Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Innocents Abroad

Faster growth rates in developing countries combined with the continuing awareness and strength of globalization will require engineers to have a global mind-set. In the April 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review in an article entitled "Making It Overseas" - - three key intellectual capital attributes are outlined:
  1. Global Business Savvy - - a strong grasp of how the industry operates worldwide, how global customers behave, how your competitors target their needs and habits, and how strategic risk varies by geography.

  2. Cognitive Complexity - - the ability to piece together multiple scenarios with many moving parts, without becoming paralyzed by the number of options.

  3. Cosmopolitan Outlook - - an active interest in the culture, history, geography, political and economic systems of different parts of the world.

When it comes to psychological capital, receptiveness to new ideas and experiences is critical. The main attributes are:

  1. Passion For Diversity - - a penchant for exploring other parts of the world, experiencing other cultures, and trying new ways of doing things.

  2. Thirst For Adventure - - an appreciation for and ability to thrive in unpredictable and complex environments.

  3. Self-Assurance - - self-confidence, a sense of humor, a willingness to take risks in new contexts, and high levels of energy, the ability to be energized , rather than drained, by a foreign context.

For social capital, which helps you build trusting relationships with people who are different from you, the three most important attributes are:

  1. Intercultural Empathy - - the ability to engage and connect emotionally with people from other parts of the world.

  2. Interpersonal Impact - - the ability to bring together divergent views, develop consensus, and maintain credibility; and skill at building networks - - not just with peers and senior leaders but with other, less obvious potential connections.

  3. Diplomacy - - listening to what is said and what is not said, ease in conversations with people who are different from you and a greater inclination to ask than to answer.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"I'm shocked, SHOCKED!!"

In a world where it is becoming increasingly important to think critically and analytically about the big problems of the world - - we are digressing to a populous that has a limited understanding of the difficult policy issues. This trait, combined with a weak capacity for leadership, high political polarization, and superficial media coverage, has produced an environment that is making it very hard to effectively tackle big problems.

After a yearlong debate on health care reform - - the March 27, 2010 issue of The Economist outlines the following in an article entitled “The health-care squeeze” - -

The most reasonable assumption for Main Street is that health-care costs will either continue to grow at the same pace as for the past decade - - or accelerate. This is a looming disaster for American business. The proportion of GDP devoted to health care has grown from 5% in 1962 to 16% today. Rising health care costs appear to have suppressed wages, as firms seek to make up for the expense. America spends 53% more per head than the next most profligate country and almost two-and-half times the rich country average. With health-care cost risings much faster than general inflation and 500,000 baby-boomers now becoming eligible for Medicaid every day, health-care spending is likely to hit 20% of GDP by 2017 and 25% by 2025.

We have all heard the widely reported Congressional Budget Office estimates that the reform will leave the federal budget deficit $143 billion lower in 2020 than it would otherwise have been. But the $143 billion estimate is based on the rather outrageous assumption that Congress will not increase the level of reimbursement it pays to doctors for Medicaid. It is important to understand that when clinging to a flawed image of a flawed system - - no amount of dexterous policy execution will save you. The fundamental problem has always been the system - - a system designed to protect the status quo and to inflate costs. We never really fixed the system from the context of cost control. With our current system - - the major issue that the medical profession and associated “camp followers” should understand - - eventually you run out of other people’s money. Our current reform efforts are disappointing because overhauls of something as complex as our health care system only come once in a generation.

If reform does not effectively control costs - - one should be reminded of Captain Renault’s line in Casablanca when he finds out there is gambling at Rick’s CafĂ© Americain - - “I’m shocked, SHOCKED!!”.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Whole Brain Concept

Kip Tindell is the CEO of the Dallas based Container Store. He is a graduate of Jesuit High School in Dallas. He writes the following:

Leadership and communication are the same thing. We believe in relentlessly communicating everything to every single employee. There's never a reason to keep information from an employee, except for individual salaries.

We're big on what we call the whole brain concept, which is simply trying to eliminate silos. So we probably have more people than we need in each meeting , and we don't believe that's unproductive. We get a lot of innovation that way.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Crime Disconnect

According to preliminary FBI data, the murder rate dropped 10 percent from 2008 to 2009, robbery fell 6.5 percent, aggravated assault fell 3.2 percent, auto theft was down a whopping 18.7 percent. Across the country, FBI data show that crime last year fell to lows unseen since the 1969s - - part of a long trend that has seen crime fall steeply in the United States since the mid-1990s.

Good news - - right? Except that the vast majority of Americans - - nearly 75 percent of the population - - thought crime got worse in the U.S. in 2009, according to Gallup's annual crime attitudes polls. Call it a pessimistic bias or whatever - - but, the lower the crime rate the more lawless we imagine it to be.

This bias has some profound impacts. It influences our beliefs on critical issues from gun control to sentencing laws, from how we run our prisons to how much money we spend on law enforcement. If 75 percent of the population feels crime is out of control and getting worse - - what do you think gets budgeted? Is it the three new squad cars and staff or the improvements to the 45-year old pump station?

It all comes down to one basic and universal truth - - misinformation on the part of the public makes for bad lawmaking and governance on the the part of our elected officials.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Public Bankruptcy

In 2008, Vallejo, California declared Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Vallejo is a Bay Area community of 121,000 that became the state's largest city to declare bankruptcy. In a March 27, 2010 story in The Wall Street Journal entitled "Vallejo's Painful Lessons in Municipal Bankruptcy", author Steven Greenhut writes the following:

A report issued by the Cato Institute last September noted that 74% of the city's general budget was eaten up by police and firefighter salaries and overtime along with pension obligations. The average city in the state spends 60% of its budget on those things. The study also found that lavish pay and benefit packages were a root cause of the city's problems. In Vallejo compensation for police captains top $300,000 a year and average $171,000 a year for firefighters. Regular public employees in the city can retire at age 55 with 81% of their final year's pay guaranteed. Police and fire officials can retire at age 50 with a pension that pays them 90% of their final year's salary every year for life and lives of their spouses.

This may become a disturbing trend. The hallmark of any democratic society is the understanding that trust, cooperation and progressive taxation will hopefully lead to varying degrees of security, prosperity, social services, and greater prosperity. Police and firefighters play a critical role in this equation. It fundamentally is an equation - - where one side balances and sums to another side. If the equation becomes mismanaged, things like trust, cooperation, and prosperity become damaged and unbalanced in the name of public safety and security. Yes, we all have a desire to see the patrol car in the neighborhood - - but at the expense of new roads and basic highway maintenance? Firefighting capabilities are critical for public safety - - but what if the water distribution system becomes so deteriorated because of budget constraints? Nice trucks and great retirement benefits are rather immaterial without reliable and available water supplies and distribution.

We are all concentrating on sustainability - - buildings, materials, energy sources - - engineers that are focused on the sustainability of discrete elements within very complex systems. Have we thought enough about sustainability for the water system - - in the context of the complete system and system interfaces? It makes little difference to have a sustainable water system if the underlying and supporting political, economic, and societal systems are unsustainable. One supports the other. Is engineering fundamentally about the narrowness of the trees or expansiveness of the forests - - where our talents become minimized by concentrating on just the LEED certification of the new fire station versus looking at the sustainability of the entire firefighting enterprise?

It is an equation - - the public equation that we all have responsibility to understand and be a part of. If one part of the equation sums to greater and greater totals - - we all need to understand the impact relating to the summation of the minuses on the other side. The basic question becomes - - how sustainable are the total systems that support basic democratic and governmental functions?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Still Underground

Engineering majors dominate a new list of the top 10 highest-earning and most in-demand bachelors' degrees, according to a report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The top three and their startling salaries are - - (1) Petroleum Engineering - - $86,220, (2) Chemical Engineering - - $65,142, and (3) Mining Engineering - - $65,552. The average of top three degrees is roughly 23% higher than the average of the remaining seven.

What is interesting about the top three is the common thread that they share. Two of the three involve extracting resources from underground while the third involves processing these resources.

In an era of focusing on sustainability issues, huge information and computer networks, and a global commitment to communication engineering - - the top part of the engineering pyramid is still underground. The center of the global economic engine is below the surface - - from liquid BTUs to solid BTUs - - what fuels everything is still primarily underground. It is and has been - - the start of the practice of mining engineering dates to the Roman Empire. The current engineering salary structure is a reflection of the importance, power, and influence of the underground economy.

The pyramid may not change for a considerable length of time - - even in the era of the Googles, the Apples, smart phones, solar cells, and fields of ethanol producing corn. The engineer pumping BTUs from a 4-inch diameter hole in the earth’s surface has more economic value than the engineer pushing bytes and bits through a fiber optics line. The labor market understands this – without one you don’t have the other.

The movement to other sources of energy may not flip the pyramid either - - the future may still be underground. With the emergence of electric cars, look for the demand for lithium to increase (lithium is ideal for making lightweight batteries). Nearly half the world’s known resources are buried beneath vast salt flats in southwestern Bolivia, the largest of which is called the Salar de Uyuni. Bolivians have begun to speak of their country becoming the “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.” (I previously wrote about this issue and potential problems in a story entitled “OLEC” - - The Organization of the Lithium Exporting Countries - -

Power generation in the future may be more about looking down than up. There are 436 nuclear reactors operating in the world today, just 20 more than in 1990. But look for a huge resurgence in nuclear power generation and uranium mining and processing. Worldwide, hundreds of reactors are being planned and 53 are being constructed. What comes out of the ground as BTUs goes back underground as waste - - a mining engineer’s employment dream.

The future looks like it may still be underground.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Somebody Else's Tires

Look at the items on the top of your desk. Most of the items come from China. From pens to pencils to paper clips to the clock radio - - probably all manufactured in China. Your desk and chair came from China. Your waste basket was manufactured in China and the trash is going to be recycled back to China. This represents the power of China - - economic juggernaut destined to ellipse the United States in terms of economic strength and geopolitical influence.

The Chinese power potential and concerns are also balanced by the paradoxes and constraints that don't get the full attention that they deserve. Beyond the coastal manufacturing centers you still have a quarter of planet’s population living a lifestyle that has a huge disconnect with what I see on the top of my desk. China traveler and writer Peter Hessler illustrates this in his great new book - - Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory (2010). Hessler writes the following about his 7,000-mile trip across northern China:

In Beijing, I rented a car and headed to Shanhaiguan, a city on the coast where the Great Wall meets the Bohai Sea. From there I drove west through the harvest of Hebei Province. It was mid-autumn and most crops had already been cut down; only the corn still stood tall in the fields. Everything else lay out in the road - - mottled lines of peanuts, scattered piles of sunflower seeds, bright swaths of read pepper. The farmers carefully arranged the vegetables on the side of the asphalt, because that was the best surface for drying and sorting. They tossed the chaff crops into the middle of the road itself, where vehicles would be sure to hit them. This was illegal - - there’s no other act that so publicly violates both traffic safety and food hygiene. In rural China, though, it’s still widely tolerated, because threshing is easiest when somebody else’s tires do the work.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"My Fuhrer, Kansas lost to Northern Iowa last night"

For a true Missouri Tiger fan - - nothing really can match Kansas getting knocked out of the tournament. Except maybe this - - check out "Hitler finds out KU lost to UNI in the 2010 tournament." Link is

Creativity, innovation, thinking outside the box and building - - this video highlights it all!!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Peak Water

In the age of peak oil, Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, has come up with the term "Peak Water." Gleick came up with the term in an attempt to establish boundaries for freshwater use. Three different ideas are useful when thinking in terms of Peak Water - -
  1. Peak Renewable - - Water limits that are the total renewable flows in a watershed. Many of the world's major rivers are already approaching this threshold - - when evaporation and consumption surpass natural replenishment from precipitation and other sources.
  2. Peak Nonrenewable - - Water limits where human use of water exceeds the natural recharge rates, such as in fossil groundwater basins of the Great Plains, Libya, India, northern China and parts of California's Central Valley. In these basins, as increase in extraction is followed by leveling off and then reduction, as the costs and amount of effort needed to acquire the dwindling resource rise - - a concept similar to peak oil.
  3. Peak Ecological - - Water in this context is the idea that for any hydrological system, increasing withdrawls eventually reach the point where any additional economic benefit of taking the water is outweighed by the additional ecological destruction that it causes. Although it is difficult to quantity this point accurately, we have clearly passed the point of peak ecological water in many basins around the world where huge damage has occurred , including the Aral Sea, the Everglades, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley and many watersheds in China.

Technology and innovation play the same role in Peak Water as they do in Peak Oil. Whereas Peak Oil utilizes technology and innovation to find and maximizes the discovery and extraction of oil - - Peak Water utilizes technology and innovation to conserve water. Better irrigation technology, alternative forms of energy that need less water, and water efficient appliances all play an important role in water sustainability.

Read more in the April 2010 issue of Scientific American - - "Solutions To Environmental Threats."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Stimulus Package and Gender Diversity

Judge Richard Posner of the University of Chicago has a follow-up book to his Failure of Capitalism. His recently published The Crisis of Capitalist Democracy (2010) steps back to take a longer view of the continuing crisis of democratic capitalism as the American and world economies crawl gradually back from the depths to which they had fallen in the autumn of 2008 and the winter of 2009.

Posner has several interesting comments and observations regarding the stimulus package. He writes the following:

As the stimulus bill wended its way through Congress, the amount of money allotted to transportation infrastructure (mainly road and bridge construction, and repair and building projects such as painting schools) shrank, possibly because of political pressure: few women are employed in such projects. Yet that is the class of expenditures that comes closet to satisfy the conditions for an effective stimulus. It targets an industry, construction, in which the unemployment rate is very high; most of the projects financed by it can be started quickly if a determined effort is made to cut red tape at the risk of inviting more than the usual amount of corruption and waste in public contracting; and there is an economic need, unrelated to the depression, for improvements in the nation’s dilapidated transportation infrastructure, so that the projects are likely to have value independent of their contribution to digging the nation out of is economic hole. At the opposite extreme are projects, such as the allotment of $17 billion to facilitating the digitization of medical records, that will be staffed by highly paid technical workers, most of whom have no difficulty holding or finding good jobs (especially in the medical industry, which has not been affected by the current depression), and that will not be completed until long after the depression ends. Moreover, no effort was made to concentrate public works spending in areas of the country in which unemployment is high.

The truly interesting comment is “. . . possibly of political pressure: few women are employed in such projects.” He has a good point - - what happens in a world where the balance of power is becoming 50% male and 50% female? A 50/50 balance in the educational (more women attend college than men), the managerial, the economic, and the political (The Economist recently referred to the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “. . . the most powerful women in American history, there have been female governors, secretaries of state and Supreme Court justices, but only one female speaker.”) will have a profound impact on the social, economic, and political structures in the United States and the world. What happens to a 90/10 industry, such as construction and engineering, in a 50/50 world? One possibility is rather clear - - you get left out. Fixing our 90/10 ratio may be our most pressing social and industry problem. It may also be our greatest opportunity.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Your Bandwidth to Energy Ratio

When you have a moment, take the time and add up your monthly bandwidth bill. Be sure and capture the total bandwidth space – cable, mobile phone, Internet, and telephone services. The figures may vary wildly across the various demographic groups in the United States. Several different sources have estimated that by the end of 2010, Americans will spend an average of $83 a month on cable, phone, and Internet services, up from $64 in 2004. Roughly $332 per month for a family of four.

With a proliferation of add-ons to the basic three-in-one bundle, the national average of $332 per month may seem low nor is it an accurate predictor of the future. Service providers, such as Comcast, offer 450 channels plus 5,000 HD movies on demand for $708 per month (in addition, they have multiple ethnic options in which one can add the Polish Super Pack for a mere $19.99 a month). We also have the true outliers – the kid that checked his e-mails via his iPhone while on a cruise. Mom and dad got a bill for $4,800.

Next, add up your energy bill - - house, apartment, transportation - - be sure and capture your total energy space like you did with the bandwidth space. Then compare the two categories and calculate your “Bandwidth to Energy Ratio.” This may be interesting to people – in some cases bandwidth costs may exceed energy costs. Keep an eye on this cost ratio – we not only love our cars and air conditioners, but we also love our smart phones and Internet television.

Both bandwidth and energy resources are very similar – not only from the demand side where the global population seems poised to demand greater and greater access and consumption from these two resources. But also from the supply side – where both industries are run as oligopolies. We have all seen the impact of tight supplies and limited distribution capacities in the case of gasoline. A bandwidth shortage occurs at any point when the demand to move information exceeds the capacity of the distribution channel. What happens when all those iPhone and iPad users in New York City want to watch college basketball online? Anytime you have traffic jams or bottlenecks in a supply chain – when demand exceeds supply – look for higher prices. As demand for bandwidth goes up, suppliers will logically be able to charge more, as happens in energy markets.

The future may be about watching your Bandwidth to Energy Ratio.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Detroit Kibbutz

The Detroit school district announced this week that it would close 44 schools. The Kansas City school district announced a similar plan last week. Both districts are roughly cutting half of their existing schools. The stated reasons in both cases are financial problems of the districts, poor student performance, and declining populations in their urban centers. Empty buildings in empty cities in communities with empty dreams. What if these empty buildings become the cornerstone for a transition from familiar and broken institutions to new, strange, and flourishing ones?

Imagine the old and abandoned school as the linchpin for a new and different way to think about living in urban settings modeled and organized after an Israeli kibbutz (meaning gathering or clustering). Families and individuals utilizing the abandoned school facilities to live a communal life. The urban equivalent of an Israeli rural kibbutz -- co-housing communities in which singles and nuclear families build makeshift kinship networks in shared kitchens and common areas and on neighborhood-watch duty. Part Marx, part Buffet, part social, part economic, part Mad Max, part Exodus -- resilient communities which aspire to self-sufficiency and independence.

We have over 1,000,000 NGOs in the United States. Many are focused “up and out” -- doing wonderful work in developing countries all over Africa and Asia. What if we could establish and organize a group of NGOs were the focus is more “down and in” -- individuals and groups interested in helping organize, setup, support, and manage the formation of kibbutzim in selected urban settings. Groups and individuals in which the focus is on urban centers in places like Detroit, Kansas City, and Cleveland.

An abandoned urban school that educated 800 students - - think about the resources and opportunities the actual building represents. Land available for urban farming and farmers’ markets, classrooms tailored to different leaning styles, the art room as art studio and show room for budding communal artists, the auto shop space as community repair center, the old school theater as the venue for weekly community entertainment - - space for a community of ideas and shared goals. The old nurse’s office is transformed to address a growing social problem that larger parts of our society seem unwilling to fully address - - it becomes a free clinic staffed once a week by medical students, serving the needs of both commune and community. People and communities figuring out and experimenting with new ways to live off the grid -- powering their own facilities and developing encrypted digital currencies and barter schemes.

A Detroit Kibbutz - - a remix of work and life in an age of high unemployment, declining social safety nets, unavailable and unaffordable medical care, and increasing energy costs. The kibbutz offers a spark to maybe an era of increasing experimentation in new ways to learn and new ways to live. Some 23-year old unemployed college graduate -- who is tired of cynicism and distrust -- is thinking about this. The one plotting the revolution that will evolve into a new confidence that citizens working in common in a kibbutz like environment can change their lives and in doing so can change the world around them. Somewhere this 23-year old is parked in front of a vacant school -- others see only nightmares, but he or she sees a dream come true.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Ushahidi means testimony in Swahili. The company by the same name based in Kenya has developed an interesting application of “crowdsourcing” to aid in crisis-mapping. The technology has been utilized in disputed elections in Kenya, pinpointing locations of earthquake victims in Haiti, and even to warn of snow-covered roads in Washington, D. C.

Crowdsourcing is basically outsourcing of particular tasks to the general public (either groups or the community at large), through an open call to a large group of people (i.e., the crowd) and asking for contributions. The term was first used by Jeff Howe in a June 2006 issue of Wired magazine. Typically crowdsourcing has been viewed as a form of distributed problem-solving and production model. Problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions.

Crowdsourcing in the context of Haiti involved Ushahidi advertising an emergency texting number via radio. Working off a paradigm of “many-to-many-to-many” - - the site collected user-generated cellphone reports of riots, stranded refugees, rapes, and deaths and plotted them on a map, using the locations given by informants. You end up with a system where victims supply on-the-ground data - - a self-organizing group of volunteers from around the globe translates text messages and helps to organize and direct relief efforts - - journalists and aid workers use the data to target the response. In an age of expanding global cellphone usage - - instantaneous information combined with “good-enough truths” may represent the future of managing relief efforts.

Ushahidi also symbolizes the power of global innovation - - from the backwaters of Kenya - - innovation from another and unexpected world. Open-sourced without patents, monopolies, and price - - made to work off the common denominator of the developing world - - the cellphone. Free to others with the power to remix for new projects and applications - - the right mix of technology, humanism, and “good enough” - - the correct tool for the spread and maintenance of global liberal democratic ambitions. The site is located at

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sharing What You Know

Look at the picture of the Commander's Update Assessment (CUA) at a coalition base on the south side of Kabul International Airport. The operations center is a vast hangar-like building with no walls or partitions, very much evoking a newsroom environment. "It is an atmosphere in which you error towards sharing what you know," according to Navy Commander Jeff Eggers, an advisor to General McChrystal. Forty years after the peak of the Apollo program, it is amazing how this picture looks like the flight control engineers at the Johnson Space Center. Key individuals and decision makers -- shoulder to shoulder in an environment void of physical barriers with the goal of producing a flat, fast, and flexible organizational matrix. Sharing in this context is the optimal combination of electronic data and information combined with the physical aspects of eye-to-eye discussions, debates, and decisions. Technology aids and enhances decision making -- but it does not replace the need for the personal.

Church and State

State is the state of presentations. Presentations are important in engineering -- the more you practice and learn about the art of presenting and communicating -- the better off you will be. In the March 29, 2010 issue of Fortune, Mellody Hobson has the following points:

Focus your talk on no more than three ideas and ideally on one theme. A lot of people feel like they have to put everything they know in a speech to show that they're smart or that they've done a lot of work. Count on the Q&A to allow you to dazzle with other knowledge. Also, reading from the slides is the kiss of death; send the material first.

The best place to see a "presentation" is still Church - - your basic Methodist sermon teaches you more about a presentation than any other source. I say Methodist -- because the Methodist colleges and universities must all teach the same methodology. Any Methodist sermon will focus on three things -- "We are going to talk about three ideas -- these are the three ideas - - and in summary, these are the three ideas I just spoke about." Week in and week out -- you get basically 30-minutes of only three ideas rolled up into a grand theme. God apparently thinks thinking in terms of three is very important. The 30-minutes must also be important -- God or one of his assistants must have looked at the average attention span of mortals. People can just take so much preaching and presenting. Also, image a sermon with PowerPoint slides -- the minister just reading off the slides. You really cannot preach and present while reading off of PowerPoint slides.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Innovation and Communities of Creation

The Council of Competitiveness published the National Innovation Initiative Report in 2004. It noted the changing nature of innovation itself - -
  • It is diffusing at ever increasing rates.
  • It is multidisciplinary and technologically complex and will arise from the intersection of different fields.
  • It is collaborative, requiring active cooperation and communication among scientists and engineers and between creators and users.
  • Workers and consumers are embracing new ideas, technologies, and content - - and demanding more creativity from their creators.
  • It is becoming global in scope - - with advances coming from centers of excellence around the world and from the demands of billions of new consumers.

Organizations and engineers need to focus their attention on the different types of networks and communities that produce potential innovation opportunities. Innovation networks -- with many different types of actors and players scattered over a global stage. You have the designers - - key network members that influence the evolution of an innovation network. You have the "worker bees" that act as adapters - - providing specialized knowledge and network infrastructure services. Finally, you have the brokers - - individuals charged with linking members, mediating interactions, technology brokering or knowledge transfer.

Engineering in the context of innovation will increasingly be focused on searching for communities of creation beyond the existing four walls of most organizations. Innovation and creativity creation will be organized like social networks - - networks organized around social knowledge. Facebook for the innovative. These networks will be global in reach, electronically focused with both formal and informal organizational structures. Call it creativity shopping in the global marketplace of ideas, products, and technologies - - engineers scouting and searching for key social knowledge networks.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Great American University

I am heading to Ann Arbor, Michigan to visit the University of Michigan. I just completed Jonathan Cole's The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected (2010). Cole reinforces the point that the American research university is arguably the world's most powerful engine of innovation and discovery. If you would add up all the companies started by MIT alumni (something like 4,000 companies) - - they would rank as the 24th largest country in terms of economic power.

Cole points out several elements and traits that make for a great research university:
  1. Faculty Research Productivity - - Great universities, almost by definition, require highly productive faculty members.

  2. Quality and Impact of Research - - Without sheer talent and a critical mass of it, a research university by definition cannot achieve greatness.

  3. Grant and Contract Support - - The total annual amount of grant and contract support, especially in the sciences and engineering, is a good indicator of the intensity and level of research at a university.

  4. Access to Highly Qualified Students - - This factor represents one of the comparative advantages that private elite universities have over otherwise equally impressive state universities.

  5. Excellence in Teaching - - Excellence in teaching and excellence in research are compatible and mutually reinforcing.

  6. Honorific Awards - - Faculty recognition by peers is an important benchmark for the quality of work that is conducted at a university and receipt of prestigious awards is an indicator of this recognition.

  7. Physical Facilities and Advanced Information Technologies - - Talented academics need facilities in order to reach their research potential.

  8. Large Endowments and Plentiful Resources - - Money talks in higher education, as everywhere else.

  9. Large Academic Departments - - The sheer number of faculty members in a program correlates strongly with reputation of the program.

  10. Free Inquiry and Academic Freedom - - A research university cannot thrive without a deeply ingrained culture of free inquiry and academic freedom.

  11. Location - - Location, Location, Location.

  12. Contributions to the Public Good - - Research universities that are trying to deal with global problems of great magnitude are gaining recognition for their efforts.

  13. Excellent Leadership - - Bold, decisive, entrepreneurial, and indefatigable leadership is an essential ingredient for a preeminent university.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Art of the Visible

Numbers are central to engineers and engineering - - yet the brain finds it easier to process information if it is presented as an image rather than as just densely packed numbers. Visualization deals with the inhuman scale of the information we must deal with and the need to present it at the very human scale of what the eye can see. The right hemisphere of the brain recognizes shapes and colors. The left side of the brain processes information in an analytical and a sequential way is more active when people read text or look at a spreadsheet. Looking through a numerical table takes a tot of mental effort, but information presented visually can be grasped in a few seconds. The brain identifies patterns, proportions, and relationships to make instant subliminal comparisons.

Data visualization is emerging as a new field - - data visualization specialists that combine engineering, computer science, mathematics, artistic design, and a little bit of storytelling (“Everything begins with a story” - - Joseph Campbell). What you end up with is something part art and part information - - the technology of the future will allow individuals and organizations to effectively combine the picturesque and the informative. Something that is intellectually enlightening yet can potentially hang in the Whitney or the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Nathan Yau of UCLA thinks more in terms of information presentation as storytelling - - the compelling narrative that is something between textbook and novel. Yau and others discuss this in the book Beautiful Data: The Stories Behind Elegant Data Solutions (2009).

The globalization of ideas, data, and information combined with advances in technology have produced immense quantities of data (this year we are expected to create 1,200 exabytes of data - - up from 150 exabytes in 2005). Many governments are belatedly coming around to the idea of putting more information - - such as crime figures, maps, details of public service - - into the public domain. People can then reuse this information in novel ways to build businesses and hold elected officials to account. Companies that grasp these new opportunities, or provide the tools for others to do so, will prosper. Business intelligence is one of the fastest-growing parts of the software industry. Examples include Jeffrey Heer of Stanford and his work on U.S. census data ( and Ben Fry, an independent designer, creator of a map of the 26 million miles of roads and hghways in the United States (

The following link - - provides an example of the data visualization tools that are available. This particular graphic illustrates the stacked time series of reported occupations in the U.S. labor force from 1850 to 2000. Launch the full screen version - - it is in alphabetical order - - so find engineer.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Continuous Partial Attention (CPA)

A father walks into his 14-year year old daughter’s room. She is at her desk with what appears to be an open book. She is listening to her iPod. While surfing the web - - four text messages arrive on her iPhone - - after reading the fourth message, up pops her Facebook page with a message from one of her 431 "friends." The father asks his daughter what she is doing - - to which she replies - - “Homework.”

Welcome to the world of CPA.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Is it good to be naked?

It depends on how you look - - Toyota is probably looking in the mirror at this very moment. I had the opportunity to hear Professor Mohan Sawhney, the McCormick Tribune Professor of Technology at Northwestern University, speak tonight at the Kellogg Alumni Club of Dallas/Fort Worth speaker series. The title of his lecture was "Marketing in a Digitally Connected World." Professor Sawheny was a delight to listen to - - several of this thoughts are provided below:
  • Marketing in the digital age is about customer empowerment, customer networking, and customer interactivity.
  • Several major implications - - (1) Transparency - - reputation travels faster and farther. Both in terms of good and bad. Transparency can build customer trust and confidence. (2) Openness - - Answer questions. Timely and completely - - Toyota is an example of how not to view the world of digital openness. (3) Honesty - - the networked world is about honesty. If you claim you can do X - - and you can't do X - - someone is going to show the world on YouTube you can't do X.
  • In the digital networked world you need to do what you say and say what you do.
  • Digital marketing is marketing as conversation - - developing online relationships with customers. It is gardening. It is connecting and collaborating. It is engagement and the experience.
  • Marketing is shifting from control to collaboration. Where collaboration embodies marketing, ideation, design, and support. It is marketing as a sensing mechanism - - opening minds to customer inputs. The shift is from reach to depth.
  • Branding - - the roles that brands can play in the lives of customers includes Service Provider, Problem Solver, Community Sponsor, Connection Maker, Cause Supporter, and Creativity Curator.
  • Think - - "How can we help versus what can we sell."
  • Digital marketing requires experimentation, creativity, openness, teamwork, accountability, and risk taking.
  • Think digital marketing as "Many to Many."
  • Experimentation as risk taking - - the goal should be to reduce the cost of failure not to reduce the probability of failure.
  • Go native - - Blogs, Facebook, YouTube - - the whole thing.
  • We should all have a "Personal Learning Agenda" where attitude dominates age.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Age of Deciding Who is Going to Pay

The Western world is deep in debt. Wealthy European countries and the United States now owe the most - - not the banana republics of old. The external debt of the U.S. in 2009 was 94% of GDP - - by comparison, Mexico was 12% of GDP. China is the world’s banker - - their external debt was just 4% of GDP in 2009. This represented a drop of 20% versus China’s 2008 debt obligations. We have managed to get right up to the economic calamity line - - with chalk dust on our shoes.

This is important because this time it is different. Declining birth rates and aging populations in the developed world make growing our way out of debt seem highly unlikely - - more like wishful thinking. Given our current problems and projected demographics, we really need to be careful with lazy historical analogies that seem to pretend this is 1945. Without substantial growth (fueled by increasing levels of immigration and innovation - - with a primary focus on attracting the best and brightest to the U.S. combined with getting them out of banking and finance and into engineering), the key question that dominates the future then becomes - - “Who is going to pay?” The short list of candidates includes the following - - (1) current taxpayers, (2) public-sector workers, (3) entitlement recipients, (4) foreign investors, and (5) future generations. Public sector worker problems and issues are mainly European - - however, given our public sector Enronesque accounting for retirement benefits, we could also have problems. Whether an engineer that design bridges, or designs F-16s, or planning on retiring in 2020 - - the final outcome of “Who is going to pay?” has some very serious strategic implications for both individuals and organizations.

Who gets to decide who has to pay? Two groups make up the “deciders” - - the political aristocracy and the bond market. The political class - - given the confused navigational skills of our current leaders - - is going to have difficulty embracing the new era of spending cuts and tax rises. If they cannot or will not decide - - as the Greeks recently found out - - the bond market will punish you. There really is no alternative. There is no one else to blame - - “You can’t blame the mirror for your ugly face.” Middle-aged Americans have written checks on the accounts of their children over the past 30-years - - the day of deciding who and how to fund the checks is fast approaching.

This will not be about sharing the pain - - this will be about the fault-lines and power structures among generations. Many nations will have their social cohesion put to a test – with the final exams submitted by our political leaders to the bond markets for grading. If it’s the end of the economic world, you only get to bet on it once. I hope we are all up for the final exam.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Rough Patch

A lawyer by training, Meridee Moore is the founder of Watershed Asset Management, a $2 billion hedge fund in San Francisco. She has several good thoughts on hiring and interviewing - -

We look at grades and scores, of course, but we also give every candidate a case to work through. Also, if the person has had a rough patch in his past, that's usually good - - we look to see if you've ever had a setback and come back from it. I think it helps you make better decisions. There's nothing better for sharpening your ability to predict outcomes than living through some period where things went wrong. You've learned that no matter how smart your are and how hard you work, you have to anticipate things that can go against you.

I also look for people who have a good sense of humor - - they tend to be engaging communicators, they can be very good negotiators, and they understand the qualitative side of human decision-making.

I try to ask something that inspires the person to talk a little bit about their family. I find that guys who have had strong relationships with women - - whether it was their sisters, a teacher -- tend to be very secure in who they are and do well in our business.

The other question I ask is if they've been in anyone's wedding party. First, it means they're responsible, that someone's asked them to stand up next to him on the most important day his life. And that at least one person in the world trusts them and wants to know them forever. Those are good qualities in a person and a partner.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Patagonia Architecture

Yvon Chouinard is founder and owner of Patagonia, Inc. based in Ventura, California. He began his business by designing, manufacturing, and distributing rock-climbing equipment in the the late 1950s. In 1964 he produced his first mail-order catalog, a one-page mimeographed sheet containing advice not to expect fast delivery during the climbing season. In 2001, Yvon co- founded 1% for the Planet, an alliance of businesses that contribute at least one percent of their net annual sales to groups on a list of researched an approved environmental organizations. If you have the opportunity to work for a company where the founder and owner has written a book entitled - - Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman (2006) -- it might be a good thing to consider.

Patagonia believes that the philosophy of clothing design is really no different from that of other products, including buildings. The following are guidelines that are utilized by Patagonia in creating a new retail store or office building that will optimize aesthetics, functions, and responsibility.

  1. Don't build a new building unless it is absolutely necessary. The most responsible thing to do is to buy used buildings, construction materials, and furniture.

  2. Try to save old or historic buildings from being torn down. Any structural changes should honor the historical integrity of the building. We rectify misguided "improvements" made by previous tenants and strip away fake modern facades, ending up we hope with a building that is a "gift to the neighborhood."

  3. If you can't be retro, build quality. The aesthetic life expectancy of the building should be as long as the physical material's life span.

  4. Use recycled, and recyclable, materials like steel girders, studs, remilled wood, and straw bales. Install fixtures from waste materials like pressed sunflower hulls and agricultural waste.

  5. Anything that is built should be repairable and easily maintained.

  6. Buildings should be constructed to last as long as possible, even if this initially involves a higher price.

  7. Each store must be unique. The heroes, sports, history, and natural features of each area should be reflected and honored.

Designing for sustainability should produce images of Thoreau - - "Simplify, simplify." Sustainability may boil down to understanding that good design is as little design as possible. Patagonia and others may have the right equation - - Simplification + Substance = Sustainability.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Where are the engineers?

Eike Batista is the wealthiest individual in Brazil. His holdings include oil, mining, water, and steel companies. Batista thinks Brazil is on track to become the fifth-largest economy in the world over the next five years. He is betting his country will also be a major oil power - - in the range of 100 billion barrels of recoverable oil. His father was a famous engineer in Brazil - - another in the long line of “O Engenheiro” or “El Ingeniero” that you find in Central and South America. Brazil actually made a movie about this father - - Brazil’s Engineer. The movie documented and highlighted all the infrastructure projects he completed as part of Brazil’s development.

Batista has some interesting observations regarding the United States - -

You are now heavily indebted like Brazil was before. You have to be little bit more Spartan. In the last 20 years you have focused too much on banking and finance. The best students went to banks and law firms. Where are the engineers? Americans should be driving electric cars, and you’re not.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Sustainability is a Context

Manhattan as the model for sustainability. When people think about sustainability, images of Manhattan typically don't leap out. But consider this - - Manhattan residents rank first in public transit use and last in per capita greenhouse-gas production. They consume gasoline at a rate the country as a whole hasn't matched since the mid-1920s. All of this from the most densely populated place in North America. The urban environment as sustainability model versus what most people think when New York City comes up -- the images of an ecological nightmare and wasteland.

Author David Owen, in his book Green Metroplis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (2010), makes a compelling case that Snowmass, Colorado is not the model for sustainability - - it is New York, New York. Owen admits that New York is not the only or best urban sustainability model - - it however, is a useful example to discuss the linkages between sustainability and density.

Sustainability is one of those ideas that seems to have very fluid definitions - - one thing to a highway engineer, one thing to an architect, one thing to a corporate executive - - they all seem to talk about sustainability in the context of their narrow areas without any linkages to a system or complete idea. It is sustainability in the micro extreme, where the sum of the parts never seems to add up to the whole - - any whole. Owen does a great job explaining this in the following paragraph:

The crucial fact about sustainability is that it is not a micro phenomenon: there can be no such thing as a "sustainable" house, office building, or household appliance, for the same reason that there can be no such thing as a one-person democracy or a single-company economy. Every house, office building, and appliance, no matter where its power comes from or how many of its parts were made from soybeans, is just a single small element in a civilization-wide network of deeply interdependent relationships, and it's the network, not the individual constituents, on which our future depends. Sustainability is a context, not a gadget or a technology. This is the reason dense cities set such a critical example: they prove that it's possible to arrange large human populations in ways that are inherently less wasteful and destructive.

Engineering faces two fundamental risks with implementation of sustainability practices. The first is a lack of focus or attention to the system aspects of our built environment. The primary issue should be about systems - - not parts of systems. The other risk - - at the end of the day asking the question, have we made people feel better without accomplishing anything substantive? Installing solar panels and adding bamboo flooring to 12,000 square foot McMansions - - home to 2.2 people and 5.3 automobiles - - it is hard to image how this meets any definition of substantive.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Put Yourself First

Call it what you like - - it may have many names and it comes in numerous languages. To some it is independence. In an era of constant change and dramatic uncertainty - - call it the desire to live a life with some level of control, stability, and direction. Independence, maybe in spirit only - - but with an enlightened understanding of the concepts associated with self-determination and self-reliance. Some will call it security - - safety from the rolling shock waves hitting our economy and our institutions. Security, not in the form of a guarantee - - there are none. Security in the context of confidence - - confidence in your ability to understand the realities and messages of the new world order and environment. Confidence in your ability to plan, react, and act accordingly. Others may even go as far as calling it freedom - - freedom of mind and spirit to understand that the world has changed and it will continue to change and it will never be the same - - where it is important for individuals to develop customized “adapting strategies” that focus on coping with a new series of realities. Freedom to understand that change is breaking, disrupting, and transforming many of the institutional bonds and linkages that have existed in this country for centuries.

Scott Burns, a syndicated business columnist for the Dallas Morning News, had an excellent commentary on our world of change and uncertainty last Sunday. The article was entitled “Ozzie, Harriet are gone; it’s time to change.” Burns writes the following in the article:

It was a sweet place.

Many dates are offered as markers for the end of the world. But most of them began nearly 40 years ago. That’s an entire generation.

What were the marker events? Take your pick: the accelerating decline of union membership in the 1970s, the first OPEC embargo, the 1977 decision to allow savings and loans to compete for deposits, the creation of 401(k) plans, the decline of pensions, the rise of forced early retirements, the erosion of health benefits or the increasingly ragged uncertainly of employment. Whatever the transition events, we’re living in a new world.

We’ve been getting this message for decades. But neither we nor our institutions have asked how we should change our behavior to adapt to this new world.

Burns has a short and powerful message - - “Put Yourself First.” It’s about personal security - - if we’re going to live in an uncertain and insecure world - - the only sane thing to do is change our behavior. The governing axiom for this "Change in Behavior Age" is doing the things that you have to do to be independent and secure in a society that has, so far, refused to adapt. Adapting strategies need to focus on three critical elements - - finance, education, and health. It may boil down to three basic principles - - (1) Save more and borrow less, (2) Learning is a life-long endeavor and journey, and (3) Eat less and exercise more. Don’t go into debt, don’t get left behind in a world requiring increasing intellectual skills, and finally, don’t have unnecessary medical problems in an environment of expensive and collapsing medical care.

In short - - “Put Yourself First” - - our institutions don’t want you to change nor will they tell you to change. It all starts with you and the ideas of independence, freedom, and security.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Experience of Being Elsewhere

Tachi Yamada, M.D., is president of the Global Health Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Dr. Yamada discusses three areas and ideas that are important to consider and reflect on - -

The Critical Things - - Every day, I read about 1,000 pages of documents, whether grants or letters or scientific articles, or whatever. I have learned what the critical things to read are. If there are 10 tasks in an overall project, what it the most critical task? What is the one thing that everything else hinges on? I’ll spend a lot of time understanding that one thing. Then, when the problem occurs, it usually occurs there, and I can be on top of what the problem is.

Change - - You have to have people in an organization who are willing to embrace change, because if they don’t, what you have is an organization that’s constantly fighting to stay at status quo. And, of course, that leads to stagnation. It’s also an unsustainable model. I’ve made an observation about people. There are people who have moved. Take somebody who’s a child of an Army officer - - they have moved 10 times in their lives. Then there are people who’ve been born and raised and educated and employed in one town their whole lives. Who do you think is willing to change? I think that in this modern world, you really have to be sure that your work force has the experience of being elsewhere. That experience then has the ability to ensure that you will be comfortable with change.

Relationships - - Intelligence is often displayed in what I would call complex abstract thinking, and there’s nothing more complex and abstract than human relationships. And if they can work their way through a human relationship problem intelligently, my guess is that they’re very smart people.