Wednesday, November 18, 2009

SOS: Support Our Scientists

In a recent Newsweek article, An SOS for Science, Daniel Lyons argues that clean energy science should trump politics in creating climate change legislation and positioning the United States to take advantage of the alternative energy revolution. SOS, the international signal for distress from 1908 to 1999, sends a message that we are sinking. According to wikipedia, the first ship to send an SOS was the Cunard Line, Slavonia, in June 1909 just over one hundred years ago. Much later, in popular use, the three letters were often associated with "save our ship" or "save our souls." However, Daniel Lyons is sending a different message, "support our scientists. "

His article covers the conflicting attempts to draft meaningful legislation, to get our policy makers to believe our scientists, and to get our country and policy makers to see what the rest of the world is doing to meet the alternative energy/climate change challenge. Lyons says that, as a country, we have too much prosperity, making us fearful of change and unwilling to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains. He believes we, and in particular policy makers, are too easily frightened by politically charged arguments, framed to create what people in the computer industry call FUD - fear, uncertainty and doubt - against what otherwise might be common sense solutions. He draws a bleak and threatening picture of what we are up against, though in fact, that may be counterproductive.

"Alternative energy is the next tidal wave in tech innovation. If we miss it, we will not only weaken our economy and harm our national security - we will turn ourselves into a second-rate nation.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is racing past us. In solar energy, the leaders are Japan, Germany and China. In wind it's Germany, Spain and Denmark. In nuclear it's France."

To underscore the concern he quotes Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Science who says "you can go up and down the list - in some cases we're players but we're no longer leading." To really catch up Cicerone says we'll need "a sustained commitment the likes of which are hard to see in American history." This approach in effect says we've collected the data on climate change, done the analysis and expect this information to change our thinking and, in particular, to change our policy formulation thinking.

Despite sending the SOS signal, Lyons doubts we have the collective will to respond to Ralph Cicerone's challenge of a "sustained commitment." He did note, however, a time over fifty years ago when we, as a nation, responded to the fear of falling behind the Soviets in the race for space. I was a junior in high school when Sputnik I and Sputnik II were launched, capturing the world's attention and catching the American public completely off-guard. During that year, the emphasis of college preparatory courses immediately switched to advanced math and science, leading me to the undergraduate study of engineering, and changing a generation of students and our country. Our nation's response to that "Sputnik moment," resulted in major investments in science, technology and education, leading to the creation of NASA and ultimately to man walking on the moon.

Unfortunately, the current climate change/global warming debate and context is not so singularly clear as being first in the race to launch a satellite into space. The impact of the Soviet launch was immediate and all Americans saw the event broadcast repeatedly on television and headlined in newspapers, resulting in the urgent, emotionally charged desire and commitment to change our behavior and speed up our own space program. But the space race was a long time ago. Not only has much changed regarding our own will to act, but much has been learned about how to enable people to act. Recent neuroscience has shown that, rather than threats, other methods are more effective in getting people to change their behavior, even for something as simple as recycling.

John Kotter's recent book, The Heart of Change, and an article, Managing with the Brain in Mind by David Rock, deal with neuroscience research and ways to approach change in behaviors based on the social nature of change and the brain. While their approach is related to change in organizations and high performance workplaces, the message is relevant to the save our scientists SOS signal. Current social brain research debunks common theories about the "threat and reward" response, finding instead that responding to a threat is generally not the productive path. As Rock states, "Humans cannot think creatively, work well together or make informed decisions when their threat responses are on high alert."

Nor is simply analyzing and defining the problem as shown in Kotter's message that "people change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings." Analyzing all the science, facts and figures won't do as much to create behavioral change as feeling strongly about the truth of a given situation. Al Gore's documentary effectively used this concept to show "an inconvenient truth", thereby spawning an emotional reaction that would lead viewers to take action for countering climate change. There is no doubt that the heart of change is in the emotion. Kotter summarizes it as: See, Feel, Change; three words that make for a more successful result than Analyze, Think, Change.

So if we are to support our scientists, which I do, and save our planet, which we all must do, then let our scientists find broad, powerful ways to demonstrate the truths of their research, in turn leading to emotionally committed citizens and policy makers who will settle for nothing less than fully meeting the climate change challenge.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

This I Too Believe

Somehow I'm still in a reflective mood and have recently been looking at an out-of-print book about Bill Caudill. As one of the founders of Caudill Rowlett and Scott, (CRS), Bill was a driving force and role model as an architect, educator, researcher and author. The book, The TIBs of Bill Caudill, collects a small subset of writings that he prepared over twenty years, from 1964 until his death in 1983. The abbreviation stands for 'This I Believe' and the TIBs were distributed by memo to CRS leaders and displayed on office bulletin boards. The introduction to the book by then CRS Chairman of the Board, Tom Bullock, directly asks:
Why did he write them?

'Good question,' he once replied. 'To pinpoint things we really believe in? To encourage and express the openness that characterizes our company? To communicate thoughts on current issues? To produce responses? To carry on a continuous writing of our history? Paper therapy? Perhaps all of these.'

Probably the best answer is that he wanted to improve his thinking by expressing himself regularly in clear, simple thoughts. 'Most of us need to write/think,' he said.
The CRS archives at Texas A&M contain over 4,000 TIBs and, for those who may be interested, you can sign up at the site for a service that will email you one TIB each week. Me, I still like to open the book and flip through it, reading and thinking about his ideas and their relevancy to today. I think what Bill was doing with his TIBs was a sort of analog blogging. Most of the memos, if produced today, could be blog posts and some of the more concise thoughts would fit perfectly into the limited number of characters for a tweet. So to bring his TIBs into today's world so others can also discover or rediscover a designer, practitioner, researcher and educator who believed that learning never stops, every now and then I'm going to add my thoughts and post or tweet a flashback quote from Bill Caudill. Enjoy and learn.

26 December 67 WWC


It is adquate when one has 1) developed sufficient skills, 2) absorbed every possible detail of knowledge, and 3) accumulated enough experience to ensure reasonable solutions to problems encountered by new work. Without all three -- skills, knowledge, and experience -- the architect is hard pressed to operate with any degree of competency.

If he hopes for precision in architectural practice, let's say the design approach, he must face the realization that education must continue at a greater pace than he experienced at the university.

This I believe.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fortieth Anniversaries

1969, the end of the turbulent 60's, was a year of national, international and personal milestones. Now forty years later, I find myself reflecting on the events which shaped my generation and influenced my personal and professional path.

The first of the forty-year anniversaries was our February wedding and honeymoon in our semi-complete ski house in Vermont. Getting snowed in so completely we were unable to get to the ski slopes, we spent the first day as newlyweds tiling the downstairs bathroom. That day was not only the start of many future housing renovations and construction projects, but of never missing an opportunity for accomplishment, regardless of the situation. Back in Somerville, we moved into our first apartment, painted some super graphics on walls and a radiator, got some furniture and started our life together. That spring I applied to the new graduate program in architecture at the State University of New York at Buffalo and we got ready to set off on another new adventure.

The summer of 1969 marked three more fortieth anniversaries: the New York City Stonewall riots in June, Apollo 11 in July and the Woodstock Festival in August. All were events of our time, marking the start of the gay rights movement, the completion of Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon, and a musical high point of the peace and love era. Along with millions of other people, we watched the Apollo mission on television, and we did drive from Boston to New York State in August - just not to Woodstock. Our trip was to Buffalo, New York for the start of graduate school in the very first year of the architectural program at SUNY Buffalo. What an adventure it was: a new city, a new professional direction and the purchase of our first home together. Very exciting times.

As I think back to the start of the graduate program, I'm reminded of people, process and purpose. Much humbler, but not unlike the goal of the space program to put a person on the moon, the school's innovative, even radical, purpose was to broaden the context of design and architecture by putting man and environmental considerations into the practice of architecture. The history of the school acknowledges John Eberhard as the visionary first dean of the School of Architecture and Planning and provides a thumbnail sketch of how it began. However the following quote forty years later by John in his most recent book, Brain Landscape, the Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture, puts the origin of the school into his own words.
An opportunity I couldn't resist presented itself when Martin Meyerson, president of the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY-Buffalo), invited me to start a new school of architecture at his university. He arranged for my new school to report to three provosts: Engineering, Fine arts, and Social Science. I decided to have this school focus on an inter-disclipinary graduate program, which would have as its purpose educating a new generation of architects who could organize and manage research projects--as contrasted to designing buildings. We formed a nonprofit organization outside the university called BOSTI--the Buffalo OSTI related to my friend Don Schon's research organization in Boston. During the next 5 years, our team of graduate students participated in more than 50 projects--all of which were funded through BOSTI by outside organizations.
The first person John asked to join his mission to build a new school was the late Mike Brill. Mike and John had previously collaborated at the National Bureau of Standards Institute for Applied Technology, using design-research teams that applied systematic analysis to problems in the built environment - a systems oriented, people committed social vision. Mike was the first chair of the graduate school and developed the research/teaching arm called BOSTI, Buffalo Organization for Social and Technological Innovation. The first class of twenty graduate students was a mature group from a variety of undergraduate majors, setting up the multi-disciplinary approach. All had altruistic, knowedgeable, energetic restlessness with the status quo. Banding together with purpose, they were rebels with a cause.

Those first months of a teach/learn experience in a program without a traditionally structured curriculum explored the roots of the educational model. A number of components of the vision and process were tested live on our experimental class, including: the multi-disciplinary approach to environmental design, projects as educational vehicles with real design-related problems and real clients, team learning in faculty-student teach-learn mode, research in action education funded through BOSTI, user-based, systems-oriented problem solving, and performance-based measurement of outcomes. The flavor and spirit was clearly activist and anti-establishment, particularly toward the architectural profession and schools which favored visual design education without social constructs. Assigned readings, such as Systems Approach by Churchman, General Systems Theory by von Bertalanffy, Structure of Scientific Revolution by Kuhn, Personal Space by Sommers and Hidden Dimension by Hall, supported systems thinking about social issues. Kuhn's book introduced the word 'paradigm' and John viewed this program as the new paradigm.

Forty years later, I can still see the space where we worked, its walls covered with diagrams, images, charts, and goal evaluation matrices from our projects, research or class assignments, yet I can also see how much of what was set out back then as a way to change architectural schools and practice, still remains incomplete today. Recently I took on a new role in our organization as Director of Research with the goal of completing the research-based practice loop started in Buffalo. While contributions from social science have continued to provide much more useful research about the design and use of the built environment, currently called evidence based design, the bridge between systems-based research and the mainstream practice world is still incomplete. My work started forty years ago with that drive to Buffalo, and the journey continues.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day Memory

On Labor Day, particularly on a perfect blue sky day like today, I think back to Labor Day sermons at the Unitarian Church on Nantucket. In the 1980's, late August was family time on the island. There were sand castles, walks to the Sweet Shoppe, flashlight tag among the hawthorns and poison ivy, lots of cookouts and always, a special anniversary celebration. But the end of vacation and signal for the return to school and work, was that Labor Day sermon by Ted Anderson. Always on the same topic, the sermon pursued different perspectives, from celebrating the work ethic to the roots of unionism. With his sonorous voice filling the church, Ted would draw connections between the hard working Puritans and the way the labor movement promised, and provided, a better life for workers over a hundred years ago. He reminded us exactly how we got paid vacations, sick leave, and work place safety, always coming back to the virtues of work.

One particular Sunday he added a dimension that has always stuck with me. Reflecting on the diminished impact of the labor movement, and the growth of the knowledge worker, he took us back to the twelfth or thirteenth century, and the religious verb, profess - to take a vow or to affirm. From there he traced the path of professing, from religion to medicine, law, engineering and, as I heard it, architecture. The vow of professing denotes a societal commitment; hence the noun, professional, implies the same commitment, as related to health, safety and public welfare. As I reflect this Labor Day, I'm reminded by Ted Anderson to appreciate what the labor movement created over one hundred years ago and to reaffirm what I now profess.

Monday, August 24, 2009

In Search of Evidence

In June I wrote about Creativity: Luck or Preparation and Navigating the New Normal. The first post concluded that creative outcomes aren't the result of luck but rather the result of preparation, attitude, discipline and mindset. The second focused on research for business in turbulent times, concluding that the key factors are organizational discipline, core values and preparation. My interest in these topics specifically relates to the corporate practice of architecture and engineering, and the search for research and evidence from many other fields that impact that practice.

In the architectural engineering world, particularly in the area of health care, the topic of evidence-based design has expanded and evolved. An article in the current issue of Architect Magazine, Is EDAC the Next Leed? tracks the background from evidence-based medicine to the creation of a new professional accreditation and certification program. While there may be confusing definitions in this evolving design methodology, there is no doubt about its goal: to move design decisions from intuitive to informed. The Center for Health Design, which is dedicated to advancing such practices, defines evidence-based design as "the process of basing decisions about the built environment on credible research to achieve the best possible outcomes." Such credible research is not only changing the way we look at our professional practice, but at all the other claims and promises so often presented by product manufacturers.

Continuing the search for meaningful research brings me to an interesting and related article from the Boston Globe Ideas section, Luck Inc. by Drake Bennett, regarding business success books. The article challenges the content of business success books beginning with In Search of Excellence, and continues through a string of other best sellers:
"...the basic idea underlying the literature is the same: that the secrets of success can be divined by careful study of the institutional habits of the world's business all-stars... At their most ambitious, these books purport to elevate the study of excellence to a science, its nuggets culled from exhaustive research and refined by painstaking analysis."
The remainder of the article focuses on recent books, article and papers arguing that success books are not actually based on science. Bennett cites The Halo Effect, by Phil Rosenzweig, along with books by Robert Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford, which see problems with the reliability of the data upon which success literature is built. Rosenzweig states "These books try to impress you with the massive amounts of data that they gather, but much of the data are not valid." Fueled in part by the same quantitative urge that is behind evidence-based medical care, Bennett notes that many of the recent critiques argue "for a more truly evidence-based business-success literature." In perhaps the most radical critique, Bennett explores the findings of Michael Raynor and Mumtaz Ahmed of Deloitte Consulting, and University of Texas business school professor Andrew Henderson, that success books are not good at identifying the cause of success and cannot truly distinguish success from mere luck. They say the data is too inconsistent and suggest performance could be equally well explained by random chance. It would be nice if such challenges to the current business success books result in more rigorous future publications.

In spite of these claims, I have personally read many such business books and found the advice useful, even if not based on science. I am not a fan however, of the "luck" school of thought, and am confident that future, and deeper investigation of the topic of business success will turn up pertinent information related to organizational preparation and discipline. In all fields - medicine, business texts, product design and architecture - patients, readers, users and clients are looking for proof of promises. Perhaps the next best-selling business success book should be "In Search of Evidence".

Monday, August 17, 2009

True Grit

Seems that I'm reading, thinking and writing a lot about innovation, creativity, and team structures for successful outcomes. Maybe it's related to that Yogism, "the more you look, the more you see." At the core of my investigation is the search for evidence supporting those observations that lead to new structures and patterns of behavior which can effect successful change.

Many contemporary studies cite deliberate practice, design thinking, optimum frame of mind or mental preparation as determinants of success, but some current research points in a different, and old school direction. In a recent Boston Globe Ideas article, The Truth About Grit, Jonah Lehrer traces success from Newton's apple/gravity observations to current research on the linkage between a flash of insight and the effort to document a theory or produce a successful result. He notes that the celebration of the "aha moment" often overshadows the goals, discipline, effort and stick-to-itiveness that is actually required for success.

In recent years, psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit. Although the idea itself isn't new - "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration," Thomas Edison famously remarked - the researchers are quick to point out that grit isn't simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it's about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It's always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going.

Lehrer reports that two research psychologists, Angela Duckworth, who has pioneered the study of grit at University of Pennsylvania, and Carol Dweck at Stanford University, have been simultaneously investigating these personality traits, attempting to answer questions like exactly what is the 'grit' personality trait, how do you isolate and measure it, and can grit be learned?

One of the main obstacles for scientists trying to document the influence of personality traits on achievement was that the standard definition of traits - attributes such as conscientiousness and extroversion - was rather vague. Duckworth began wondering if more narrowly defined traits might prove to be more predictive. She began by focusing on aspects of conscientiousness that have to do with "long-term stamina," such as maintaining a consistent set of interests, and downplayed aspects of the trait related to short-term self-control, such as staying on a diet. In other words, a gritty person might occasionally eat too much chocolate cake, but they won't change careers every year. "Grit is very much about the big picture," Duckworth says. "It's about picking a specific goal off in the distant future and not swerving from it."

As described by both researchers, benefits from a better understanding of grit would be first to provide additional tools, beyond conventional intelligence and achievement testing, for use in a wide variety of applications to more accurately predict future success. Take the survey yourself at to see how you measure up. The second benefit would be to provide a body of knowledge for educators to teach children the virtues of continuous effort. Dweck refers to this teaching effort as creating a "growth mindset" while Duckworth envisions educators teaching these skills to develop "a generation of grittier children." Key to these educational approaches is an emphasis on perseverance, combined with reinforcement of the basic hard work and degree of effort that leads to accomplishment.

An excellent example of a school that Duckworth and Dweck might envision is the Bronx KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Academy. In Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, he tells the story of the school's co-founder, David Levin, the students at KIPP, and the unexpected characteristics of high student performance from this school in one of the poorer neighborhoods in New York City. Since its beginning in 1994, it has become one of the most desirable public schools in the City based on graduate achievement, and despite, or perhaps because of, its innovative schedule resulting in an extra two thirds time in the classroom over other district schools. KIPP students attend daily classes until 5 pm, spend four-hours in class every other Saturday, and don't complete their school year until three weeks into July. Gladwell quotes Levin on how students have adapted to the addition of the summer part of the program:

"The beginning is hard," he went on. "By the end of the day they're restless. Part of it is endurance, part of it is motivation. Part of it is incentives and rewards and fun stuff. Part of it is good old-fashioned discipline. You throw all of that into the stew. We talk a lot here about grit and self control. The kids know what those words mean."

No doubt, these are the forerunners of the generation of grittier, and more successful, children that Angela Duckworth envisioned.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Connected in Vermont

Over the weekend I was reading and working up at our Vermont house. One of my tasks was to finish up some additional research on a sustainability/CR blog for posting on Monday. But when the weather cleared off at the end of the day, I decided to get out of the house and take a drive into Waitsfield for a walk around the village. Judy and I walked all the way up Main Street to the Old School House, then back up to Bridge Street and through the “tunnel” bridge, as Ollie calls it. The sweet, end of the day light inspired us to walk and photograph for a couple of hours.

On Monday, in the midst of all the Apollo 11 events, I got a Twitter message about a new follower, Jake Whitcomb. It turns out he works in Middlebury, Vermont as environmental program designer and co-founder of the non-profit Brighter Planet, whose focus is fighting global warming. Their advisory board is an environmental who’s who, including Terry Kellogg, Executive Director of One Percent for the Planet, and Mindy Lubber, President of Ceres, among other notable people.

It was a wow moment for many reasons.

One of my first blog posts about CSR was based in part on the Ceres principles. My weekend's work posted on Monday started off talking about Yvon Chouinard and One Percent for the Planet. But there were still more Vermont connections. The blog on the One Percent for the Planet website showed a picture of three young people standing in front of what looked like the Waitsfield "tunnel" bridge. They were summer interns who indeed had been photographed in front of the Waitsfield covered bridge, perhaps because their office is located just down the street in the Old School House we had walked by on Saturday.

I’m not surprised that leading experts and advocates for a sustainable planet live or are based in Vermont. That makes real sense to me. What is surprising are the tight connections between place - Mad River Valley, topic - corporate responsibility /sustainability, time - all in two days. A small world indeed.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Good for the Planet, Good for Business

In the current Fast Company, there is an interesting interview with Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, regarding the general topic of corporate social responsibility. The paradoxical title, "No Such Thing as Sustainability", focuses on his long-term commitment to environmental issues. As Chouinard states, Patagonia's mission is "to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis" based on three key points: learn the environmental impact of your business; take full responsibility for your product from birth to rebirth; and implement a self-taxing approach for your business-related pollution, similar to One Percent for the Planet, which was co-founded by Patagonia. As to the success of "self-taxing", over 1000 businesses have joined One Percent for the Planet since its inception in 2001, and six of the largest firms to join are having their best year ever. The concept is good for the planet and good for business.

Related to the Chouinard interview is a recent article in Environmental Leader by Kathee Rebernak called "Where Sustainability Lives: A Path to Integration and Innovation". In the article she cites a research study of Fortune 500 companies that looked at the function of sustainability within a firm, how the position is titled and what channels are set up for reporting to the CEO and board. They found a high correlation between well defined firm positions and board reporting structures, and awards or recognition for sustainability performance. Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review also correlates a sustainability structure which is integrated across the firm with the innovation it fosters and the resultant sustainability success. The Director of Sustainability at Symantec observed that, when the CEO drives the sustainability/corporate responsibility agenda, the process is accelerated. Kathee's summary quote caps the discussion well. "For the sustainability effort to drive business value, the CEO must be in the driver's seat".

This corporate sustainability research aligns and reinforces the examples of charismatic sustainability leaders like Patagonia's Yvon Chouinard and Interface Carpet's Ray Anderson. They have proven that personal commitment at the highest corporate levels will lead to more responsible and economically successful business practices.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Time for Climate Change Insurance

Two recent articles/blogs by Oberlin College environmentalist David Orr and technologist Tim O'Reilly take on the debate of choices and chance in dealing with the issues of climate change. Both agree there is great risk, which becomes even greater with inaction, and that we don't need more evidence to act now.

David Orr frames the discussion around two choices - "adapting to a warmer world or mitigating the severity of climate change by sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions". He bases his argument on five points:

  • climate change is occurring faster than expected and results are worse than predicted
  • adaptation most impacts those in society who are least able to adapt
  • mitigation now is easier and less costly than later
  • adaptation is ineffective due to the human behaviors of denial and procrastination
  • political programs and proposals about adaptation offer false hope

Orr's conclusion is echoed in ecologist George Woodwell's words, "The only adaptation is mitigation".

In response to David Orr's article, Bob Doppelt, the Director of Climate Change Initiative at the University of Oregon, offers a twist on the argument. He shifts the words and perspective from adaptation to preparation, because "our experience is that focusing on preparation builds support for mitigation while the focus on adaptation reduces support". To me, the conclusion is not either/or but both preparation and mitigation.

Tim O'Reilly sees the debate as a modern day version of Pascal's wager.

If catastrophic global warming turns out not to happen, the steps we'd take to address it are still worthwhile. Given that there's even a reasonable risk of disruptive climate change, any sensible person should decide to act. It's insurance. The risk of your house burning down is small, yet you carry homeowner's insurance; you don't expect to total your car, but you know that the risk is there, and again, most people carry insurance; you don't expect catastrophic illness to strike you down, but again, you invest in insurance.

We don't need to be 100% sure that the worst fears of climate scientists are correct in order to act. All we need to think about are the consequences of being wrong.

So where are the sensible world citizens who can carry forward these perspectives, and ultimately the behaviors that will alter climate change? As in all things important, it comes down to us, you and me. The time is now for all of us to reconsider our behaviors and to purchase our own climate change insurance.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Navigating the New Normal

In a January interview in Fortune magazine, Jim Collins, author of 'Built to Last', identified a number of key characteristics that a business needs if it is to navigate through turbulent waters. His research on turbulence is especially relevant in the current business and environmental conditions, which he calls 'the new normal'. Much of what he says resonates with my own experience and with the core values and vision of our firm, but four things stand out.

First, set core values for the organization to provide a deep keel to stay your course. Second, be aware of the caliber of people in the organization. Are they the ones you would want with you in your foxhole? Third, have the perspective to take the long view in planning, and manage by the quarter century, not by first quarter results. Fourth, develop the attitude and confidence to succeed and prevail, not just to survive.

If this is how your organization operates, then Jim Collins says that turbulence can be your friend. The key point in realizing this opportunity, again echoing Louis Pasteur, is preparation.

"If you are disciplined and prepared before the storm came, you should be thankful for those (turbulent) times."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Creativity: Luck or Preparation

Creative thinking has long been viewed as something special, belonging to a unique group of people who have a 'creative' eye and are lucky enough to see and solve problems differently from what would normally be expected. These especially creative people are seen as quick to get to the heart of a problem and as experts at producing unusual but successful results. Somehow they just have a knack for outside-the-box thinking that others both miss and envy. But what if that creative spark could be learned?

The topic of creative thinking and its partner, idea generation, has been studied and researched over the past 50 years, beginning with the original approach of advertising executive, Alex Osborn, in his 1948 book, "Your Creative Power". He followed that in 1953 with his best known work "Applied Imagination", leading to the subsequent broad interest in creative thinking, from "Brainstorming" by Charles Clark in 1958, to "A Sourcebook for Creative Thinking" by Parnes and Harding in 1962, to "Lateral Thinking" By Edward DeBono in 1970 and "Conceptual Blockbusting; A Guide to Better Ideas" by James Adams in 1979. These are some of the classics that established brainstorming as the definitive basic method to generate ideas. All that was required was an open mind to allow for the spontaneous generation of this multitude of ideas.

More recently, creative thinking in the area of practice application has become known as design thinking, a process of building up ideas as opposed to the breaking down of ideas common to critical thinking. A champion of this approach, David Burney, defines design thinking as "a way of thinking that produces transformative innovation". Just as with brainstorming, its goal is to generate lots of ideas using a seven step process to frame the problem, develop a plethora of possible solutions and then help choose the solution which will give the best result. Far from being a strict process however, design thinking uses this structured method to capture the 'popcorn' thinking of a multitude of ideas. Just imagine the mess everywhere if your Jiffy Popper didn't have its aluminum foil top to capture all those kernels of ideas.

The tools of both brainstorming and transformative design thinking, along with collaborative approaches and the right kind of culture, are currently being used to generate multiple options, where wild ideas are welcome, since they often lead to the most creative solutions. And those wild ideas may in fact be the result of a 'prepared mind'. The concept of creativity as an organized and learnable activity is the subject of research by John Kounios of Drexel University and Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern University in 2006.

"The research suggests that people can mentally prepare to have an 'Aha!' solution even before the problem is presented. Specifically, as people prepare for problems that they solve with insight, their pattern of brain activity suggests that they are focusing attention inwardly, are ready to switch to new trains of thought, and perhaps are actively silencing irrelevant thoughts. These findings are important because they show that people can mentally prepare to solve problems with different thinking styles and that these different forms of preparation can be identified with specific patterns of brain activity. This study may eventually lead to an understanding of how to put people in the optimal 'frame of mind' to deal with particular types of problems."

Which goes to show, a particularly creative outcome isn't just someone's good luck, but can be facilitated, and perhaps learned, based on Louis Pasteur's well-known quote that "chance favors only the prepared mind".

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Walking the Talk

On May 23, my tweet and reference to an article from Environmental Leader was oriented towards evidence that links responsible and sustainable corporate actions or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), with building positive brand reputation, and then market differentiation. The article cites research by Natural Marketing Institute which found that lifestyles of health and sustainability consumers look for proof to back up product or service claims. This demand for product or service evidence of facts, like in medicine or design, must be backed up by some type of third party assurance process, like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval but at the ‘global house’ scale.

The current understanding of Corporate Social Responsibility recognizes some form of Triple Bottom Line (TBL) reporting, based on UN Global Compact Principles, Ceres Principles and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Guidelines, now regarded as the international standard. The TBL measures of organizational success are commonly referred to as environmental or planet, economic or profit and social or people. Since late 2006 and the introduction of the GRI G3 process, international corporations have embraced, at a rapid rate, sustainable principles and the TBL protocol. Ceres has tracked the corporate adoption of GRI from its initiation in 1997, noting a growth to 50 companies in 2000, 400 companies in 2004 and 1500 companies now. That equals a growth rate of 375% in 5 years, but there still remains a long way to go to meet global climate change initiatives.

The need for CSR is present in all corporations, large and small, international and regional, but is particularly appropriate to the design professional service corporations which already have an environmental responsibility by nature of licensing and practice. Clearly TBL should already be embedded in their cultures and vision statements, but the question is are they? And if so, how many actually have adopted the Ceres Principles and GRI and or TBL reporting? A review of the Ceres Companies shows only two architectural, engineering or planning firms listed, yet a review of the Architecture 2030 website would indicate that this type of sustainable commitment is much more common.

But why aren’t more large corporate architecture and engineering firms committing to Ceres Principles and GRI reporting? There are over 100 large, that is greater than 200 person, architectural and engineering firms in the US, so why are so few adopting this approach? Is it time and effort, fear of exposure of confidential information, the lack of true measurable goals, cultures of limited information sharing even within their own organization, or the clash of private firms and issues of public interest? Perhaps a review of one firm, Haley and Aldrich, which is a Ceres Company, would be useful to see what they say and what information they share. On their corporate website they have posted their 2008 sustainability report - People , Planet and Profit. The report is organized, readable and graphically well presented. Their vision is stated, success measures defined, a lean, increased value and decreased waste strategy presented, and a Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) process stated to control implementation. The report has a simple four part structure, consisting of goals, recorded progress/metrics, assessment/grade and adjustments for 2009. The format follows the PDCA model and contains an open measurement of performance without the loss of confidential data.

To me it is an example of CSR that provides evidence of sustainable practices and creates differentiation from other peer professional firms - a disciplined, self regulating approach that, as Haley and Aldrich states, is “walking the talk.”

Friday, May 22, 2009

Every Rooftop is a Power Plant

In the past couple of months, two solar power articles approach the topic from different perspectives yet result in similar conclusions. The Boston Globe covered the recent MIT Energy Conference in April and described the perspective from a large utility, Duke Energy, one of the top CO2 emitters in the United States. Duke Energy generates 97% of its power from coal and nuclear power, and wants to significantly reduce its carbon emissions. Jim Rodgers, who runs Duke Energy, is seeking the emission reduction through the development of solar power and increased energy efficiency. He was quoted as considering "every rooftop as a power plant", and noting the need for changes to the rules governing power companies to allow them to benefit from solar power by "moving beyond the meter". This means a power company would not only provide energy to a customer but would also share in the cost/profit from energy produced by a customer, leading to increased large scale investments in solar and ultimately reduced emissions from fossil fuel energy.

Selling the Sun by Michael Behar in On Earth Magazine features a story about Jigar Shah and Sun Edison, North America's largest and most successful provider of solar energy, a private business which has grown so quickly over the past five years that it could almost be considered a small utility company. Sun Edison's growth and success was created by their no up-front cost, power purchase agreement (PPA) business model.

Through a PPA, Sun Edison provides solar electrical power at a set price for a minimum of 10-years, with no capital cost to the customer. The PPA's are then used as collateral for investment funding to install and own the solar array. The investors benefit from a constant income stream on debt payment, depreciation and investment tax credits. The early adopters of this approach have been large scale retailers like Staples, Whole Foods, Kohl's, Ikea and Walmart. The avoidance of up-front capital cost with its longer term payback and a stable long term energy cost have created a large market place stimulating the whole solar industry. It is reported that Sun Edison has about 200 commercial installations with a 60-megawatt capacity, or enough to power 48,000 homes. A recent report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory noted that investment in solar energy in the last three years grew by a compounded annual rate of 145%, and it's clear that the PPA model is substantially the cause of this growth.

The two articles however raise a couple of questions. Will the large scale utilities move into the micro scale, thousands of rooftops, model? Will a business like Sun Edison become more like a utility? When will the cost of solar and utility power, grid parity, become equal? On the last question, many experts project somewhere between 2012 and 2015, but in many parts of the U.S. it is happening now. The same experts note that the real issue may be scale more than subsidies. As Michael Behar's article states, "The formula is simple: the more solar installed, the cheaper it gets; and the cheaper it gets, the more it's installed". There is no doubt about that equation.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Turbocharge the Wind Industry in Massachusetts

Last week the Boston Globe first reported the receipt of significant stimulus funding for construction of a large wind turbine blade testing facility in Charlestown. The Wind Technology Testing Center will be the nation's first commercial large blade testing facility capable of handling blades as long as 90 meters. While the majority of current testing occurs at the National Wind Technology Center in Boulder CO, no facility in the U.S. is capable of testing blades longer than 50 meters.

In a visit to the proposed site, which has both rail and critical shipping access, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Governor Deval Patrick noted the importance of developing renewable energy systems and insuring that the best, most efficient turbines are built in America. "Testing the next generation of wind turbines here will make Massachusetts a hub for the fastest growing energy source in the world" said Governor Patrick as he announced the funding. Since the announcement, much enthusiasm has been generated by the plan to have the facility completed and ready for testing in late 2010. One government official was quoted noting that the facility would "turbocharge the wind industry in Massachusetts". For me, I've gotten much closer to large blade testing that I could imagine as I live about a half-mile from the site.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Really Big Sustainable Idea

Today Zerofootprint has launched an innovative International Building Re-Skinning Competition at the Discovery 2009 Exhibition in Toronto. The focus of the competition is the development and advancement of the state of the art in retrofitting thousands of post war buildings, improving their energy efficiency and reducing their carbon footprint. The Z-Prize of $1 million will be awarded to the retrofitted building that achieves the most reduction in energy cost per square foot as measured and audited over a three year period following the retrofit.

The basis or catalyst for the competition is an ongoing project sponsored in 2007 by the Mayor’s Office of the City of Toronto, called Toronto Tower Renewal. This project is an outgrowth of ongoing research by E.R.A. Architects and the University of Toronto Faculty of Architecture, regarding the value and reuse potential of over 1,000 primarily residential high rise buildings. The initial investigations are well presented in the book , Concrete Toronto, and the background on reuse opportunities is described in the article 'A Suburban Future of Concrete and Gardens-Nice. Right?'

The outcomes of the Tower Renewal Project: The Sustainable City and the Re-Skinning Competition are very clear and further demonstrate the point that the most sustainable building is a reuse of an existing one. Here their goals include the reduction of green house gas emission through building and site retrofit (sustainable structures); introduction of mixed use new construction to build complete communities (sustainable lifestyles); and creation of technology, materials and industries to launch an increasingly cost effective approach (sustainable industries).

This is one really big sustainable idea with large scale benefits and major global impact. We in the United States should be following the City of Toronto’s lead in implementing such multifaceted sustainable renewal plans.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Well the forces have finally aligned and the Earth Day message from USGBC President and CEO, Rick Fedrizzi, made to point loud and clear. The economic crisis has forced everyone to reconsider priorities and make decisions that conserve resources, primarily money. The slowdown/stoppage of new construction brings the realization that there are hundreds of thousands of existing buildings and homes in need of energy reconstruction and reuse. USGBC sees the green movement as thriving and migrating toward conservation of resources, the essential sustainable activity, whether money, water, energy or jobs. Restore Media's President, Peter Miller, carried a similar message in his article "Why This Recession is Good for Traditional Building, Part II".

At the same time the preservation movement, which has also had its share of shifts since the first Earth Day in 1970, has reinvented itself from initial focus on landmarks, to adaptive reuse and then to emphasis on social and communal values. In the mid 70’s in the midst of the first sustainable design years, the preservation movement began to push forward the concept of embodied energy which linked the two movements. The studies of BTU value of existing built environments created an understanding that our older buildings were in fact fossil fuel repositories, and if we extended the life of these buildings we wouldn’t have to use the energy again. The January/February 2008 Preservation Magazine, Green Issue, in the article “A Cautionary Tale” ties the two movements together and provides many interesting facts and figures to support the arguments.

So one can say the nexus has occurred. Sustainability begins with preservation, whether social, cultural or economic and many have said the most responsible way to build is to recycle an old building. So per USGBC, more than 120 million buildings and homes await our action. The economic crisis has refocused our attention on these critical issues.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Here goes! This blog will cover a wide range of interests, both professional and personal, primarily related to the creation of a more sustainable built environment. I would expect topics to include policy, planning, design, research, architecture, engineering and construction. Perhaps the central focus will be the knowledge and understanding of both the creation and design of the built environment, and whether those designs achieve their intended goals.