Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Asset Quake

David Ransom is an economist with the consulting firm H.C. Wainwright. In an interview with the Scott Burns of The Dallas Morning News, Ransom thinks the market is telling us the following:
  • The recovery will be V-shaped. Look for even higher growth figures in the next two quarters.
  • "We'll have positive growth but weak employment."
  • Productivity is rising, but much of it may be because employers aren't hiring.
  • Employers are making rational choices - - they can choose a large workforce of average workers, or they can choose a smaller workforce of above-average workers. An employer who sees employment as a losing game - - more government regulation, more taxes and more hassles - - isn't going to be eager to hire.
  • "But it will sputter out. We'll go back to sub-average growth as the government takes up more of our economy."
  • Unemployment will stabilize at a pretty high rate.
  • "History shows that as long as the increase of government debt doesn't outpace the growth of national income, things are stable. When the increase in debt is less than three percent, the dollar has risen. But when the increase is greater than six percent of GDP, the dollar has fallen. In 2009, the increase in federal debt was 10 percent of GDP.
  • "We can now see capital flowing to the real - - to productive assets rather than paper assets." This is after years of depending on stocks and bonds to securitize wealth - - so now we are at sea.

Scott Burns closes with - - "If he's right, we're heading for what some will call an "asset quake."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"PowerPoint makes us stupid"

A quote from General James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, Joint Forces commander - - as quoted in the the April 27, 2010 edition of The New York Times in an article entitled, "We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint." The focus of the article is the attached PowerPoint slide illustrating Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics - - to which General McChrystal remarked, "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war."

The other points of the article include the following:
  • Slides can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.
  • Some problems of the world are not bullet-izable.
  • Many feel slides can stifle discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.
  • The preparation of slides can tie up huge amounts of time.
  • General Petraeus likes the focus of slides to be maps and statistics.
  • Richard Holbrooke, the administration's regional special representative, recently was given a presentation by Italian forces set to orchestral music.
  • Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court utilizing slides instead of legal briefs.
  • Watch for the world of fuzzy bullet points.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Situated Humility

Michelle Barton and Kathleen Sutcliffe having an increasing article on crisis management in the Spring 2010 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review. The article is entitled Learning When to Stop Momentum. Their research focuses on teams that fight wildfires in the context of preventing complex and dynamic problems from spiraling out of control. The focus of the article is on “dysfunctional momentum” - - which occurs when people continue to work toward an original goal without pausing to recalibrate their processes, even in the face of cues that suggest they should change.

One recommendation of the study is that manager practice “situated humility” - - the realization that no one person can solve the problem alone, where diverse input is essential. Barton and Sutcliffe write the following:

When small fluctuations in events can have significant implications and when the events themselves are still unfolding, adjustments in approach are critical. It is precisely these situations in which preexisting assumptions, planned actions, and rationalizations are most dangerous if rigidly held. One of the key differences between firefighters who overcame dysfunctional momentum and those who did not was in the recognition of that danger. The first groups were not complacent about the situation, and despite their frequent heroism they did not have their egos on the line. In other words, the most successful firefighters where those who exhibited situated humility.

Situated humility arises not out of personal insecurity but rather from the acceptance that, however confident one is in his or her own skills and abilities, the situation is so dynamic, complex, and uncertain that no individual can be fully knowledgeable under the circumstances. As one very experienced firefighter put it: “As old as I am and as experienced as I am in relation to these large fires, when I walk into the next fire I initially won’t know anything.”

Successful firefighters believe that fire is so unpredictable, so inherently unmanageable, that it can never be fully understood. As a result, they question and test their own assumptions and welcome the interruptions that may revise them. The respective appears to reflect what social psychologist Karl Weick refers to as “an attitude of wisdom” - - the knowledge that one does not fully understand what is happening because he or she has never seen precisely this event before.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

No problem, no problem, no problem

Approximately 140 million customers visit Wal-Mart U.S. stores each week - - 8,446 stores that occupy 952,203,837 square feet. The retail component is supported by 120 distribution centers that serve 75 to 100 U.S. Wal-Mart Stores each and cover a 250-mile radius. The U.S. part of the distribution chain requires 7,950 drivers in 7,200 tractors pulling 53,000 trailers.

A key date in the history of Wal-Mart and energy intensive supply chains may be November 12, 2008. It was the date the International Energy Agency published its long-awaited World Energy Outlook. The summary of the report - - (1) Current oil fields are falling by seven percent per year, (2) Depletion is projected to increase to nine percent over the next few years, (3) Simply running in place would mean finding four new Saudi Arabia's by 2030, (4) The anticipation of increased Asian oil demand, namely China, will require finding six Saudi Arabia's per year, and (5) All of this will require $350 billion in exploration and investment every year through 2030, compared to the a total of $390 billion for the whole period of 2000-2007, when the economy was booming.

I hope we have plenty of oil - - our current economic model of Design In U.S. + Manufacture in China + Energy Intensive Logistics + U.S. Consumption over Savings - - is rather dependent on the "No problem, no problem, no problem" assumption with respect to oil.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Managing Disturbances

Management is a contingency activity; managers act when routines breakdown, when unexpected snags appear. As managers advance to senior positions, they deal increasingly with predicaments, not problems. Successful global leadership requires key traits - - external focus, clear thinking, imagination, inclusiveness, and expertise. The era of global risks and crises will require additional skill sets from all leaders that place a premium on handling disturbances - - reacting to changes forced on a project, program, or organizational unit.

Companies such as GE are starting to understand the contingency component of leadership and management in the context of our rapidly shifting global environment. In the 1980s, the prized management skills and attributes at GE were cost-cutting, efficiency, and deal making. What skill set that ultimately ends up being prized by organizations at any particular point in time is a relentless and constant evolution. Management and leadership training at GE has increasingly focused on managing in volatility and a world of potential changes and disturbances - - requiring interpretative thinking because of out global interconnected systems of paradoxical courses and consequences.

Disturbances occur naturally in every organization - - with certainty or as random events. The grounding of air travel in Europe last week due to ash from an Icelandic volcano is a perfect example. Cancellations by the major airlines and overbooking’s in rail transportation - - disturbances in many different directions for all. The effective organization and leaders may be not only those that avoid many disturbances, but also the ones whose managers deal effectively with the unexpected disturbances that do arise.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Don't End Up As Furniture

Competing with the best. The role of engineering education must increasingly focus on fostering leadership and innovation. A key requirement of future engineers will be the independence and creativity necessary to produce long-term economic growth. As barriers to the flow of people, goods, and information have come down, and as the process of economic development proceeds, Asian countries have increasing access to the human, physical, and informational resources need to create top universities.

Richard Levin, the President of Yale, highlights this in the May/June 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs entitled, “Top of the Class: The Rise of Asia’s Universities.” Levin writes the following:

In today’s knowledge economy, no less than in the nineteenth century, when the philosophy of liberal education was articulated by Cardinal John Henry Newman, it is not subject-specific knowledge but the ability to assimilate new information and solve problems that is the most important characteristic of a well-educated person. The Yale Report of 1828 - - an influential document written by Jeremiah Day (who was at the time president of Yale), one of his trustees, and a committee of faculty - - distinguished between “the discipline” and “the furniture” of the mind. Mastering a specific body of knowledge - - acquiring “the furniture” - - is of little permanent value in a rapidly changing world. Students who aspire to be leaders in business, medicine, law, government, or academia need “the discipline” of mind - - the ability to adapt to constantly changing circumstances, confront new facts, and find creative ways to solve problems.

Cultivating such habits requires students to be more than passive recipients of information; they must learn to think for themselves and to structure an argument and defend or modify it in the face of new information or valid criticism. The Oxford-Cambridge “tutorial” system is perhaps the epitome of such pedagogy. The American substitute has been the interactive seminar, in which students are encouraged to take and defend positions in small groups and to challenge, rather than blindly accept, the instructor’s point of view. Examination at top U.S. universities rarely call for a recitation of facts; they call on students to solve problems they have not encountered before or to analyze two sides of an argument and state their own position.

Notice that engineering was not included in the list of professional disciplines. Engineering needs to fundamentally focus on “the discipline” of the mind or end up labeled as “the furniture.”

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bringing It Home

Johnd Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison of the Deleter Center for the Edge have come up with an interesting exercise regarding the idea of "Who-knows-whom" in the scaled up world of network opportunities.
  • Can you identify the fifty smartest or most accomplished people who share your passions or interests, regardless of where they reside?
  • How many of these people are currently in your professional or personal networks?
  • How many of of these people have you been able to engage actively in an initiative related to your shared passions or interests?
  • To how many of these people would you feel comfortable reaching out and mobilizing in a new initiative related to your shared passions and interests?
  • For these fifty people, how effectively are you using social media to increase your mutual awareness of each other's activities?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Henry Mintzberg - - Round Two

Round Two from Managing (2009):
  • The Internet may be driving management practice over the edge, making it so frenetic that it has become dysfunctional: too superficial, too disconnected, too conformist.
  • Managing is not one of these things it is all of them: it is controlling and doing and dealing and thinking and leading and deciding and more, not added up but blended together.
  • A good part of the work of managing involves doing what specialists do, but it particular ways that make use of the manager's special contacts, status, and information.
  • Managers frame their work by making particular decisions, focusing on particular issues, developing particular strategies, and so forth, to establish the context for everyone else working in the unit.
  • Watch any manager and one thing readily becomes apparent: the amount of time that is spent simply communicating - - namely, collecting and disseminating information for its own sake, without necessarily processing it.
  • Treating employees as "human resources" means to deal with them as if they are information, not people: they get reduced to a narrow dimension of their whole selves.
  • To manage with people, instead of through information, is to move one step closer to action but still to remain removed from it.
  • The job of development is perhaps best seen as managers helping people to develop themselves.
  • The culture of an organization may be rather difficult to establish, and to change - - that can take years, if ever -- but it can be rather easy to destroy, given a neglectful management.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Avoiding a Collision Course

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 and other regulations require the nation's largest railroads to implement, by the end of 2015, a system called "positive train control" also known as PTC. Positive train control is aimed at preventing train-to-train collisions like the 2008 collision in Southern California that killed 25 people, along with derailments from excessive speed, and improper incursions by trains into areas of track where repairs are ongoing, among other things, according to the Association of American Railroads.

The PTC should be able to precisely determine the location and speed of trains, warn operators of potential problems and take action if the operator does not respond to a warning.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Pull Model

The past century had a focus on improving various forms of "push models." These were models of production that allocate resources to areas of expected demand. Many organizations and leaders centered in emerging markets, such as China, have taken a contrarian approach to production. Instead of "scaling up" - - where the concerns and issues are reducing unit costs by centralizing their manufacturing and producing long runs of standardized items, the emerging market leaders are concentrating on "pull models." Centralized production adds expensive layers of bureaucracy, and is it hard to make it work in emerging markets where populations are often widely scattered and distributions systems abysmal. Instead of fixed armies looking for opportunities, pull models have firms organized into loose networks that are forever reconfiguring themselves in response to a rapidly shifting landscape.

The idea of "pull" structures and attitudes are encompassed in three principal themes - -
  1. Access - - The idea of flexible access where the ability to fluidly find and get to the people and resources when and where we need them. Access will become increasingly necessary as competition intensifies and disruptions become more frequent. We live in a world of new, technology-enhanced pull platforms. Can you imagine a time when we could not turn to a search engine to access people and resources that could help us with our needs? In many respects, individuals are much more comfortable with pull strategies than many of our companies and organizations.
  2. Attract - - Our success in finding new information and sources of inspiration increasingly depends on serendipity -- the chance encounter with someone or something that we did not know existed, much less had value, but that proves to be extraordinarily relevant and helpful once we find out about it. Online social network sites, such as Facebook or LinkedIn, play an interesting role in all of this. They help people stay in touch with their existing friends and colleagues, but, increasingly, they also provide environments for serendipitous encounters with friends of friends, or colleagues or colleagues, even people whom one has never before met.
  3. Achieve - - Performance in a pull environment takes place at the edges. The edge is exactly the place where we need to get better, faster and has the most urgency. Incumbents at the core -- which is the place where most of the resources, especially people and money, are concentrated, and where old ways of thinking and acting still hold sway - - have many fewer incentives to figure out the world, or to discover new ways of doing things, or to find new information.

Read more in The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion (2010) by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Long Davison.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

No More Clean Water

Perhaps the greatest threat to the world is the possibility of running out of clean water. Right now, one out of every two hospital beds in the world is occupied by someone suffering from a water-borne illness. In terms of consumption, since 1950, the world population has doubled but consumption of water has tripled.

Three hundred million people now get their water from the sea or from brackish groundwater that is too salty to drink. That's double the number a decade ago. Desalination is a treatment alternative - - not a cheap way to get water, but sometimes it's the only way there it. Look to three technologies with the promise to reduce energy requirements of desalination by up to 30 percent - -
  • Forward Osmosis (On the market: 2010 - 2012) - - Water molecules migrate by natural osmosis, without energy input, into an even more concentrated "draw solution," whose special salt is then evaporated away by low-grade heat.
  • Carbon Nanotubes (On the market: 2013 - 2015) - - An electric charge at the nanotube mouth repels positively charged salt ions. The uncharged water molecules slip through with little friction, reducing pumping pressure.
  • Biomimetics (On the market: 2013 - 2015) - - Water molecules pass through channels made of aquaporins, proteins that efficiently conduct water in and out of living cells. A positive charge near each channel's center repels salt.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Intervention To Change

Many experts consider designing to be the essential function of management. The goal in many cases is design in the role of intervention to create or change something. Designing typically focuses on three areas:
  • Designing Strategies - - Managers are "engineers" - - the person who designs on paper so that everyone else can build - - in the language of strategic management, formulates strategies for others to implement. This assumes that strategy making in a process of deliberate design, in order to control behavior.

  • Designing Structures - - Managers also design organizational structures: they divide up the work in their unit; allocate responsibilities for it to individual members; and then organize this around hierarchy of authority, as depicted in those "organizational charts." Such structure helps to set people's agendas, and so control their actions.

  • Designing Systems - - More directly, managers can take charge of designing, and sometimes even running, various systems of control in their units - - concerning plans, objectives, schedules, budgets, performance, and so on.

Alan Mulally is president and CEO of Ford Motor Company. Mulally holds bachelor's and master's of science degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. The attached graphic are notes that Mulally made on his Ford strategic planning notebook. It looks like the engineer as manager - - designing strategies, structures, and systems.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Invest in a Globe

Go out and immediately buy a globe. Maybe that world map or the atlas. With demand at home rock bottom - - American firms need to starting looking abroad. Our economic transformation will require businesses to rely less on selling to Americans and more on selling abroad. The IMF expects growth globally to average 4.3% a year between now and 2014 but only 2.5% in the United States. We appear to be slowly changing - - the share of our exports going to emerging markets topped 50% for the first time in late 2007 and has grown further since.

Expect the export emphasis to be on high-value products and services rather than on labor intensive items. Services should be a key - - from software and film to engineering and oil drilling. As technology advances, more businesses are likely to turn global. A recent survey by the American Institute of Architects found that in 2008 some 7% of its members’ billings came from international work, against only 2.8% a decade earlier. That increase came almost entirely from firms that were already doing international work but had stepped up their efforts. The ease of exchanging information around the world has fuelled fears that even service jobs will be outsourced away from the U.S. - - but those information flows also make it easier to do business overseas.

Take India for example. Kamal Nath, a high-profile politician, has taken on responsibility for roads and highways. His goal is to build 20 kilometers of new highway per day - - and is seeking $41 billion in private-sector investment over the next three to four years to help fund the construction. Mr. Nath declared that of India’s 70,000 kilometers of highways, 16,000 “aren’t worth driving on,” and stated that 40% of India’s fruits and vegetables rot before reaching market because of delays form poor roads and rail lines. Infrastructure companies in India have raised about $6.3 billion since the beginning of 2008 - - IL&FS Transportation Networks Ltd., recently raised $138 million in an offering that began trading March 30.

With 80% of the United States total trade conducted by just 1% of firms - - more U.S. companies will have to look abroad as domestic growth slows. Get the globe.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Henry Mintzberg - - Round One

Henry Mintzberg is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal. Mintzberg, like several other management theories, has a degree in engineering. He has a mechanical engineering degree from McGill University (Michael Porter of strategy fame has an engineering degree in aeronautical engineering and Tom Peters of excellence fame has both a BS and MS in civil engineering).

His Managing (2009) is a great book - - some of the highlights are below:
  • Leadership cannot simply delegate management; instead of distinguishing managers from leaders, we should be seeing managers as leaders, and leadership as management practiced well.
  • The more we obsess about leadership, the less of it we seem to get.
  • The manager has to help bring out the best in other people, so that they can know better, decide better, and act better.
  • The fact is that we only notice what is changing. And most things are not.
  • The manager must be prepared to shift moods quickly and frequently.
  • No matter what they are doing, managers are plagued by what they might do and what they must do.
  • Managers like action - - activities that move, change, are tangible, current, nonroutine.
  • Gossip, hearsay, and speculation form a good part of the manager's information diet.
  • The effective managers seem to be not those with the greatest degrees of freedom but the ones who use to advantage whatever degrees of freedom they can find.
  • Like conventional mail, e-mail is restricted by the poverty of words.
  • The Internet may be enhancing networks while weakening communities, within organizations was well as across them.
  • E-mail increases the pace and pressure of managing, and likely the interruptions as well.

Monday, April 12, 2010

What did you do yesterday?

From C.L. Shartle and the book entitled Executive Performance and Leadership (1956):

Observer: Mr. R......., we have discussed briefly this organization and the way it operated. Will you now please tell me what you do.
Executive: What I do?
Observer: Yes.
Executive: That's not easy.
Observer: Go ahead, anyway.
Executive: As president, I am naturally responsible for many things.
Observer: Yes, I realize that. But just what do you do?
Executive: Well, I must see that things go all right.
Observer: Can you give me an example?
Executive: I must see that our financial position is sound.
Observer: But just what do you do about it?
Executive: Now, that is hard to say.
Observer: Let's take another tack. What dd you do yesterday?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sensing The World With HP

I love my HP calculator - - the only calculator I have ever owned. This is how HP visualizes the future of sensors and networks - -
  • Sensors - - Micro-electromechanical systems that draw on technology used in HP printers are the brains of the sensors, which are accelerometers - - 1,000 times more sensitive than the ones used in Nintendo's Wii gaming system - - that detect even the slightest motions and vibrations.

  • Networks - - Tiny radio transmitters also bundled with senors wirelessly send out a constant and massive amount of data to computers specially programmed to find patterns and flag critical information about, say, activity along a fault line or unusual movements on the pillar of a bridge.

  • Intelligence - - Sensors placed beneath the earth provide data to build geophysical maps that can help Shell know where to look for oil. And HP wins too, it not only sells the basic sensors but also hawks computers that monitor vibrations, and software that aids Shell in mapping and analyzing the data.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Rethinking Thinking

Engineering and engineers need to refocus their attention on the development of critical analytical thinking skills. In particular, those thinking skills that interface with a systems based approach to problem solving. Several thoughts - -

  • Engineering needs individuals who can take an unstructured problem, or a structured problem they can deconstruct, and look at it in a completely different way. Organizations want people who can x-ray through to a different problem while using the same material everyone else has seen.
  • We need people who can look at a problem and see it differently from others - - we need engineers that can break our current log jam of problems.
  • Critical thinking and analysis in the context of engineering has eight elements - - purpose, questions, point of view, information, assumptions, concepts, conclusions, and consequences.
  • Be more critical - - not a critic. Work out logic behind an argument and uncover assumptions.
  • Critical analysis and reading/writing skills are linked. Great writers are great readers. Great readers are great thinkers. Read everything you can get your hands on.
  • Learn to parse issues into smaller, more manageable chunks. Understand cause and effect. Understand that seeing the context of the effect helps to more deeply understand the cause. Recognize when it is appropriate to use simple theoretical constructs in complex contexts.
  • Zen Maxim - - Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening. No doubt: no awakening.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Get Used To It

David Brooks of The New York Times comes up with very interesting insight into leadership topics. In his April 9, 2010 column entitled The Humble Hound, he writes:

. . . . spends more time seeing and analyzing. Analytic skills differ modestly from person to person, but perceptual skills vary enormously. Anybody can analyze, but the valuable people can pick out the impermanent but critical elements of a moment or effectively grasp a context. This sort of perception takes modesty; strong personalities distort the information held around them. This sort of understanding also takes patience. As the Japanese say, don't just study a topic. Get used to it. Live in it for a while.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lighten Up

Andrew Cosslett is CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group, based near London. His career advice to someone who has just graduated from college:

Leave home. Go as far away as possible from what you know. I think you've got to be tested, and you've got to test yourself. Forcing yourself out of your comfort zone is a great learning in life.

The second would be: keep asking questions. There's a lot of perceived wisdom in most industries that hasn't been challenged for years. I've always had a slightly maverick side that actually stood me in great stead.

The third one is have a sense of humor. It's a lot easier to get through most things if you've got a smile on your face. It doesn't have to be a chore. So just lighten up.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Ratio

I was at Georgia Tech over the weekend. Attended the Tech vs. Duke baseball game on Sunday. We were seated with a group of Tech alumni that informed us about a YouTube video entitled "The Ratio" ( The gender ratio at Tech is in the 75/25 range - - the video has two engineers lamenting about "The Ratio" to rap lyrics.

The end is great - - the girls in the chorus singing "The odds are good, but the goods are odd" - - the entire production is clever, funny, and very un-engineering. Enjoy!!

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Intersection

The iPad officially went on sale this week. Media coverage has been non-stop and intense with local, national, and international outlets all joining in. Time magazine has Steve Jobs on the cover this week. In an article in Time, Jobs talks about Apple “at the intersection of the Liberal Arts and Technology.”

This is an interesting way to look at the “things” engineering and engineers design and build. Our “things” - - from iPad, to bridge, to elevator, to automobile – always intersect two worlds. One is the world of technology - - formulas, constraints, tradeoffs, performance, material, and innovation. The other is the world of liberal arts - - people, communication, psychology, history, and economics. Read the following from Time regarding Apple and “The Intersection” - -

Most important, Apple’s engineers know something those other companies don’t: form has trumped function. You can load up a tablet with horsepower and extra features till it can do your taxes and lick the stamp, but if it’s not instantly obvious how to use without a manual - - and if you don’t look good using them - - nobody cares.

Apple clearly demonstrates the power of those individuals and companies that have the ability and mindset to manage, master, and excel at “The Intersection.” Apple doesn’t just design and build “things” - - they create an environment of immersive experiences. The iPhone may be a functional tool - - but it is a tool that makes us smile. Engineering needs to focus more attention and energy on “The Intersection” - - in particular the smile and wonderment parts. The future may be more about what happens at the intersection of technology, liberal arts, and commerce - - where engineers need to stand comfortably in front of two street signs. One reading “Technology” and the other reading “Liberal Arts.”

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Price Is Right

The April 2010 issue of National Geographic is a must read for water resource engineers and planners focusing on water related public policy issues. The issue is entitled Water: Our Thirsty World and covers a wide and interesting range of global water related topics. One interesting graphic is "Cost of Water" and illustrates the water cost to a consumer by municipality (per 100 gallons, based on roughly 4,000 gallons a month usage, U.S. dollars, 2009). A small sample is provided below:
  • San Diego, U.S. - - $1.85
  • Fort Worth, U.S. - - $0.88
  • Edmonton, Canada - - $1.17
  • Mexico City, Mexico - - $0.07
  • Havana, Cuba - - $0.02
  • Santiago, Chile - - $0.43
  • Newcastle, U.K. - - $1.46
  • Berlin, Germany - - $2.52
  • Rome, Italy - - $0.50
  • Nairobi, Kenya - - $0.20
  • Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - - $0.01
  • New Delhi, India - - $0.03
  • Karachi, Pakistan - - $0.01
  • Beijing, China - - $0.20
  • Jakarta, Indonesia - - $0.28
  • Auckland, New Zealand - - $1.48

The list illustrates differences in the global price of water and the impacts of local economics, exchange rates, political systems, culture, water quality, treatment quality, and societal expectations. You take a commodity like water and get huge variations in the price of water based on many different influences. The list also illustrates the "under-priced" nature of water and the difficulty in water conservation and sustainability.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Third Pole

The Third Pole is a reference to the Tibetan Plateau. It is a lock box of snow and glacial ice that supplies fresh water to nearly a third of the world's people. With 37,000 glaciers on the Chinese side alone, the Tibetan Plateau is home to the great rivers of Asia - - the Yangtze, Yellow Mekong, and Ganges. Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at The Ohio State University refers to the Tibetan Plateau glacier system as "Asia's fresh water bank account."

But the bank account ledger is becoming unbalanced. The plateau as a whole is heating up twice as fast as the global average of 1.3 degrees F over the past century - - and in some places faster. This warming produces the worst of both worlds for the region - - too much water in some places and too little in other places.

This is happening in a densely populated and conflict prone part of the world - - at the convergence point of India, Pakistan, China, and Tibet. A mixture of cultures, religions, and politics in an area undergoing tremendous economic change. China is currently in the midst of a drought in the southwestern part of the country that has left 24 million people short of drinking water. Dwindling water supplies and drought comes just as China's wealth is increasing demand for more water. McKinsey & Co. estimates China's demand for water will be 25% higher that its supply by 2030.

Look for the water situation at The Third Pole to become more of a global issue - - two billion people are facing an era of diminishing ice and snow. This will have a profound impact on a very important region in a very important part of the planet.

Friday, April 2, 2010

How right do you need to be?

The new buzzword in engineering and technology - - geoengineering. You can't yet get a degree in it or get professional registration - - but it might just be the biggest and most important contribution to civilization that engineers may have to make. What is geoengineering? As defined by the British Royal Society, it is the "deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth's climate system, in order to moderate global warming."

The various geoengineering ideas range from bad science fiction to ideas worthy of research funding. There are two broad approaches to geoengineering. One is to reduce the amount of incoming sunlight that the planet absorbs. The other is to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and put it somewhere else. Ideas like "doping the stratosphere" -- in which governments release tons of aerosol particles into the sky with the goal of reflecting sunlight or the idea of stimulating plankton growth and drawing carbon dioxide into the ocean food web and sediment trap. Venture capital money is already flowing to several geoengineering ideas.

Economics will be driving the interest in geoengineering. Estimates range on a per ton basis of carbon dioxide in the $10 to $30 range for a cap-and-trade program like the one President Obama has proposed and the House passed last June. Geoengineering efforts, on the other hand, might cost just $0.07 per ton. We might be looking at a factor of 200 - - enough to draw plenty of research money towards geoengineering.

Geoengineering is the extreme opposite of sustainability - - it represents the sustainability graveyard from the context of climate change. Where geoengineering is about the massive, the extreme innovative mindset, and a touch of "Armageddon Engineering" - - sustainability is about the small and incremental. If sustainability fails, geoengineering may represent a last minute alternative. Engineering and engineers in the role of savior.

How would you like to be in the person responsible for responding to the RFI/RFQ/RFP - - "Consulting Engineering Services - - Geoengineering to Save the Planet"? You have six months to implement the project - - by the way, limit your qualifications to 50-double spaced pages including graphics. What kind of engineer dreams of engineering the entire planet to save civilization? Maybe the engineer that regularly talks to God ("Anyone can talk to God; it's getting an answer that is difficult"). Or is it the engineer that fundamentally understands we can use our imagination and ingenuity to create something beautiful and sustainable, or we can destroy ourselves with stupidity and greed.

The engineer that signs and seals the "Planet Earth Geoengineering Project Plan" will be the most trusted person on the planet. The person that understands the hard choices humanity faces and has explored the complicated technical, moral, and ethical considerations. The engineer that is comfortable looking into the mirror and thinking about - - "How right do you need to be?"