Everybody and nobody, everywhere and nowhere

When you try to please everyone, very often, you end up doing and producing things that would make nobody happy. When you try to be everywhere, as I’ve seen some of my college coursemates who tried to attend multiple parties and networking sessions on the same evening, they end up nowhere.

Fearing that you miss out inevitably means you miss out on everything because you’re not even at where you’re physically present, which is just about the only joy you really can have.

We are not capable of pleasing everyone, nor designed to be everyone, or to be everywhere. Let us enjoy these things that constrain us rather than putting our emotional selves intensely at odds with them.

Physical networking

Been at a few business functions lately; far more than I’ve been the past two years. It’s becoming a less surreal experience as the world eases into the state where covid-19 is endemic. Restrictions have eased and culturally, people are less wary about mask-wearing. The common flu and other cold bugs are back, ordinary immunity is probably improving.

I welcome the return of physical interactions as much as I discovered how many of them are actually easily substituted with online means. It is true that most of the online interactions lose out so much rich details and non-verbal dimensions of communication. In fact, especially for new connections and interactions, having that physical connection might be useful.

From just those physical functions, I discovered so many more companies I’ve never heard of. There are activities in the industry I wasn’t aware of from just reading materials online. A lot of chance encounters in the physical world are simply not possible online. In fact, I thought the online networking tools where you scroll through a list of conference attendees as poorly designed. Imagine in a real world when you try to go towards someone you want to speak to while the person is unaware and they are trying to talk to someone else. And all the responses are not exactly synchronous. Physical distances and actual visual observations in space performs a coordination function that technology has not been able to replace.

When you know something

When do you choose action when you’ve the knowledge? For example, when you know that your boss is saying something that is wrong to the client, when do you choose to correct him (or her)? What would you say?

What about when you know that you’re generating more trash by using the disposable takeaway container, or the cutlery? How about when you actually have a reusable container to use but wonder if it’s worth the effort to wash it? How do you balance your knowledge with your actions?

For far too long, we recognise that awareness and knowledge is the first step. But then getting from this first step to the point of action where it really makes an impact seem like a mystery. Psychologist probably had less luck figuring this out than marketers and social media platforms. The world’s most intractable problems are not to be solved through knowledge but action – how much would knowledge spur action, and how the mechanism works remains much of a mystery. But whatever we discover that we can do, why don’t we direct it towards helping to drive positive action towards the most challenging problems that mankind faces?

Malicious obedience

I have been going through Bob McGannon’s Linkedin course on ‘Leading with Intelligent Disobedience‘, he brings up the concept of ‘malicious obedience’. It is the behaviour that follows from ‘well, if that’s what you want’. And it is probably what we engage in more often than we are proud of.

I think by juxtaposing intelligent disobedience with malicious obedience, one suddenly recognise rules for the place they should be. Yet more often than not, we follow rules somewhat blindly, out of laziness, fear or lethargy, when there might be more wisdom and intelligence in breaking them. Of course, here, we recognise another dimension for following the rules – it is to do so with malicious intent.

Of course, the malicious intent might not spring up overnight. It could be employees who knew something was wrong and sounded the alarms but the management refused to heed. It could be a child protesting the stupidity of a rule at home and not having received the appropriate explanation for why the rule was in place. So the risk of not empowering others with the ability to disobey intelligently is that we send the wrong message about what obedience is about.

Feasibility of an Infrastructure

train infra

A huge part of infrastructure development work upfront is the feasibility study. What exactly goes into a full feasibility study and why is it so important? This article aims to explain that simply and more accessibly to people outside the industry. We’ll focus on the feasibility study rather than any documentation on projects generated prior to that (sometimes called pre-Feasibility Study – which could be considered a ‘lite’ version).

The feasibility study is like a professional evaluation of a business plan. For any infrastructure project, this is a comprehensive look into all the practical, legal, technical and commercial aspects of the project. Often, it will include social and environmental dimensions of the project in order to ensure that the lenders (ie. financial institutions providing debt to the project) is satisfied. In markets where there is significant social and environmental activism, the lenders are also on the receiving end of hate-mail, harassment and boycotts. Major project finance lenders internationally have therefore got together to be involved in The Equator Principles – a risk management framework that banks sign up to abide in assessing the environment, social risks involved in projects.

What then constitutes environment and social risks?

Infrastructure projects are physical, and will almost always require clearing of a piece of land to allow construction to take place. This would mean either resettling villages, people, farms, or redeveloping urban spaces, or even clearing swathe of rainforest. In cases of large hydropower dams, it will involve spaces not only for construction of the dam but also planned floodplains which can include multiple villages, broad swathe of forests. All of these impacts on human lives, biodiversity, alters natural landscapes.

Of course, the banks, developers, and builders care about people and rainforests. But beyond that, they are concerned about being harassed, haunted by NGOs, activist organisations trying to run them down reputationally for having been involved in projects that destroyed natural habitats for endangered species, upsetting livelihoods. These forms the environment and social risks; and the feasibility study tend to cover aspects of the social and environmental impact assessment, as well as to propose means to mitigate. Through that, the developers of the project also forms an idea how much resources they might need to expend to support resettlement, to help rebuild livelihoods destroyed.

How about practical and technical risks?

The feasibility study also goes into the technical and practical aspects of the project, including studying the possible technologies to deploy, the actual site conditions: whether the land can accommodate the infrastructure, whether there is actually sufficient demand for that infrastructure, and if the infrastructure has everything needed to service that demand – this could take the form of water supply pipe network, or an inter-connector to the national grid for a power plant.

The study needs to ensure that the proposed technical solution is able to deal with the problem statement at hand. For example, if we are using incineration for the waste, then we have to ensure that the waste stream is not too moist. If the waste is wet, the incineration system may not perform properly, which leads to potential technical breakdowns or stoppage.

And not forgetting the legal and commercial risks?

At the end of the day, the project will have to comply with the law of the land, and often, there will be a lot of permitting, licensing, government approvals that are needed for various components of the project. The feasibility study will investigate all of these and the developers will also do their best to make sure the requisite approvals and permits are obtain in advanced even often in parallel with the feasibility study just to make sure that the project is progressing in a timely fashion. These documentation will often be studied alongside the feasibility studies by the lenders.

Lots of parameters, and results from various aspects of the feasibility study would be captured into the financial model that is used to work out whether the project is commercially viable – that is, the total revenues/payments expected for the lifetime of the project is able to pay for its total cost over its lifetime. Governments may also undertake an economic cost-benefit analysis, to see if the total economic benefit of the infrastructure project is able to cover the total cost to society (more on this from a previous article I’ve written).

At the end of the day, flagging out, assessing and then measuring these risks enables the developers, lenders, and the government to have a better picture of how viable the project really is, hence its feasibility – from the various risks perspective as well as the resourcing that can be availed to the project. Doing proper feasibility studies can also help government better plan areas surrounding infrastructure, whether it is to mitigate some of the impacts of the infrastructure, but also to see if developments around the infrastructure can help improve its feasibility (eg. a larger substation might have to be built in the area to be able to accommodate a large utility scale solar park which would not have been able to feed power into the national grid).

This article is part of a series I’m working on to make topics in infrastructure a little more accessible to students and people from outside the industry who might want to get involved.

Interesting ideas for green transportation

Well, I dont intend to touch on or cover the conventional ideas people have about green transportation, but I was quite intrigued by two innovations that The Economist introduced in their Technology Quarterly this week. These are places you normally wont hunt when thinking about cost-savings and environmental-friendliness, but it reminds you that there are actually many areas to work on to do your part for the environment, not necessarily on the biggest or most radical of ideas like, say, using electric cars.

The first innovation is a collapsible shipping container. If this catches on, it could overhaul the way ports work, as well as alter how our port at Tanjong Pagar and West Coast look like. Made from “a fibreglass composite”, it is cheaper to produce than the normal steel containers. The weight and space / volume savings would significantly reduce transportation costs (such as the number of ships used to transport the crates, the amount of fossil fuels used for the ships) which would then help reduce the environmental impact of shipping and trade. Treehugger has more details regarding this innovation.

The second innovation focuses on the wheels of vehicles and how they can be made more in more environmentally-friendly means as well as make driving more environmentally-friendly. The material used to make the tyres are now being modified to either increase fuel economy of the vehicles they are mounted on or to make the production of tyres greener.

Small improvements and advancements in terms of technology, but we need all these little contributions to “business as usual” by the private sector if governments are unwilling or unable to carry out the sweeping reforms necessary.

Planned Obsolescence

Buy and throw away?

If you watched The Story of Stuff, which I introduced to this site several weeks back, it introduces several ideas that are perhaps unfamiliar to most laymen or locals for the matter. One such idea is planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence can be defined as “the process of a product becoming obsolete and/or non-functional after a certain period or amount of use in a way that is planned or designed by the manufacturer”. In other words, when product engineers design your product, they purposely design it such that it will physically or psychologically become obsolete (i.e. useless) after a while.

This sounds like a very disturbing idea, but it makes sense to the producer of the good for the consumer to keep purchasing “updated and improved” goods from them as their old ones break down. Planned obsolescence may even be described as an art; it would take much ingenuity, in fact, to design a product such that it does not break down too obviously as a result of inferior quality but consumers still want to buy this product and its future “upgrades”.

If you wonder how planned obsolescence affects us, this article from The Daily Green is useful in highlighting some occurrences of planned obsolescence in products we use in our daily lives. So have you unintentionally succumbed to this phenomena?

A unique way of conservation

How do you take me out of the equation?

The Green.view column in The Economist has plenty of environmental-themed articles that provoke deeper thought about what we know about the environment and our assumptions about the environment. In their latest article, they present an effective but controversial method of biodiversity conservation: to remove humans “from the equation”.

The conventional thing to do is to “fence off large areas of parkland” to create nature reserves that, without much disturbance of man, would perhaps help protect the biodiversity inside it. This would be quite inhumane of course, considering that original residents of the reserve would have to be “booted out”. Hence conservationists “try to manage nature with humans in situ”, i.e. conserve without having to remove humans from the equation.

However, “involuntary parks” seem to be the most effective in conserving biodiversity. Where humans have vacated or have not trampled upon, wildlife flourishes, for instance in many parts of Papua New Guinea. Places that have seen conflict have also unintentionally become nature reserves, for instance in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North & South Korea. So in this case, would peace between the North & the South lead to the disappearance of this nature reserve and all its “residents”? Sounds perverted, that war might be necessary to protect and conserve the lifes of lesser beings (animals and plants) while human lives are lost.

In another example, Somali pirates off the coast of Somalia and Kenya have led to “a profusion of fish” in the waters as commercial trawlers are scared away from the region. And this has benefitted the local Kenyan fishermen who fish for a living, as this article from The Scotsman testifies. Given that the state of the world’s fisheries and fish population are not looking good, to allow fish populations to recover from the state of being overfished would certainly be beneficial for its conservation even if biodiversity might not have expanded.

The article concludes that it is “depopulation” that makes the difference between conservation / protection and extinction. Sadly but truly, humans may sometimes have to remove themselves from the equation if nature and the environment is to recover and thrive. Would this be possible? Would this be humane? Would this be fair? I suspect this method of conservation would probably never be broached seriously.

Putting a price on nature

60 cents for the droplet...

For something that combines thoroughly both concepts of economics and the environment. A question that occasionally pops up when we ask about how we can internalise the external costs and benefits of nature, how we can monetise and valuate what is deemed free or priceless and how can we account for environmental protection and conservation in our equations of governance and environmental management.

The trigger for these questions came about when I read The Economist’s Green.view column online and saw an article about “price fixing”: not so much price fixing in terms of what we learn in Economics about monopolistic behaviour, but about how we can fix a pricetag on nature.

There’s plenty of debate with regard to putting a price on nature, as witnessed from the tremendous number of articles that can be found on this issue. The plausibility of this recommendation, with a detailed discussion on how it can work, has been discussed on Earthbeat on Australia’s Radio National, while in very recent history there has been a flurry of writings from Planet Green, The New York Times and BBC News. LiveScience has a more concrete and specific suggestion: a “market-driven approach to habitat preservation”.

Anyway, let me just try to summarise and highlight some of the pros and cons of putting a pricetag on nature. You should read the articles above for much more detailed discussions however.

Why would / should we put a price on nature?

1. Solve misallocation of resources: what we learn in economics in terms of the external costs of, say, water pollution on marine biodiversity, would thus be accounted for when firms do cost-benefit analysis because there’s a explicit price tag attached to it (The Economist uses a slightly different line of argument, I’m just phrasing what I understand in my own words)

2. Allows for developing and some especially-impoverished but nature-rich countries to tap into the money-spinning potential for the natural resources and at the same time enable economic development

3. On the Earthbeat link, it quotes a paper written in the Nature journal 4 years earlier on the value of “ecosystem services”, valued at US$33tr. Compared to the GDP of Earth at US$18tr, it seems like there is plenty of value in these “ecosystem services” waiting to be tapped, of which these services could be invaluable to humans (for example, clean air)

Why cant / shouldnt we put a price on nature?

1. Insult to the concept of the beauty of nature or reducing everything intangible in the environment to a dollar value or ignoring the greater benefits that ecosystems and nature provides. Like the sense of serenity and peace when one walks in a park: that cannot exactly be quantified in a monetary sense, and that may not be reflected even if a pricetag were to be placed on the park

2. How do we put a value to animals that might be of little utility but of much value to conservation and beauty? The article in The Economist compares the panda, which “humans are fond of”, with the dung bettle, which “provide the greatest utility”. How then do you price the two vis-a-vis each other?

The articles themselves cover much more details and examples. Again, this is some more food for thought for those who have always found themselves fighting a moral battle in their minds between economic development and environmental conservation.

Flame retardants or fertility retardants?

This, or your baby?

If you watched The Story of Stuff, you might have been aware of the example of the tremendous amount of chemicals in many, if not all, of the consumer products we use. Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in pillows were featured as an example of the excessive chemical pollution in our lives. The Economist last month featured an article about flame retardants that twins nicely with what The Story of Stuff has covered.

In the article, polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs), a form of brominated flame retardants, are used to reduce “the risk of ignition” but it is now so widespread that 97% of Americans have traces of it in their bodies. And it is suggested that these chemicals have effects on our health, such as in terms of fertility. In a study done in California, it appears that with each tenfold increase in PBDE concentration in the body one’s probability of becoming pregant decreases.

More studies are now underway to determine their effects, and these studies, once verified, would be important and may be perhaps groundbreaking, just like how DDT transformed overnight from being an ally in fighting pests to being a pest in itself. Will we be able to do away with BFRs? Will BFRs, whose concentrations have been doubling in our bodies every 4-6 years since the 1970s, do irreversible damage to our health? Unfortunately, only time will tell.

Meanwhile, some contrasting arguments coming from the environmentalists and the industrial experts. Greenpeace makes arguments for the phasing out of BFRs from our lives but will it be this easy? On the other hand Bromine Science and Environment Forum (BSEF) claims that BFRs are not as dangerous as the environmentalists make them out to be. So are the industrial experts, consisting of BFR manufacturers, telling the truth or are they themselves unaware of the full impact of their products?