Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Applied Sustainability

Provided below is my definition of applied sustainability - - versus a philosophical or conceptual statement.

"Doing more with less in a world where political, economic, and cultural forces and pressures produce extreme boundary conditions of doing more with more and doing less with less."

The statement has an output and input orientation. Where outputs are critical resources that support life - - water, energy, land, food, and air. Inputs are variables that help produce outputs - - energy, labor, financial capital and technology.

Water sustainability issues provide an excellent back drop that illustrates the ideas behind my statement. Australia is the driest inhabited content and has been in the grips of a severe drought. Three ideas have been formulated. The first is "doing more with more" - - investing $13.2 billion in desalination plants. An expensive and energy hungry alternative - - that fundamentally fails to explore the linkage between water issues and energy consumption (electricity in Australia comes form coal fired power plants). Technology solving one problem while generating an entirely new set of climate change related problems. The second is "doing less with less" - - restricting development and population increases. Namely restrictive immigration policies that would cap a fixed limit on the number of people that Australia could support (22 million people). Third is "doing more with less" - - utilizing information and rehabilitation technologies combined with pricing strategies to encourage conservation, reducing inefficiencies (e.g., water loss via leaking pipes), and adjusting life styles via market forces that are compatible to an arid climate.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Paradox of Technology

I have owned a Suunto watch for the last ten years. Not my grandfather's or my father's watch - - part computer and part watch. It does so many things, I have to go back to the quarter-inch thick owners manual just to occasionally catch up. I think I purchased the watch the first time for the altimeter function. And like many things, if you can measure it, people want the results - - in the case of 13-year old Boy Scouts, every five minutes.

Donald Norman has a great book, The Design of Everyday Things (1988), in which he discusses watches. The passage is a little dated, but you will get the point.

In the modern digital watch the spring is gone, replaced by a motor run by long-lasting batteries. All that remains is the task of setting the watch. The stem is a still sensible solution, for you can go fast or slow, forward or backward, until the exact desired time is reached. But the stem is more complex (and therefore more expensive) than simple push-button switches. If the only change in the transition from the spring-wound analog watch to the battery-run digital watch were in how the time was set, there would be little difficulty. The problem is that new technology has allowed us to add functions to the watch: the watch can give the day of the week, the month, and the year; it can act as a stop watch (which itself has several functions), a countdown timer, and an alarm clock (or two); it has the ability to show the time for different time zones; it can act as a counter and even as a calculator. But the added functions cause problems: How do you design a watch that has so many functions while trying to limit the size, cost, and complexity of the device? How many buttons does it take to make the watch workable and learnable, yet not too expensive? There are no easy answers. Whenever the number of functions and required operations exceeds the number of controls, the design becomes arbitrary, unnatural, and complicated. The same technology that simplifies life by providing more functions in each device also complicates life by making the device harder to learn, harder to use. This is the paradox of technology.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Sperm In The Air"

The term was coined by Sigmund Freud when he described Vienna. Up to around 1939, Vienna had a long history as a center of creativity and innovative thought. Freud thought Vienna and the intellectuals living in Vienna produced a kind of magic that led to tremendous advances in our collective knowledge and creative space. The term is a great way to look into the innovation puzzle faced by so many companies. Every organization wants new live - - they want to see the "sperm in the air" as you walk into a conference room or down the hall. The questions are key in the long run - - How does your company generate new ideas? Once you see the sperm (and Freud's observation is dated - - it needs to read "Eggs and sperm in the air") and sparks - - How do you turn these new ideas into products and services?

Some organizations see innovation as a supply and demand problem. Google, 3m, Nucor, and several others give their employees time to think big thoughts - - Google expects employees to spend 20% of their time on their own projects. Other organization have recognized that their business model is one of exploitation and not one of exploration - - regardless of the lip service surrounding innovation goals embedded in corporate value statements. If their current model is one of exploiting existing relationships and knowledge - - the primary goal in exploitation is efficiency, predictability, and reliability. But innovation and "sperm in the air" are unnatural acts that organizations struggle with - - acts that are uncertain, unpredictable, "breaking all the rules", and "asking for forgiveness rather than permission." They understand that their organizational structure and business model is an impediment to effective innovation.

Organizations need to look strongly at separate innovation structures and specific individuals that have an innovative mindset, collaborative skills, external vision, and a multidisciplinary approach to problems solving. Separate, but not too separate - - the goal is to integrate innovative ideas throughout the company.

Consider the emerging technology of augmented reality - - better known as AR - - in the context of civil engineering. The September issue of National Geographic (Innovation Tip - - read and observe widely) has two pages (30 and 31) that demonstrates the potential power of AR. The power of AR lies in the ability to superimpose computer generated images on the real world, courtesy of a cell phone camera. In the context of civil engineering, imagine the world and ability to see the location of underground utilities on a real world picture as you stand on the street corner. Imagine the ability to see traffic data, demographics, or the location and directions to the nearest subway station. Get a copy of the magazine and think about questions, answers, and creativity - - a world of multidisciplinary connections between the old civil engineering world of concrete and the new world of greater efficiencies, data, networks, and computer science. Think about how you would integrate innovative technology such as AR into a profitable service or product for your clients and customers.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Extreme Events

From wildfires in Russia caused by record heat and massive flooding in Pakistan - - this may represent the kind of extreme events that engineers will have to deal with in the future. Climate scientist have been warning about these very events - - the engineering communities need to start preparing.

Events in Russia and Pakistan are linked. This year's anticyclones in the Atlantic have produced a gridlock in the world of the Rossby waves, with persistent troughs of low pressure over western and central Europe, while producing a ridge of high pressure over Russia, and lows again farther east. The pressure patterns persist - - producing heat in Russia expected only once in every 400 years or so.

Climate change will shift the patterns of circulation in some ways, but there is no strong reason to believe that it will lead them to seize up more often. Yet the effects of these persistent patterns may get more unpleasant because the world will be warmer and have a more vigorous hydrological cycle.

Engineers will have to think about a world marked by more heat waves and heavier precipitation - - this will have a profound impact on design standards, codes, development, emergency preparedness, emergency response, and recovery actions.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Silent Ones

Leo Strauss was a famous professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago between 1949 to 1967. Strauss died in 1973. He had a great line we should all remember - -

"When you're teaching always assume there is a silent student in the class who knows more than you do."

That applies to many endeavors in life - - including management. Remember the next time you have a project meeting with your team in a conference room - - "When you're managing and mentoring always assume there is a silent team member in the conference room who knows more than you do."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Making Techies Leaders

The Wall Street Journal had an insightful article on leadership in the context of engineering - - "Do Techies Make Good Leaders?" (My answer is absolutely Yes). The article pointed out several lessons and suggestions in the path from Techie to Leader - -
  • Formalize the System - - Have a formal leadership program that starts at the correct time - - not too early and not too late (and it takes leadership to figure that out - - somewhat of a feedback looping process). It should be a formal "Leadership Development Program" and not a formal "Management Training Program" - - a really huge difference. You want to teach potential leaders to lead versus training managers to manage.
  • Focus on Data - - Measure things. Making techies leaders is about metrics - - examples include the performance, responsibilities, and development of the people that you are tasked with actually leading. A critical component of talent management (ask any successful coach) is the performance of the individuals you are tasked with developing.
  • Value Leadership - - The culture needs to embrace leadership development - - the complex and difficult task of leadership. Nothing is more messy and uncomfortable to technical professionals than leadership - - leaders who innovate, develop, inspire, take a long-view, ask what and why, originate, and challenge the status quo.
  • Engage the Audience - - You cannot come to really bright and talented technical professionals with remedial leadership. Smart, practical, competitive, and action-oriented people want a program that is smart, specific, and fast-moving. They want teachers and facilitators - - not shallow talking heads. Remember - - experience, observation, and feedback - - these three words need to be in the foundation.
  • Encouraging Coaching - - Do you reward people for technical skills or for leadership, mentoring, and coaching? If you value leadership and development - - your reward system will have to change. Think about "Peer Coaching" - - colleagues working together for a few days and providing feedback to each other on what they observed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Next Silicon Valley

From the September 2010 issue of Foreign Policy - - the next cities and communities looking to be centers of knowledge and innovation:
  • Silicon Wadi - - Tel Aviv, Israel. In 2006 alone, about 3,500 start-ups were created in Israel, most concentrated in this high-tech cluster on the Israeli coastal plain.
  • Silicon Island - - Hsinchu, Taiwan. The Hsinchu science park is home to hundreds of high-tech firms, and the surrounding city has the highest average income in Taiwan.
  • Silicon Plateau - - Bangalore, India. Located on the Deccan Plateau, Bangalore houses tech giants Infosys, Wipro, and Biocon.
  • Silicon Gulf - - Davao, Philippines. The country is pushing to make this region a major IT player by building corporate parks and incentivizing investment.
  • Silicon Roundabout - - London, Britain. London's Old Street Roundabout has been given a new nickname for its many Internet companies, including www.diary.com and Last.fm.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

System Sustainability

The Economist issue of August 21, 2010 has an article that highlights the problems of sustainability in a systems context - - End of the lines: Atlanta's transportation system faces huge service cuts. It is not alone. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transport Authority (MARTA) is facing a $70 million deficit next year. It is raising fares for weekly and monthly passes, cutting rail services by 14.2% and laying off around 300 people. This will have an impact - - 500,000 people ride MARTA per day. Of this total, 46% would not be able to travel without MARTA. The Economist provided the following context:

MARTA's situation is dire, but hardly unique according to Transportation for America, a public-transport advocacy group based in Washington, DC, around 160 urban and regional transport systems in America cut service, raised fares, or did both in 2009 or 2010, even as ridership on public transport nationwide has risen to levels unseen since the 1950s. Yet a survey by the group found that while only one in five voters has used public transportation in the past month, four in five believe the country would benefit from an improved transport system, while nearly three in five say the federal government should boost spending on public transport. They did not, alas, say where the money should come from.

Sustainability, especially the notion of sustainability in the context of transportation systems, needs to become much more systems based. The engineering communities need to have a firmer understanding of the economic, financial, culture, political, climate change/environmental, energy independence, and development linkages that interface with our transportation systems, especially the components that are dedicated to public transport. A singular focus on construction material sustainability, for example in the context of public transportation, misses a key point within any sustainability analysis. Everything is linked, everything is connected, everything must be functional as a system - - economically broke systems are still broke systems that are unsustainable. The engineering community needs to be a leader and visionary in the context of the entire system - - every part.

Think in terms of systems and contexts - - whenever you hear the word sustainability.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Overinvesting In What Is

A great article in The Wall Street Journal this past Saturday - - written by Alan Murray, entitled The End of Management. The article looks at two fundamental weaknesses that impact modern management - - the weakness of the structural inability in dealing with accelerating economic and cultural change and the weakness from the erosion of the basic justification for corporations themselves. Highlights of the article included the following:
  • Corporations are bureaucracies and managers are bureaucrats. Their fundamental tendency is toward self-perception. They are almost by definition, resistant to change. They were designed and tasked, not with reinforcing markets forces, but with supplanting and even resisting the market.
  • It took the radio 38 years to reach 50 million people - - 13 years for television, four years for the Internet, three years for the iPod, and two years for Facebook. These are examples of a world marked by rapid globalization, accelerating innovation, relentless competition, and creative destruction. Management has not fundamentally changed by adapting to these market forces.
  • Companies can fail from "good" management - - organizations that listened closely to their customers, carefully studied trends, and allocated capital to the innovation the promised the largest returns. Many saw all the trees and missed the forest - - they missed the disruptive innovations that opened up new customers and markets.
  • Corporations exist because they historically have lowered "transaction costs" - - the complicated and costly tasks of finding the right person to do the right job at the right time. But the Internet and mass collaboration are producing a new and less costly economic order. Maybe the world of the un-corporation organized with little structure is a dream for Boeing or Bechtel - - but "Wilkenomics" will even impact these types of organizations. Look for a continued lowering of "transaction costs" to be a principle driver of how and why we organize - - a new science of management.
  • As strategy consultant Gary Hamel stated in the article - - "The thing that limits us is that we are extraordinarily familiar with the old model, but the new model, we haven't even seen yet." He further points out - - "The single biggest reason companies fail is that they overinvest in what is, as opposed to what might be."
  • There's plenty of evidence that most workers in today's complex organizations are simply not engaged in their work - - it all begins to look like "The Office." The new model needs to have the following attributes - - drive, creativity, innovative spirit, decision-making lower in the organizational structure, more ad-hoc than permanent, and information gathering needs to be broader and more inclusive. Look for more "Wisdom of the Crowds" combined with a constant need to engage and evaluate social networking feedback loops.

Change, innovation, adaptability - - the new order of management, and don't look for this to be easy!!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Picking Your Central Banker

How does Alan Greenspan get to be Alan Greenspan (He recently put the dismal into the dismal science - - "There is nothing out there that I can see which will alter the trend or the level of unemployment in this country.")? How does a country pick its central banker - - maybe one of the most important unelected positions in any democracy? John Paul Rathbone, in his The Sugar King of Havana (2010), points out how Fidel Castro picked his first central banker in post-revolution Cuba:

Guevara certainly made for an unlikely central banker. He loved telling the story of how he got the job. Supposedly, at a cabinet meeting to decide who should be the new bank governor, Fidel Castro had said that what he needed was a "good economista." Guevara stuck up his hand, much to Castro's surprise. "But Che, I didn't know you were an economist!" "Oh, I thought you said you needed a good comunista," Guevara replied.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Technical Plus

Steve Lohr writes the Unboxed column for The New York Times. His August 15, 2010 column (Innovate, Yes, but Make It Practical) addressed a key business and technological issue - - What works in the innovation game? Lohr lists three important recommendations - - (1)Think broadly, (2) Borrow from the entrepreneurial Silicon Valley model, and (3) Pay close attention to customers and to emerging user needs.

Lohr interviewed Dr. John Tao of Weyerhaeuser. Tao is vice president of open innovation and he offered the following thoughts:

"You have to have some technical background," Tao said, "but a lot of this is market analysis, communications and networking with industry partners."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Harper's Index

From the September 2010 issue of Harper's Magazine - -

  • Number of U.S. states with a projected 2011 budget shortfall of at least 10%: 31
  • Estimated number of states that will hold less than 1 percent of their annual spending in reserve this year: 14
  • Number of states whose pension plans were fully funded in 2000: 26
  • Number whose are now: 3
  • Projected change since last year in the amount of money states receive from corporate taxes: -$2,500,000,000

The following three should be under a special heading of "Only in America" - -

  • Percentage change in new-home sales in the month after a federal first-time home buyer program expired in April: -33
  • Number of prison inmates who received tax credits under the program: 1,295
  • Number of them serving life sentences: 241

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

Robert McCrum has written a book, Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language (2010), in which he argues that the world's English has become the medium that provides us with our interconnectedness. The book traces the origins and growth of English through economics and politics - - from soccer to industrialization to imperial powers to film, advertising, and television. He has several great observations, including the following:

Culture is about identity. For as long as the peoples of the world wish to express themselves in terms of ideas like "freedom", "individuality", and "originality", and for as long as there are generations of the world's schoolchildren versed in Shakespeare, The Simpsons, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bible, Globlish will remain the means by which an educated minority of the planet communicates.

But a more universal metric of communication is mathematics - - the language of science, technology, and engineering. In some respects, mathematical literacy is the driver of world commerce. One plus one equals two links every part of the globe and every segment of society. We seem to forget this fact - - along with Mr. McCrum. McCrum provides a clear example of what a world of one plus one equals three would look like - -

In crude numbers alone, English is used, in some form, by approximately 4 billion people on earth, one-third of the planet, . . .

Several troubling issues with the statement (unless you are a graduate of Enron's Center for Numerical Sciences) - - one is that our total population is 6,861,800,000. That implies that MrCrum's English used valuation is in the two-thirds range - - which is nonsense. The second is the level of precision - - utilizing a range would be more appropriate. Most sources estimate that English spoken as a first language ranges from 309 to 400 million people. English as a second language is spoken by 199 to 1,400 million additional individuals. Assuming these two groups constitute English "in some form", English is spoken by between 500 million and 1.8 billion people - - ranging from 7% to 26% of the planet's population.

English and mathematics - - both are drivers of our interconnectedness.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Right Reasons

This is from the Letters to the Editor section of the August 2010 issues of Civil Engineering magazine that I had recently published - -

"Laurie A. Shuster's article "Doing Business the Right Way," which appeared in the June issue, provides an excellent overview of contemporary and corporate ethics training. The article, in conjunction with the recent environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, provides a good starting point when discussing the world of ethics and corporate-sponsored ethical training.

I think there are several additional points that need to be discussed and debated, however. One is the difference between what is often referred to as preventative ethics and what I would call virtue-based ethics. A large body of the ethics literature and our ethical body of knowledge, from professional codes and standards to organizational policies, is rule based. The orientation is negative and preventative - - don't do X or the very negative Y will happen. The goal is typically to prevent vice while never speaking to the issue of promoting professional and individual virtue. In a world in which, as the article states, "If they don't pass the quiz, they have to go into remedial training and do it again," the appraised actions are typically measured in terms of consequences or compatibility with deontological rules. What is usually missing (and difficult to measure) - - yet fundamentally important - - is the character of the engineer, the individual. A good character will manifest itself not only in specific actions but also in the reasons for the actions and the methods of relating to the objects of those actions.

The two types of ethics come down to "doing the right thing" versus "doing the right thing for the right reasons." The point of difference is not an action's consequence or adherence to a rule or standard; nor is it embedded in the narrowness of an ethical "cost-benefit analysis." Virtue-based ethics is a more appropriate vehicle for expressing certain aspects of engineering professionalism - - such ideas as discretion, judgment, inner motivation, and commitment. Being a virtuous engineer is having the disposition or character traits that manifest themselves in certain types of behavior when the appropriate circumstances arise (hopefully this happens when either standing on the bank of a levee or the deck of a deepwater drilling platform). Engineering virtue is expansive and more difficult to train and instill in employees when found lacking, and it includes such attributes as honor, integrity, moral fiber, fortitude, and backbone.

All organizations want the right kind of people. Most want the right people doing the right thing. But what a learned profession with a foundation in civic virtue fundamentally needs are the right people doing the right things for the right reasons."

Monday, August 16, 2010

Our Trust Deficit

The word "deficit" has become embedded in our modern culture. From trade deficit to fiscal deficit to entitlement deficit to our infrastructure funding deficit - - we are falling short on a whole host of fronts. But our most overlooked deficit might be our most important - - the trust deficit.

Gaps in reliability, truth, ability, and responsibility - - we are running an extremely high trust deficit between our citizenry and employees and leadership class. Maybe it's the eight million individuals laid off over the last several years or our inability to solve important and critical national and international problems. Whatever the reasons, a rather damaging gap in trust has developed between leaders and followers in many of our corporations and public institutions.

Trust is a funny thing - - it takes years to develop but minutes to destroy. You can measure the development of trust in inches - - but the collapse of trust is measured in feet and yards. Faith and hope - - you take these two attributes out of the mix and the trust matrix of cooperation, collaboration, certainty, and conviction becomes "a close run thing" between our leaders and followers.

George S. Barrett, chairman and C.E.O of Cardinal Health, a heath care company based in Dublin, Ohio, does a great job of putting trust in the context of leadership:

Articulating it in a single sound bite is hard. But I do think leadership is largely about trust, and trust has a couple of dimensions. It starts with competence. People have to believe that you really know what you're doing. They have to really trust in your judgment because the data is so complex out there that they have to believe you can see through all the silliness and have some sense of the right course.

People have to trust that you have a point of view about what this enterprise is going to look like. What do we seek to be? And they have to trust that you understand them, that you get them, and that you have their interests at heart. When you can do these things, it can be a powerful combination.

I think a leader has to be comfortable with having the weight on their shoulders. It can be hard, and it's a different experience if you haven't had to experience this. That's not for everybody, but I like it because I don't feel like I'm alone. I wind up bringing the group together, and we own the weight. I love that part of it.

I also believe that leadership is a two-way street. I tell my team, "I expect to learn from you as well as you'll learn from me."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

King James and His Dentist

The civil engineering profession, especially the large portion engaged in the public infrastructure segment, needs tax revenue to survive and grow. Our projects are funded from tax revenues - - income tax, gas tax, property tax, sales tax - - we should be as interested in tax policy as the accountants. In fact, when you call the main number at the national American Society of Civil Engineers offices and get put on hold, you should hear the Beatles Taxman.

This is why the fight on Capital Hill over whether to extend the Bush tax cuts is about many things - - one of the things it is about is revenue that supports the design and construction of public infrastructure. Our debates seem to overlook this fact. We also overlook that between 2002 and 2007, for instance, the bottom 99% of incomes grew 1.3 % a year in real terms - - while the incomes of the top 1% grew 10% a year. That 1% percent accounted for 2/3 of all income growth in those years. Yet our current tax bracketology has not kept up with this inequality. Our current system sets the top bracket at $375,000, with a tax rate of 35%. The second bracket starts at $175,000 for individuals - - they pay 33%. What this means, the current issue of The New Yorker magazine says it best:

This means that someone making two hundred thousand dollars a year and someone making two hundred million dollars a year pay at similar tax rates. LeBron James and LeBron James's dentist: same difference.

We need higher individual tax brackets - - something in the 50% range at the upper levels. We can call it the "Elin Nordegren" tax strategy or policy - - named after the future former wife of golfer Tiger Woods. Once she gets her 50% cut of the Woods Empire, and takes up residency in her native Sweden, she will be subject to an upper bracket of 59.09%. So a billion dollar empire, taxed at two wildly different rates - - the Swedes enjoying the opportunity for much greater levels of public financing and public improvements.

I guess there could be a risk, that if King James is in a 50% tax bracket, he and others would just depart for greener pastures ("I'm going to take my talents to Bologna") - - but moving to the Italian basketball league would result in a 47% tax bracket. And if he just stays and is in a 50% bracket and still wants his current cut? $1,000 seats and $20 beers - - you end up effectively taxing the upper 1% anyways.

Let's be smart - - we need additional revenue for bridges, dams, and water plants. And taking it from the likes of Mr. James and Mr. Woods should not be a moral or political dilemma for anyone - - especially a civil engineer.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mastering The Letter "C"

Thirteen words that start with the letter "c" will become increasingly important to civil engineers in the near future. The words are as follows:
  1. Conflict - - Look for confrontation and battles that will see civil engineers as active participants - - fights over climate change public policy; fights over the ideas and actions embedded in sustainability (e.g., cement production); and fights over funding requirements needed to improve our aging public infrastructure. Conflict management and public attitude influencing skills will become an important skill for engineers.
  2. Commune - - Not in the physical sense of the word, but as networked individuals and groups sharing an Internet version of "accommodations and possessions" - - ideas that spark creativity and innovation. The larger the commune the greater the opportunity for coming across new and innovative ideas.
  3. Consensus - - Engineers will be at the center of our future debates and conflicts - - the ability to build and shape agreement with a diverse cross-section of our citizenry will be critical.
  4. Combine - - From multidiscplinary approaches solving multidisciplinary problems to design-build project delivery systems to public-private partnerships - - the ability to blend, mix, and fuse a matrix of capabilities will be critical in forming unions that address old problems in new ways.
  5. Cohort - - Your groups or network will drive relationship management. Facebook and LinkedIn will become the models on developing, maintaining, and visualizing connections with your key groups and organizations.
  6. Communicate - - How and why will drive the communication equation and space. How will increasingly be a function of new technology, while why becomes more in the context of influence capabilities than information transfer.
  7. Conversation - - We need a national "heart-to-heart" on a wide variety of complex and difficult issues. Engineers need to be active participates in these discussions and debates.
  8. Community - - All problems and politics start at the local level. We need to actively engage at the level of our local communities. Democracy is about driving the car, not just seating in the passenger seat.
  9. Coalition - - We need to breakdown the engineering barriers between the various disciplines. A common vision, a common voice - - a bloc of like minded thinkers, problem solvers, and builders that see new paths to enlightened goals.
  10. Collaborate - - We must join forces with the other key stakeholders - - the political classes, the bankers, the developers, the lawyers, the scientists - - a combination of the best and brightest that is willing and able to disrupt the status quo.
  11. Coordinate - - Working with others while actively arranging the elements of a complex whole to achieve greater social efficiencies will be critical in a future world marked by climate change, energy transitions, and sustainability improvements.
  12. Cooperate - - We must be seen as the hub at the center that drives a spirit of national and international cooperation and action for a common goal and endpoint.
  13. Coexist - - The future of our world as we know it depends on global harmony - - given that we will always have some level of wars and conflicts. But many of our most complex problems need a space and framework that has a foundation in coexistence. Engineering, in some form or fashion, has the opportunity to provide the global community with the glue and bonding that heightens the spirit of coexistence.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

New Ideas and Words

Look for the following words and phrases to enter the vocabulary of the civil design and construction professions:
  • Integrated Risk and Knowledge Management System - - Systems that allow organizations to engage in a iterative evaluation of events that prevent you from meeting your objectives coupled with proactive implementation of measures to control or mitigate those risks. Look to these system having capabilities to transfer knowledge to risk owners with the goal of helping them to solve their problems. The ultimate goal is to develop capabilities and resources that interlock risk management, work process optimization, and knowledge management.
  • Continuous Risk Management - - Vertical and horizontal communication and coordination of risk throughout the entire project life-cycle. This level of linkage and connectivity allows for the capture and transmission of lessons learned and best practices - - using a "central nervous system" for knowledge sharing.
  • Knowledge-Based Risks - - Web-based, multi-media knowledge bundles that provide users with expert advice on risk control and mitigation strategies. Instead of a "collect, store, and ignore" approach, knowledge-based risks form an active collection of lessons learned that are continually reused and updated.
  • Riskapedia - - The resource is a "hard hat area" that is intended to be under construction for life. Riskapedia is all about user interaction, conversation, evolution, and ultimately, the accomplishment of work. Users have the opportunity to rate and discuss content, provide or author content, ask questions of experts, and use content in the performance of work and the management of risks.
  • Knowledge Capture and Transfer - - Knowledge capture and transfer uses the most natural modality - - conversation but carefully structured and controlled conversation. Project risk records are used to guide the initial interviews.
  • Wiki-Enabled Teams - - Wiki environments enable horizontal communication, collaboration, and knowledge sharing across the project space. The wiki provides teams an easy-to-use, flexible interface to collaborate on documents, conduct discussions, manage calendars, locate information, and most important, work more effectively.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


The July 24, 2010 issue of The Economist has an excellent overview of the various issues associated with our proposed high-speed passenger train systems. The article, High-Speed Railroading, compares the railroading worlds of Europe and the United States. Europe, superior in high-speed passenger travel and lacking in freight transport, is the direct opposite of the United States. Our freight system is universally recognised in the industry as the best in the world - - with his $34 billion purchase of BNSF, Warren Buffett must feel the same. Our high-speed plans could actually hurt our superior freight system - - as the article states:

But the problem with America's plans for high-speed rail is not their modesty. It is that even this limited ambition risks messing up the successful freight railways. Their owners worry that the plans will demand expensive train-control technology that freight traffic could do without. They fear a reduction in the capacity available to freight. Most of all they fret that the spending of federal money on upgrading their tracks will lead the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the industry watchdog, to impose tough conditions on them and, in effect, to reintroduce regulation of their operations. Attempts at re-regulation have been made in Congress in recent years, in response to rising freight rates. "The freight railroads feel they are under attack," says Don Phillips, a rail expert in Virgina.

This particular debate also demonstrates the collision of two different economic models - - one carbon based, the other geared toward a world of more efficient and sustainable transportation systems. In the context of freight traffic, coal is the biggest single cargo, accounting for 45% by volume and 23% by value. More than 70% of coal transport is by rail - - our addiction to low cost hydrocarbon fuels is spread among many different industries with a vested interest in the status quo. The fastest growing part of our freight system is intermodal traffic - - up from three million shipments in 1980 to 12.3 million in 2006. The forces of globalization require one consistent input - - that of efficient, available, and low-cost transportation and distribution networks.

It will be very interesting to see how all this finally is meshed together - - the world of slow moving freight trains, carrying the artifacts of an aging energy system combined with the goods of a globalized economy - - having to integrate and interface with the complicated world of fast passengers trains, in a world looking for new ways to transport society in a sustainable manner. The worlds of complex engineering, operations research, energy economics - - running into a wall of regulators, vested interests, and powerful political forces.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Both The Economist and Nature reported on a very different type of online gaming system - - called Foldit. Players score points by squeezing proteins into the most chemically stable configuration. Proteins, which are the building blocks of life, come in long chains of molecules that work properly only once they have been folded into their final, three-dimensional shape. Figuring out how they fold correctly is thus critical to understanding biochemical processes, and to creating new drugs.

The Nature article demonstrated that the top Foldit players can fold protein better than a computer. In addition, by collaborating, the top players often come up with entirely new folding strategies. Call it distributed thinking, utilizing the ideas behind distributed-computing, we are entering an era of computation between humans and machines being mixed. Humans were better than the machines at remodelling in Foldit, while the machines were better at starting from scratch. Both have their strengths and weaknesses - - a place for humans and the machines.

Some 57,000 individuals have been attracted to Foldit. Few of the best performers are biochemists. To entice the non-scientific, the game comes with upbeat arcade music, bleeps, pops, and colorful star confetti when you succeed. Players also get nifty tools like - - shake, wiggle, or rubber band - - where they tweak the basic structure into the optimal shape, though some players preferred to do that by hand. One such player is Scott "Boots" Zaccanelli, and was profiled in the Nature article:

A resident of McKinney, Texas, he splits his time between a day job as a buyer for a valve factory and a personal business - - Good For You Massage Therapy - - that takes him and his massage chair to rodeos, county fairs and flea markets. But he has also been hooked on Foldit since 2008. "I'm pretty much there every night," says Zaccanelli, who has used his undergraduate biology degree to help him rise to a number -6 global Foldit ranking. "I can look at something and see that it's not right."

Author Clay Shirky refers to this as a perfect example of our "cognitive surplus" - - the combination of intellect, energy, and time that allows individuals to ban together to solve complex problems. The pooling of our efforts at a vanishingly low cost - - the movement of consumers to collaborators - - a world driven by social production. A world of "Zaccanellis" with a passion for creativity and generosity in our increasingly connected age. Wikipedia may have been the first of the pioneers - - but look to distributed co-creation moving into the economic mainstream and being a force for creativity and innovation.

Check out more at - - http://fold.it/portal/

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Art of Reflection

Sheila Lirio Marcelo is founder and CEO of Care.com. Her firm helps people find health care, child care and other services. She discusses several leadership lessons learned from a mentoring coach that she had the opportunity to work with:

The first thing she gave me advice on, and I give it to everybody, is to journal. Write things down. When you come out of a meeting or an interview, or you just finished running a session, what's on your mind? How did it make you feel? Again, it was raising my self-awareness around my management style. I think it was critical.

And then she taught me about meditation. It's about how you talk to yourself. And it's getting to know yourself. It's learning to kind of manage my mind and create the stability. You wouldn't think an executive coach would provide that, but at a young age when I was a V.P., it was the most valuable piece of advice I got.

Engineering and "self-awareness" - - words one typically never sees in the same sentence, probably the same book. But reflecting is an important element of the management and leadership process. In fact, self-reflection is one of the great gifts a person can have (the ability to see things as they are, without blinders, is an even greater one). Reflecting on the past typically takes a backseat to looking ahead - - while attempting to contemplate the future gets foreclosed on by pressing events in the present. Like Thoreau - - find yourself a "Walden Zone." Someplace offline and completely disconnected - - a place that you feel comfortable thinking and writing.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

12 Zeros

The word "trillion" has historically been the private domain of central governments - - including our own. But the word trillion has become the new billion in other areas of our democracy - - namely at the state and local levels. Ron Lieber of The New York Times writes the following in his August 7, 2010 column (A Class War Over Public Pensions):

At stake is at least $1 trillion. That's trillion, with a "t," as in titanic and terrifying.

The figure comes from a study by the Pew Center on the States that came out in February. Pew estimated a $1 trillion gap as of fiscal 2008 between what states had promised workers in the way of retiree pensions, health care and other benefits and the money they currently had to pay for it all. And some economists say Pew is too conservative and the problem is two or three times as large.

The engineering professions, namely the design and construction firms that have a considerable financial stake in all of this (i.e., plugging gaps in trillion dollar holes is a whole lot of bridges and highways and dams and community libraries) need to step forward and be a part and party to the discussions and debates surrounding potential alternatives and solutions. One can watch the movie or be in the movie - - this is a blockbuster that we need a starring role in.

Michael Elliott, in his August 16, 2010 Fortune column, The U.S. Isn't Alone: High Unemployment Rates Are The New Global Reality hits on a parallel city/state issue:

Unemployment was the specter at the Global Forum's feast. For all the excitement over the developing world, there was a constant recognition that the Great Recession had played havoc with labor markets. On July 2 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released deeply disappointing figures for June, with the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remaining stubbornly high at 9.5%, the same as a year ago. There's probably worse to come. In Cape Town financial analyst Meredith Whitney, who warned of the parlous state of the banking sector in 2007, drew attention to the silent fiscal crisis in the U.S., the one hammering state and local governments. As they try to get their budgets in order - - 49 states must run balanced budgets - - those governments, which account for 15% of U.S. jobs, will cut programs and lay workers off. In a May report, Whitney's firm, the Meredith Whitney Advisory group, estimated that 1 million to 2 million state and local governments jobs could be cut in the next year.

With these two examples - - and many more from both the recent Great Recession and our 10-year Great Stagnation - - the barometer is economic. But the anger is human and increasingly political. You take away a sense of optimism, things tend to get more volatile. Sixteen million unemployment and underemployed people without hope - - it starts to look a lot like Latin America: a grossly unequal society that is prone to wild swings from populism to orthodoxy, which makes sensible government increasingly hard to imagine.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fish Stories

Both the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker covered book reviews associated with fish last week - - in particular the sustainability of our current fishing practices. The book reviewed in both publications was Four Fish (2010) by Paul Greenberg. Given our current concerns regarding sustainability and debates over climate - - it is important to reflect on how the global community has managed the sea and its resources to date. Several points made in both publications are as follows:
  • Bluefin tuna has gone from a "bloody fish" mainly seen in cat food to bon-maguro, Japanese sushi. At one point, 1,000-pound giant bluefin were selling for $100,000 or more. No more - - Atlantic bluefin face annihilation.

  • The total fish population, once deemed "beyond the limits of our imagination", has declined dramatically across the board. Increased demand, combined with technological advances ranging from factory freezer trawlers to GPS to "smart fish aggregating devices" - - the combination has had a huge negative impact on fisheries.

  • Peak fish - - a total world catch of around 85 million tons - - was actually reached in the late 1980s.

  • Catch size and the size of the fish actually caught have declined dramatically.

  • Current fish consumption is equal to approximately the entire weight of the Chinese population - - 170 billion pounds.

  • Most fish you probably get at the store or at a restaurant has been farmed - - with their corresponding issues of cross-breeding and pollution from the farms.

  • A review of the box score from the movie Jaws showed somewhat of a tie - - three or four dead humans and three or four dead sharks - - and I think the humans were extremely happy to get out of the movie with a tie. The actual box score is shockingly one sided - - five to eight dead humans per year worldwide and 100 million dead sharks.

Our efforts to manage the resources in the seas have demonstrated the limits of global cooperation - - once you cross into the international zone, competing interests force a movement toward "everyone interests" becoming "my interests." The dual passions of greed and commerce, combined with hunger - - dictate the behavior of all the participates. As we march toward civilisation changing climate change - - we should remember how we failed to manage the resources of our oceans as we attempt to manage an even more complex set of resources on the land and in the air.

Friday, August 6, 2010

What I Learned

One of the many things that I learned in Boy Scouts was the following regarding time management:

"If you are early, you are on time. If you are on time, you are late. If you are late, you are forgotten."

Many, many people never got this lesson and message. Many others did. David Sokol is one that did. He is profiled in an article in this month's Fortune - - the article is entitled Buffett's Mr. Fix-It. At 53, Sokol is mentioned most often as Buffett's heir. He is currently running and turning around NetJets. He has an engineering background - - civil engineering. Like with a lot of engineering types - - the following management style follows - - ". . . he is a tough, no-nonsense manager. He's up before 5 a.m. each day and jogs five miles and lifts weights five days a week . . ." And he learned the appropriate time management skills:

"His assistants also know he never likes to be late for a meeting - - he believes it shows disrespect. They always build in extra time in case something goes wrong, but they also make sure he has work to do if he happens to show up a half-hour early."

He also self-published his own book - - Pleased but Not Satisfied.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Henry Mintzberg - - Round Three

From Henry Mintzberg and Managing (2009):

  • Thinking is heavy - - too much of it can wear a manager down - - while acting is light - - too much of that and the manager cannot stay put.
  • The manager has to practice a well rounded job.
  • Effective managers do not exhibit perfect balance among their roles; they tilt toward certain ones, even it they cannot neglect the others.
  • Downsizing - - this looks to be a contemporary form of bloodletting - - the cure for every corporate disease.
  • Some managers see themselves on top with regard to the hierarchy of authority, but also metaphorically. Other managers see themselves in the center, with activities revolving around them, outside as well as inside the unit.
  • While every manager has to make the job, he or she also has to do the job. That is why managerial style cannot be considered out of context, independent of where it is practiced.
  • People who have a job to do shouldn't need to be "empowered" by their managers.
  • How to plan, strategize, just plain think, let alone think ahead, in such a hectic job.
  • Strategies can form without being formulated: they can emerge through efforts of informal learning rather than having to be created through a process of formal planning.
  • Where to find strategic synthesis in a world so decomposed by analysis?
  • Structure is supposed to take care of organizations, just as planning is supposed to take care of strategy. Anyone who believes this should find a job as a hermit.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"Sh*t My Dad Says"

My son is off to college in three weeks - - he recently got me the rare book - - laugh until your sides hurt hilarious. The book, Sh*t My Dad Says (2010), by Justin Halpern is one of the funniest books I have ever had the opportunity to read. Halpern tells the story of his relationship with his father, Sam Halpern, over a 30-year period based on a selection of quotes and sayings from his father. Halpern the Elder, who has a background in nuclear medicine, is like a modern day Socrates - - except much blunter and coarser.

Provided below are several examples of the Halpern the Elder view of the world:

On Sportsmanship

"You pitched a great game, you really did. I'm proud of you. Unfortunately, your team is sh*tty . . . No, you can't go getting mad at people because they're sh*tty. Life will get mad at them, don't worry."

On My First School Dance

"Are you wearing perfume? . . . Son, there ain't any cologne in this house, only your mother's perfume. I know that scent, and let me tell you, it's disturbing to smell your wife on your thirteen-year old son."

On Silence

"I just want silence . . . Jesus, it doesn't mean I don't like you. It just means right now, I like silence more."

On Asking to Have Candy Passed to Me During Schindler's List

"What do you want - - the candy? They're throwing people in the gas chamber, and you want a Skittles." (Edited version)

On Breaking the Neighbor's Window for the Third Time in a Year

"What in the hell is the matter with you? This is the third time! You know, at this point I think it's the neighbors fault . . . No not really, it's your fault, I'm just in denial right now that my DNA was somehow involved in something this stupid." (Edited version)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Revenue Box

Those of us that work on the public infrastructure side of our profession are fully aware of "The Revenue Box." It is the place where all tax revenue goes - - prior to disbursement for public infrastructure improvement and upgrades. We never had to worry about the box - - it was a big box - - full of other people's money. The box historically had little if no competition - - no wars to siphon off funds, no out of control health care, no underfunded entitlement programs. Our country had relatively new infrastructure - - the box fit the requirements for our modest needs. But "The Revenue Box" was also a product of our imagination - - a world of low taxes and low user fees combined with a blindness of our aging infrastructure. Call it habit or conditioning - - the engineering community saw "The Revenue Box" as the ultimate symbol of our status quo. It had always been there and will always be there because it had always been there. It would always be full - - because it had always been full. But then you wake and read the following last Friday in The Dallas Morning News: "We need more revenue sources," said Ted Houghton of El Paso, one of five Texas Transportation Commission member. "It's got to come from somewhere." The box is too small? The box is too limiting? Our box - - the box that defines are needs and wants, has to be different? We have never really looked into the box - - it is large, and complex, and terribly outside our comfort zone. We design bridges - - someone always just opened "The Revenue Box" - - we have never imagined the world inside the box. We all should get very comfortable with "The Revenue Box" very quickly. You want to design that new bridge - - 200 firms can design the bridge. Talk innovation, high tech materials, and critical path improvements - - but the reality is no money, no bridge. No innovative money ideas = no bridge. The truly innovative aspects of this will be the firms that crawl into "The Revenue Box" - - the ones that can navigate the complex world of the political, the legal, the economic, and the public relation wars. You want your new bridge design - - figure out a way to pay for it. Let's utilize satellite tolling technology with the tolling technology embedded in the vehicle registration sticker (George Orwell just rolled over in his grave and science fiction writer William Gibson is smiling and thinking, "I told you so!!"). Crossing the bridge will cost you money - - because your new bridge that you utilize to get across the river to your place of employment costs money to design, build, and operate - - and you really like your low taxes. Lift up the lid to "The Revenue Box" - - we had all better get very comfortable with the idea of jumping in the box and making things happen. Remember - - "It's got to come from somewhere."

Monday, August 2, 2010

Don't Leave Home Without It

Quintin E. Primo III, co-founder and C.E.O. of Capri Capital Partners (a real estate investment and development firm in Chicago), has a simple message for young people - - "Three words, leave the country and get out of here. I don't care where you go, just go." Quintin writes the following:

Because the world is changing, it is no longer acceptable to speak only English if you are 25 and younger. You have little chance of being successful if you speak only one language. So you're got to get out of your safety zone. You will have a much broader understanding of the world's cultures, and you will have a much clearer idea of how the world perceives our culture. There is nothing more important. I don't care where you went to business school. I don't care whether your grades were good or bad. You have to leave the country.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Rise of the Machines

I have discovered a secret plot twist in the science fiction classic, Terminator (1984). As you remember (or maybe you really don't want to), in a post-apocalyptic 2029, artificially intelligent machines seek to exterminate what is left of the human race. Body builder/actor/governor Arnold Schwarzenegger plays one such machine that travels back to 1984. How the machines came about was rather unclear - - something to do with a system called Skynet that grows out of control.

I just don't buy the Skynet story - - it must have been deeper and more complex. The New York Times yesterday, in an article entitled As Recovery Slows, Outlook on Jobs Seems Dimmer, sheds some light on what actually might have happened. As stated in the article:

"There are limits on the degree to which you can substitute capital for labor," Mr. Ryding {John Ryding chief economist at RDQ Economics} said. "But you can understand that businesses don't have to pay health care on equipment and software, and these get better tax treatment than you get for hiring people."

There you have it - - Arnold is fundamentally a product of our inability to control accelerating health care costs and our tax code. It looks to me like that in around 2015, organizations glanced into a world where health care costs were 50% of labor costs and increasing at 8% per year and said, "Arnold has zero health care costs, plus we can actually depreciate Arnold over a five year period." So in 2020, Arnold shows up in a police car patrolling your neighborhood - - no health care costs, no retirement benefits, no pesky police union. Arnold then starts showing up in the cockpit - - no really pesky pilot's union and Arnold depreciates faster than the airplane. At some point (and this is pure speculation), all the Arnolds get together - - to form a really, really pesky union. So all of the 2029 destruction is a function of a desire for the Arnolds to unionize - - ultimately caused by out desire to control health care expenditures combined with our tax code.

Keep an eye on two variables - - the cost of labor, including the health care component and the cost of technology. Arnold is a product of these two variables. And the evil ones in the Terminator series are not the engineers and scientist that created the Arnolds - - they are the economists and tax barristers that figured out a way to break the limits defining the substitution of capital for labor.