Thursday, February 28, 2013

What an Engineer Learned from Reading the Financial Times

From the February 26, 2013 edition - -
  • ". . . researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany, said that progress in lowering the odds of death at all ages has been so rapid since 1900 that life expectancy has risen faster in that time than it did in the previous 200 milennia, since modern man began to evolve form hominid species."
  • "For the first time since 2003, Saudi imports accounted for more than 15 percent of total US oil imports.  The Gulf as a whole accounted for more than 25 percent, a nine-year high."
  • "In Star Trek the gadgets were great, but it was doing the right thing that really counted."
  • "In the US, focus on the federal deficit threatens to blind leaders in Washington to an essential truth about our economy: we have a growth problem."
  • "Juha Akras, Nokia's head of human resources says one side-effect of becoming smaller is greater co-operation.  To his surprise, internal measures of staff satisfaction have continued to improve, even during the gloomy first half of 2012."
  • "More than half of the tracking devices on major websites are not deployed by the sites' owners, a survey has shown, in results that raise privacy, security and regulatory headaches for online publsihers."

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Engineering and the X Factors

The science journal Nature recently came up with a list of emerging game-changers.  None of these are currently on the engineering radar.  Engineers and decision makers might want to keep an eye on these "known unknowns" - all may sound like excellent Hollywood scripts, but they could also create broad opportunities and challenges for engineering.
  • Runaway climate change - Is it possible that we have already passed a point of no return and that Earth's atmosphere is tipping rapidly into an inhospitable state?
  • Significant cognitive enhancement - Ethical dilemmas akin to doping in sports could start to extend into daily working life; an arms race in the neural "enhancement" of combat troops.  Prediction - - advances by 2025 could make the Terminator franchise look dated.
  • Rogue deployment of geoengineering - Technology is now being developed to manipulate the climate; a state or private individual could use it unilaterally.  This could be a great undated Bond film!
  • Costs of living longer - Medical advances are prolonging life, but long-term palliative care is expensive.  Covering the costs associated with old age could be a struggle.  In my opinion, this is a "known-known" - already happening.  Our current budget debates and battles fundamentally revolve around some form of this issue.  This will never be a Bond movie.
  • Discovery of alien life - Proof of life's existence elsewhere in the universe could have profound psychological implications for human belief systems.  Invest in CNN if this happens - Anderson Cooper will cover this for 100 straight days.

Engineering and the interview-and-observation-based realm

If you have an opportunity to take one of those "out in right field" college electives, consider taking a class in journalism.  The world of engineering is entering a period where we will be inhabiting a business space where answers tend not to come in yes/no formats, or in pie charts and bar graphs.  What will be required are engineers that have a deep understanding of consumers and the dynamics you find in society.  Deep understanding comes only through observation, skillful questions, and the ability to insightfully listen. 

Organizations will need to get much better at collective observation and interview skills.  Asking the correct questions will become key.  This could have broad impacts on organizations.  Complexity and constant change will produce an era of new and different customer answers.  This will require engineers and organizations to constantly reexamine the fundamental differences between the businesses they thought they were in, and the business they actually are in.

Observation and interview training and abilities will be an increasingly critical skill set to many engineers.  We're dealing with human issues and not just the physical stuff.  Understanding people, social interaction, the spoke/unspoken rules and rituals of modern life, trust - - engineers need a better knowledge base regarding the contradictions and complexities of the human experience.

A good staring point is training on asking questions and listening to the answers - just like a world class reporter.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Consumption-Based Fixed Rate Water Model

As reported in The Davis Enterprise (Davis, California) - How the city arrived at the proposed rates.

The city describes the consumption-based fixed rate model this way: ”The supply-charge fee is calculated by using the projected annual revenue requirement related to water supply and treatment and dividing it by the total projected six-month peak period (May through October) water use of the water utility to produce a per-ccf rate.

“The individual fee per customer is then calculated by taking the per-ccf rate and multiplying it by the individual customer’s prior year’s six-month peak period water use. Each year, this CBFR amount is recalculated based on an individual’s actual water use during the prior six-month May-through-October peak consumption period. So for Jan. 1, 2015, the May-October of 2014 total volume will be used. The supply charge will comprise approximately 67 percent of an average monthly water bill.”

While perhaps complex, the city felt comfortable enough that it could print this rate structure on Prop. 218 notices that are sent to property owners to inform them of pending rate increases.

A Paragraph to Ponder

From the Wall Street Journal yesterday - For J.C. Penney's Heralded Boss, the Shine Is Off the Apple:

"They also decided that the headquarters had grown overstaffed and underproductive.  During January 2012, the 4,800 employees in Plano watched five million TouTube videos during work hours, said Michael Kramer, a former Apple executive brought in by Mr. Johnson as chief operating officer.  Thirty-five percent of the bandwidth at headquarters was routinely used for such loafing off."

If this is correct, it would average to a little over 1,000 YouTube videos per employee per month - - approximately 35 videos per day per employee.  Assuming an eight-hour day (which sounds like a stretch given the context), on average, a J.C. Penney corporate HQ employee will/would link to YouTube every 14 minutes.

Branding 101 - if everyone knows your company as Penney's, why would you ever want to drop that from your name?

$100 this ends ugly for JCP (aka Penney's) shareholders and someone makes this into one of the best case studies.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Good Ideas of the Week

Here is my sample - -

The Role of Stories In Engineering

Consider the words of Confucius as you wrestle with your next PowerPoint presentation - -

"I hear and I forget.  I see and I remember.  I do and I understand."
Stories, especially those that are visually rich, add value and dimension to any presentation.  Engineers need to include analogies, stories and examples with any technical presentation.  The more human the connection (and less about the thing, stuff or gizmo), the greater the likelihood the audience will correctly interpret the message.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Smart technology takes the guesswork out of water network maintenance

This could be an important project to follow from Sydney Water.  From the press release:

"All water utilities with buried water pipes are faced with the issue of finding pipes that are at high-risk of failure before they fail and result in significant disruptions to the community. To do this we need accurate models to identify high-risk pipes which can cope with the differences in age, pipe material, environmental conditions and urbanisation,” said Kevin Young, Managing Director of Sydney Water. “We need smart technology to help provide answers. NICTA’s approach is innovative and has the potential to have worldwide impact in pipe condition assessment. We have introduced the approach to our international colleagues, who are keenly watching the outcomes.”

Engineering the SimCity for Real

Keep an eye on this research center - New York University's Center for Urban Science and Progress.  Big Data + Global Urbanization = Big Opportunities - - where the opportunities for many engineers will be in the areas of improving urban efficiencies and quality of life.  Engineering will increasingly focus on digital technologies (sensors, wireless communication, storage, and algorithms) that see and measure just about everything in the urban environment.

The SimCity of fiction is becoming the sensored and modeled world of the real. 

Worldwide Smart City 2013 Top 10 Predictions

From research firm IDC Government Insights - link to the press release and document.

The Top 10 Predictions are:

1. In 2013, 70% of Worldwide Spending on Smart City Projects Will Be Focused on Energy, Transportation, and Public Safety, and 90% of These Will Be at Least Partially Funded by National or International Government.

2. At Least 50% of Smart City Programs Will Be Initiated at the Line-of-Business or City-Function Level.

3. Worldwide Spending on Smart Water Solutions Will Reach $1.8 Billion in 2013.

4. Smart City Information Challenges Will Begin to Be Framed as Big Data Issues.

5. Local Government Will Remain in the Research and Evaluation Stage Regarding Machine to Machine, with Growth in Very Specific City Functions Mostly for Medium-Sized to Large Cities.

6. Cities with Open Data Initiatives Will Drive 50% More Private, Citizen, and Crowdsourced Mobile Applications.

7. In 2013, Local Government Will Connect to Citizens via Mobile Devices and Social Media, Accelerating a New Type of Citizen/Government Relationship.

8. Smart City Programs Will Experiment with New Public/Private, Risk-Reward-Sharing Partnership Models to Make Funding Sustainable.

9. At Least Three More Tier 1 Global ICT Vendors Will Enter the Market with a Branded Smart City Solution, Leading to More Intense Competition Among Existing Players.

10. At Least 70% of Smart City Programs That Will Succeed Between 2013 and 2015 Will Be Governed by Joint Ventures That Include City Leaders as Key Stewards.

Engineering Resilience - A Working Definition

Engineers face an era of global risks - where global risks would meet with global responses in an ideal world.  Engineering faces a new reality in which countries and their communities are on the frontline when it comes to systemic shocks and catastrophic events.  In an increasingly interdependent and hyperconnected world - one nation's failure to address a global risk can have a ripple effect on others.

Resilience to global risks, incorporating the ability to withstand, adapt and recover, is, therefore, becoming more critical.  It becomes more important each day, each month, and each new year.  A critical starting point is a definition of resilience.  The World Economic Forum, Global Risks 2013, Eighth Edition provides the following definition:

In the wake of unprecedented disasters in recent years, "resilience" has become a popular buzzword across a wide range of disciplines, with each discipline attributing its own working definition to the term.  A definition that has long been used in engineering is that resilience is the capacity for "bouncing back faster after stress, enduring greater stresses, and being disturbed less by a given amount of stress."  The definition is commonly applied to objects, such as bridges or skyscrapers.  However, most global risks are systemic is nature, and a system - unlike an object - may show resilience not by returning exactly to its previous state, but instead by finding different ways to carry out essential functions; that is, by adapting.  For a system, and additional definition of resilience is "maintaining system function in the event of disturbance."

Too often engineering views resilience in isolation.  In the era of extreme weather event and climate change, engineers need to start thinking of a country as a system that is comprised of smaller systems and a part of larger systems.  A country's resilience is affected by the resilience of those smaller and larger systems.  Without systems thinking, engineering will never get to the point where "What makes a system resilient?" becomes the dominate question.

Graph of the week

Saturday, February 23, 2013

It Still Starts with Mathematics and Physics

Rule of thumb - - the cooler it looks, the more complex the algorithm.

When Engineers Don't Listen

Engineering ethnography needs to become more of a focus - from the academic to the professional practice.  The quest to understand how technologies, culture, and organizations interact and affect each other will be a key to competitive advantage.  Engineering must have a great desire to interface with and understand the behavioral sciences.  This collaboration between the two fields will help engineers develop technology better, along with understanding how organizations could be designed to use technology better.  Engineers will be tasked with observing  people doing their everyday work to better understand their constraints and opportunities.  The key to engineering ethnographic thinking is the ability to share information with the behavioral sciences and provide meaningful insights.

The current issue of The Atlantic has  a good introduction to the subject (Anthropology Inc. by Graeme Wood).  Consider the following from the article:

"Tech firms, certainly, appear to be major consumers of ethnographic research.  "Technology companies as a whole are in danger of being more disconnected from their customers than other companies," says Ken Anderson, an ethnographer of Intel.  Tech designers succumb to the illusion that their users are all engineers.  "Our mind-set is that people are really just like us, and they're really not," Anderson says.  Ethnography helps tech the techie types to understand those consumers who "aren't living and breathing the technology" the way an Intel engineer might."

Innovation in Infrastructure

From Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, in an interview with McKinsey & Company:

"Rockefeller is always focused on innovation, right from its beginning.  We think that one of the innovations in infrastructure is really taking a systems approach.  And that means not thinking about a specific project, not thinking about a specific situations like "water only" or "transport only" or "energy only," but really looking systemically around what kinds of infrastructure need to support healthy, active, accessible communities or nations.  And with that innovative way of thinking, you actually do approach infrastucture differently."

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sustainable DC Plan

Interesting report and the summary:

"The Sustainable DC Plan is the District’s first sustainability plan that lays out a path forward to make the District the healthiest, greenest, most livable city in the nation over the next 20 years. In the summer of 2011, Mayor Gray announced a new initiative to make DC a leader in sustainability, while improving quality of life and creating new economic growth for all residents. Nearly 18 months later, with the collaboration and hard work of residents, workers, business leaders and professional experts, the District has a strategy to address our core urban challenges with innovative, forward thinking solutions focused around sustainability."

The link to the report.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A paragraph to ponder

From Take the Public-Private Road to Efficiency by Chris Edwards in The Wall Street Journal today - -

"The newsletter "Public Works Financing" reports that only one of the top 38 global firms doing transportation privatization is U.S.-based (Fluor, with headquarters in Irving, Texas).  Of the guide's 726 private and public-private projects from all around the world, just 28 are in the U.S."

Engineering Data Obscures Values?

From the David Brooks New York Times column of yesterday - What Data Can't Do.

A paragraph to ponder - -

"Data obscures values. I recently saw an academic book with the excellent title, “ ‘Raw Data’ Is an Oxymoron.” One of the points was that data is never raw; it’s always structured according to somebody’s predispositions and values. The end result looks disinterested, but, in reality, there are value choices all the way through, from construction to interpretation."     

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Graph of the Week

Engineering Enhanced Social Media Skills

Organizational social media literacy is fast becoming a source of competitive advantage.  From blogs to internal discussion boards to YouTube channels - - engineering has entered an era of global conversations and knowledge sharing.  Out is the company sponsored employee newsletter from the 1950's that demonstrates that your company has mastered the art of talking about itself to itself.  In is an organizational culture that cultivates a new technologically linked social infrastructure that by design promotes constant interaction across physical and geographical boundaries, as well as self-organized discourse and exchange.

This new era of enhanced social media skills will require the engineer to play the role of leader as producer.  The ability to lead and manage the development of compelling content creation will be highly valued.  From the creation of video streams to blogs, effective leadership will increasingly require the kind of creative skills we know from the world of "auteur" filmmaking - - an authentic voice, imagination, and the ability to craft compelling stories and to turn them into media products that make people, clients, and customers take note and "lean forward."  The engineer of today must have the technical skills to master the basics of digital-multimedia production, including how to shoot and edit videos.

In most parts of engineering, social media literacy is in its infancy.  Social media provides engineering the opportunity to span functional and divisional silos.  It allows for the creation of "informal organizations" and the potential of enhanced creativity, innovation, and agility.  Engineers need to see social media in the correct light and recognize social media as a disruptive force that will gather strength rather than attenuate.  Greater attention to social media provides an organization with the potential for greater brand equity; the ability to attract and retain better talent; more effective collaboration across internal and external boundaries; stronger alliances; and a higher degree of global colaboration.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Engineering Visual Thinking

Engineering needs to go back to the drawing board in the area of visual thinking.  The computer and CAD has disconnected engineering from the collaboration of perceiving and thinking.  Visual thinking is a key skill required for engineers.  It is the cognitive foundation of our ability to see the world, ask the right questions, and develop appropriate solutions.  By "cognitive" I mean all the mental operations involved in receiving, storing, and processing  of information - sensory perception, memory, thinking, learning.

Historically, engineering educators and practitioners have understood that visual perception is visual thinking.  Lately, engineering has started to venture down a path that splits seeing from thinking.  This is unfortunate because engineering and great design is a function of passive reception and active perceiving.  Engineering is a profession dominated by the visual experience.  It is a profession that needs feet on the ground.  Too often engineering has become an abstraction - - too much code and too much computer.  Abstaction takes engineering down a path of withdrawal from direct experience.  Abstraction without vision and critical thinking is empty engineering and design.  This should be a grave warning to engineering.

On your next project or proposal, learn about and work with several visual tools.  These include storytelling (idea generation, exploring possible options, and describing ideas), storyboarding (defining customer needs, defining basic product functions, and selling product or projects to future stakeholders) and abstract prototyping (defining detailed product functions, communicating product to future stakeholders, and testing product with future users).  The idea is to take real world user experiences and turn them into a visual experience.

Mapping, storytelling, storyboading - - all of these tools and techniques are the engineering dialogue between the mind and the visual.  Understanding  the user experience is Rule #1 in engineering.  The visual, from a photograph to a sketch, helps engineers get the design right, and the right design.  The role of design is to find the right design.  The role of usability is to get the design right.  Understanding the connection between the visual and the mind helps explore designs to find the right design.

The Hottest Apps

This is a link to a survey Engineering News & Record magazine is completing on the most useful and hottest apps in the construction industry.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Russian Dash Cams

If you saw the meteorite hit Russia this week - - you probably had the same reaction I did.  "Does everyone in Russia have a dash cam in their car?"

The answer is here.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Engineer as Pre-Med

Or the Pre-Med as Engineer.  The Golden Rule of the AMA and physicians - - the key to wealth creation is the proper regulation of supply.  The key variable is the supply of doctors - - always control and restrict the supply.  Never worry about demand.

Requiring professional engineers to have a Masters degree before registration would take a play directly from the physician's playbook.  Pick up any playbook for the professional services industry - - 90% of them should have some variation of a supply versus demand theme.  Regulating supply is a critical function of any professional organization.  Most don't get that.  They just understand demand.

The Friday Rundown

From around the United States this week  - -

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Future Proofing Cities

I love the term Atkins has come up with that defines our future engineering challenges - - Future Proofing Cities.  Atkins has authored a noteworthy report, Future Proofing Cities, that provides an excellent introduction and summary of the social, economic, political, environmental, and technological problems that we face in the century of mass global urbanization.

From the report: 

"As well as specific hard infrastructure investments to manage risks such as flooding, attention is needed by these cities to manage climate risks at the strategic level. For example, greater attention to diversifying the urban economy away from climate sensitive sectors, effective management of land in climate vulnerable areas, and public health measures and hazard planning in the event of climate related disasters. Attention should also be given to greening policies and green infrastructure programmes which can be used to tackle climate risks as well as other risks such as carbon emissions."

Department of Environmental Protection Announces Second Annual Valentine’s Day Tours of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant

This is serious - - see link.

Monday, February 11, 2013


This probably received a major test this weekend - - an interactive real-time map for tracking snow removal in New York City.  This is the link to the site.

A key to "better" government is greater transparency - - mapping, data visualization, GPS, the Internet, "smart" equipment, etc. are all important in the quest for better.  Great transparency = more accountability.  Having an information/data management pioneer as your Mayor is probably a huge help also.


If your company is not utilizing something like the Wiki project platform available on GlobaHUB - you should be.  You should be, because the engineering students of today are learning how to collaborate in a global virtual environment online.  The business and engineering leaders of tomorrow are going to have an expectation of online global collaboration.

Start preparing for our expanding Wiki future.


We'll All in Sales Now

I would download Daniel Pink's new book , To Sell Is Human, immediately.  Then start reading it - -  immediately.
Pink has a great section (starting on page 170) on The Pixar Pitch.  Commerce is increasingly about telling your story to a global audience.  Unfortunately, many companies and organizations are stuck on telling stories about itself to itself.  We (especially engineering firms) need more outward communication that addresses three questions - - What do you want them to know?  What do you want them to feel?  What do you want them to do?  The art of storytelling supports how and when you address these three questions.
The Pixar Pitch (read former Pixar story artist Emma Coats 22-tips on storytelling at this link.) looks at the art of storytelling as the construction of six sequential sentences:
Once upon a time__________________________.  Every day__________________________.  One day_______________________.  Because of that, __________________________.  Because of that,___________________________.  Until finally_________________________.    
Fill in the blanks with a presentation or product development opportunity you are currently working on.  This six-sentence format is both appealing and supple.  It allows pitchers and storytellers to take advantage of the well-documented persuasvie force of stories.  The process should appeal to engineers - - the six-sentences of The Pixar Pitch also forces both conciseness and discipline.               

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Why Engineers Should Hate Harry Potter

From the inventor of the Dyson vacuum and engineering legend Sir James Dyson - -

"And I hate, I'm afraid to say, things like Harry Potter.  I don't think science fiction is very clever, to he honest.  It's very easy to imagine what the world would be like.  The difficult thing is making the world a better place and making things work better."

MATHCOUNTS and the Monk

I had the opportunity to be a proctor at the Dallas Chapter of TSPE sponsored MATHCOUNTS at Southern Methodist University yesterday.  Two important observations.  The first, the event has become almost gender equal - - the same number of boy competitors as girls.  I suspect this is also a national trend.  The second observation - - the engineering volunteers that support this event at SMU were also gender equal.

The engineering community is wise to support programs such as the Future City Competition and MATHCOUNTS.  These are worthy programs that start middle school age students down the path of engineering.  But engineering also needs to move beyond this age group to an older audience - - the high school student.  One alternative would be to support and staff open source organization such as TechShop.  Give future engineers an alternative to the theory, the textbook, the classroom, the calculator - - give them tools, workbenches, and design projects.  Give them a hands on experience in product development.  Give them potential customers.  Give them an opportunity to think like an engineer.

Engineering can also help students with visual thinking and the visual components of engineering and design - - skills such as storytelling, storyboarding, diagramming, sketching, and low-fidelity prototyping.  Too often engineering starts kids down the analytical and ignores the visual.  Consider the following simple problem and learning tool:
"One morning, exactly at sunrise, a Buddhist monk began to climb a tall mountain.  The monk ascended the mountain path at varying rates of speed, stopping at many times along the way to rest.  He reached the summit shortly before the sunset.
After a few days of meditation, he began his journey back along the same path, starting at sunrise and again walking at variable speeds with many pauses along the way, and reaching the base shortly before sunset.  His average speed descending was greater than his average climbing speed.
Prove that there is a single spot along the path the monk will occupy on both trips precisely the same time of day."
The MATHCOUNTS student and most engineers would attempt to solve this problem the traditional engineering and math way.  You would try and develop a non-linear function for  both the ascent and the descent.  After some calculus, you might have the proof.  A math solution to the monk problem is problematic - - mathematics is traditionally a linguistic representation, it makes use of sequential reasoning, and it is usually less an intuitive representation.
The proof is easily seen as a simple graph - - Height on the Y-axis and Time on the X-axis.  One line for up and one line for down - - cross at the same place and time.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Always Hire for The Thin Mints

As a manager or organizational leader, you always want to target two groups for employment into your organization.  The first are the former Boy Scouts.  If you can get an Eagle Scout, take the Eagle Scout.  If you have an engineering or manufacturing department, the Boy Scout employee gives you the individual with a foundation in preparation and discipline.  They do their homework and are persistent.  Planning, looking at the competitive terrain, exploring for alternatives, thinking long-term - - these are the attributes a Boy Scout will bring to your organization.  Finally, you gain the employee with a strong moral compass.  Honestly, loyally, trust, kindness - - we all want to work around people like this.

The Boy Scouts will give you stability, but the Girl Scouts can give you growth and a world class competitive advantage.  They give you what you get from a Boy Scout, with an important exception.  The Girl Scouts will turn good into great.  Boy Scouts give you preparation - but the Girl Scouts will give you the pitch.  This is group that sold $785 million worth annually of Thin Mints, Samoas, and all the others that I just ordered.  Next time you are at the store and see them selling just outside, remember that you need employees that get money, people, and life.  These girls get that.  They get the importance of the pitch.  They act like they love the pitch.  This is the hard work of hand-to-hand selling - - the perfect laboratory for teaching young people about money and commerce.  You end up with little girls becoming impressive corporate executives that have greater social skills, greater confidence (survival in the wilderness is one thing - pitching to a complete stranger is a true survival skill), greater persistence, and a true belief in the goodness of an important endeavor.

As the president of your firm or the department manager, you need to hire for preparation.  The Boy Scouts will always give you preparation.  But preparation will only get you so far.  You also need the pitch - and the Girl Scouts are the global masters of teaching the pitch.

Please hire for the Thin Mints.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Graph of the Week

Generational neutrally is in for some rough times, especially if the entitlement graph is moving in the other direction with the political votes to keep it moving that way.

Grandma and grand kids are in for some potentially terse conversations regarding generational fairness.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Future of Engineering Dataism

In his Tuesday New York Times column (The Philosophy of Data), David Brooks had an important question that engineering needs to be thinking about.  The column covered several of the issues and opportunities created by the data revolution.

Brooks closed the column with the following:

"In sum, the data revolution is giving us wonderful ways to understand the present and the past.  Will it transform our ability to predict and make decisions about the future?  We'll see."

Both the medical and engineering professions exist in three worlds - - the past, present, and future.  Future to both professions is measured in decades - from the new baby just delivered to the new bridge that needs to be functional next century.  The is different than law and accounting.  Their focus is much more about the past and the moment (hang around an accountants office on April 14th).

The data revolution has the potential to change our ideas regarding the future.  In the context of engineering, three ideas or issues regarding the future are important.  The first is pattern recognition.  The data revolution will allow engineers greater access to a wealth of historical data as well as real-time data.  Finding patterns in the data will be highly critical.  Seeing both the past and present in greater clarity allows for a better understanding of potential future events.

The second issue critical to engineering is the idea that data and the data revolution will illuminate patterns of behavior we haven't yet noticed.  Using data and statistical tools to look at previous and real-time behavior for human-to-human and human-to-system interactions will open up new fields and opportunities for engineers.  Using the past and present to model future behaviors will be critical - - from highway design to airport terminal layouts to drive-thru bank system designs.

The third issue will be a question increasingly posed to the engineering community:

"What kinds of events are predictable using statistical analysis and what sorts of events are not?"


Drones are coming to the farm.  Law enforcement will fall in love with a droning world and could be a big market.  Don't forget the engineering community - - from infrastructure assessment to construction observation to emergency response to natural resource/environmental studies - - this market has the potential to dwarf law enforcement.

Engineering will also fall in love with the capabilities and opportunities presented in a droning world.

Check out CropCam to see what the local farmer is up to.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Engineering and the Rise of the Robots

From HAL of 2001 to Watson on Jeopardy to drones over Pakistan, we have been growing our capabilities in the world of artificial intelligence and robotics over the last quarter century.  This growth has begun to accelerate with broad ramifications for many social, political, and economic institutions.  Advanced technologies in the coming years will have a profound impact on most labor intensive industries.  This includes how your hamburger gets prepared at McDonalds; how your lawn in mowed; how you learn in school; and what flies your airplane to Miami.  Do not forget that all of the professional services are labor intensive - - the spread of advancing technology will leave a large chunk of global professional workers in the lurch.  From robotics in surgical units, to algorithms searching legal documents, to decision support design tools for engineers and architects - - huge technology based disruptions are on the horizon for the professional service industry.

A paragraph to ponder from Edward Luce and his Financial Times column (Obama must face up to the rise of robots) on Monday:

"With each month, the US economy becomes steadily more automated.  In January the US economy added just 4,000 manufacturing jobs, and the net increase since July is zero.  Yet last month, manufacturing rose by its fastest rate since April, according to the Institute for Supply Management.  The difference boils down to robots, which pose an increasingly nagging paradox; the more there are, the better for overall growth (since they boost productivity); yet the worse things become for the middle class.  US median income has fallen in each of the past five years."

Monday, February 4, 2013

Lights Out at the Super Bowl

The link to the American Society of Civil Engineers report card on our national energy systems.  The grade is a D+.

The Raspberry Pi

Every engineering student in the world ought to take a class or be required to complete a project that utilizes something like a Raspberry Pi.  A Raspberry Pi computer, which is actually about the size of a credit card, was created at the University of Cambridge to teach computer science.

The Raspberry Pi is important to all engineering students and fields because:
  • It gives all engineers hands-on-knowledge of computers and operating systems - - a key skill for engineers in a networked world of sensors and the Internet of Things.  From the civil engineer to the chemical engineer - - your world will be increasingly dominated by sensors and networks.  From robotics to an Internet of Things - - we will all be interfacing with a world of software and hardware solutions.
  • It is an excellent product development tool for engineering.  From the chemical engineer to the civil engineer to the industrial engineer - - find and understand problems and opportunities that  would have direct applications for something like a Raspberry Pi.
  • This should be new to all engineers - - which is good.  Lifelong learning is about embracing the new.  Learn something that requires both your hands and head.
  • The Raspberry Pi has a global and fast growing user base.  From writing code to new hardware applications, engineering will increasingly be about"open sourced" solutions and global collaboration.  Engineering needs to also understand the DIY world better.
The Raspberry Pi sells for around $35.

The Last Super Bowl For Guacamole?

Climate change, the cost of water, and guacamole could be on a collision course.  A paragraph to ponder from the Wall Street Journal on January 31, 2013 by Hannah Karp - - Thirsty Farmers Turn to Wine: High Water Costs Near San Diego Spur Avocado Growers to Covert to Vineyards - -

"Faced with skyrocketing water prices and an uncertain supply, avocado farmers in San Diego County, long the nation's top avocado-producing region, are uprooting their trees in favor of more water-efficient crops.  Many are growing grapes and getting licences to operate wineries.  Others are replacing avocado trees with exotic flowers or speciality fruits that they can hawk at local farmers markets."

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Book for Super Bowl Sunday

The winner comes from a true engineering legend - - Andy Grove.  Grove is a chemical engineer by training and a Silicon Valley legend who built Intel into a computer chip giant during his tenure as CEO.  He is the author of several books (I have read them all - - I would recommend you read them), including Only the Paranoid Survive.

The 49ers' Jim Harbaugh is a huge fan of the book (The Wall Street Journal - - The Coach and the Egghead: 49ers' Harbaugh Is a Disciple of Intel's Andy Grove; Virtues of Paranoia).


Saturday, February 2, 2013

The MeCam

Filming your every move - - The MeCam from Always Innovating of San Francisco could be the answer.

U.S. Engineering and the Baby Bust

The United States has an average birth rate of 1.93 children per woman (the replacement rate is 2.1).  China, with its one-child policy, has a birth rate of 1.54.  The harsh political reality of China has produced this baby bust.  Here in the United States, white, college educated women have a fertility rate of 1.60.  This group is a good proxy for the middle class - - where the decline is a complex mix of social, cultural, and economic forces. 

Our baby bust should be a prime concern for engineering.

Low-fertility societies produce huge problems for most segments of engineering.  The consumption focus switches dramatically from investing in the future to a health-care driven focus of paying for the past.  Who cares about schools and long-term safety of dams in a society void of child with AARP running commercials every time we start talking about austerity for the past so we can invest in the future?  The American Society of Civil Engineers ought to retitle their annual infrastructure report -

"No babies, No Bridges"

The Wall Street Journal has a great article on the subject today by Jonathan Last - - America's Baby Bust: The nation's falling fertility rate is the root cause of many of our problems.  And it's only getting worse. - -

"There has been a great deal of political talk in recent years about whether America, once regarded as the shining city on a hill, is in decline.  But decline isn't about whether Democrats or Republicans hold power; it isn't about political ideology at all.  At its most basic, it's about the sustainability of human capital.  Whether Barrack Obama or Mitt Romney took the oath of office last month, we would still be declining in the most important sense - demographically.  It is what drives everything else." 

Turning Flood Waters Into Drinking Water

Friday, February 1, 2013

Crisis Mapping

Crisis mapping could be an important tool and resource for engineering in the era of extreme weather events.  This is a good introduction to the subject by Patrick Meier - - an early mapper of global floods, fires, and famine.

Underinvesting in Maritime Infrastructure

A paragraph to ponder from the current issue of the Economist - - Crying out for dollars: Underinvestment in ports and inland waterways imperils American competitveness:

"Of the 257 locks in operation in 2009, more than one-tenth were built in the 19th century; the average age of federal locks is 60 years, and they were built with an expected lifespan of 50 years. By 2020 more than 80% of American locks will be functionally obsolete. The extended failure of a single crucial lock could cost agriculture exporters up to $45m and barge operators as much as $163m. But inadequate locks delay ships not just when they break, but by their design. The Industrial Canal lock, for instance, is half the size of a modern one, which means that barges transiting in convoy need to be broken up. That boosts costs to the shipper, and, ultimately, the consumer as well."