Thursday, January 31, 2013

OriginOil, Inc.

This is an interesting company - - OriginOil.  They are taking their technology to the fracking fields of America.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Open Source Ecology

Open Source Ecology is an example of the type of organization we will start to see in a DIY (do-it-yourself) producer society.  It will be interesting to see how traditional engineering interfaces with the DIY movement - - will it be embraced or seen as a threat?  This DIY producer society, driven by grassroots movements in tinkering, entrepreneurship, and small-scale manufacturing, has the potential to transform how we think and talk about global manufacturing and engineering.

Open Source Ecology has created a Global Village Construction Set that dramatically lowers the barriers to farming, construction, and manufacturing.  The goal of Open Source Ecology is to help others design and manufacture, devices like tractors, bread ovens, and circuit makers.  Engineering needs to be aware of the trends in open contributions that Open Source Ecology is based on.  Open source hardware specs and interfaces allow adaptation by and participation in the distributed production community.  Hardware is now software - - 3D printing is the best example of this trend.  Hardware is customized - - "long tail" innovation opens new markets.

The new production economy is being fueled by the same forces that will have a disruptive impact on engineers - - a global culture of DIY, new learning and teaching knowledge, and the democratization of technology.  The DIY producer society will force us to expand our notion of a "producer" - - it will force us also to expand our notion of an engineer and engineering.

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Message to Engineering Deans

A paragraph to ponder for the engineering deans of the world - - from Tom Friedman's New York Times column this past Sunday, Revolution Hits the Universities:

"I can see the day soon where you'll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors around the world - some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh - paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion.  It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment."

What we call an engineering degree is changing because of technology.  What we call an engineer also needs to change because of economic, social, and demographic forces - - and this is where the two paths start to cross.  Engineers need to change in three critical areas - - (1.) Depth in a selected subject area, (2.) Breadth in key areas, from marketing to public policy development to communication skills for the socially connected world, and (3.) A commitment to lifelong learning.

A connected world of online degrees and certificates will give engineers the access to a world of opportunities.  It will provide the key foundation in the three critical areas outlined above.  Those that take advantage of these new opportunities will get further ahead.  Those that ignore the opportunities in a changing world will only fall further behind. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Engineering Our Future Cities

I had the opportunity to be a special judge at the North Texas Regional (held at the University of Texas at Arlington where I am a member of the College of Engineering Advisory Board) Future City Competition as part of National Engineers Week.  The Future City Competition is a national program sponsored by the engineering community to promote technological literacy and engineering to middle school students.  The program fosters an interest in math, science, and engineering through hands-on, real-world applications.

The program involves teams and individuals to complete the following:
  1. Design a City - - The team develops a future city design using the SimCity 4 Deluxe software.
  2. Build a Physical Model - - The team builds a scale model of a section of the city.
  3. Communicate the Results - - Each student team gives a timed presentation of their city to a panel of judges.  They will then answer questions from the judges related to the city's design or structureal contents.

The overall theme was stormwater management.  I judged over 80 teams.  Each was highly impressive.  As a special judge, I was tasked with evaluating the cities in the context of three broad questions.  The questions were:
  1. How does your design provide environmental protection?
  2. Do your city systems utilize renewable energy?  Water reuse?  Waste-to-energy, etc.?  Are the city's infrastructure systems integrated in a holistic manner?
  3. When you are planning your city, did you consider livability?  Does your city provide open spaces, accessible transportation, mixed-use space, etc.?
Three great questions to 7th and 8th graders - - three great questions for the 40-year old engineer working on any transportation project in any urban area in the world.  A key question for engineering - - are we thinking as holistically about our future cities as a 7th grader?

Lincoln and Shackleton

I recently came across two leadership lessons that engineers can learn from.  The first from a U.S. president and the second from a U.K. polar explorer.

The New York Times covers the management lesson from Lincoln in an article today by Nancy Koehn - - Lincoln's School of Management: Resilience and Careful Listening, as Learned in 1862.  In our world of complexity and turbulence, Lincoln's ability to shift gears during hard times, without giving up the ultimate goal, is an important lesson for engineering leaders.

From the article:

"Lincoln is striking because he did all this under extremely difficult circumstances," Mr. Bloom {a strategic adviser to consumer-related companies} said.  "Some of his ability to navigate such difficult terrain was about emotional intelligence and the deep faith he nurtured about his vision.  But some of it was also about how he gathered advice and information from a wide range of people, including those who did not agree with him.  This is important in building a business because you have to listen to customers, employees, suppliers and investors, including those who are critical of what you are doing."

Several other good points in the article:
  • Imagine if e-mail had existed in 1862.  Lincoln was a slow, deliberate thinker, examining an issue from  many sides.  Leadership requires forbearance - - e-mail is not a great tool for thinkers and leaders like Lincoln.  Remember the recent movie and Lincoln setting in the telegraph office waiting for news of the war.  He was thinking.  The pressures of 24/7 action versus setting in a telegraph office and just thinking need careful thought.
  • Business leadership is serving all the people and not just one's self-interest.  Success is best when shared.
  • Leadership is getting people on a higher road with a higher purpose.
The second leadership lesson is from Sir Ernest Shackleton.  The Shackleton story is widely known and repeated in leadership lessons - - a tribute to leadership and endurance while trapped on the ice in the Antarctica.  Global engineering firm Arup (they have a great website) has an interesting take on the Shackleton experience.  Read more at this link.  They also have a video clip at the link.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Bridges to Prosperity

Building a better world - - one bridge at a time.  Engineering has a message for the world and the other professions - - do the right thing for the right reasons.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Engineering New Skill Sets

The Winter 2013 issue of Rotman Management has an article, 10 New Skills that Every Worker Needs, that has an important message for engineering.  Regardless of the industry you are in, one thing should be very clear - - engineers must become adaptable, lifelong learners.  We all live in a world and time of disruptive forces that have broad implications in the context of skill requirements and development.

This is a list of the "new" skills that people should have.  I think engineers are well positioned on about half of the skills.  The other half is an issue.
  1. Computational Thinking.  The world of Big Data will require a world of computational thinking individuals.  From programming skills to modeling insights, engineering in the future will include a greater focus on statistical analysis and quantitative reasoning skills.  Engineers should currently score an "A" on this skill set.  Engineering has a fundamental understanding that models are only as good as the data feeding them.  We get that reality and modeling reality are two different things. 
  2. Design Mindset.  Engineers are all about design.  They get the logic of design in the context of a product or a process.  Engineers must be able to capture the ideas embedded in design thinking.  Designers in the future will need to become adept at recognizing other opportunities for design thinking.  This will require engineering to fully embrace the social, cultural, political, and economic systems that interface with products and processes.  Engineers should score a "B+" on this skill set.
  3. Cognitive Load Management.  A working environment rich in information streams in multiple formats and from multiple devices will increasingly bring the issue of "cognitive overload" to the fore.  Engineering faces a future of funnels and filters - - a world with a larger information funnel opening in need of better and better filters.  Engineers are trained in the details - - we understand the trees and sometimes forget about the forests.  This could be a problem in the future.  Tools for dealing with the information onslaught will be critical.  Engineers should score a "B-" on this skill set.
  4. New Media Literacy.  Engineers are legendary for their poor communication skills.  The future looks to reinforce this problem.  The explosion in user-generated media - - including the videos, blogs, and podcasts that dominate our lives - - will be fully felt in the workplace in the next decade.  If you want the public to be willing to invest in our infrastructure deficit, the static-slide approach is not going to cut it.  As immersive and visually stimulation presentations of information become the norm, engineers will need to develop more sophisticated skills to use the "new media" tools to engage and persuade their audiences.  Engineers should score a "D" on this skill set.
  5. Transdisciplinarity.  A world of wicked problems, such as climate change, are too complex to be solved by one specialized discipline.  Climate change adaption is a multifaceted problem that will require transdisciplinary solutions.  The ideal engineer of the next decade will be "T-shaped", meaning that they will bring deep understanding of at least one field, but have the capacity to converse in the language of a broader range of disciplines.  Engineers should score a "D" on this skill set.
  6. Sense Making.  Robotics and complex algorithms will become a much more dominate force in the world of decision making.  Engineers will face a future of a constant struggle to continuously swim up the value added stream.  Sense making will be a critical skill in this long swim - - a skill that helps engineers to create unique insights critical to decision making.  Routine engineering is at risk - - critical thinking will be more valuable in the decades ahead.  Engineers should score a "B+" on this skill set. 
  7. Social Intelligence.  Robots don't have social skills and probably never will.  In a world of increased sense making - - social and emotional IQ will be increasingly important.  Engineers are trained to understand the logic of products and processes.  We are not trained to get the logic (and the illogic) of the human experience.  In a world of collaboration and building relationships on trust, we had better start to get the vital skill of social intelligence.  Engineers should score a "F" on this skill set. 
  8. Novel and Adaptive Thinking.  Want to thrive in a world of constant change and disruptive technologies?  Engineers in the future need to be really good at situational adaptability.  The key skill will be the ability to respond to unique, unexpected circumstances in the moment.  Engineers should score a "B" on this skill set.
  9. Cross-Cultural Competency.  Like it or not, globalization has been a powerful force the last decade and it will continue to be a significant force into the future.  Diversity is seen as a key to innovation - - none of us is as smart as all of us.  Engineers in the future will have jobs and opportunities that demand linguistic skills, adaptability to changing circumstances, and an ability to sense and respond to new contexts.  Engineers should score a "B" on this skill set.
  10. Virtual Collaboration.  Connective technology makes it easier for engineers to work together, share ideas, and be productive, despite physical separation.  Easy on one hand, but more complex demands on another.  Virtual management and leadership still needs immediate feedback, clear objectives, and a staged series of challenges.  Microblogging and social networking sites are replacing the traditional water cooler as the places that provide a sense of camaraderie and enable employees to demonstrate a presence.  Engineers should score a "C" on this skill set.
Our current grade would average to a "C+" - - in a world of "D" infrastructure, the various engineering professions and educators also need to look into the mirror and think about the new skill sets that will be required of an engineer in a difficult and complex world of our future.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Obama and Climate Change

The President put climate change back on the table yesterday during his inaugural address.  This is an example of a path we need to be seriously thinking about - -

More information on the NDRC proposal at this link.

Engineering and 3D Modeling Simulation

Politicians, policy makers, and the general public are going to demand engineers explain risk in terms of three dimensions.  From higher seawalls to high risk dams and bridges - - the costs and benefits of a particular project are more compelling in 3D.  The 2D world of model simulations and data visualization is rapidly dying.

Check out the Alaskan Way Viaduct project in Seattle in simulation - -

Resiliency as a Core Competency

Randers' 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years is turning into a must read.  Page after page you find something insightful and interesting in the context of engineering.  Between now and 2052, we are in for a wild ride with respect to our global weather.  Resiliency design thinking, emergency response/community stability, and reconstruction are core competencies that the engineering community must be able to bring to the table over the next 40 years.

From the book:

"The insured loss from natural disasters appears to have increased threefold over the last thirty years.  It currently runs at around $130 billion per year - $0.15 trillion per year - which is "only" 0.2% of the world GDP.  But the damage in 2011 was three times higher: a full $0.4 trillion per year.  If the damage keeps increasing, we could be speaking of disaster spending of 1% of world GDP per year in the longer run.  The reason is both that the weather will get wilder and that an increasingly crowded world will end up building expensive infrastructure in exposed places, like on the coast or on floodplains."

One other core competency - cost/benefit analysis for may areas impacted by rising sea levels will be simply "defend or retreat" decisions.  Placing engineers at the node of the "defend or retreat" decision will require engineers to have a complete understanding of the social, economic, political, and technological forces involved in this most difficult decision.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A paragraph to ponder

From the current issue of Wired in an article by Mat Honan - - The Simple Complex: Why subtraction is the hardest math in product design:

"Simplicity is about subtraction," says Mike Monteiro, author of Design Is a Job.  "We live in a culture of consumption, where quality is associated with more.  So designers and manufacturers tend to believe that to succeed you have you have to provide more.  What if Microsoft announced that the next version of Office had 75 percent less functionality?  It would be usable?  But there's no way marketing would led them get away with that."

Road Usage Charge

The pilot program payment alternatives for the Oregon Department of Transportation - - link.

The Wire and Engineering in 2020

I am a huge fan of HBO's The Wire.  Over five years and 60 episodes, we got to see different facets of the City of Baltimore.  Facets that suburban American knows little about.  Central to the story is the illegal drug trade and key to the story was electronic surveillance and wiretap technologies utilized by the police.  Technology interfaces with this extremely complex minefield of social, cultural, economic, and political forces to produce the story.

If you fast forward to 2020, wiretap technologies could be taking a backseat to another technology.  McNulty and Daniels might turn to something else to track the comings and goings of Avon Barksdate's drug empire.  The key technology for the show could become the FollowMe drone - - a GPS-enabled craft that is essentially a personal homing device. 

Stringer Bell may want to check his car and should be glancing at the rear view mirror more often in the future - -

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Our future Olympic gold medal distance runners may have a new training partner - -

Tulips and Dikes

I have written several articles regarding how the Netherlands is well positioned to be the Silicon Valley of climate change solutions and technology.  A unique combination of geography and history provides the Dutch with the opportunity to be the go-to country in terms of such problems as rising sea levels.

Check out Outsourcing Adaption to the Dutch.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The NYS Commission Report

The  link to the post-Sandy report commissioned by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo - - The NYS Commission Report: Building Resilience in New York.  I would recommend reading every word of this document.  The issues, analyses, and recommendations contained in the report provides a very useful roadmap to the future that engineering will face this century.

Coming To The Local IHOP

Don't think for a second that executives at places like IHOP and Chili's are not following this.  In general, a future of robots is great for engineering.  It will be interesting, however, to see when the two curves cross - - the curve that produces more incremental engineering jobs in a robotic future and the curve that shows an incremental decline in engineering opportunities because HAL just took your job.  When robots design robots or robots design anything  - - could be an interesting point in engineering.


The construction / engineering / architecture industries have struggled with productivity improvements since the pyramids.  If you look at the industries that are laggards in productivity improvements - construction is at the bottom of the list.  Integration of IT into operations - bottom.  Innovation - bottom.  New thinking on different ways to fix our national infrastructure problems - bottom.  The whole world is reading the New Testament and the construction industry is still locked into the Old Testament.

The good thing about the bottom is the only way to go is up.  Firms like LATISTA might make the path upward quicker and less painful.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Rainwater Harvesting and Dripping Springs, Texas

Dripping Springs may be small, but it is becoming the Silicon Valley of rainwater harvesting.  Just a sample of what you will find in town:


Thursday, January 17, 2013

New Costs Will Emerge

From the excellent 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years by Jorgen Randers.

Over the next forty years global society will need extra investment money to:
  • Develop and implement substitutes for scarce resources like conventional oil and gas and phosphorus.
  • Develop and implement solutions for dangerous emissions like CFCs, SO2, NOX, and climate gases.
  • Replace ecological services that formerly were free, such as water from glaciers, or underground water for agriculture, or fish protein.
  • Repair accumulated damage from past human activity, which could include decommissioning nuclear power plants or removing offshore installation.
  • Rebuild real estate and infrastructure destroyed by extreme weather, and compensate for a shorter average lifetime for infrastructure.
  • Maintain armed forces to fight off immigration, defend resource supplies, and provide manpower during more frequent emergencies.

2012 Global Temperatures

The is the link to the recently release data from NASA - -

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Firebird

The Firebird by Northrop Grumman could represent the future of aviation.  The plane is geared toward intelligence, surveillance, and recon - - with a big difference over similar planes.  It comes with or without a pilot.

In 2025 - - you may be able to get to the airport in your driverless car and head to Miami on vacation in a pilotless plane.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Future View from my Window

The Take, Make, and Waste Engineering Approach

Pick up a copy of Blue Revolution: Unmaking America's Water Crisis by Cynthia Barnett.  Take a look at Chapter 6 - The Water-Industrial Complex.  Barnett gets her noise under the green curtain of engineering consulting and the water business. 

Much to protect in the context of the status quo - - and engineers that work for the public sector like their status quo.  From the book:

"What the report never points out is that our water-management approach itself is part of the problem.  In addition to new projects, utilities want billions of dollars to rebuild the nation's  aging water lines, sewer mains, and treatment plants, many built more than a hundred years ago.  True, these systems are leaking, collapsing, and overflowing.  But often missing from the debate is the idea that rather that prop up failing systems, we should invest in new ways of living with water.  Economist Valerie Nelson, director of the Massachusetts-based Coalition for Alternative Wastewater Treatment, says our waterworks have reached the classic run-to-failure moment, when it becomes more efficient to invest in something new than to repair the old.  It's like the tipping point at which it's not worth replacing the transmission in your clunker.  Instead, you save every last dime for a new car, maybe even a hybrid.

In the mid-1880's, the country began building pipes that carry clean water into cities, another set to carry wastewater out, and yet another to rid cities of stormwater.  Sticking to this big-pipe approach is like holding on to your grandparents' Buick Roadmaster from the 1950s - and paying large repair bills to keep it running for thirteen-mile-a-gallon commutes in the modern city.  "The traditional linear 'take, make, waste' approach to managing water increasingly is proving unsustainable,' says Glen T. Daigger, president of the International Water Association.  He is also senior vice president and chief technology officer at CH2M Hill, the Colorado-based company that is consistently one of the top water-engineering firms in the nation - where he has worked for more that three decades.  Climate change and growing global population now have him calling on his own colleagues to change their mega-project approach."

Monday, January 14, 2013

Natural Disasters and Illogical Humans

The February 2013 issue of Men's Journal has an excellent article about engineer Bob Bea by Alex Prud'Homme - - The Master of Disaster.  Bea is the co-founder of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California at Berkeley.  Bea is one of my favorite engineers - - the nation's foremost forensic engineer.  From the flooding of Katrina to the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout - - Bea is the engineer that typically gets the first phone call when people and organizations start asking the hard how, why, and who questions.

I would recommend the article.  Rarely are engineers profiled in national publications in such thoughtful detail.  This is from the article:

"The cause of most large-scale calamities, notes Beu, is "the human factor."  Too often, designers fall in love with their ideas lose sight of practical, quotidian concerns.  "We engineers tend to believe in the myth of perfection." he says.  "We understand the logic of systems and machines.  What we don't understand is all of you illogical humans.  We aren't trained to take into account things like hubris, greed, sloth, office politics, and the rest of it.  It's not part of our skill set.  But it needs to be.  Dealing with the human factor is almost always more complicated than the technology."

Beu continues this line of thinking further in Reinventing Flood Control (with Daniel Farber, Karlene Roberts, and Edward Wenk - from the Tulane Law Review):

"The first step in disaster prevention is understanding the role of human and organizational error in creating and ameliorating risk.  People tend to think of risk as a physical phenomenon stemming from natural events or complex engineering projects such as nuclear reactors.  Such physical phenomena are a necessary component of risk, but they are only the starting point in addressing safety concerns.  Whether a risk materializes and the extent of the harm if causes is almost always mediated by human actions.  Those actions, in turn, take place inside organizations with their own histories and cultures.  To understand risk, we need to see the human context as well as the physical events that cause harm.  Only then can we begin to determine the appropriate response to risk."

The Age of Extreme Weather and Super-Disasters may require us all to get more comfortable with the Bea Bible of Natural Disasters - - "Never let a good disaster go to waste.  I'm in the prevention business.  And you can't prevent what you don't understand."

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Backup Generation

This is interesting and not all that surprising - - buildings are madly waterproofing.  From The New York Times today by Julie Satow, New York's Machine of the Moment - -

"Now, more than two months after the storm caused millions of dollars in damage, novel and costly waterproofing techniques are being employed, including the addition of backup generators and floodgates and the relocation of mechanical equipment.  The owners of buildings that predate the flooding are also looking at these measures, although retroactive installation is so complex and costly that some may decide not to do anything.
"If you are in the flood zone and you are marketing a new high-end property, it will need to stand up to the test of another superstorm," said Stephen G. Kliegerman, the executive director of development marketing for Halstead Property.  "I think buyers would happily pay to be relatively reassured they wouldn't be terribly inconvenienced in case of natural disaster.""

Other key points in the article - -
  • Relocating basement mechanical systems means eliminating space on upper floors that could have been used for apartments or building amenities.
  • The Dutch philosophy - - allow the lower level of buildings and parks to flood to retain the water.
  • "Our switchgear is in the basement and I don't know how one can move that elsewhere."
  • While buying a generator itself may not be that expensive - - it is the "everything else" that greatly runs up the overall coat.
  • Remember the interface points with a backup generator - - securing a fuel supply is critical.
  • Defend or retreat - - the backup generator or preparing people to evacuate buildings is a key tradeoff (social, political, economic, etc.).
  • The building code does not count basement space used for mechanical equipment in the square footage permitted by zoning.
  • Builders want to be more resilient but don't want to be penalized by giving up space.
  • Seawalls or backup generators - - completion in tens of years versus months.  The backup generation will be purchasing a bunch of backup generators. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Engineering Quote of the Day

From Eric Brown who taught failure analysis at Imperial College of London in 1967 - - in describing structural engineering:

"The art of molding materials we do not really understand into shapes we cannot really analyze, so as to withstand forces we cannot really assess, in such a way that the public does not really suspect."

Friday, January 11, 2013

A paragraph to ponder

From the New York Times column by David Brooks on January 8, 2013 - - Why Hagel Was Picked:

"As a result, health care spending, which people really appreciate, is squeezing out all other spending, which they value far less.  Spending on domestic programs - for education, science, infrastructure and poverty relief - has already faced the squeeze and will take a huge hit in the years ahead.  President Obama excoriated Paul Ryan for offering a budget that would cut spending on domestic programs from its historical norm of 3 to 4 percent of G.D.P. all the way back to 1.8 percent.  But the Obama budget is the Ryan Budget.  According to the Office of Management and Budget, Obama will cut domestic discretionary spending back to 1.8 percent of G.D.P. in six years."

Risk in 2013

The World Economic Forum - - Global Risks 2013.

The Eurasia Group - - Top Risks 2013.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Genuine adaptation means preparing for the inevitable deluge

Eric Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at New York University.  His books include Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (which I am currently reading) and Going Solo.  Klinenberg has a fascinating article in the January 7, 2013 issue of The New Yorker that I would recommend to the engineering community - - Adaptation: How can cities be "climate-proofed"?

From the article:

"For the past decade and a half, governments around the world have been investing in elaborate plans to "climate-proof" their cities - protecting people, businesses, and critical infrastructure against weather-related calamites.  Much of this work involves upgrading what engineers cal "lifeline systems": the network infrastructure for power, transit, and communications, which is critical in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  Some of the solutions are capital-intensive and high-tech; some are low-or no-tech approaches, such as organizing communities so that residents know which of their neighbors are vulnerable and how to assist them.  The fundamental threat to the human species is, or course, our collective inability to reduce our carbon emissions and slow the pace of climate change.  Yet, even if we managed to stop increasing global carbon emissions tomorrow, we would probably experience several centuries of additional warming, rising sea levels, and more frequent dangerous weather events.  If our cities are to survive, we have no choice but to adapt."

This is just a small sample of the material in the article:

"Think about all the projects we conceived more than a decade ago, before we knew about rising sea levels, in the name of waterfront revitalization.  They've been quite successful, but they've also placed a lot of people at risk."

"After Sandy, there was a five-day blackout in lower Manhattan, because the walls protecting Con Ed's substation along the East River, at twelve and a half feet above the ground, were eighteen inches too low to stop the storm surge and prevent the consequent explosions."

"America's mobile-phone networks have always been less reliable than those in Europe."

"Barriers are at best an intermediate solution.  They will require at least twenty years to build, because we'd need environmental-impact reports, and buy-in form the federal government, the state governments of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and probably also about three hundred municipalities.  If all that happens, we'd get protection for perhaps a few decades.  Walls will keep out storm surges, but not the rising ocean, and they could cause a sense of false security that prevents us from finding real solutions."

"Sometimes engineers don't see things holistically."

"Sandy revealed serious flaws in all forms of infrastructure in New York and New Jersey.  But it also turned up surprising reserves of strength."

"Thousands of people whose homes were damaged by Sandy live in neighborhoods that lack strong support networks or community organizations capable of mounting a large relief effort."

"Whether they come from governments or from civil society, the best techniques for safeguarding cities don't just mitigate disaster damage; they also strengthen the networks that promote health and prosperity during ordinary times."

"Effective climate-proofing demands more intelligent design.  It should provide benefits not just when disaster strikes but day to day."

"It's a cause for regret that we're not responding to the challenges of climate change with the same resources we've devoted to the war on terror.  As long as the threat from global warming seemed remote and abstract, it was easier to ignore.  Now climate change is coming to mean somethings specific and scary,"

"We are entering an age of extremes."

"We can't just rebuild after every disaster.  We need to pro-build, with a future of climate change in mind."

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Room for the River

Room for the River is a Dutch government design plan intended to address flood protection, master landscaping and the improvement of environmental conditions in the areas surrounding Holland's rivers. 

Room for the River is an integrated spatial plan containing the following elements:
  • Relocation of dikes
  • Lower the level of the floodplain
  • Reduce the height of groynes
  • Construction of a "Green Channel"
  • Increase the depth of side channels
  • Removal of obstacles

The University and Natural Disasters

Sarah Murray has an interesting article in the January 7, 2013 edition of the Financial Times - - Destructive storm offers constructive lessons.  The article looks at the trend of incorporating environmental strategies as part of MBA courses given our recent weather disasters and the era of extreme weather.  The core questions of climate adaption appears to be coming to business schools and engineering.  Risk analysis, environmental management, uncertainty in global supply chains, and energy security are becoming required subject material for an uncertain world.

None of this will be easy.  Climate adaption is a multidisciplinary problem requiring multidisciplinary vision.  Both academia and the business world struggle with systems and holistic thinking.  Murray writes the following:

"There is evidence that schools are beginning to put issues of environmental responsibility and climate change into the heart of the MBA rather than leaving them as optional electives.

But the challenge facing schools is that the issues raised by Sandy could be taught through a number of management education topics, from finance and strategy to climate risk, energy management and environmental sustainability.

"All the disciplines come in, in one form of another," says Prof. Kunreuther {professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of Wharton's Risk Management and Decision Processes Centre}.  "You can talk about sustainability or the environment and you have financial questions, management questions, decision-making questions and public policy questions."

Some attempts have been made in academia to link these different fields.  At MIT, the Engineering Systems Division was established to tackle complex engineering systems problems by incorporating thinking on engineering, management and social sciences."

Monday, January 7, 2013

The IDEO Shopping Cart

CBS 60 Minutes ran a profile of IDEO last night.  This is short segment by ABC News on IDEO and the innovation process associated with the development of a new shopping chart.  Several key points in the video:
  • IDEO is an expert at the innovation process - - understanding the process is hugely important.
  • An engineer was placed in charge of the project team.  Not because he was senior or an expert at shopping charts - - he was placed in charge because he was good with groups.
  • The project team is multidisciplinary - - this is a key to innovation success.
  • IDEO is very good at exploring all points of view - - they find the real experts.
  • Enlightened trial and error combined with fail often to success early.

The Three Headed Engineer

The problems associated with fixing America can clearly be seen with our crumbling national infrastructure.  The United States has been like many other advanced industrial democracies - - we have spent the last few decades managing or ignoring problems rather than tackling them head on.  We have managed to get some $2 trillion in the hole regarding infrastructure investments.  From crumbling bridges and highways, to an air traffic control system that needs a $25 billion upgrade, to an electric grid that is antique - - we have no elegant solutions to our infrastructure woes.

Our infrastructure clearly lacks the appropriate level of investment.  It also lacks careful planning and oversight.  How we fund and manage infrastructure can be inefficient and ineffective.  It is also subject to a Congress that allocates money to infrastructure projects based on politics, not need or bang for the buck.

Engineering is also a problem.  In a world requiring integrative thinking, the engineering priesthood produces far too few broad-gauged individuals.  Over the years, the act of design has gotten small and so have engineers (we have also turned design into more of a verb and less of a noun).  Engineers have forgotten how to think big.  We have gotten very good at "What is" and forgotten "What could be" - - a world of new ideas, new alternatives, and new choices seems to escape us.

The military understands it needs a new breed of leader.  A leadership well versed in politics, diplomacy, economics, and military strategy.  All get a sprinkling of these topics.  Certain selected officers receive a dunking in these waters more deeply.  In a complex world, a premium is placed on leaders that are adaptive and that have learned to think. 

Our infrastructure crisis needs a new breed of engineer.  We need strategies and strategists that can breakup the institutional concrete and rigidity of our dated thinking on infrastructure development.  If you want to know why our national infrastructure system is broken, you need individuals that can ask new questions.  This new breed must be more comfortable and confident with interdisciplinary thinking and resources - - less driven by convergent thinking and more determined to explore divergent and expansive ideas and solutions.

Asking the correct questions will require a new three headed engineer.  One head in politics; one head in economics/finance; one head in engineering.  Our infrastructure renewal will require surefooted interplay among the three heads.  The combination of public needs and private investment for your local water treatment plant will require a three headed engineer confident in project desirability, viability, and feasibility marked by a world of complex needs and limited financial resources.  Raising low water rates to help fund a project such as this probably breaks into thirds - - one-third of the time on consensus building; one-third on financial viability; and one-third on the engineering.  As you can see, two-thirds of this sample project is associated with the "soft skills" of engineering - - empathy, communications, persuasion, negotiations, and leadership.

The best and brightest of engineers will learn to manage their three heads - - and the nation will be better off for it.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Ups and Downs of 2012 Weather

From the January 4, 2013 edition of the Financial Times - - Worsening Weather: Climate change is having an effect.  So should the politics:

"There seems to have been not a single moment of 2012 when some part of the world was not afflicted by extreme weather.  England's wettest year on record; Europe's worst cold snap in decades; flooding and landslides in Brazil, Bangladesh and the Philippines; the smallest Arctic summer ice cover; record-breaking heatwaves in Australia and the U.S.; droughts in North and South America.  Just as Americans were electing their president, their northeast seaboard was battered by Sandy, a superstorm that baffled meteorologists.  For Britains, Christmas was spoiled by severe floods."

From Design to Design Thinking

Graph of the week

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Changing Value of Water

This is a very good paper by authors from CH2M HILL - - The Changing Value of Water to the US Economy: Implications from Five Industrial Sectors.  The five sectors are semiconductor, chemical, mining, oil & gas, and thermal power generation.

Look for water to take on much more of a value context.  Just thinking in terms of water cost is out - - water and a value proposition is in.  This goes beyond just industrial discussions and applications.  For example, my water is priced without the context of value at roughly $3.00 per 1,000 gallons.  On a per gallon basis, this rounds to basically free.  My behavior and the behavior of my neighbors is highly influenced by the basic economics of free water on a per gallon basis.  The other extreme of the value proposition is at the local 7-11 a half mile from my house.  A bottle of Fiji water is priced at roughly $11.00 per gallon.  It is hard to think of any other commodity priced to these two extremes a half mile from each other.

At some point, a key question needs to be ask - - "Who is better at pricing water in the context of value - - my local water utility or 7-11?"  As the U.S. Southwest enters an era of stressed water resources and extreme weather, how we value price water and move away from cost based pricing structures will be critical.

Three Books in 2013

Three books that I am looking forward to reading in 2013:
  1. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of a Disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg
  2. Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy
  3. Simpler: The Future of Government by Cass Sunstein

National Intelligence Council Global Trends: Alternative Worlds

Released this month by the National Intelligence Council, the report outlines a series of megatrends.  Megatrend 4: Growing Food, Water, and Energy Nexus is summarized below:

"Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle class. Climate change will worsen the outlook for the availability of these critical resources. Climate change analysis suggests that the severity of existing weather patterns will intensify, with wet areas getting wetter and dry and arid areas becoming more so. Much of the decline in precipitation will occur in the Middle East and northern Africa as well as western Central Asia, southern Europe, southern Africa, and the US Southwest.

We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future. Many countries probably won’t have the wherewithal to avoid food and water shortages without massive help from outside. Tackling problems pertaining to one commodity won’t be possible without affecting supply and demand for the others. Agriculture is highly dependent on accessibility to adequate sources of water as well as on energy-rich fertilizers. Hydropower is a significant source of energy for some regions while new sources of energy—such as biofuels—threaten to exacerbate the potential for food shortages. There is as much scope for negative tradeoffs as there is the potential for positive synergies. Agricultural productivity in Africa, particularly, will require a sea change to avoid shortages. Unlike Asia and South America, which have achieved significant improvements in agricultural production per capita, Africa has only recently returned to 1970s’ levels."

Climate Change Handbook for Regional Water Planning

I would add this book to your reading list in 2013.  Prepared by the California Department of Water Resources - - the site also contains a Vulnerability Assessment Checklist.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Robot Wars Are Coming To Your Backyard (and Living Room)

Your smart house connected to the smart grid.  A driverless car in the garage.  Your daughter's drone parked in the driveway.  A neighborhood wastewater treatment plant that automatically reuses wastewater to water the grass in your yard.  Amazon delivering your new shoes that you ordered two hours ago online.  Innovation is circling your house and neighborhood.

Don't expect your son to mow the yard or your daughter to vacuum the den; cost effective robotics are on the way to handle these two traditional household chores - - link.

Regional Climate Science Centers

This is the link to information on the eight Department of Interior climate science centers.

How to Solve Traffic Jams

The TED talk from Jonas Eliasson, Director of the Center for Transport Studies at Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology - -

Elements of Successful Municipal Sustainability Programs

CDM Smith is conducting a survey on sustainability programs.  The link to the survey is here.

San Francisco Bay: Preparing for the Next Level

I would highly recommend reading this important document prepared by the Dutch engineering firm Arcadis.  (See my previous blog regarding investing in Dutch engineering firms.  The project team from Arcadis is listed in the report - - very Dutch!!!).

In many coastal communities, climate change and rising sea levels will result in a binary decision point - - defend or retreat.  Keep in mind retreat or abandonment and moving to higher ground has a cost outlined below:
  • Accelerated amortization/write-off of structures and infrastructure.
  • Write-off of the underlying real estate, something that is rarely done on balance sheets now.
  • Significantly increased insurance costs.
  • A dwindling tax base.
  • As things deteriorate, the increasing cost of defensive measures such as seawalls, and then the costs of remediation and repair as things get destroyed, prior to the decision to abandon.
  • The cost of relocating, not just individual buildings and infrastructure, but entire communities.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Big Data Analytics: Disruptive Technology in the Water Industry?

The Plenary Keynote Address by CDM Smith Executive Vice President Paul Brown at the World Congress on Water, Climate and Energy in Dublin, Ireland May 12-18, 2012.

Copy of the address is at this link.

Training and Performance Problems

From Karen May, vice president for people development at Google - -

"Don't use training to fix performance problems.  If you've got a performance problem, there is a process to go through to figure out what's causing it.  Maybe the person doesn't have the knowledge or skill or capability.  Or is it motivation, or something about relationships withing the work environment?  Or lack of clarity about expectations?  Training is the right solution only if the person doesn't have the capability.  But what I have seen other places is sort of a knee-jerk reaction by managers to put someone in a training class if somebody isn't performing well."

The Geospatial Revolution

For the general public, the widespread availability of GPS equipment and our geospatial revolution has had an unexpectedly negative effect on orientation and awareness.  We can get to places faster yet are clueless as to where we are.  Your average adult would probably struggle with this question - -

"Which is farther north - Cannes on the French Riviera, or Milwaukee?"

Our geospatial revolution must lead to a geography renaissance.  The markets commitment and utilization of GPS and GIS technology should be balanced with an appreciation for geography by the general public.  Several key points regarding geography:
  • In a world of analysis, geography is synthesis.  Geography is about the wide and long view.  Geographic thinking links apparently disparate information to solve unanswered problems.
  • Thinking spatially is critical to an active and effective citizenry.  Geographic knowledge is a crucial ingredient of our national security.  Geography matters when it comes to climate change.
  • Data visualisation is become more advanced and critical.  Getting the picture of any problem or issue is the fundamental first step in solution formulation.  Maps are the language of geography in an ever-changing world.
Penn State Public Broadcasting has a excellent four part series on our geospatial revolution.  The fourth part is noteworthy as it covers geospatial tools and climate change assessment.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three


Part Four

Graph of the Week

The average Medicare couple pays $109,000 into the program and gets $343,000 in benefits out, according to the Urban Institute.  The American taxpayers have decided that they really enjoy free money.  This unchecked free money is a huge long term threat to engineering, especially those that are involved in public infrastructure development (why do you think the Urban Institute tracks this!!). 

Public infrastructure has historically been about us.  The graph is about me.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Following the Money in 2013

Over the last 40 or more years, engineers have operated under a rather narrow view of our national energy system.  The view has been that our infrastructure was set up for the idea that the United States is an energy-deficit nation.  This is changing, where change means increased opportunities.

The Wall Street Journal pointed this out on December 28, 2012 in an article by Tom Fowler and Ben Lefebvre - - Oil Boom Spurs New Investment.  From the article:

"AECOM Technology Corp., a firm that does industrial project design, management and engineering, forecasts that in 2013 as much as $45 billion may be spent on new or expanded transportation infrastructure, including pipelines, rail cars, rail terminals and other projects, said Seth Dentsch, an AECOM senior vice president."

Drones Over West Virginia

The cover story of Smithsonian's Air & Space January 2013 issue is a must read for the engineering community - - Drones for Hire.  Drones could be coming shortly to the public works department as part of a new set of tools for infrastructure assessment and management.  Congress last February ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to open the skies to drones by September 2015.

From the article:

"Unpiloted vehicles—some light enough to be hand-launched and often small enough to fit into a backpack—are already being used for everything from forest fire spotting to animal migration studies. The military-surplus, 4.2-pound AeroVironment RQ-11A Raven is one of two types of drones now flying for the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS’s National Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office flies its Ravens for land management agencies in the Department of the Interior. Each project requires a special waiver from the FAA, which can take from a few months up to a year to obtain. In one test project, a Raven has been examining drainage infrastructure at a West Virginia surface mine. The drone team requires a pilot plus two observers to watch for aerial traffic. After a half-hour to assemble the vehicle, set up the ground terminal (a rugged laptop), a generator, and a communications antenna, launching the fixed-wing Raven is as simple as turning on the motor and hurling it into the air like a javelin. The drone, which has stabilized and gimbaled optical and infrared cameras in its nose, can fly for as long as 90 minutes, beaming live video to a monitor. When the team members see something on the ground that needs more attention, they instruct the Raven to circle the target while the pilot adjusts the camera to keep it in view. The Office of Surface Mining then uses the images to pick out trouble spots, such as a landslide that has blocked the flow of contaminated water to a treatment pond, and an inspector will follow up on foot."

Aurora Flight Sciences' Skate is an example of a drone that the public works director could pull out of the front seat, lauch, and investigate a remote drainage structure.