive Summary to Falling Apart and Falling Behind (by Building America's Future Educational Fund) gets directly at an issue that most civil engineers are facing.  The issue is a growing sense that our country's can-do spirit in terms of our national infrastructure is being replaced with a make-do resignation.  Consider the following from Falling Apart and Falling Behind - -

"Our infrastructure - and the good policy making that built it - is a key reason America became an economic superpower.  But many of the great decisions which put us on that trajectory are now a half-century old.  In the last decade, our global economic competitors had led the way in planning and building the transportation networks of the 21st century.  Countries around the world have not only started spending more than the United States does today, but they make those financial commitments - of both public and private dollars - on the basis of 21st-century strategies that will equip them to make commanding strides in economic growth over the next 20-25 years.

Unless we make significant changes in our course and direction, the foreign competition will pass us by, and a real opportunity to restore America's economic strength will be lost.  The American people deserve better."

Our swaggering engineering optimism is being replaced with something more subdued - - a reorganization of parameters and constraints build around our declining political will and wherewithal.  Just in terms of transportation woes - - between 2005 and 2010, the country plummeted from No. 1 to No. 15 in the world in terms of the economic competitiveness of our infrastructure.  The list is as follows:
  1. Hong Kong
  2. Germany
  3. United Arab Emirates
  4. France
  5. Singapore
  6. Switzerland
  7. Netherlands
  8. United Kingdom
  9. Canada
  10. Sweden
  11. Japan
  12. Iceland
  13. Denmark
  14. Spain
  15. United States
This doesn't even reflect the fact that the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are rising fast as economic powers - - and their considerable investment in infrastructure.  We are behind one of the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain).  Being behind bankrupt Spain says something.

From the cornfields of Iowa to the boulders of New Hampshire, we have yet to hear any discussion on our declining infrastructure (the only national voice on the need for infrastructure investment is Tom Friedman of the New York Times).  Engineers have yet to see a national strategic vision and plan.  We have not seen a plan that recognizes the fact that we are losing ground to our global competitors.  This is a lack of national leadership with no connection to the global realities and our current 10% unemployment rate - - every $1 billion in infrastructure investment creates more than 25,000 jobs at construction sites and factories producing needed raw materials.

With the world experiencing so much change, will America get its act together in the context of our declining infrastructure?  Are we doomed to life in the slow lane on the highway of globalization?  Fixing our infrastructure problems will be neither easy nor cheap.  Are our current political leaders capable of building on the ideas of innovative planning focused on improving the return on infrastructure spending and giving a boost to public-private partnerships?

Or will the theme of the next American Society of Civil Engineers national conference be titled "Engineering for the 21st Century: Make-Do Resignation"?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Urban Superlinear Scaling

The current issue of Scientific American covers the new science of why cities become more productive and efficient as they grow (Bigger Cities Do More with Less by Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West).  The new science is multidisciplinary and is beginning to reveal key answers to urban growth - - cities concentrate, accelerate, and diversify social and economic activity.

Key points in the article include:
  • Compared with suburban or rural areas, cities do more with less.  Often large cities are the greenest places on the planet because people living in denser habitats typically have smaller energy footprints, requires less infrastructure and consume less of the world's resources per capita.
  • This new science is being made possible by the increasing availability of public and private information.
  • If eight million people all live in one city, their economic output will typically be about 15 percent greater than if the same eight million people lived in two cities of half the size.
  • Superlinear scaling - - this is the fact that the socioeconomic properties of cities increases faster than a direct (or linear) relation to their population would predict.
  • When the size of a city doubles, its material infrastructure structure (from the number of gas stations to the total length of its pipes, roads, or electrical wires) does not.  Instead these quantities rise more slowly than population size.
  • On average, the bigger the city, the more efficient its use of infrastructure, leading to important savings in materials, energy and emissions.
  • Superlinear scaling is seen all over the globe - - US cities and cities in China and Brazil.  The same basic social and economic processes are at work.
  • Increased population promotes more intense and frequent social interactions, occurrences that correlate with higher rates of productivity and innovation, as well as economic pressures that weed our inefficiencies.
  • Cities with high rents push urbanites to come up with new forms of organizations, products and services that carry more value added.
  • The largest US cities have the lowest carbon dioxide emissions per capita.  This gain is mostly an unplanned by product of people living at greater densities because the bulk of the savings comes from energy-efficient public transportation and simple walking instead of driving, which is almost 10 times more energy-intensive.
  • This can be more challenging for developing countries such as China and India - - much of their infrastructure improvements has yet to be built.
  • Cities are never in a state of equilibrium - - a kind of tug-of-war between the forces of growth and innovation and the forces that want to tear them apart.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


The word of the week - - micro-multinational.  The term comes from Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google.  All over the globe, even the smallest company can now afford a communications and computational infrastructure that would have been the envy of a large multinational company.  Look for the early 21st to be the age of the micro-multinational, small companies that operate globally.

Many of these mico-multinationals are utilizing social media to help create a new kind of enterprise - - small, Web-wired start-ups that are using social media to spot and then grab the best new talent from around the globe and leverage it for innovation and sustainability.  Micro-multinationals have the ability to identify, and then employ from the best pockets of knowledge around the globe.

Consider the firm SlideShare.  SlideShare is a six-person multinational company whose entire staff consists of a couple of employees in the United States, a few in Eastern Europe, and one in Asia.  Immigration takes on new meaning with micro-multinationals.  Out with the concerns associated with brain drain, and in with brain circulation.  Managing the micro-multinational requires one to embrace the social media and digital Web technologies to supervise, communicate, and manage at a distance. 

The ability to harvest global talent is going to be a key trait - - regardless of size.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Hybrid Age

Exponential growth in technology produces many disruptions.  One of these disruptions is the idea that as more technologies come into commercial use, the greater the number of "combinational possibilities" (this is a key term for the 21st century).  Call it "The Hybrid Age" - - where the world starts to look more like the hybrid vehicle on steroids that you are driving next to or maybe own.  The more technologies that exist, the greater the number of combinational possibilities, resulting in ever newer and more complex products that revolutionize industries.  We are seeing it with vehicles - - but also jet engines and semiconductors and is now under way with software and carbon nanotubes, whose combination of strength, elasticity, and thermal-conduction properties could revolutionize everything from bone repair to batteries.  This means that The Hybrid Age and the Law of Disruption will produce a constant environment of blowing apart old business models as they come to market faster than ever.

The word "hybrid" - - the art of combining to produce something new might just be the most important word in the engineering dictionary.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Law of Disruption

I was at Georgia Tech over the weekend moving my son into his dorm.  I happened to come across the 2011 President's Scholarship Directory.  The directory lists 63 outstanding students and their anticipated majors.  Of this group, 19 were listed as biomedical engineering majors and another eight were listed as chemical & biomolecular engineering.  Roughly 40% of this select group will become biomedical engineers or medical doctors.  On one hand, this is all good - - creative individuals working on finding the cure for cancer, developing a mechanical heart, and keeping me alive until I am 150-years old.

On the other hand, especially in the context of keeping individuals alive into triple digits, technology and social change seem to be operating at different speeds and intensities.  The business writers Downes and Mui have referred to this as the "Law of Disruption." which holds that "social, political, and economic systems change incrementally, but technology changes exponentially."  Douglas Englehart, the inventor of the computer mouse, has expanded on this with the following observation:

"Real social danger today is that the technology is erupting and moving so much faster than it ever ever ever has in all of our historical experience . . . It's time to start adapting society to this revolution in the technology.  There's a lot of potential dangers ahead if we don't adapt it successfully."

The conflict among technological change and social/political/economic change shows up in some of our most basic institutions and practices.  Some 82% of the people in North America live in urban areas.  This is projected to grow to 90% by 2050.  For many different reasons, ranging from sustainability to economic to innovation to technological, higher density urban environments will be where the vast majority of people live.  Given this fact, it is interesting to note the roles both Iowa and New Hampshire play in our political process.  Candidates have little incentive to speak to urban concerns such as housing policy or decaying infrastructure - - technology is having a disruptive impact on the demographics of the nation - - yet our political process is still stuck in the 1900s.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Managing in Real Time

The August 21, 2011 issue of Forbes has an overview of Proctor & Gambles technology drive to manage in real time (The Matrix of Soap: P&G is serious about managing in real time by Quentin Hardy).

Several interesting and key points in the article - -
  • The goal is to harness massive streams of data for managing a business better.  The "Business Sphere" is a good example of the technology - -  two enormous and curved computer screens that provides a view into the four billion times each day that P&G products are used in more than 80 countries.  Change the view and you can see toothpaste prices in India and a sales comparison that shows local brands are gaining share.  Another view might show shampoo sales in Australia.
  • The Sphere is the sum of 14 different technologies from multiple vendors.  The data from the Sphere is used by managers in 40 locations worldwide.
  • The technology is a combination of high-speed networking, data visualization, and high speed analysis.  The tools have compressed the time to make decisions from weeks to minutes.
  • The company talks in terms of increasing the amount of collected data sevenfold.
  • This is particularly interesting - - they have started a "digital skills" inventory of its employees, establishing a baseline of skills, including how to get connected to the Internet, how to use basic collaboration and knowledge-exchanging  tools for online meetings and mail, and how to tap into the company's internal social network, P&G Pulse.
  • Mobile apps and iPads have helped to push productivity up by 20% in some areas of the company.
  • 81 core business traits, like sales and finance, that run the company have been identified.
  • This is also good - - the company has an "Immersion Lab" that employees can test out working across time zones on wall-size video screens, and projecting business and social network information on man-sized "holopanes" of glass.  There is a mock hotel room where managers try out a score of different mobile devices, building confidence in working anywhere on the kind of tablet or phone they like.
  • "We want to turn the information technology problem into a business opportunity."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

It's About Getting Better

The Summer 2011 issue of California Management Review has one of the best "sports as lessons in leadership" articles that I have read - - from a sport that is unknown to most U.S. fans - - college rugby.  The article, It's Not About Winning, It's About Getting Better by Holly Schroth, profiles the Cal-Berkeley rugby team and Coach Jack Clark.  Clark has led Cal Rugby to win 21 out of 25 National Championships. 

Interesting points in the article include the following (and compare this to recent stories regarding the Miami Hurricanes football program):
  • The program is free of scandal and is known to build the character of the young men.  It lacks the benefits of scholarship, in-state tuition fees, assistance with financial aid, or preferred access to student loans that other collegiate programs have.
  • Clark was shot multiple times in 1980 while attending a formal affair in the affluent Pacific Heights area of San Francisco.
  • "Grateful for everything, entitled to nothing."
  • Players are expected to be grateful, tough, and resilient.
  • The coach and his staff rarely reach out first to recruit players.
  • The player's character and values can be observed by what be wears and how he interacts with his parents during the interview.
  • Team apparel is properly cleaned and pressed and the players are always be be well groomed.
  • "Expectations are reinforced constantly with examples."
  • "Leadership is the ability to make those around you better and more productive."
  • All team members are expected to act as leaders.  Leadership is a shared responsibility among the team.
  • "Leadership should not be reserved for the best and brightest or a select few."
  • "You have to fight the idea that the minority leads the majority."
  • Clark believes that everyone should have access to leadership.
  • Clark attempts to model each individual player's success by analyzing his strengths and weaknesses both as a player and a leader - - calls this "directional doctrine."
  • Constant performance improvement is an obsession.
  • During training, feedback is constant and always immediate.
  • To best develop each player, coaches engage in a process they refer to as "modeling" - - creating a detailed understanding of those skills and attributes that the player can execute in every game be competes in.
  • "Getting better is the best feeling in the world."
  • "We're not a family, membership is conditional."
  • The entire relationship between the coaches and players is geared toward the player's performance and the team - - boundaries are established through that lens.
  • Clark thinks that it is wrong to assume that everyone believes in "team."
  • Clark believes that high-performance teams are very fragile and conflict must be managed immediately before it blows up.
  • "The foundation of any high-performance sport is a high-performance culture -  that is an environment in which individuals are challenged to be the best they can be and supported to achieve this end."
  • The coaches have also borrowed on some of the Marine Corps communication systems, such as saying "check" or "roger" to acknowledge the receipt of an instruction.  "We want to make sure there is an exchange."
  • "I always need to work at remembering to praise."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Your Question-Centered Notebook

I read over the weekend that Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic fame keeps a notebook full of questions.  Branson sees the world as a big question mark.  Branson and others are constantly challenging the accuracy of their mental maps about the world.  He fills notebooks with "what is", "what caused", "why", "why not", and "what if" questions. 

Look at your business, programs, or projects and start thinking about developing better questioning skills.  Engage in "question storming" sessions and the cultivation of a question thinking attitude.  Write your questions down in notebooks.  Review the questions periodically to see how many and what kinds of questions you're consistently asking (or not asking) - - look at the following areas:
  • What are your questioning patterns?  What kinds of questions do you focus on?
  • What questions yield unexpected insights into why things are the way they are?
  • What questions surface fundamental assumptions and challenge the status quo?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Super-Loo

The WHO estimates that 2.6 billion people around the world lack access to a latrine that is not overflowing, that is affordable, and that has a tap nearby to wash hands.  Some one billion people defecate outdoors.  This is the cat method, where feces are rolled in sand or dirt next to the village (my cats utilize the "cat method" - - with the addition of air conditioning, heat, and a roof over their heads). 

The liquid diarrhoea and vomit jetted out by a body infected by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae is a reminder of the danger lurking in the excrement which flows from every human settlement, creating a problem few want to go near.  Not all human waste has the deadly bacterium, but all of it is dangerous and better disposal of feces would go a huge way to stopping cholera and other deadly intestinal diseases (The WHO says that out of two to three million cholera cases a year, 200,000 people die.  The outbreaks are spread over 40 to 50 countries).

Enter the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and their mission - - a better toilet.  Where "better" means no connection to a sewer system, no water or electricity, and must cost less than pennies per person a day to use.  The program and competition, "Reinvent the Toilet" has awarded $3 million to researchers at eight universities.  One team, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag), utilizes a system to divert and collect urine.  Dealing with urine separately, by siphoning it off to local storage tanks, simplifies wastewater management.  The urine can then be collected, treated, and recycled as fertilizer.  Cost is still an issue, along with little boys having difficulty aiming correctly between the compartments (a universal problem regardless of the loo).

Other teams are working on solar power and electrochemical (regardless of the stated goals, some form of energy is needed to go from Waste A to Usable Product B) technology.  For example, one toilet uses the sun's energy to power an electrode system in the wastewater; the electrodes  drive a series of cleansing chemical reactions, converting organic waste is the water into carbon dioxide and producing hydrogen that can be stored in a fuel cell for night operations.

Not exactly going to the moon, but a super-loo would be rather complex.  Mixing design, engineering, biochemistry, and microbiology - - combined with sociology - - makes this a contest to watch!!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Electric Rain

"Information gently but relentlessly drizzles down on us in an invisible, impalpable electric rain."  This is how physicist Hans Christian von Baeyer starts his engaging book Information: The New Language of Science (2005).  Engineering is entering the global data-inundated era - - with a cultural shift from quality to quantity.  Engineering will need new tools for truly informing experiences.

One tool is visualization.  Visualization will become an imperative not solely as a response to the growing surge of data, but also as a supporting mechanism to the various political, economic, engineering, cultural, sociological, and technological advances shaping the coming years.  This is more than simply numbers.  Given the quantity of data available - - learning to present the data with visual representations that allow your team and stakeholders to see the unexpected.  Engineers need to be comfortable with the different sources and effective formats for presentations; be able to experiment with and compare different visualization tools; and have the ability to look for trends and patterns in your data and select appropriate ways to chart them.

Seeing the world in data involves three main areas:
  1. Data Collection - - Mobile technology and GPS drive the ease and adaption of this element.  Pictures and text messages on a whim with increasing connectivity.  Look for data collection to fall into two camps.  Some data flows are self-updating and automatic (in the future this will be be the dominate form).  Others are manual and involve more active collection procedures (the technology cost curve will always beat the labor cost curve).  The mobile phone will be the platform of choice for data collection.
  2. Analysis - - Once you have it, what do you do with it?  New algorithms and traditional statistical techniques will help locate the useful points in the data - - visualization will help tell the stories.  Our brains are great at finding patterns, but when we have gigabytes or terabytes of information, it is easy to see how important details could be missed.
  3. Interaction - - This is the visualization element.  Engineering needs to embrace the new world of visualization - - some artistic, some analytical, and others in between.  Although not everyone who "analyzes" this data will have a background in the proper techniques, a certain level of data literacy must be developed.  Visualization will be essential in making the data more accessible.

Several good reads on the subject.  I am currently reading - - Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics by Nathan Yau (he also has a great website at and Visual Complexity: Mapping Pattens of Information by Manuel Lima.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Engineering and 8-D

The D in this case stands for the following de- or dis- words that represent the potential future of some portion of engineering and business:
  1. Demassification - - Restructuring of industries and organizations into smaller operating entities.  Custom manufacturing and independent print media are examples.  The key assumption is that things are shrinking is size and becoming more flexible, nimble, and responsive as a result.
  2. Decentralization - - Dispersing decision-making governance closer to employees and citizens.  The assumption that greater information flows, usually associated with greater use of information technology, will result in flatter and less hierarchical organizations.
  3. Denationalization - - The transfer from government to private ownership.  Ranging from the military to toll roads.
  4. Despacialization - - The assumption that place is no longer important.
  5. Disintermediation - - The assumption that the role of intermediaries is declining and that we can increasingly get our information from the source.  Google "Skin Cancer" - - at some level, the family physician is becoming an intermediary.
  6. Disaggregation - - The assumption that things get broken down into their component parts.  The counter-assumption is that someone needs a holistic view of how everything needs to fit together and work.
  7. Displacement - - The idea that information technology, globalization, and exponential productivity improvements produce a state of being continuously at risk for being displaced.
  8. Devolution - - The granting of powers from a central power or authority to a lower sub-level.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


The rise of the information age combined with the growth of globalization has produced a cottage industry of forecasters that specialize in "Endism."  The power of new technology and globalization is widely predicted to bring about the end to the following.  This is where we currently stand:
  • The end of the press, television, and mass media.  Not ended, but certainly changed.  From The New York Times, to Borders, to Fox News, to Blockbuster - - this is an industry in transition as profound as the transition with the printing press.  Still a huge work in progress.
  • The end of brokers and other intermediaries.  From travel agents to stock brokers - - an entire class of people and occupations that were in the middle no longer exist.
  • The end of firms, bureaucracies, and similar organizations.  The largest company in the world (in terms of value) is Apple.  Apple doesn't look anything like a Ford, or an Exxon, or a GE.  The combination of information technology and globalization has placed a premium on having a horizontal orientation with decentralization versus vertical and centralized.  This trend is just beginning.
  • The end of universities.  We still have the Rose Bowl and March Madness, but the delivery of educational services is rapidly changing.  A free online course at Stanford University on artificial intelligence, taught this fall by two leading experts from Silicon Valley has attracted more than 58,000 students around the globe - - a class nearly four times the size of Stanford's entire student body.
  • The end of politics.  Information filtering and political segmentation have probably produced just the opposite in the United States.  Two University of California, San Diego professors found that ideological divergence in Congress was the highest in at least 120 years.  More information filtering + more information access = more polarization.
  • The end of government.  The Arab Spring was a product of globalization and information technology - - where the end can come very quickly for very old governments and leaders.  But Libya and Syria also demonstrate that endings can still be long and ugly.  Calls for greater transparency and "What have you done for me lately?" attitudes are powered by information technology and social networks.
  • The end of cities and regions.  The death of certain cities and regions also produces new opportunities fueled by population growth, globalization, information technology, and the need for creative classes to work and live close together.  This new birth will produce megacities - - many in the developing world.
  • The end of the nation-state.  New winners - - China and Brazil are examples.  Old losers, such as Greece and Spain, will have a difficult time as one looks into the future.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Malthusian Engineering

We have two political parties in the U.S. that approach climate change in two different ways - - one that dismisses global warming as a hoax and one that avoids the subject at all cost.  Both break into similar camps in terms of sustainability, resource constraints, and economic growth. 

Thomas Malthus and Jeremy Grantham deserve attention in this void space.  Malthus being the 18-century doomsayer on unsustainable populations.  Timing was Malthus's problem - - cheap energy has extended the timeline which, partially removed the barriers to rapid population growth, wealth and scientific progress.  But cheap energy is ending. 

The second person is money manager Jeremy Grantham.  Grantham is founder and chief strategist of the asset-management firm GMO.  Grantham is a rare bird - - part environmentalist and part Wall Streeter (he intends to make money regardless of which environmental apocalyptic scenario we may face).  Both men see the world in terms of the same resource limitations that turns into win-lose, zero-sum contests.  As Grantham writes, "The faster China grows, the higher grain prices go, the more people in China or India who upgrade to meat, the higher the tendency for Africa to starve."

The New York Times Magazine (Sunday August 14, 2011) has an interesting profile of Grantham, A Darker Shade of Green (written by Carlo Rotella).  The article looked at several of his famous quarterly newsletters.  Rotella writes the following:

The letter is 19 pages long and dense with figures, but here's the short version: "The prices of all important commodities except oil declined for 100 years until 2002, by an average of 70 percent.  From 2002 until know, this entire decline was erased by a bigger price surge than occurred during World War II.  Statistically, most commodities are now no far away from their former downward trend that it makes it very probable that the old trend has changed - - that there is in fact a Paradigm Shift - - perhaps the most important economic event since the Industrial Revolution.

We might want to read Malthus's book.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

All in One Day - - Rick Perry and Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I listened to Rick Perry announce his run for the presidency and I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes all last Saturday (which is a true skill to accomplish all in the same day).  As Dallas Morning News business writer Scott Burns pointed out in his Sunday column (American Spring may be next revolt), "But the scent of tear gas is in our future."  It is difficult to predict which leader would get us to tear gas quicker, Democrat, Republican, or Ape (The ape leader Ceasar in the movie does seem the pramatic type - - sort of a win-win leadership and management style).

Burns stated the rather obvious - - "Things will start to turn around when the first politican doesn't fake it."  Maybe not like the streets of Cario or London, but Burns recommends we get at seven critical issues rather quickly - - and not one of these will have much faking in them:
  1. Break the back of the finance/banking complex.  Both parties are allowing the bankers to play the game of heads-they-win, tails-you-lose.  They take your money, take their risks - - backed by our government.
  2. Whip the insurance medical complex.  Medicare Part D - - the income for life bill.  Who are the bad guys in the Rise of the Planet of the Apes?
  3. Get real about unlimited health care entitlement.  It is estimated that between 10 and 30 percent of Medicare spending is just plan old fraud.  Another 30 percent is waste and unnecessary.  And we still almost all die in the ape movies - - from what?  A virus.
  4. Admit, and share adversity.  Higher taxes and means testing on Social Security.
  5. Want to be a member of the USA?  Civilization has a cost - - 50% of the population does not pay any taxes.  Zero.  Something needs to go into the pot for everyone.
  6. Higher tax rates for the very well off.  If you can send you kid to summer camp on a private jet, you need to get into the line marked, "Redistribution." 
  7. Cut defense spending and change foreign policy.  Spend only what the top five combined largest militaries spend - - we currently spend the total of the top twenty.  I never saw the Marine Corps come into play in the movie.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Favorite Question

A favorite question when facing a technical challenge is, "Who else has faced or solved a problem like this before?"  Actively looking for people in other fields and disciplines to understand what they do and what they know that might be relevant to a particular problem or issue.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Combinatory Play

Creativity, especially creativity associated with engineering, involves the ability to synthesize.  Einstein captured this notion when be called his own work "combinatory play."  It is a matter of sifting through data, perceptions and materials to come up with combinations that are new and useful.  A creativity synthesis is useful in such varied ways as producing a practical device, or theory or insight that can be applied to solve a problem, or a work of art that can be appreciated.  The art of "combinatory play" requires both self-assurance the ability to take risks.  Breaking generally accepted rules, or even stretching them, takes confidence. 

Engineering creativity is, for lack of a better word, often downright subversive.  One is fundamentally attempting to undermine an established system, process, and/or product.  This might seem unsettling to some.  Innovation needs to be disruptive - - the march of civilization is down the path of creative destruction.  Engineers can be divided into two camps.  Homo economicus - - one that makes the most of what nature permits him or her to have.  The other is homo creativus - - one that rebels against nature's dictates.  Technological creativity, like all creativity, is an act of rebellion.  Given the complexity of our global problems and the apparent limits and constraints, the future might just belong to homo creativus.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Kill Bin Laden

The Oscar-winning pair of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal (the pair who made "The Hurt Locker") are in production of "Kill Bin Laden" - - scheduled to open October 12, 2012.

The United States presidential election will be held on Tuesday November 6, 2012.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Great (Credit) Contraction

Kenneth Rogoff, a professor of economics at Harvard, has an essay in Project Syndicate this week that argues the following:

"The phrase "Great Recession" creates the impression that the economy is following the contours of a typical recession, only more severe - - something like a really bad cold . . . But the real problem is that the global economy is badly overleveraged, and there is no quick escape without a scheme to transfer wealth from creditors to debtors, either through defaults, financial repression, or inflation . . ."

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Associational Thinking

I love this term from The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators (2011) by Clayton Christensen, Jeff Dyer, and Hal Gregersen - - "associational thinking."  It means simply associating, where associating happens as the brain tries to synthesize and make sense of novel inputs.  It helps innovators discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas.  Innovative breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields.

The book points out that innovators engage in the following four behavioral skills more frequently:
  1. Questioning - - Innovators are consummate questioners who show a passion for inquiry.  Their queries challenge the status quo.  Collectively, their questions provoke new insights, connections, possibilities, and directions.  Innovators have a high Q/A ratio (this is great!!) - - where questions not only outnumber answers in a typical conversation, but are valued at least as highly as good answers.
  2. Observing - - Innovators are also intense observers.  They carefully watch the world around them - - including customers, products, services, technologies, and companies - - and the observations help them gain insights into and ideas for new ways of doing things.
  3. Networking - - Innovators spend a lot of time and energy finding and testing ideas through a diverse network of individuals who vary wildly in their backgrounds and perspectives.  Rather than simply doing social networking or networking for resources, they actively search for new ideas by talking to people who may offer a radically different view of things.
  4. Experimenting - - Finally, innovators are constantly trying out new experiences and piloting new ideas.  Experimenters unceasingly explore the world intellectually and experimentally, holding convictions at bay and testing hypotheses along the way.  They visit new places, try new things, seek new information and experiment to learn new things.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Having to Invent a Job

At the recent Aspen Ideas Festival, the The New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman said that when he graduated from college, he was able to find a job, but our children were going to have to invent a job.

Engineering education emphasizes teaching and testing us about facts that are already known.  There is much less focus on our ability to discover, create and reinvent - - our ability to invent a job and a career.  We teach and mange in a world in which we have collectively made certain linear assumptions.  But jobs, careers, valued skills, and industries are transforming at an unheard-of-rate in a nonlinear world.  We are trained and organized for the familiar - where individual and organization planning assumes linearity. 

Innovation and creativity are keys to our future.  Creativity requires a social and economic environment that can nurture its many forms (remember that creativity is multidimensional and comes in many mutually reinforcing forms). 

From climate change to energy independence to balance the federal budget, we need a completely new mind-set.  Linear thinking is a death knell of creativity.

Linear thinking is not going to help you invent a career or job.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Just Get In The Spaceship

At the conclusion of the season ending episode of TNT's Falling Skies, we learned one of life's little lessons - -

"When the spaceship lands in your backyard and the door opens, you just get in the spaceship."

Monday, August 8, 2011

Principles For Sustainability

In his book (The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations are Working to Create a Sustainable World (2008)), systems-thinking guru and author Peter Senge came up with the following principles, also known as "conditions" that must be met in order to have a sustainable society:
  1. Substances extracted from the earth's crust cannot systematically increase in nature (e.g., fossil-based emissions).
  2. Substances produced in society cannot systemically increase by nature(e.g., greenhouse gases).
  3. The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically deteriorated (e.g., deforestation, loss of topsoil).
  4. People are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs (e.g., lack of access to education or clean water).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Wanting to share and explain information

Alan Trefler, founder and chief executive of Pegasystems (a business technology company) discusses hiring:

It's important in interviews to understand boundaries.  I find that people, when they interview, often spend a lot of time on stuff inside the circle of what that person knows and what the interviewer knows.  What I always try to do in interviews is learn something I don't know from the person.  So I'll look at somebody's resume, and I'll find something that they probably know better than I do.  And I'll ask them to explain it.

I've had people explain to me how the engines of a locomotive work, and how they did archaeological research and digs.  Having somebody show they can explain something to me is actually a pretty good indicator of a few things.  One, that they actually know how to explain things, which is a very important part of ultimately being a thought leader.

And a second thing is that you get to tell whether they like teaching.  I believe that really good people in the business context are folks who want to share information and want to explain.  If you see enthusiasm around that, that can be very telling.

I also always try to find some things that are beyond the limit of what the person knows.  So if somebody, for example, is applying for a position in marketing, I'll talk about technology.  I'll go beyond what they actually know about concepts like different types of computer interfaces or different types of technology.

I do it for a couple of reasons.  One, to see what the actual boundaries of their knowledge are, because what people know tells you a lot.  But the other thing that's interesting is how people react to not knowing something.  Are they curious?  Do they respect content, and do they actually like to dig into things?  It's about that inclination.  It's not just whether you have capacity to dig into things.  It's whether you like to dig into things.

I'm also interested in people who build sustaining relationships.  One question I've found to be extremely powerful as a predictor of how well people will do in customer-facing roles is to ask for specific names of people they're worked with, as those people moved between companies or roles, or as the candidate moved between companies and roles.

So is there any evidence that they have built relationships that they sustained beyond a single business interaction?  A lot of people don't have those sorts of relationships.  I find that to be a really useful predictor of whether they are relationship-oriented, which is important not just for dealing with customers - it's important for dealing with people inside the firm as well.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

An Execution Culture

Peter Loscher is the president and chief executive of Siemens.  He had the following comments regarding organizational culture:

When you talk about leadership culture, I very much try to implement an executive culture.  I think the speed of change has massively accelerated in all aspects.  So there's speed of change, and the world is also far more connected, and this has a massive impact in terms of how you lead.  You can no longer rely on hierarchical structures.

For me, it's very important to have an execution culture in place because it's not about the brilliance of strategy.  In rare instances, a company will do something totally different and build a completely new class of products.  Otherwise you are really in a broad-based competition environment, and therefore must have an execution culture.  And you have to recognize as a leader that you also make mistakes.  I'm always telling people, "Look, I make a mistake every day, by hopefully I'm not making the same mistake twice."  If you think you're not making mistakes, then you are not making the tough decisions that you should make as a leader.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Pre-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (PASD)

The New York Times business page is laying the groundwork for next summer's apocalyptic thriller (an essay by Charles Duhigg - Coming: "Invasion Of the Walking Debt").  The article provided a rundown of key books that are making up the potential apocalyptic shockwave. 

First up is the recently re-issued When Money Dies: Germany in the 1920s and the Nightmare of Deficit Spending.  First published in 1975 (and who was president?), it has found a cult following in Washington and among hedge funds.  The book charts the travails of people like Anna Eisenmenger who bartered her dead husband's gold watch for potatoes, watched her malnourished grandson develop scurvy and saw neighbors attack mounted policemen so they could slaughter and eat the horses.

No zombies in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s - just inflation.  Duhigg writes the following:

"Undoubtedly, though, inflation aggravated every evil, ruined every chance of national revival or individual success, and eventually produced precisely the conditions in which extremists of Right and Left could raise the mob against the State, set class against class, race against race, family against family, husband against wife, trade against trade, town against country.  It undermined national resolution when simple want or need might have bolstered it.  Partly because of its unfairly discriminatory nature, it brought out the worst in everybody - industrialist and worker, farmer and peasant, banker and shopkeeper, politician and civil servant, housewife, soldier, merchant, tradesman, miner, moneylender, pensioner, doctor, trade union leader, student, tourist - especially the tourist.  It caused fear and insecurity among those who had already known too much of both.  It fostered xenophobia.  It promoted contempt for government and the subversion of law and order.  It corrupted even where corruption had been unknown, and too where it should have been unknown, and too often where it should have been impossible.  It was the worst possible prelude - although detached form it by several years - to the great depression; and thus to what followed."

Pultizer Prize finalist Colson Whitehead has a new novel out in October entitled "Zone One."  A tale of the infected and uninfected on lower Manhattan.  Think George Romero with investment bankers.  As Duhigg points out in his essay, "Nothing says apocalypse, apparently like a city without functioning A.T.M.'s."  This is probably a little better than the German, pre-Nazis, uber-inflation scenario - at least killing zombies feels like a job.  As Jason Zinoman writes in his new book on horror films, Shock Value, "The monster has traditionally been a stand-in for some anxiety - political, social, or cultural."

Finally, Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson.  I just finished this book and would highly recommend it (Note of caution - be careful in the future regarding how networked all your machines become in your house and office.).  And guess which famous director is making a movie of the novel for release in Summer 2012?

From Robopocalyspe:

"The streets of central London are mostly empty.  Attacks came too fast and too organized for most citizens to react.  By law, all the autos had full-drive capability.  Also by law, hardly anybody had guns.  And the closed-circuit television network was compromised from the start, giving the machines an intimate view of every public space in the city.

In London, the citizens were too safe to survive.

Visual records indicate that automated trash trucks filled dumps outside the city with corpses for months after Zero Hour.  Now there's nobody left to destroy the place.  No survivors brave the streets.  And nobody is around to see two pale men - one young and one old - encased in military exoskeletons as they leap in ten-foot strides over the weedy pavement."

Remember that inflation, political battles, recessions, depressions, budget battles, fights over taxes, etc. have a long history in this country.  Things and thinking move in cycles - we have managed change and economic/technological transitions before and sometimes transitions are rather ugly looking affairs.

The bigger risk?  We don't have much of a history with zombies and killer robots.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Security is a tax on the honest

Bruce Schneir is the go-to security expert for business leaders and policy makers. He is the author of numerous books and publications. One of my favorites is Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World (2003). In this book, he makes the good point that security is complex, but complex things can be broken down into smaller and simpler steps. He came up with a five-step process to analyze and evaluate security systems, technologies, and practice. The five steps are as follows:

1. What assets are you trying to protect? The most basic question that many people forget to ask. The question involves understanding the scope of the problem. It involves understanding the particular “system” and boundaries you are attempting to protect. Different systems have different problems that require different solutions.

2. What are the risks to these assets? What are you attempting to defend? What are the consequences if it is attacked successfully? Who wants to attack it? How might they attack it? Why are they interested in attacking it?

3. How well does the security solution mitigate those risks? Another seemingly obvious question, but one that is frequently ignored. If the security solutions don’t solve the problem, it’s no good. It is important to think and evaluate how the security solution interacts with everything around it, evaluating both its operation and failures.

4. What other risks does the security solution cause? This is basically the problems of unintended consequences. Security solutions have ripple effects, and most cause new security problems. The trick is to understand the new problems and make sure they are smaller than the old ones.

5. What costs and trade-offs does the security solutions impose? Every security system has costs and requires trade-offs. Most security costs money, sometimes substantial amounts; but other trade-offs may be more important, ranging from matters of convenience and comfort to issues involving basic freedoms like privacy. Understanding these trade-offs is essential.

Schneir has several good observations and comments. Security is a tax on the honest. Schneir writes the following:

“Security permeates everything we do and supports our society in innumerable ways. It’s there when we wake up in the morning, when we eat our meals, when we’re at work, and when we’re with our families. It’s embedded in our wallets and global financial network, in the doors of our homes and the border crossings of our countries, in our conversations and publications we read. We constantly make security trade-offs, whether we’re conscious of them or not: large and small, personal and social. Many more security trade-offs are imposed on us from outside: by governments, by the marketplace, by technology, and by social norms. Security is a part of our world, just as it is part of the world of every other living thing. It has always been a part, and it always will be.”

The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers (2005) by Boaz Ganor is another good book (the Israelis have the market on security and terrorism books and manuals). Ganor thinks the following are unique characteristics of security and counter-terrorism - - interdisciplinary problem; ambiguous boundary between the front line and the home front; the direct and indirect impacts of terror; the types of terrorism; the test to leadership that is embedded in terror; trade-offs and other conflicts of interests, and the levels of the war of terrorism and enhanced global security requirements. I am currently reading A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism (2011) by Daniel Byman.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Data Center Electricity Trends

Jonathan G. Koomey, a consulting professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at Stanford University, has published a new study - - Growth in Data Center Power Use 2005 to 2010.

Key points from the study include the following:
  • The financial crisis of 2008 impacted the growth and demand for server farm electricity.
  • Technology (more efficient computer chips and computer server visualisation) has allowed fewer servers to run more programs.
  • The actual split between the recession and technology could not be determined by Koomey.
  • Koomey's results disagree with 2007 projections from the U.S. EPA (the Internet would produce a doubling of power consumed by data centers from 2005 to 2010).
  • Worldwide power consumption for data centers increased 56% from 2005 to 2010, the U.S. total was 36% for the same time period.
  • Some observers feel the slower growth is only temporary (the EPA study predicted 2011 demand increasing to 12 gigawatts, or the output of 25 major power plants).
  • Cloud computing could significantly increase demand for data centers and thus electricity.
  • Data centers represent 0.5% of worldwide electricity consumption in 2005 (about 17 1,000-megawatt power plants).