Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Infrastructure Interdependencies - - The Environment

In the context of infrastructure interdependencies the word "environment" refers to the setting or surrounding versus the natural world.  Infrastructures operate in an environment described not only by their individual inputs, outputs, and states, but also by the characteristics of other infrastructures and certain general concerns.  The infrastructure environment is the framework in which the owners and operators establish goals and objectives; construct value systems for defining and viewing their business; model and analyze their operations; and make decisions that affect infrastructure architectures and operations.

Seven areas need to be reviewed and discussed in the context of infrastructure interdependencies.  These are:
  1. Economic and Business Opportunities - - Deregulation and technology innovation have had major influences on system interdependencies.  Deregulation, especially in the energy sector, has resulted in the shedding of excess capacity that had previously been mandated and had served as a shock absorber against system failure.  Information technology provided business with a powerful business tool to increase efficiency - - but it subsequently led to the proliferation of cyber interdependencies (and new vulnerabilities) in most infrastructure.
  2. Public Policy - - Various policies shape how industry and various levels of government operate but bounds the set of permissible operational states and characteristics and influence the growth and structure of entire infrastructures.
  3. Government Investment Decisions - - Research, development, and acquisition decisions have had a wide-ranging influence on many aspects of our lives and culture, ranging from the creation of entirely new infrastructures to small nudges of existing infrastructures.  A more pressing issue we currently face is a lack of investment and the impact on potential system failures.
  4. Legal and Regulatory - - Some legal and regulatory concerns directly affect infrastructure operations.  The Telecommunications Act of 1996 had a significant impact and influence on infrastructure architectures and topologies.
  5. Public Health and Safety - - The desire to protect lives, property, and public health/safety has directly affected the configuration and operation of the infrastructures and thus their interdependencies.  Examples include a reliance on SCADA and other electronic systems.
  6. Technical and Security - - Technology is both an enabler of infrastructures and a primary source of interdependencies.  Technology is largely responsible for the tightly coupled, interdependent infrastructure we enjoy today - - extensive automation has dramatically increased cyber interdependencies across all infrastructures and concurrently increased their complexity.  However, tighter, more complex, and more extensive interdependencies lead to increased risks and greater requirements for security.
  7. Social and Political - - These concerns drive markets (economic, business, technical, and security) and elections (public policy, legal/regulatory, and technical).  They create the perception that laws or regulations are needed (or not), a service is needed (or not), certain types of behavior are accepted (or not), and certain protections are needed (or not).

"Lousy" Infrastructure

Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell discusses the state of our public infrastructure with The New Yorker's George Packer at the following link:


Monday, November 29, 2010

Infrastructure Interdependencies - - Introduction

This week I will be addressing the need for engineers to identify and understand the critical infrastructure interdependencies that exist in a broad spectrum of our systems.  By infrastructure I am referring to the physical assets that are capable of an intended service delivery, comprising of rigid assets such as buildings, roads, bridges, and facilities, as well as flexible assets such as utilities and facilities related to water, sewage, power, etc., including their systems and machinery. 

The current and pressing issue is the notion that our infrastructure are highly interconnected and mutually dependent in complex ways, both physically and through a host of information and communications technologies.  Identifying, understanding, and analyzing such interdependencies are significant challenges.  These challenges are greatly magnified by the breadth and complexity of our critical infrastructure.

Infrastructure interdependencies means a bi-directional relationship between multiple different infrastructures in a general system of systems through which the state of each infrastructure influences or is influenced by or correlated to the state of another.  A good example is energy and water - - the two systems are interdependent.  Energy and power production require water - - thermoelectric cooling, energy minerals extraction/mining, and emissions control.  Water production, processing, distribution, and end-use require energy - - pumping, transport, treatment, and use of conditioning.  For example, 20% of the total energy use in California is for water transportation, treatment, and use.  We can expect growth in energy and water interdependencies - - future energy development will put new demands on water development.  Many new technologies will be more water intensive - - the hydrogen economy would require even more water and water constraints will grow for energy development and power plant siting.  Future water supplies and treatment will be more energy intensive - - readily accessible fresh water supplies are limited and have been fully allocated in some areas and new technologies to access and/or treat non-traditional water resources will require more energy per gallon of water.

Steven M. Rinaldi probably explains this best with his "Six Dimensions" graphic for describing infrastructure interdependencies.  The six dimensions are:
  1. The Environment - - Comprising concerns that influence normal system operations, emergency operations during disruptions, periods of high stress/repair, and recovery operations.
  2. Coupling and Response Behavior - - The degree to which the infrastructures are coupled, or linked, strongly influences their operational characteristics.  Some linkages are loose and flexible, whereas others are light, leaving little or no flexibility for the system to respond to changing conditions.
  3. Type of Failure - - Interdependencies increase the risk of failures or disruptions in multiple infrastructures.  The subtle feedback loops and complex topologies created by interdependencies can initiate and propagate disturbances in a variety of ways that are unusual and difficult to foresee.
  4. Infrastructure Characteristics - - Infrastructures have key characteristics that figure in interdependency analyses.  These characteristics include spatial, temporal, operational, and organizational dimensions.
  5. State of Operation - - The state of operation of an infrastructure can be thought of as a continuum that exhibits different behaviors during normal operating conditions, during times of severe stress or disruption, or during times when repair and restoration activities are underway.
  6. Types of Interdependencies - - Interdependencies vary widely and each has its own characteristics and effects on infrastructure agents.  This includes the following four principal classes - - physical, cyber, geographic, and logical.
It is important for engineers to understand that key technological, economic, and regulatory changes have dramatically altered the relationships among infrastructures and the information technology revolution has led to substantially more interconnected, and complex infrastructures with generally greater centralization of control.  To quote Mr. Rinaldi - - ". . . the trend toward greater infrastructure interdependency has accelerated and shows little sign of abating."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Your Inner Rooster

Bob Brennan is the president and CEO of Iron Mountain, a firm which provides information storage, protection, and management services. He writes the following about what qualities he is trying to get at in an interview:

I'm trying to understand how self-centered they are. It's really hard on organizations when people in power throw their weight around. That creates an unsafe environment for collaboration. It breeds defensiveness. I'm trying to understand, if I'm interviewing you, whether you're a rooster. And if you are a rooster, can there be other roosters on the porch with you? If not. I don't care how talented you are, I really don't want you on the property.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Coach K's Tips

After their national championship season last year - - Duke is back again as the #1 ranked college basketball team. Mike Krzyzenwski, the legendary Coach K of the Duke program, writes about leadership in Leading With The Heart (2000) - - his guide to successful strategies for basketball, business, and life. Coach K has the following tips:
  • It's important for a leader to focus on the technical details of his industry or business. But it's vital to focus on details related specifically to people in the organization.
  • People talk to you in different ways - - through facial expressions. moods, mannerisms, body language, the tone in their voice, the look in their eyes.
  • As a leader, you must be able to read your players.
  • A leader has to be positive about all things that happen to his team. Look at nothing in the past as failure.
  • You cannot win every game. But you can learn from every game.
  • It takes courage not only to make decisions, but to live with those decisions afterward.
  • A leader has to have the courage to make a key decision in a split second.
  • Courage and confidence are what decision-making is all about.
  • Don't let a single game break your heart.

Check out ESPN's Greatest Coach On The Planet debate - - http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=5846363

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Ability To Model

Everything engineers do involves some form of modeling - - from graphic models to mathematical models to mental models. We model the interaction of what we think we know about complex systems and our experience of the real world - - and this can be a profoundly humbling experience. Our ability to model the world is poised on a fundamental duality. Engineers know a tremendous amount about how the world works, but not nearly enough. Our knowledge is amazing; our ignorance even more so. The acquisition of knowledge always involves the revelation of ignorance - - almost is the revelation of ignorance.

The late Donella H. Meadows, is her outstanding book Thinking in Systems (2008), writes the three truths of models and reality:
  1. Everything we think we know about the world is a model. Every word and every language is a model. All maps and statistics, books and databases, equations and computer programs are models. So are the ways I picture the world in my head - - my mental models. None of these is or ever will be the real world.
  2. Our models usually have a strong congruence with the world. That is why we are such a successful species in the biosphere. Especially complex and sophisticated are the mental models we develop from direct, intimate experience of nature, people, and organizations immediately around us.
  3. However, and conversely, our models fall far short of representing the world fully. That is why we make mistakes and why we are regularly surprised. In our heads, we can keep track of only a few variables at one time. We often draw illogical conclusions from accurate assumptions, or logical conclusions from inaccurate assumptions. Most of us, for instance, are surprised by the amount of growth an exponential process can generate. Few of us can intuit how to damp oscillations in a complex system.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving by the Numbers

We are expected to cook 46 million turkeys Thanksgiving Day. Each turkey requires approximately 1,600 gallons of water over the bird's life-cycle - - our collective "turkiness" consumes 74 billion gallons of water. One-third of our birds will be cooked in a gas oven. We will burn up 2.35 billion cubic feet of natural gas today, or 4% of all the gas that the U.S. uses on an average day.

Thanking Our Designers

A special thanks to the global designers and innovators that helped to bring the following to market:
  • Infant Warmer - - Around 19 million low-birth-weight babies are born every year in developing countries. Unable to regulate their body temperatures, many die. The Embrace helps to warm vulnerable infants (a special pouch slips into the back of the bag to provide hours of safe hear) while allowing for nursing and cudding. More information available at www.embraceglobal.org.

  • Purifying Straw - - Some 900 million people lack access to safe drinking water. Sipping through the LifeStraw filters surface water on-site, reducing the transmission of bacteria and viruses. Thousands of ten-inch Life Straws were donated to Haiti after this year's earthquake. Each filters about 160 gallons; a new, shorter model, nearly 265. More information at www.lifestraw.com.

  • Sugarcane Charcoal - - Burning wood and dung, the main fuel sources for many in the developing world, has contributed to deforestation and respiratory ailments. Not only do briquettes made from crushed stalks make use of an abundant local resource, they burn more cleanly and allow residents to start a charcoal business for less than $50. More information at http://stuff.mit.edu/afs/athena/course/other/d-lab/DlabIII06/sugarcane-charcoal.pdf.

  • Portable Clay Cooler - - Building upon an ancient food-storage technique, the pot-in-pot system uses evaporation from a layer of wet sand between two nesting pots to help extend the life of farmers' goods. Tomatoes can last weeks instead of just days, meaning more fresh produce at the market and more income for farmers.

  • Chill Grinder - - Ethiopian women have for centuries crushed chili peppers by hand - - a time consuming, painful way to add value to a staple spice. The Pepper Eater mills chilies four times faster, creating uniform flakes and sparing hands from chili-oil burns. More information at www.thepeppereater.org.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Your Mental Models

Adm. Thad Allen is the retired commander of the Coast Guard and hero of our efforts after Katrina. He has been the public face of our cleanup efforts for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Adm. Allen has the following comments regarding mental models and how leaders can go about creating a unity of effort:

I'm a big fan of Peter Senge (at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), who talks about learning organizations and the use of mental models. You have to understand at a very large, macro level what the problem is that you're dealing with and what needs to be done to achieve the effects you want - - and you have to be able to communicate that. You also have to create a set of shared values that everybody involved can subscribe to.

For example, with Hurricane Katrina, it was clear to me after about 24 hours in New Orleans that we weren't dealing only with a natural disaster. When the levees were breached and New Orleans flooded, it became a different event. Under the hurricane response model, resources are provided to a local government, which runs the response. But we had lost continuity of government: There was no functional local government that could take the resources and apply them to the mission.

So the mental model became more like the response to a weapon of mass effect. When I realized that, things started happening. I sat down with Russel Honore, who was leading the military forces down there, and we divided the city into sectors and assigned each sector to one of his units. We focused on providing security and creating the capacity of local government to do its job - - dewater the city, do the house-to-house searches and so forth.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Complexity, Diversity, and Scale

Next time you are at your local grocery store to purchase a "simple" toothbrush - - try to estimate the number of different brands, models, colors, styles, etc. that are for sale. Your average grocery store might have literally hundreds of selections. We come to expect this - - a hallmark of capitalism is diversity. Freedom to have unlimited choices based on a system of resources with sufficient scale and scope.

Other examples, beyond the toothbrush, of the intersection among complexity, scale and diversity include the following:
  • Online retailer Zappos carries 90,000 different varieties of shoes.
  • McMaster-Carr, a hardware wholesaler, carries 480,000 products in their catalog. They carry 2,432 varieties of wood screws.
  • Amazon carries 85,000 different cell phones and cellphone products.
  • So far, we have created 500,000 different movies and one million television episodes.
  • The Ford F-150 comes in 78 different variations.
  • We have created 1.1 billion unique songs.
  • Your average grocery store has 285 varieties of cookies, 175 kinds of salad dressing, and 85 brands of crackers.
  • The standard 26 letters in English have produced 16 million different books in English.

The success of any organization depends on a tradeoff between complexity and scale. In some respects, this is also the message of sustainability. The tradeoff between complexity and scale has to do with the understanding that if we want to do many different things then we cannot also do the same thing many times. In a manufacturing context, this is a very natural idea - - if you want to mass produce the same item many times, you cannot at the same time produce many different items. In meeting the demands of the environment, an organization has to match the scale that is needed with the complexity that is needed. If what is needed is to make 100,000 copies of a product, the organization should be capable of producing that number of products; if what is needed is to make 1,000 different, customized products, then it should be capable of producing such diversity. Basically the organizational structure has to match the demands of the environment.

Think about this as you decide on your next toothbrush. The line between complexity and chaos is a fine one, especially in a world where energy concerns could come to dominant global logistical systems. The line between product diversity and sustainability might even be finer, where resource constraints may ultimately have a profound impact on diversity and choice.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Shrinking City

We live in cities. About half the global population is now living in urban areas. But urban growth is a "Zero-Sum Game" - - where winning means there must be a loser. In just the United States, for every two urban areas that are growing, three are shrinking. Since the 1950s, 59 cities with a population of 100,000 or more have lost at least 10% of their inhabitants. Remember when clinging to a flawed image of the world, no amount of dexterous policy execution can save you from disaster.

Engineering plays a key role in designing the controlled contraction of certain cities. Smart growth is about finding a better way, smart contraction is also about finding a better way. Engineers need to think about concentrating infrastructure and services in those neighborhoods with better prospects and encouraging disinvested areas to revert to agricultural or otherwise productive open space. Engineering needs to think about what tools and strategies are available to proactively implement with the goal of successfully managing the shrinkage of cities.

The concept and language of shrinkage needs to be thought of as smaller and better - - with more opportunities and alternatives. Shrinkage to some will always be related to diminish, lessen, decline, and retreat. Strategic shrinkage, with a stronger base and foundation, must start with engineers thinking in terms of matching resources with opportunities, infrastructure with population densities, sustainability, and coming to the table with scrappy pragmatism. Engineers need to understand that growth is not an end in itself, and it is not a synonym for prosperity. We should remember that the beginning, and the end of growth is nothing other than opportunity. The smart city of the future will need to be flexible enough to meet the demands of the future - - however it may be broadly interpreted.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Never Give People A Void

Goeff Vuleta is the CEO of Fahrenheit 212, an innovation consulting firm in Manhattan. He provided the following thoughts regarding leadership and planning below:

One of the traits of a good leader is being able to build loyalty beyond reason, and getting people totally believing that something's possible. And I've always believed that everybody wants to be led. They want to know two things - - what they should be doing, and that what they're doing is important. You must therefore set up an environment in which they totally trust that.

So your consistency of behavior is the most important thing. I have been let down in my life by people in leadership roles who were just inconsistent - - telling you to do something and doing something totally different themselves.

His ideas on planning:

We get together every 100 days as a group, and draw up a list of all the things that we want to get done in the next 100 days. And you go away as an individual and come back with commitments to how you're going to contribute to that list. Then you sit down with me and our president and we discuss your plan. It's just our job to make sure that the sum of everybody's plan nails down the firm's list.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Innovation and Process Improvements

Innovation is generally associated with technical products. The iPad and iPod - - engineering and innovation in terms of things. We see the marketplace of ideas in terms of products, devices, and infrastructure - - where in a world of challenges from climate change, peak oil, food safety, water shortages, and resource constraints, our focus is the thing. But what if the long term solution to a problem such as alternative energy sources and conservation is equal parts innovative engineering, changes in life styles, and process improvements?

Our training and dialogue, especially in the context of smart cities and infrastructure, tends to focus on new technology that supplies energy, transport, communication, or water. Unfortunately technology solves only some of our challenges. Innovation can be more effective when focused on doing things differently, rather than relying on different things. Engineering increasingly will rely on individuals that have abilities that go beyond things - - individuals that are good at seeing the world differently in terms of the non-physical, are good by developing policies that get at the root cause of a problem, and are good at formulating strategies that can easily adapt to opportunities and change.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Must-Read Books

The November/December 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs has a list of books that sheds light on the future from 16 foreign policy contributors. I have provided my recommendations on 10 of them. Engineers should read widely - - from history to current events to P.P.E. (politics, philosophy, and economics). Have fun.
  1. The Frugal Superpower: America's Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era by Michael Mandelbaum.
  2. A Peace to End all Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin.
  3. Why the West Rules - - for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris.
  4. The Clash of Civilization and the Remarking of World Order by Samuel Huntington.
  5. On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done by Cass Sunstein.
  6. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier.
  7. Thinking in Systems; A Primer by Donella Meadows (Note - - this is a great book that every engineer should read and have in their bookcase.)
  8. The Long View From Delhi: To Define the Indian Grand Strategy for Foreign Policy by Raja Menon and Rajiv Kumar.
  9. How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace by Charles Kupchan.
  10. The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations? by Ian Bremmer.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Our Right Angle Problem

George Lucus of Star Wars fame has an interesting take on the important question - - "Do you think technology is making the world better or worse?" Lucus addresses the question with the following observation:

If you watch the curve of science and everything we know, it shoots up like a rocket. We're on this rocket and we're going perfectly vertical into the stars. But the emotional intelligence of humankind is equally if not more important than our intellectual intelligence. We're just as emotionally illiterate as we were 5,000 years ago; so emotionally our line is completely horizontal. The problem is the horizontal and vertical are getting farther and farther apart. And as these things grow apart, there's going to be some kind of consequence of that.

As science and engineering attempt to address increasingly more complex and interconnected problems - - many of our solutions are clearly represented by the rocket headed straight up. The area of geo-engineering the planet as an outcome of climate change - - or advanced genetic medical research and treatment - - our vertical line seems to be at a 90-degree angle from our horizontal line and what society seems willing to grasp. Are we advancing at such a technological pace, that the challenges and consequences we face as we stabilize at a right angle with our collective emotions will be overwhelming difficult to address? As the Internet and IT line goes vertical - - where a world of 24/7 access and information frames a permanent right angle with the world of self-awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management - - what is the impact of this apparent conflict in our technological direction versus are humanistic understanding and history?

We as engineers need to be thinking about the consequences that Mr. Lucas is concerned with.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Walking Dead

AMC has a new show that I would recommend. "The Walking Dead" is part maybe Lost with a little Lord of the Flies, but with zombies (You can probably come up with a multitude of movie combinations, as long as you end with "but with zombies"). The first episode aired on Halloween. It instantly ranked as the most watched scripted series in the history of cable television among 18 to 49 year-olds, a demographic courted by advertisers and by AMC.

The show takes place in and around Atlanta. The episodes were filmed almost entirely on location in Atlanta, where a roughly 30 percent tax credit cut down costs (see previous blog regarding tax tips from Keith Richards - - Gimme Shelter Indeed). Provided below is my rating of the show:

  • Quality of Television Zombies - - Five Stars, could be the best zombies in the history of television.

  • Probability that Engineers Were Responsible for the Zombies - - Low, no indication in the first three episodes.

  • Probability that Engineers Will be Part of the Solution for Surviving Humans - - Unclear, but Atlanta is the home of Georgia Tech.

  • Type Casting of Southerners - - Humans are very high. Zombies appear cast correctly.

  • Sexual Situations - - Humans suffering from P.A.A. (Post Apocalyptic Adultery). Zombies appear non-interested.

  • Nudity - - Humans, none. Zombies, really difficult to tell at times.

  • Set Design - - Five Stars, Atlanta looks the same pre and post zombie attack, especially in the context of traffic.

  • NRA Endorsement - - Extremely likely and would be well received.

  • PETA Endorsement - - Extremely unlikely, especially regarding zombie conduct and relationship toward rats, deer, and horses.
  • NOW Endorsement - - Extremely unlikely for humans. Unclear regarding zombies.
  • Atlanta and Georgia Tourism Endorsement - - Likely, mild climate and wonderful Atlanta scenery are showcased in every exterior scene.

  • Overall Plausibility - - High, Atlanta is the home of the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Opening on Halloween at the start of flu season was a big plus.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Quantitative Sustainable Use Goals

Sustainability and sustainable development are catchwords that dominate today's engineering discourse. One of the things that is missing most from the debate and discussion are numerical goals and targets that help to quantify what we mean by sustainability. Without quantitative assessments and serious goal setting - - sustainability will remain a mere concept rather than a program capable of implementation.

The definition of numerical goals, desirable rates of improvement, and plans to achieve those ultimate goals and rates must ultimately be the work of government and society at all levels. Consider the case of the metal zinc. Is our current production, utilization, and recovery rates of zinc a sustainable process? What methodology could we utilize to help quantify and establish goals in the context of sustainability? In the case of zinc, or any resource, the following four step process might be a consideration:
  1. Establish the available supply of the chosen resources.
  2. Allocate the annual permissible supply according to a reasonable formula or market process.
  3. Establish the "recaptureable" resource base.
  4. Derive the sustainable limiting rate of use and compare to the current rate of use.

During posts this week, I will go through this process with the element Indium.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Shivan S. Subramaniam is charman and C.E.O. of FM Global, a commercial and industry property insurer. Subramaniam offers the following comments and lessons on leadership:

One is that people don't necessarily do things the way you would do them. And if they don't follow precisely the way you think about something, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're wrong. That took some maturity to understand.

But the bigger picture is to make very sure that everybody in the company has the same goal in mind. That was the more important thing I learned over time. It maters less what people do or how they do it, but do we all agree on the goals.

Over the years, that has let to us having very simple goals at our company. We call them "key result areas," or K.R.A.'s. We're multinational - - we've got 5,100 people, 1,800 or whom are engineers. We're very analytical. But we have three K.R.A.'s, nothing terribly fancy. One is on profitability. One is on retention of existing clients. And one in on attracting new clients. That's it.

All of our incentive plans are designed around our K.R.A.'s, and everyone of those K.R.A.'s is very transparent. Our employees know how we're doing. And, most importantly, they understood them whether they're the most senior manager or a file clerk, so they know that, "If I do this, it helps this K.R.A. in this manner."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Solution Seekers versus Problem Solvers

Designers and engineers have traditionally been solution seekers, not problem solvers. Some of this is because the client or end user may not be able to imagine what they could have - - the solution to the root cause of a particular problem. Many of our meta-problems engineers face today are so large and complex that each solution can present an answer to only part of the problem and often it's the solution that can create new problems. The majority of our most pressing environmental challenges, such as climate change and water supply shortages combined with increases in energy costs, fall into this category. You really need engineers with a transdisciplinary approach combined with knowledge, experience, intuition, intellect, and creative spark that want to go beyond being solution seekers and have a deep desire to fundamentally be seen as problem solvers.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Engineering and the Word "And"

Engineers are taught that because you understand "one" and you must therefore understand "two" because one and one make two. But engineers forget that you must also understand the word "and."

Where "and" provides the connection between "one" and "two" -- the connection, or linkage, or interface of one system to another. From one idea to another, one theory to another, one person to another - - something about "and" makes one and one become two. From one subsystem or two, or three, or 100 subsystems as they combine, connect, and link to produce a higher level system. As our complexity in the systems world grows from public infrastructure to information technology to medical care delivery - - engineers must be able to embrace a holistic vision. They must be able to focus on the interconnections between subsystems and components, taking special note of the interfaces among the various parts. They must be comfortable with systems synergy - - where two or more parts of a system work together to produce a result not obtainable by any of the parts independently.

Engineers need to understand the systems definition of the word "and" - - from connecting, adding to, also, continuation, consequence, condition, but, comparing - - to detail. The word "and" may come from Old English - - but the word has an important place in solving many of our modern complex system problems. You want any system to be more than the sum of its parts. Where biological, social, and technological systems can all exhibit adaptive, dynamic, goal-seeking, self-preserving, and sometimes evolutionary behavior. We need to be thinking in terms of "one and one makes four." Engineers should understand that the magic behind the systems synergy and transformational act is what we mean by and how we manage the word "And."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gimme Shelter Indeed

I want to occasionally offer tax and financial planning tips from the world of the rich and famous. The first segment is from Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones. In the November 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, writer David Remnick has the following in his book review of Mr. Richard's new autobiography, Life (2010):

"The whole business thing is predicated a lot on the tax laws," Keith Richards told Fortune. "It's why we rehearse in Canada and not in the U.S. A lot of our astute moves have been basically keeping up with tax laws, where to to go, where not to put it. Whether to sit on it or not. We left England because we'd be paying ninety-eight cents on the dollar. We left, and they lost out. No taxes at all. I don't want to screw anybody out of anything, least of all the governments that I work with. We put thirty percent in holding until we sort it out." Keith may fancy himself a symbol of '68, but he channels the fiscal policy of Grover Norquist.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Our Networked World - - The Money

There is always lots of money to be made at the threshold of complexity and chaos. Some firms and organizations will thrive in a world of smart systems and networks - - especially those good at making networks smarter, thicker, and more expansive. Pachube (http://www.pachube.com/) may be a firm of the future - - a firm making money at the convergence of the physical and digital worlds. Pachube offers a service that lets anybody make sensor data available to anyone else so they can use them to build smart services.

Pachube's business model looks at the following areas:
  • Manage Real Time Sensor and Environmental Data - - A platform for the Internet of things, managing millions of datapoints per day from thousands of individuals, organizations and companies around the world.
  • Graph, Monitor and Control Remote Environments - - Embedded real time graphs and widgets in your website -- analyze and process historical data pulled from any public Pachube feed.
  • Mobile and Web Apps - - The ability to make quick and easy applications that add value to networked objects and environments.
  • Share Data and Create Communities - - Based on an open ecosystem - - connecting electricity meters, weather stations, building management systems, air quality monitors, biosensors, and even Geiger counters.

Pachube is a very small fish in a very big pond. The IT giants have jumped into the big pond - - HP, Cisco, IBM, Google, SAP, Microsoft - - the Internet of Things has the potential to be as large as the Internet of Non-Things. Fiscal constraints in the developed world, exponential growth in the developing world, and sustainability goals in both highlight IBM's thought process - - "Making the old stuff run better will be the most important benefit of such systems in the short run."

The smart system and accompanying technology will be a game changer. The world of concrete, steel, pipe, and brick transformed into lines of code and dollar signs. For example, Google's PowerMeter, which not only lets users check their use of electricity online (i.e., application of cutting costs and saving money), but gives Google access to lots of data to analyze and not least, sell advertisements against (i.e., application of increasing revenue and profitability). Or sensors to tax pollution (i.e., generating additional revenue for fiscally constrained public organizations). How about analytics software to manipulate the behavior of the public by fine-turning charges for public goods to get citizens to behave in certain ways?

A key question regarding smart systems - - will the bulk of innovation be with the newcomers, such as Pachube, or with the incumbents? How fast will all this happen? The world of land, labor, and capital increasingly moving toward bytes, data and knowledge in the context of physical infrastructure. Look for governments around the globe to become protective of their data assets and embedded economic value.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Our Networked World - - The City

Cities around the globe will face a future of scarcity and excess - - were "smartness" in the context of water, transportation, green buildings, clean energy, and city management will become increasingly important. Balancing the scarcity and excess equation to produce sustainable outcomes will be one of the critical function of smart networks embedded in smart cities.

Both hardware and software have a critical role in making cities smarter. Hardware, the digital plumbing of a city, will need creative software to find and develop system purpose. Which software platform dominates the city environment - - from traffic maps, to energy demand, to weather updates, to pictures, to security cameras - - will be interesting to watch and follow.

Call it the 'Urban Operating System" - - a platform that integrates all parts and combines them into all kinds of services, such as traffic management and better use of energy. The "Urban Operating System" will have the responsibility of helping to manage the urban environment, the "system zoo" so to speak. In some respects, the basic urban infrastructure and how it is managed has changed little in hundreds of years. The networked and smarter city represents the interconnectedness of "Something Old with Something New" - - where the operating urban platform of the new needs to connect all that is represented by the old.

An important consideration in the ideas behind the 'Urban Operating System" is the dashboard. Smart systems, especially those in complex urban environments monitoring hundreds of systems and sub-systems, will become more and more complex, making it hard to grasp what exactly happens to the data engineers and managineers will be looking at and be responsible for. The dashboard will have several key considerations - - what, when, why, where of the basic data and information; the transparency and inner workings of the operating system; and public versus private access to system inputs and outputs. With a smart urban system, engineers must recognize that in order to be successful on a global stage, the world of prediction, control, and siloed analysis must be transformed into a framework in which complexities are embraced, silos broken, and partnerships welcomed.

Hopefully, new system tools allow for new system thinking where, in the context of the urban environment, we get better at the following:
  • Hone our abilities to understand parts and systems (both the trees and the forest).
  • See interconnections.
  • Ask "What If" questions about possible future behaviors.
  • Be creative and courageous about system redesign.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Our Networked World - - The Pipes

Water pipes are dumb - - and old, over 50% of the mains in the Western Hemisphere are 80-years or older. A vast network that cannot tell you much. Cannot tell you when a pipe is broken or leaking. Cannot, in most cases, tell you where it is located. A system of dumb and old in an era of tight fiscal constraints and the need for greater and greater system efficiencies.

London is a perfect example of the limitations of a dumb network combined with the opportunities of smart systems - - smart in the context of more information and knowledge with the goal of producing more system output for a given level of system input in a sustainable world of doing more with less. By the mid-2000s, London had one of the leakiest water supply systems in the developed world. Every day nearly 900m litres of treated water was lost and 240 leaks had to be fixed daily.

London and many other cities are working on making their dumb water network into a smart system. Examples of trends around the world are detailed below:
  • London is installing wireless senors on all new water pipes - - they can tell where they have a broken main before the customer makes the phone call.
  • The smart systems are geared toward moving the overall system faster from "data collection to information to knowledge to action." The London system not only automatically deals with leaks but also schedules work crews and sends text messages to affected customers. Management shifts from spending time monitoring to making the utility processes more efficient. This is the very heart of sustainability.
  • Smarter networks can be combined with "smarter brains" - - the eyes, ears, and brains that provide managers with advanced decision support tools. An example of a "smarter brain" is a platform offered by an Israeli firm, TaKaDu (http://www.takadu.com/). The firm analyses historical and online data to provide a basis for comparison, enabling its algorithms to detect things that are about to go wrong.
  • Dumb water networks need not only a smarter core, but they need much smarter edges. Where the edge of the system starts at the water meter. Boston is a good example - - as early as 2004, the City's Water and Sewer Commission has equipped almost all of its customers with wireless smart meters. New York is planning on installing 800,000 smart water meters at a cost of $250 million. Singapore has a target of reducing domestic water use per person from 155 litres in 2008 to 147 litres by 2020. Smart meters and dynamic pricing during periods of peak demand will play an important role in meeting this goal.
  • Smart water systems are not just about reducing water loss. Making systems smarter helps promote sustainability by saving energy and other inputs wasted through production and pumping of water that if often lost to network inefficiencies.

As smart systems and sustainability become more important in the context of water systems, look for the following terms and ideas to gain more traction:

  • Active Leakage Control
  • Water Infrastructure Monitoring
  • Network Events
  • Anomaly Detection
  • Statistical Water Network Analysis
  • Blind Spots
  • Monitoring for Sustainability
  • Increased Instrumentation and Telemetry of Water Networks
  • Water Enterprise Data Sources
  • Water Network Decision Support Systems
  • Automation and Analytic Solutions
  • Efficiency, Longevity, Reliability
  • Measuring, Collecting, Analyzing, Acting

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Our Networked World - - The Cow

Over the next week I will be addressing several important advances as we start the process of hooking up the virtual world with the physical world. A world of senors and networks that combine for an interconnected world of smart systems. Look around your house and daily life - - we hare created a world where we are in a position to collect a huge amount of data. It can be collected and analysed and acted upon. This process - - from collection to analysis to action - - provides civilization and individuals with the opportunity to be more efficient with resources and constraints. It allows us to be smarter while making smarter decisions.

From aircraft engines to home appliances to automobiles to public infrastructure - - connecting machines with people makes for "smart engines", "smart appliances", "smart automobiles", and "smart cities." Look at the future of our cites - - some 350 million people are expected to move into cities in China alone by 2025. Smart electric meters and variable pricing will be key to monitoring and reducing peak demands. Imagine a world of sensors and data in the smart cities of the future. In the U.S. - - making our electric grid 5% "smarter" would save the equivalent of the greenhouse-gas emissions of 53 million cars. Smart systems will have a huge disruptive influence on companies stuck in the past while creating opportunities for those that embrace a more sustainable world of doing more with less.

And the cow? A Dutch start-up called Sparked has developed a system that keeps track of a cow's health. A sensor attached to the ear of the animal reads it's vital signs and transmits a mass of data wirelessly to a computer, which crunches the numbers and sends a message to the farmer if, for instance, the cow is about to give birth.

If we can successfully make the cow-farmer system smarter and more interconnected with the ability to make smarter and more efficient decisions - - look to the building-building manager system also becoming much smarter in the years to come.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Two Words

Engineers are facing a complex world with complex systems where two words are important. The first is emergence, which refers to the relationship between the details of a system and the larger view. When engineers focus on the small-scale details of a systems or situation, they run the risk of missing the larger picture; but focusing solely on the large-scale view is not adequate either. Historically, engineering has been either a forest or tree profession. What we need are engineers and "managineers" who have the ability to shift back and forth between seeing the trees and the forest - - this shifting allows engineers to see which aspects of the trees are relevant to the forest, and vice versa. Emergence seeks to discover which details are important for the larger view, and which are not; and how collective properties arise from properties of the parts. Emergence demands of engineers the ability to move between different perspectives.

The second word is interdependence. It is about engineers understanding the indirect effects of complex systems. Many problems are difficult to solve because the causes and effects are not obviously related. The interdependence of our energy and water systems provides a clear example. Nuclear power is typically seen as a long-term energy solution. A gas/steam combined cycle plant consumes 20,000 gallons of water per megawatt-hour - - a nuclear plant will need 60,000 gallons per megawatt-hour. One system has indirect impacts on the other. Ethanol is seen as a highly desirable drop-in fuel alternative. A standard gasoline powered vehicle consumes approximately 14 gallons of water per 100 miles. The ethanol vehicle will require 6,200 gallons of water per the same 100 miles. Pushing the energy system here will have effects to the water system over there because the parts are interdependent.

Two key words - - emergence and interdependence.

Friday, November 5, 2010


The future has always seemed to include biofuels. From fighting oil sheikhs to carbon dioxide - - they seemed the way to go as the fuel to replace gasoline. We in the United States have viewed biofuels from mainly one source - - ethanol. But it was not magic bullet and maybe even not the silver BB, with more questions than answers - - less BTU per gallon than gasoline and many other fuels; tends to absorb a huge amount of water after it took in a huge amount of water in the corn-based production process; and corrosive to the pipelines that typically distribute gasoline.

Ethanol as a solution - - only if you force people to use it with mandatory blending requirements or make it cheap. And because of the corn-based production process, don't forget the fuel versus fuel issues.

What about other alcohols - - like butanol. Butanol has two additional carbon atoms versus ethanol. This gives butanol more energy for a given mass and makes it more alkane-like in its properties; nor does it absorb water as readily as ethanol.

Several companies (Codexis, Amyris, Solazyme, and Gevo) are working on the next generation of biofuels -- where butanol might be an economic consideration. Genetically engineered bacteria and enzymes; synthetic biology; large scale production plants; and different (i.e., not corn) feedstocks.

Electric cars are still probably be the future of individual transportation. Turning crops and plant life into electricity versus fuel for transportation would propel America's cars 80% farther and reduce greenhouse emissions even more (especially if we concentrate on raising the efficiency of power plants). Electrons are easy to transport and burning uses all of the fuel of a plant - - including that stored in the lignin which current processing methods find hard to deal with. Aviation is another matter - - no electric airplanes are in the future. Biofuels are the only game in town.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Material Ecology

Sustainability in the context of product design should address the question of how environmental concerns are embedded in design and innovation. Three points are important:

  1. Design and product innovation for environmental sustainability should be framed as a materials problem.
  2. How much material that is utilized is less important that what material is used.
  3. Don't try to eliminate environmental impacts all at once. Try to get a little better each time you design any product.

Bary Commoner in 1971 come up with the "Four Laws of Ecology." You can think about these four laws and put them into the context of eco-industrial principals or industrial ecology. The four laws are as follows:

  1. Everything is connected to everything else. Industry is an interrelated system of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal.
  2. Everything must go somewhere. Industrial production must be subject to "life-cycle analysis" so as to identify materials pathways.
  3. Nature knows best. The natural world is a source of models of efficiency and of renewable energy and resources.
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Finite resources must be returned, recycled, reclaimed, and/or reused in order to close materials cycles and minimize energy consumption.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

PowerPoint and Purpose-Driven Prose

For your next presentation - - think in terms of making a difference. Regardless of the topic and setting - - think in terms of inspiring, educating, and entertaining. Mentally check off to make sure you have covered all three elements. Remember that if you are aiming for purpose-driven presentations - - they need to be ends-oriented. What is the point - - did you get people to embrace an idea, support your point of view, or give you the project?

Purpose-driven presenters are good with the soft skills. Things like reason, emotion, repetition, humor, statistics, stories - - they utilize these elements to help with momentum and the ends-orientation. Finally, look at the sequence of your presentation and always be asking - - "Why is that there?" How does this slide or statement help with the ends-orientation?

Engineers are great with reality - - we just need to make sure that our rhetoric is not at odds with reality.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Q Drum

In developing rural communities, clean water is often miles away from the people who need it, leaving them susceptible to waterborne diseases. The sturdy Q Drum holds 13 gallons in a rolling container that eases the burden of transporting safe, portable water - - a task that falls mostly to women and children.