Thursday, September 29, 2011

EarthRisk Technologies

We all watch the TV, read the newspaper, and check the smart phone for the weather forecast.  This is mainly in the context of the micro-weather event.  "What is the forecast for tomorrow?" drives our interest around micro-weather.  But just as important, and maybe more so in the era of extreme weather, is the macro-weather event.  Looking ahead one or two weeks - - can we predict hot and cold spells or extreme rainfall events in advance?  What is the engineering and economic implications and impact if we can?  It is one thing to get a forecast and throw the umbrella in the car - - it is another to either pre-position emergency response resources two weeks in advance or take positions in the financial markets to reduce risk.  We seem to moving toward the development of tools and software that will help engineers deal with extreme weather.

A company called EarthRisk Technologies makes software that tries to predict the weather a week or two out (see the Innovator column - - Weather Seer in the September 26, 2011 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek).  The founder of the firm is meteorologist Stephen Bennett.  Bennett draws on 60-years of weather data to identify conditions that could lead to big temperature swings weeks later.  EarthRisk has figured out how to look at historical weather data in a new way - - this could have important implications to engineering.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Scramble and Blueprints

Shell Oil is famous for scenario development and planning.  Over the last 30 years they have released scenarios every few years regarding the future use of energy.

In 2008, they released two scenarios they believe most accurately describe the paths into the next 50 years.  The scenarios can best be described as Scramble and Blueprints.  They can be summarized by the following:
  • Scramble - - Over the coming decades, governments around the world scramble to attempt to guarantee the maximum amount of available resources in the pool - - nonrenewable energy.  Competing dominants cooperation in the context of geopolitical affairs.  Scramble is a "zero-sum game" - - increasing the gaps between rich and poor.  Competition is seen until 2025.  After 2025, the current energy framework is fundamentally stretched to its limits.  Countries, companies, and individuals begin to confront the consequences of their lack of restraint and poor planning.
  • Blueprints - - This scenario reveals the beneficial aspect of confronting climate change and energy problems sooner (that is, before 2020) rather than later.  The cornerstone of this scenario is both a sense of urgency and the flow of information.  Well-coordinated actions and a general awareness of the damaging effects of climate change drive a global sustainability scenario.  Process improvements and lifestyle choices are quickly matched or surpassed by others on a national and regional scale.  A global culture of sustainability develops - - helping to fuel a more effective international consensus.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Worst-Case Scenario

Walter Russell Mead teaches foreign policy at Bard College - - on his blog from last week he lays out the worst-case scenario regarding our current global financial anxieties (the blog posting is Panic?).  The key issue to Mead is the survival of the international financial system over the next six months.

The comments to his blog from the general public are interesting.  The world is basically falling into two camps - - the "Guns and Gold" crowd and the "Sun Will Be Shinning Tomorrow" crowd.  Other comments are truly interesting alternatives to the standard discussions - - one person commented on the fact that for a country famous for its marketing and advertising abilities ("selling underwear to Adam and Eve"), we are dreadful at selling bold ideas that both political parties can embrace

Mead, David Brooks, Thomas Friedman - - really great writing and articles over the past six months.  But even better are the comments of people from all over the world to these articles - - our globally connected world allows comment and discussions - - some really bad writing and ideas, but some of it it very good.  It is also an excellent indicator - - is it "Panic" with a question mark, or is it "Panic" with a period.

It should also give people hope that the "Sun Will Be Shinning Tomorrow" given our enhanced abilities to communicate.  It will be interesting to see in the future if discussions and solutions get crafted in closed rooms by political elites or if the connected can formulate crowd sourced wiki-solutions to our more pressing issues and problems.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Energy Recovery Incorporated

Worldwide, desalination operations are set to grow from a capacity of 39.9 million cubic meters per day at the beginning of 2006 to 64.3 million cubic meters per day in 2010 to 97.5 million cubic meters per day in 2015.  Over a nine year period - - growth in desalination is projected to increase by a factor of 2.5.

Energy consumption is a big, but improving issue with desalination operations.  Call it the "Fifth Fuel" - - conservation, energy efficiency, energy productivity - - all of these terms will be increasingly important in the future development of expanded desalination operations.  Reducing the cost and KWhs per 1,000 gallons of treated water will have a huge impact on our ability to increase the supply of fresh water independent of existing ground and surface water supplies.

A leader in this field is Energy Recovery Incorporated, a firm located in San Leandro, California.  The firm invented, patented and commercialized an energy recovery solution for the desalination market.  The equipment, PX Pressure Exchanger (PX), saves energy in high pressure hydraulic operations by using the principle of positive displacement and isobaric chambers to achieve higher energy transfer from a high-pressure waste stream (such as the brine from a reverse osmosis desalination unit).  According to Energy Recovery Incorporated, the PX is 98% efficient, losing little energy in the transfer (according to the firm, they have 10 million unit hours of operating experience).

This is good example that demonstrates the potential power of greater energy ingenuity - - where the focus is less energy required to accomplish certain activities, whether it is treating water to moving people about to heating homes - - look to this becoming a global phenomenon this century.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Buying Protection

After reading Yergin's comment in his new book (see previous blog) regarding the absolute likelihood of the global community not being able to address the root causes of climate change - - I happened to read Simon Kuper's Opening Shot column in last weekend's Financial Times (Climate change: Who cares any more?).  Kuper is in the camp that subscribes to the "Pielke's Iron Law" (Peilke is Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado) - - which states the following:

"When policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emissions reduction, it is economic growth that will win out every time."

Climate change debate and global warming are going to take a backseat to our trying economic times - - best illustrated in the following graphic showing the decline in median family income in the US.  If the trend in the graphic continues, it will be the source of many, many problems - - including our inability to address climate change and ability to make long term investments in our national infrastructure.

Things like sustainability and climate change are much easier to think about when one felt rich.  Poor countries and poor families think about next day and next week.  The realities of adapting to a changing world become a distance memory to the importance of the next pay check.  Being rich also produces some naivety - - transforming our global energy systems seems a very doable endeavor. 

Kuper addresses the fundamental alternative in this era of "Pielke's Iron Law" - - which will place enormous demands on engineers:

"Rich countries now have a semi-conscious plan: whatever happens we'll have the money to cope.  We'll build dikes, or pipe in more water from somewhere else, or turn up the air-con if it gets more hot.  In short, rich countries will buy protection.  If they need to abandon vulnerable cities like New Orleans or Venice, they will."

Rich is never defined by Kuper - - it is difficult to comprehend just how much "protection" the "rich" can afford given the prospects of lengthy deleveraging and the tensions of wanting to investment in the future while managing our obligations to pay for the past.  A much bigger problem will be the poor - - like a Bangladesh.  Countries may come to engineers to "buy protection" - - but engineers will also be increasingly placed in a position of having to do "much, much more with much, much less."  As the following illustrates - - demand for protection may outstrip the fiscal resources to pay for it all.

Systemic resilience in the context of our global infrastructure may just be the single most important transformative engineering and operational idea as we move further into the 21st century.  Yes it floods, but how fast can we get the system back to a functional and operational level?

The opening graphic?  What the Netherlands would look like without the purchase of protection.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How Likely? Not Remotely.

One of my all time favorite books is The Prize: The Epic Quest of Oil, Money, and Power (1991) by Daniel Yergin.  The book provides a solid foundation for any engineer to understand the subject of energy and geopolitics.  Energy and geopolitics have been inseparable for the last 100 plus years - - the next 100-years may produce an era of even greater convergence.

The sequel to the Prize is out this week - - The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (2011).  The book picks up in the 1990s and continues, remarkably, to just a few months ago.  Two important themes are embedded in the book (Which I have not read, at 804-pages it is going to take awhile.  Plus, I didn't get the Kindle version - - I took it to heart from the book that we have plenty of oil left.) from which I have taken from the various reviews.  One critical theme is the role technology has played in pushing back the limits of "Peak Oil."  Yergin dismisses the idea that the world's supply is rapidly running out.  Thanks to new technologies, he estimates that the world's total stock of will keep growing.  New technology (from offshore engineering to hydrofracking) is probably the short answer.  A more complete answer would involve the convergence of the forces of globalization, advances in information technology, and rising demand for oil resources. 

The other theme is climate change.  Surprisingly, Yergin argues that climate change and global warming are serious problems.  As the Economist highlighted in their September 17, 2011 book review (Energy: The Power of Infinity):

"Stopping the increase at 450 parts per million - - when the climate is generally expected to be no more than two degrees warmer than in pre-industrial times - - is the world's ambition.  How likely is this?

Not remotely.  Mr. Yergin suggests fossil fuels supply 80% of the world's energy needs and, as the main driver of China's and India's growth, they will remain preeminent for decades.  This is a lot to worry about, and Mr. Yergin's book, which includes almost 100 pages on the history of climate change and politics should be required reading for all those in warming denial.  The author finds at least some cheer in recent breakthroughs in alternative sources of energy, chiefly solar and wind.  On current form neither is remotely able to stand against coal.  Yet a rising wave of innovation - - what Mr. Yergin calls a unprecedented "great bubbling in the broth of energy innovation" - - suggests that one day they may.  Most of this is of course happening in America.  Between 2001 and 2010 investment in the American clean-tech industry increased tenfold.  Most of the climate science that Mr. Yergin describes, with an appealing fondness and respect for its obsessive practitioners, happened in American too."

6/29 Engineering

On the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, the Economist bluntly pointed out a fact that the engineering community needs to start circling around - - "America's biggest worry is not a terrorist attack on a big airport or port but the fragility of the country's infrastructure." (See Difference Engine: Disaster waiting to happen).  What was clearly needed after 9/11 was 9/11 engineering - - security engineering, support of overseas military operations, complex intelligence computer networks, etc.  But 9/11 is not the only date that engineers needed to be concerned with.  A bigger risk in the long run might be ignoring 6/29.  This is the date, June 29, 1956, that The Federal Highway Act of 1956 (remember the full title of the legislation - - "The Interstate and Defense Highways Act") was signed.  This is the date that marks the high point of our national commitment to infrastructure - - in terms of our economic, social, and national security development.

The Economist brought this all into focus in the context of the recent blackout in Southern California.  The first two paragraphs of the article clearly highlight the paradox, problems, and tensions between 9/11 engineering and 6/29 engineering.  The article observed:

"Last weekend's vigilance against potential terrorist attacks was an impressive demonstration of America's resolve to prevent events of September 11, 2001 from ever happening again.  From your correspondent's hillside perch above Santa Monica Bay, he watched National Guard F-16 jets make repeated sweeps across the ocean by Los Angeles International Airport and then on to the huge port complex of Long Beach and San Pedro, while a Navy P-3 Orion maritime-surveillance aircraft circled overhead.  The cacophony was deafening but reassuring.  Angelinos slept easier that night.

Yet, further down the coast, 6 million citizens of southern California and southwest Arizona, along with their cousins across the Mexican border, were just recovering from a man-made disaster that had plunged their sweltering world into darkness - - shutting down schools, hospitals, offices, factories, shops, and restaurants, as lighting, air-conditioning and other essential equipment ceased to function."

The problem, as ASCE and others have repeatedly pointed out, is not just an inadequate electrical grid or a deteriorating highway system.  It is the complete system - - where discrete decline has translated into systemic decline and higher levels of risk.  This has broad impacts - - from economic constraints to national security capabilities to continued social development.  Balance needs to be a key consideration - - overinvestment in 9/11 engineering while underinvesting in 6/29 engineering puts the entire country at risk.  From blackouts to bridge collapses to inadequate drinking water quality - - we need a better national discussion regarding risk.  Yes, we are safer getting on that plane on 9/11, but are we safer crossing the bridge on 6/29?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sustainability and Cold Water

The New York Times (September 17, 2011) had a great article by Andrew Martin and Elisabeth Rosenthal ("A Dash of Cold Water: Green Detergents Battle for a Share of Laundry Day") that highlights several key issues relating to sustainability.  Sustainability is the ultimate two sided coin issue (really three - - economic, environmental, and social).

Nothing illustrates the three sides better than the washing machine and dirty clothes.  On one side is the goal of a more sustainable alternative to washing clothes in heated water.  The paradox of hot water - - about 3/4 of the energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions from washing a load of laundry come from heating the water - - a practice the most people should find wasteful and unnecessary.  Into this void has stepped cold-water detergents - - such as P&G's Tide Coldwater.  On the other side of the coin are traditions and social norms - - clean clothes require hot water.  Always has, and always will.

The article points out several points that apply to a wide variety of sustainability issues that engineers are going to have to tackle.  These are as follows:
  • Globally, 38% of laundry loads are done in cold water.  P&G thinks this can improve to 70% by 2020.
  • Clean clothes require three inputs - - thermal energy, mechanical energy, and chemicals (as a teenager, my mother would have added a fourth - - motivation).  If you eliminate one, such as hot water, one of the other inputs needs to have a greater impact (independent of motivation).  Tide Coldwater, with different enzymes and surfactants, works better in cold water.
  • Tide Coldwater ranks as a top detergent in terms of performance.
  • Cold water and hot water detergents are the same price.
  • German consumers have been much more skeptical with cold water detergents, sales are languishing (even with more "green" cultural attitudes).
  • Typical German comment - - "I'm just skeptical that normal dirt and spots can be washed out with cooler water."  A response from a U.S. customer at Target - - "I find that sometimes I wash it in cold and have to wash it again in warm water" (to which my mother would yell - - "too much motivation").
Cold water washing runs into all of the elements of the Triple Bottom Line (economic, environmental, and social) and the fundamental goals of sustainability.  Clearly the economics are better - - hot and cold detergents are the same price with lower energy costs for the cold water brands.  Cold water washing does not have performance deterioration.  The environment is positively impacted due to lower energy costs (as long as the reformulation of cold water detergents does not have a manufacturing impact - - a complete life-cycle assessment would be necessary).  The major issue and problem is social - - cold water runs into the historic norms of hot water performance.  It runs into the marketing problem that without greater improvements in the economic and environmental awareness and performance at the individual level - - society as a whole is probably going to be reluctant to change.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Engineers Making Their Case

One of the issues that was touched on in yesterday's post was the art of persuading as a key social skill.  How can engineers become effective advocates for their positions, products, or projects?  Understanding the skills and techniques of lawyers may be an answer.

Antonin Scalia and Byran Garners have a book, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (2008), that outlines a series of ideas that would be useful to engineers.  While their book is geared toward persuading judges and juries - - engineers face their own types of judges and juries.  From the public at public meetings to project selection committees to project reviews to shareholders - - we are still in the business of persuading.  Persuading is a learned skill - - read, observe, practice - - the art of persuading will benefit all engineers.

Several key points in the book include the following:
  • Be sure that the tribunal has jurisdiction - - persuasion directed to an inappropriate audience is ineffective.
  • Know your audience - - learn as much as you can.  Talk to people.  Learn with the goal of understanding.
  • Know your case - - don't sell something you know zero about.
  • Know your adversary's case - - have a good understanding of the arguments on the other side of the fence.
  • Never overstate your case - - credibility starts and ends with being scrupulously accurate.
  • Occupy the most defensible terrain - - don't assume more of a burden that you must.
  • Communicate clearly and concisely - - the power of brevity is not to be underestimated.
  • Restrain your emotions - - cultivate a tone of civility.
  • Think syllogistically - - all human beings are born with a capacity for logical thought.
  • Strengthen your command of written English - - engineers need to understand, "As you read, so will you write."  The best way to become a good writer is to become a good reader.
  • Value clarity above all other elements of style - - technical jargon should not distract from clarity.
  • To clarify abstract concepts, give examples - - examples help people understand what you are talking about.
  • Prepare yourself generally as a public speaker - - don't speak fast.  Most people can process information only at a moderate rate.
  • Have your opener down pat - - commit word to memory.
  • Look the judges in the eye - - don't bury you head in notes.
The book probably has hundreds of suggestions - - it is a good starting point.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Developing Social Skills versus Socialability

Author Richard Florida is one of our leading experts on creativity and innovation (currently reading his The Rise of the Creative Class - - Florida will be speaking at an urban planning conference for North Texas at the University of Texas at Arlington in October) in the context of where innovation occurs.  Central to our continued economic growth and prosperity is innovation - - and it is mainly in higher density urban environments.  In The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida also points out the linkage between higher levels of innovation and the gay population (Florida typically thinks in terms of three socio-economic classes and indexes - - Working Class, Creative Class, and Gay Class).  The higher level of gays in an urban environments - - the greater the creativity and innovation.  Education levels and density/networks of creative workers are clearly important, but so is diversity and tolerance in terms of promoting innovation.

In the current The Atlantic, Florida has an article (Where The Skills Are) that overlays his previous observations with the realization that creativity and innovation in urban environments is also a function of social networks.  As Florida states - -  ". . . humanity's greatest social innovation remains the city.  As our cities grow larger, the synapses that connect them - - people with exceptional social skills - - are becoming ever more essential to economic growth."

Florida has a great observation in the following paragraph that all engineers need to understand, remember, and practice:

"Highly developed social skills are different from mere sociability.  They include persuasion, social perceptiveness, the capacity to bring the right people together on a project, the ability to help develop other people, and a keen sense of empathy.  These are quintessential leadership skills needed to innovate, mobilize resources, build effective organizations, and launch new firms.  They are highly complementary to analytic skills - - and indeed, the very highest-paying jobs (and the most robust economies) usually require exceptional skill in both realms  Nonetheless, social skills seem to grow ever more essential as local economies grow larger and more complex.  In this sense, cites are like brains: their growth and development require the growth and development of an increasingly dense web of synaptic connections."

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Artemis Project

The Artemis Project  is an interesting consulting firm that focues on water and water scarcity issues.  They operate in the unique (and increasingly important) intersection of corporate strategy, advanced technology, and investment policy.

The firm also provides a list of the 50 most innovative water technology companies.  Good list, interesting company, and useful site.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Worrell Water Technologies LLC

My water is not your water.  Better yet, my wastewater is not your water.  Extreme heat and droughts may produce a new facility management operating strategy - - buildings that capture rainfall and runoff for landscaping resuse.  Look also for mini-water treatment - - with the goal of recycling everything from sink water to rain runoff, and reusing it for nonpotable purposes such as toilet flushing.  The era of my wastewater is not your water intersects well with the era of utilizing the right water for the right purpose.

A leader on the treatment side of "off-the-grid-water-consumption-and-resuse" is Worrell Water Technologies LLC.  Their process (Next Generation Living Machine system) collects a building's used water and rain runoff and cleans it in a process akin to the tidal action of a wetland.  Up to 5,000 gallons of wastewater and runoff can be stored beneath the building in a container as big as a bus.  The system pumps the water through gravel-filled planters in the sidewalks and lobby, where bacteria and plants remove pollutants.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cleaning Up Your Fracking Act

Fracking may just be the word of the decade and the key to pushing back the boundary of Peak Oil.  Energy companies increasingly are drilling for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  In this process, water mixed with sand and chemicals is pumped into a well under high pressure; the mixture fractures the rock, allowing the gas to escape.  Huge amounts of water are used - - below is an estimate from an article in this week's Wall Street Journal:
  • 80,000 gallons of water needed for drilling (typical in shale-gas formation such as Marcellus Shale).
  • 3.8 million gallons of water needed for hydraulic fracturing.
  • 1 million gallons fracking water that returns to the surface.
  • 200 trucks needed to transport one million gallons.
The current drought in Texas has provided a new focus on water and wastewater management associated with fracked water.  The Journal listed three players and approaches in the business of frack water treatment.
  • Ecosphere Technologies, Inc. - - Based in Stuart, Florida.  The Ecosphere process forces dirty water through pipes where ozone breaks down contaminates with the help of sound waves, electrically charged particles, and changes in pressure.  No waste is created in the process, because while the technology renders contaminates harmless it doesn't filter anything out.
  • WaterTechonics, Inc. - - Based in Everett, Washington.  The company uses a process called electric coagulation, in which an electric charge forces contaminant particles into clumps that can be removed after they either rise to the surface of the water or sink to the bottom.  The process avoids the use of chemicals, but it does produce waste that has be disposed of.
  • Altela Inc. - - Based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Wastewater is heated to the point of evaporation, which produces clean water in the form of vapor, leaving contaminate particles behind.  The vapor is then condensed back into liquid form.  This is nothing new - - except Altela has made it more efficient by capturing the heat generated by condensation and using it for evaporation.  The end result - - it uses a third of the energy typically required for conventional thermal distillation.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Our National Infrastructure and a Whats-It

This is from the James Fallows online column in yesterdays AtlanticFormer Atlantic guest-blogger Tony Comstock writes in, about the infrastructure challenge:

A friend who is a motorhead, and an Eisenhower and infrastructure fan sums up the majesty of America socio-economic infrastructure thusly:

You're working on your 1972 F150 it needs a new whats-it.

You go down to the local auto parts store and say "I need a new whats-it for my F150"

"What year?"


"Oh, 1972. We're gonna have to order one of those," the parts guy says, his voice apologizing for and conveying a sense of inconvenience.

"Oh. How long will it take to get one?"

"Tomorrow morning at the earliest," he'll say gravely. "Maybe tomorrow afternoon."

People have no idea how convenient their lives are, or how much opportunity cost is not lost and human capital is not lost because we have a socio-economic system that can get you a whats-it for a 1972 F150 in 12-24 hours. And yes, we're pissing it away.

The graphic illustrates the decline in infrastructure spending (from the Fallows column).  The time period is rather limited - - is the recent decline part of a long-term decline or an adjustment to an "infrastructure bubble" caused by the expansion during the housing bubble?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Connecting How Things Work With How People Work

This is a great observation from Imaging The Future: Science, The Arts and Integrative Thinking by Roger Martin and Jennifer Riel (Rotman / Fall 2011):

"The trick in the modern economy is to develop technology in such a way as to solve a real human problem - - to combine technological know-how with human insight."

This is an old debate (but our most important one) - - science and engineering enables us to design solutions, but the arts enable us to understand the underlying problems.  This one-or-the-other debate is the wrong debate - - the real debate is how to get engineers thinking about thinking.  How to get them thinking across models and disciplines.

The authors give the example of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook.  The innovative beauty of Facebook is the combination of technology know-how with human insight.  Zuckerberg excelled in both sciences and classical studies in secondary school at Exeter before going on to study Computer Science and Psychology at Harvard.  His path is particularly insightful to future engineers - - Zuckerberg avoided the false choice that is framed as "Arts or Science" - - he choose both, and in so doing, gained a unique perspective on the world.  Anyone that uses Facebook understands that the technology behind it isn't really that special.  It is basically an intuitive user interface with some posting and connection tools.  The human understanding is hardly unique - - as all teenagers understand - - we like to hang around with, talk to and exchange stuff with our friends.  The Zucherberg "Breadth + Depth" moment - - the ability to integrate the technology with human insight.

This is a core skill for all engineers - - integrative thinking.  The ability to combine technology with human insight.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Design and The Four Basic Questions

The magazine Rotman is my favorite business publication.  Published by the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto - - the articles typically cover design thinking, innovation, and creativity.  Wharton is about finance, Kellogg is about marketing - - Rotman places a focus on design thinking.  This is the heart and soul of engineering - - design thinking. 

Authors Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie have a story in the current issue, Designing for Growth: A Toolkit for Managers, discusses the design process in the context of four basic questions which correspond to the four stages of the design process.  The four questions are:
  1. What Is? - - This question explores the current reality.  All successful design begins with an accurate assessment of the current reality.  Engineers need to pay close attention to what is going on today to identify the real problem or opportunity that we want to tackle.  A key component of design and innovation is to identify the clues that highlight dissatisfaction with the present.
  2. What If? - - This question envisions a new future (some companies, such as Apple, have the ability to skip "What is?" and go directly to their vision of the future).  Based on the results of "What is?" - - engineers start to see new possibilities , trends and uncertainties.  Engineers call this point ideation - - the point where possibilities come into view.  During this stage, engineers also look at how customers currently frame their problems, their mental models, and constraints that frame the problem.
  3. What Wows? - - This question looks at choices.  Engineering is about making choices.  What you are looking for are ideas that hit the "sweet spot" - - where the chance of a significant upside in customer value meets attractive profit potential.  Apple and Steve Jobs have created the most valuable global company in history by living in the "Wow zone."
  4. What Works? - - This question takes us into the marketplace.  A particularly powerful approach to determining what works involves inviting the customer into the conversation in an active hands-on way.
The four questions are key in many different avenues of business and life.  Very hard to have an effective strategic plan if you consistently struggle with "What Is?" type questions.  Even harder to manage a 50-year career if you are clueless during the "What If?" moments.

The authors also list ten tools to enhance the four questions.  These are:
  1. Visualization - - using imagery to envision possible future conditions.
  2. Journey Mapping - - assessing the existing experience through the customer's eyes.
  3. Value Chain Analysis - - assessing the current value chain that supports the customer's journey.
  4. Mind Mapping - - generating insights from exploration activities and using those to create design criteria.
  5. Brainstorming - - generating new alternative to the existing business model.
  6. Concept Development - - aassembling innovative elements into a coherent alternative solution that can be explored and evaluated.
  7. Assumption Testing - - isolating and testing the key assumptions that will drive success or failure of a concept.
  8. Rapid Prototyping - - expressing a new concept in a tangible form for exploration, testing, and refinement.
  9. Customer Co-Creation - - engaging customers to participate in creating the solution that best meets their needs.
  10. Learning Launch - - creating an affordable experiment that lets customers experience the new solution over an extended period of time, so you can test key assumptions with market data.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Serial Mastery

I came across the term "Serial Mastery" in the current issue of the Economist (My Big Fat Career: How individuals can survive in the new world of work).  The term comes from Lynda Gratton of the London Business School and her book - - The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here (2011).  She highlights the issue of our current education system doing a poor job of equipping people for continuous learning.  We all face the same future - - constantly learning new ways to do a particular job better.  Social networking sites, such as LinkedIn, may evolve increasingly into peer-to-peer development networks.  These is also likely to be a wave of innovation in further education, particularly online, that will cater to this need in a more flexible, personalize way that the traditional degree or postgraduate course.  For some people, this evolution will take place within a singe firm offering long-term employment.  According to Gratton, for the growing number of workers the trick will be to jump from one company to another to take advantage of changing skill shortages.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Hazard x (Vulnerability / Resilience) [ x Exposure] = Risk > Impact

Andrew C. Revkin writes an online column for the New York Times (Dot Earth).  On Wednesday he had an insightful column on the wildfires in Texas - - A Hidden Factor Behind Losses in Texas Fires.  His opening paragraph highlights a key issue for engineers and planners:

"The stunning scope of the damage from the wildfires (and set fires) sweeping a Connecticut-size area in Texas is partly a result of extreme drought, but also a function of the extraordinary growth in populations and suburban development in parts of the state in the last half century."

Revkin also writes:

"Given that wildfires are an implicit hazard in Texas, that projections of more intense summer heat from greenhouse-driven are robust and that populations are not likely to shrink any time soon, it would make enormous sense to see fire codes and other standards there reexamined to limit the chances of wildfire jumping into densely populated neighborhoods."

The article alson discussed the classic formula for gauging the scope of the risk from disasters:

Hazard x (Vulnerability / Resilience) [x Exposure] = Risk > Impact

Reukin references the work of David Alexander, who teaches courses in emergency management and humanitarian logistics at the Universita della Svizzera italina in Florence, Italy.  Alexander has a blog (Disaster Planning and Emergency Management) posting that explains in detail the elements of the equation (Theoretical Notes on Vulnerability to Disaster).  Key points in the Alexander posting include the following:
  • Vulnerability is derived from the Latin vulnerare - - meaning "to wound."
  • Vulnerability is difficult to measure.
  • Vulnerability is a latent or inherent property.
  • Vulnerability can be difficult to isolate from risk.
  • Hazard is active and vulnerability is passive.  Risk is not directly caused by vulnerability, but it is greatly, perhaps overwhelmingly, enhanced by it.
  • The inverse of vulnerability is resilience - - where resilience (or capacity, or coping) is the ability to absorb and resist the shock of a disaster.  Engineers will increasingly be tasked to make our systems more resilient - - mainly because things like climate change and extreme weather events are producing an environment in which unpredictability is the new consistency.
  • Vulnerability can be chronic or catastrophic, depending on whether it results in widely diffused malaise or concentrated disaster.  It applies to known risks, adapting risks, emerging risks, and unknown risks.
  • The management of vulnerability must involve holistic techniques that take account of the categories in which it occurs and the different degrees and levels of interaction between them.
  • Low or inaccurate perception of hazard can perpetuate vulnerability, while high perception can lead to its reduction.
  • Given the dynamic environment in which it occurs, measures taken to reduce vulnerability need to be sustainable.
  • Sustainable vulnerability reduction is locally based, supported by the community, well integrated into legislation and planning instruments and part of a grand strategy to make life more resilient for the inhabitants of the area in questions.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Virtuous Global Service

Young and old, engineer and doctor, no experience and 40-year veteran - - a bad global economy still provides opportunities to do good things for people in need.  Opportunities to help others in distant and troubled lands.  One of the certainties of modern life, regardless of which economic cycle we are in, is engineers will always have opportunities to do good things on a global stage.

This is a good time for those engineers and professionals born with the altruistic gene.  The altruistic gene, combined with an adventurous spirit is even better.  In his August 23, 2011 New York Times column, David Brooks addresses Americans in service of others in the developing world (The Rugged Altruists).  Brooks discusses the three virtues of individuals that make a difference in the developing world.
  • Virtue #1 - - They posses the courage and willingness to go off to a strange place.  Teaching in a fishing village in South Korea is not Dallas, Texas.  You may not see another Western for months.  Strange defines our view of many parts of global civilization, but dangerous is probably more accurate in many places.  Need and opportunity are probably a function of strange and dangerous - - the greater the strangeness and danger, the greater the need for engineering help.  What make the British Empire great?  Entire classes and generations that were willing to go and to good in strange and dangerous.
  • Virtue #2 - - They develop deference - - the willingness to listen, and learn from the moral and intellectual storehouses of the people you are trying to help.  They don't get off the plane or boat and step into a foreign land with complacency, arrogance, and ignorance (remember that any two will get you the third one).  The greatest and most essential virtue is thanklessness, the ability to keep serving even when there are no evident rewards - - no fame, no photo op with Brad Pitt, no admiration, no gratitude.
  • Virtue #3 - - It is no just an adventure, a spiritual experience, or a cinematic moment.  It represents a non-contingent commitment to a specific place and purpose.  It is about embracing the perspectives and doing the jobs the locals define.  It is the boring stuff - - getting the water well working, and keeping it working.
If you venture into strange and dangerous - - I would recommend a great book that I recently finished.  The book How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone: The Essential Survival Guide for Dangerous Places (2011) by Rosie Garthwaite.
Garthwaite, a Brit, is a producer for Al Jazeera English (travel books and travel survival guides by Brits are at the head of the class - - 500-years of history doing and living the strange and dangerous).  The book, with material from military, ex-military, reporters, aid workers, travelers, etc., is the Boy Scout Field Book for the strange and dangerous (typical section - - "Surviving Armed Checkpoints").

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What Would Miss Manners Say?

From my church news bulletin - -

"Fifty years ago, Nazi Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem for war crimes. The 1961 trial electrified the world community and unleashed the modern-era interest in the Holocaust and Holocaust Survivors.

On Thursday, September 8, this educational trip will begin with a tour of the Dallas Holocaust Museum and then to dinner at Hoffbrau Steak Restaurant. Following dinner, we will attend a special lecture and presentation by Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, author of the new book The Eichmann Trial (Schocken/Nextbook, 2011) at the Temple Emanu-El, in Dallas. Bus will leave Founder's Chapel at 2 p.m. and will return around 10:30 p.m. Cost is $46 (Lecture and Museum Tour), plus the cost of your dinner."

Miss Manners would probably point out that one does not eat at a German-sounding steakhouse after touring a holocaust museum.  Tex-mex is appropriate.  Chinese is an alternative.  Italian is on the edge.  German, never.  And don't get me started on the suggestion of a French restaurant given their Vichy past.

Disaster Engineering and Construction

Link to a good paper by Bob Prieto and Charles Whitaker of Fluor - - Post Disaster Engineering & Construction Program and Project Management.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Outsourcing Wars

We like our wars.  We have and we will - - but budget constraints are casting some doubt on the economic feasibility of open ended commitments and global obligations.  Remember an important point - - between military poverty and military desire is (has been and will always be) opportunity.  Opportunity at the point where national interests intersect with capitalistic opportunity.

Matt Potter, in his entertaining new book Outlaws Inc. (2011), highlights this opportunity in the context of black market smugglers and private military logistical firms.  Potter has the following story in his book:

John MacDonald is a Surrey-based chartering agent, one of the middle-men who take the initial job specs for armies, aid organizations, importer/exporters, and private individuals and find the planes and the aircrews to do them.  Despite coming form a long line of aviation specialists and having "seen it all," he laughs as he recounts one wildcat II-76 team job that left the American military command in southern Afghanistan breathless with admiration, knowing they'd been hoodwinked by a five-man crew of Russians and their shadowy network.

"The U.S. military had this huge generator they needed to get to an airfield site they were planning in the south.  This was a remote area, and aside from a few pockets of U.S. troops, it was completely under bandit control.  There was no fuel available for mile around the landing spot, and none of the outfits we approached would touch it with a barge pole.  They all kept saying, "We'll never get out again, how can we take of from an unprepared airfield with no fuel?'

"The job was priced at between $60,000 and $70,000, but one day there's a phone call from these Russian guys.  They said, "We'll do it, but it'll cost you $2 million, in advance."  The Americans didn't really have a choice by this state, so they paid.  And sure enough, right on time, this ex-Soviet air force crew flew in, with the generator, in this battered old II-76, unloaded the generator, then sat down for a leisurely smoke.

"Just as all the Americans were wondering how on earth they were going to fly out again, there's a cloud of dust and up clatters this old minibus driven by some Afghan bloke - - and these airmen just get in and drive off.  The Yanks were all going, "Hey, how will you get the plane back?"  And the crew just said, "We won't.  It's an old one - - we only bought it for this job, and we're ditching it here."  Half a million dollars it cost them, and they held it together with string just long enough to land, then cleared off $1.5 million in profit and left it to rust.  It's still there.

"Everyone just applauded them - - the U.S. guys in command, us, and charterers the world over.  Not just for the flying, but for the incredibility sharp business mind that could hatch this.  It was truly beautiful."

Remember - - between poverty and desire is always opportunity.  The era of globally tight military budgets will only reinforce this.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Climate Risk, Not Climate Change

The September 5, 2011 issue of Bloomberg Business has an interesting cover story on the insurance industry - - The God Clause by Brendan Greeley.  The following is important for engineers:

The business of insurers and reinsurers rests on balancing a risk between two extremes.  If the risk isn't probable enough, or the potential loss isn't expensive enough, there's no reason for anyone to buy insurance for it.  If it's too probable and the loss too expensive, the premium will be unaffordable.  This is bad for both the insured and the insurer.  So the insurance industry has an interest in what it calls "loss mitigation."  It encourages potential customers to keep their property from being destroyed  in the first place.  If Swiss Re is trying to affect the behavior of the property owners it underwrites, it's sending a signal: Some behavior is so risky that it's hard to price.  Keep it up, and you'll have no insurance and we'll have no business.  That's bad for everyone.

To that end, Swiss Re has started speaking about climate risk, not climate change.  That the climate is changing has been established in the eyes of the industry.  "For a long time," says Bresch, [in charge of sustainability and risk management for Swiss Re] "people thought we only needed to do detailed modeling to truly understand in a specific region how the climate will change.  You can do that forever."  In many places, he says, climate change is only part of the story.  The other part is economic development.  In other words, we're building in the wrong places in the wrong way, so wrong that what we build often isn't even insurable.  In an interview published by Swiss Re, Wolf Dombrowsky, of the Disaster Research Center at Kiel University in Germany, points out that it's wrong to say that a natural disaster destroyed something: the destruction was not nature's fault but our own.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Realistic Disaster Scenarios

Lloyd's, the London-based company that invented the modern profession of insurance, publishes a yearly list of what it calls "Realistic Disaster Scenarios."  The list imagines such events as two consecutive Atlantic seaboard windstorms or an earthquake as the New Madrid fault in the Mississippi Valley, either of which could strain or break an insurer's balance sheet.

The combination of climate change and economic development will force engineering to expand knowledge and capabilities in areas such as risk analysis, risk management, risk mitigation, and a understanding of the global insurance industry (general structure and capabilities).  For example, Swiss Re has been working with McKinsey & Co., the European Commission, and several environmental groups to develop a methodology it calls the "economics of climate adaption," a way to encourage city planners to build in a way that will be insurable in the future. 

To many organizations, both public and private, how you build in the future matters more than the levels of carbon dioxide.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


C40 is a planning group for 59 cities engaged in efforts to combat climate change.  A major focus of C40 is equipping old buildings with energy-efficient features.  In the U.S., the average building - - whether skyscraper, house or church was built in the 1970s.  For example, heating hot water accounts for 17% of the energy used by buildings in the U.S., according to the Department of Energy.  C40 has partnered with the World Bank to ensure funding for such retrofitting projects, among other climate action plans for cities.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Age of Hyperspecialization

From the Letter to the Editor column in the September 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review:

What kind of life are you proposing to people?  Should business leaders micro-segment employees into task performers?  This is the death blow to innovation.  Where do critical-thinking skills fit into the authors' picture of the future of knowledge work?  What about systems thinking, design thinking, and the human ability to recognize patterns and create new things?  And what about the leverage you get when people are grouped together?  Don't they develop more-effective decisions?

Ray Luebke, structured innovation and strategy consultant

The letter was in reference to The Age of Hyperspecialization by Thomas W. Malone, Robert J. Laubacher, and Tammy Johns in the HBR July-August 2011 issue.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Coleridge's Ancient Mariner

Singapore is the third most densely populated country in the world.  Water is a huge issue and constraint for them.  With 7,000 people per square kilometer, its land mass is not large enough to supply its five million inhabits with water.

Seawater has always been seen as our collective solution to local water problems (when the oceans hold 97% of our surface water, getting salt out of saltwater is everyones Plan B).  The issue has always been cost - - cost in the context of energy requirements for salt removal.  German engineering may have a solution - - Siemens electrochemical desalination is currently being tested in Singapore (a full-scale pilot plant should be completed by 2013).

The following was in the September 3, 2011 issue of The Economist (Drops to drink):

"To make seawater fit for human consumption its salt content of approximately 3.5% must be cut to 0.5% or less.  Existing desalination plants do this in one of two ways.  Some employ distillation, which needs to have 10 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy per cubic meter of seawater processed.  Brine is heated, and the resulting water vapor is condensed.  Other plants employ reverse osmosis.  This uses molecular sieves that pass water molecules while holding back ions, such as sodium and chloride, that make water salty.  Generating the pressure needed to this sieving consumes about 4 KWh per cubic meter.  The Siemens system, by contrast, consumes 1.8 kWh per cubic meter, and the firm hopes to get that down to 1.5 kWh.

It works using a process called electrodialysis, in which the seawater is pumped into a series of channels walled by membranes that have slightly different properties from those used in reverse osmosis.  Instead of passing water molecules, these membranes pass ions.  Moreover, the membranes employed in electrodialysis are of two types.  One passes positively charged ions and the other passes negatively charged ones.  The two types alternate, so that each channel has one wall of each type.  Two electrodes flanking the system of channels then create a voltage that pulls positively charged ions such as sodium in one direction and negatively charged ions such as chloride in the other.

The result is that the ions concentrate in half the channels, creating a strong brine, while fresher water accumulates in the other half.  As the brine emerges, it is thrown away.  The fresher water is put through the same process twice more and eventually has its salt concentration reduced to 1%.  That is not bad, but it is still double what is potable.  There is therefore one further step.  This is to employ an ion-exchange resin in addition to the membranes.  Such resins increase the electrical conductivity of the system and allow one more passage, bringing the salt concentration below 0.5%."

Two key points.  The first is the notion that all water constraints and issues are local or regional problems - - yet water technology is a perfect example of potential global solutions.  The solution to your particular water supply problem may have a solution on the other side of the planet.  The second point is that metanational firms, such as a Siemens or GE, are very good at taking technology and research from Point A and applying it at Point B.  Those engineers that can think and capture knowledge globally, yet apply it locally, are going to be in high demand.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner probably said it best - - water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.