I just finished a research project on “green engineering.” I interviewed pioneering “lead users” who have been designing new approaches to solving tough environmental problems using affordable, easy-to-deploy sensors and holistic feedback systems. I learned from a Malaysian mechanical engineer how he was able to monitor and control commercial air conditioning systems in the tropics to reduce his clients’ energy consumption by 30%. I learned from a PhD chemist and a controls engineer how they were able to design a zero emissions hydrogen-powered switching locomotive from commercially-available components and to develop a complex control system to keep it running safely. And I followed the story of a group of 24 biologists, engineers, and computer scientists as they teamed across two continents to model and monitor an unusually salty chain of lakes in Argentina.
What struck me as I completed this project (which was a “green engineering” white paper for National Instruments) was that the approaches these engineers and scientists are taking to address specific issues while saving our planet may be relevant for other kinds of businesses as well.
Developing Virtual Models of Real Phenomena
I’m reminded of a riveting airplane conversation I had almost 20 years ago with my colleague David Marshak (long before he left us to join IBM). At the time, we were both interested in the structured email application that Fernando Flores offered through his company, Action Technologies. What intrigued us both was the idea that one could instrument email conversations and actually “see” from a bird’s eye view what the conversations and actions that people were committing to and taking. We riffed from that idea to the notion that perhaps in the future, we’d be able to “see” the flows of information and business events moving through our businesses and across business boundaries. If one could visualize the business in real time, we thought, then one could also create a series of “what if” scenarios about other business models that might work better, run simulations and then switch over to a better model.
In the ensuing years, a number of my more advanced clients and colleagues have shown me examples of this kind of thinking in practice. For example over a decade ago, Tom Morgan, then CTO of Brooklyn Union Gas, demonstrated a simulation he was running in which he could both visualize and monitor the business transactions that were flowing through his object-oriented customer care system. He then was able to create some “what if” scenarios and see the impact of those on the business. What if we were to guarantee that we would arrive for a service call within a two-hour time frame that customers specified? Would we be able to do it? What would be the impact on our processes? On customers’ satisfaction? By running simulations of his business based on the real-world physical events that were being captured and logged, he was able to optimize customer service processes.
Tom Morgan has long been a proponent of creating abstract models of the physical world. He points out that there’s a big difference between creating an abstract model of an abstraction—a set of ideas and concepts—and creating a model of an actual set of real-time events and process flows and then abstracting from that real-world model to something you can understand and manipulate.
So I enjoyed learning about what’s possible with today’s embedded and distributed sensors and the software that enables you to convert analog signals into digital data, process multiple streams of data in parallel, and create complex models of real-world phenomena. And, of course, given the reality of global warming, green engineering is becoming more compelling to all of us.