Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The blessing of a child

On 29 June 2009 my wife and I became parents to Grace Drennan. It is a great privilege, honour and responsibility to be a part of this amazing little life.

Life was turned upside down and changed forever. The last two years have been an intense period of learning and self-discovery. I have certainly learned about my weaknesses (they all bubble to the surface when under pressure), as well as discovered new strength and endurance (which I never realised I had).

And now Grace is two, a little girl so full of life.

Fortunately my business has not only survived the last two years, but has grown and developed. It has certainly had (and has) its challenges, but I keep learning along the way. And now it is time to start sharing and talking again.

My apologies to my regular readers for just disappearing for the last two years without any comments or indication of what was going on. I am back and will be posting regularly again.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Solving problems or creating solutions?

question markAs engineers we spend a lot of time solving problems. A customer has a problem and it needs to be fixed. The electronic boards you have just designed are not working and the problem needs to be fixed.

Problem solving has a certain mindset. A problem is narrowly defined and the focus is solving that one problem as quickly as possible. An analytical mindset is adopted and there is an intense search for cause and effect.

The are many challenges with adopting a problem solving mindset. Problem solving can be misguided and focussed on finding the cause rather than obtaining the desired result – has the desired solution been correctly identified before starting? Continuously solving problems can be draining. All you ever see in your product or service are the problems with it, particularly if you are isolated from the happy customers.

The flip side of engineering is that we also get the opportunity to create solutions. Creating solutions is about seeing the bigger picture and understanding the idea or problem within the context of a larger system. This requires more lateral thinking and gathering information from a far wider variety of sources then when we are "solving problems."

Solution creating can be too loosely defined and only slowly drift towards the eventual goal. It is also easy to be continuously finding new solutions (adding features) which are not even needed to achieve the actual goal. It is important to stay focussed on creating happy customers.

Each mindset carries its own set of paradigms so when we adopt a certain approach we close our minds to certain solutions and possibilities. Knowing that each way of thinking opens up different possibilities means that we switch between the two as a tool to help us solve problems and create solutions in a quicker and more comprehensive way.

How would your approach to your current challenge change if you switched mindsets? Adopting a different approach may even help you to find more satisfaction in your work.

Image courtesy of Ethan Lofton, published under a creative commons license.

Friday, May 29, 2009

What we can't imagine

When James Bond used miniature cameras in the 60's and 70's the thought of a wireless phone that can take pictures and send them to just about anyone in the world, fits into the palm of your hand and even plays high quality music would have been so preposterous (even in a Bond movie) that audiences would have thought it was a joke. Now we struggle to imagine a world without our mobile phones and all of their accessories.

[Cellphone cameras came into being when Philippe Kahn wanted to instantly share photos of his daughter's birth with friends and family.]

40 years ago it was hard (impossible?) to imagine the solutions that we have available to us today. Some of the things we think will have happened in another 40 years time probably won't, and other things that we have no idea about will be in existence. Hard working engineers and scientist will have discovered and created all kinds of new things.

What can you imagine that no one else can?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Urban agriculture

cherry tomatoesUrban agriculture (UA) – the production of food within a city – is an important aspect of securing our food supply as well as restoring our communities. There are some obvious and immediate benefits to urban farming, such as bringing our food closer to us and reducing transportation energy, but the impact and benefits are far reaching, especially in cities with large impoverished communities. There are at least four major ways in which we can benefit:

  1. Access to a local, fresh, organic, varied diet,
  2. Community upliftment,
  3. Effective use of land,
  4. Improved food security.
Local, fresh, organic, varied diet. Many people focus on "food miles" but this has a lot more to do with our buying patterns rather than where our food is grown. One of the restrictions with UA is the amount of land available which means that biointensive methods of farming must be used. These methods farm small amounts of land using organic methods to produce high crop yields and simultaneously improve the soil quality. This method also requires companion planting. All together this means higher quality fresh food with less or no storage (no artificial ripening), as well as carbon and heat sinks within the city.

Community upliftment. Many cities (certainly in developing countries) have large improverished communities as a result of rural to urban migration and many other societal conditions. UA offers a number of benefits for these communities, the biggest of which is access to food. The first output of urban farms in these communities is food for the community. Once the immediate needs of the community are met any excess food can be sold for income. Improvement of the soil quality and the greening of these communities also help to improve living conditions.

Effective use of land. Unproductive vacant lots, parts of parks and gardens can be turned into productive farms. These farms will require organic waste materials to produce compost which reduces the load on cities waste management facilities.

Improved food security. UA is a distributed model of farming which helps to buffer the communities that it serves against any variations in food supply. If there was a failure in the food supply chain, or if transport costs significantly raised the price of food, UA communities would still be able to access food – hopefully for an extended period of time. Cuba is an interesting extreme example of this. The shutting down of foreign supplies resulted in unused areas within the cities being used to produce food crops and support the country's food need. The distributed model also means that a failure of a single UA farm would not significantly impact on the food supply. The organic methods used also provide security through improved genetic diversity of crops.

The benefits for the communities these farms serve and the cities in which they reside are far reaching and will lead to a better quality of life for all urban dwellers. Each of us have the opportunity to engage with our food and where it comes from – that is the first step towards a full scale urban agriculture system. The tomatoes in the picture above were grown in my garden :)

In Cape Town Abalimi Bezekhaya (which means planters of the home) help to establish community gardens which improve food security and provide additional sustainable income to their tenders. Abalimi also has a number of greening projects which help to improve the living environment of impoverished communities. On Tuesday 26 May 2009 there is a tour of their operation which I will be going on. The tour begins at 09h00 in Wynberg and finishes at 12h00. Please let me know if you will be joining me.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

A slightly different direction

With 48 post over nearly three years, I am certainly not a prolific blog writer. My goal has never been to write a lot, but to rather explore issues from new angles and stimulate thinking and hopefully action. The positive side–effect of this has been exposure for my business, which was part of the original goal. In reality this blog has developed into much more than a marketing tool – it has become a platform for me to spread and amplify ideas, ideas which hopefully help to make the world a better place to live in.

Looking back over the titles of the blog posts there is a mix of mostly environmental issues and engineering. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the direction of my own life, as well as of this blog. There is a definite changing of season for me – a new and renewed direction and energy – and with that comes a slight change of direction for this blog.

That change of season has a lot to do with making a shift towards more "doing" and less talking. I have noticed that I draw the most inspiration from people who actually do (or try to do) important and interesting things, from David's fuel–to–electric vehicle conversion to a friend who helps get blankets to babies living in cold tin shacks.

For me that means spending more time doing some of the things I have talked about or had on my mind for a while (like developing some systems to speed up my design process), as well as engaging with organisations that are doing things that I believe are important (like this urban agriculture group).

This means that there will be a slight shift of focus in the writing here. There will be a stronger focus on how I am developing my company and design process, and I will try to open up as many of the inner workings as possible so that everyone can learn from what I am doing (and hopefully not make the same mistakes!) Even though the focus will change a bit, there will always be a strong environmental slant, as creating a cleaner and healthier place to live is important to me and a part of who I am.

For the foreseeable future my commitment to you is to write one blog post every two weeks.

Thank you for coming on this journey with me. I am glad to have you along, and would love to hear from you (and thanks to all of you who have contacted me).

Image courtesy of Colin, licensed under a creative commons license.