People, Planet, Profits & Projects

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Richard Maltzman
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Project Managers - still we persist...

Have a... Seat

Trillions of Tons - Part 4 of 3

Trillions of Tons - Part 3 of 3

A Trillion Tons - Part 2 of 3

Project Managers - still we persist...

Categories: ocean cleanup

A while ago I posted about an ambitious initiative to clean up the ocean’s plastic pollution.  It is led by a young Dutch innovator named Boyan Slat.  If you forgot that post or want a refresher, here’s an excellent video describing the initiative.

  Like any project, and perhaps even more, due to its level of innovation and ambition, it is prone to uncertainty.  And indeed, this project has hit a snag.

From this story published by NBC news:

An ambitious project to clean up a vast tide of ocean pollution has been sidelined. The project's 2,000-foot-long screen — which was already failing to capture plastic while stationed more than 1,000 miles off the coast of California — broke apart just before New Year's under the constant wind and waves of the Pacific Ocean.

USA Today also reported on the failure here:

...and also here:

What does a project manager do when there is a setback?  Do we quit?  Perhaps.  The PMBOK® Guide and general good practice tells us to re-evaluate our projects to see if we have reached a “kill point”.  But that’s not what’s happening with this project, perhaps because the stakes (and the levels of plastic in the ocean) are so high.  Nope, we're not quitting.  Like "The Little Engine That Could", in this case, the project team chooses to persevere - to try again... to be agile and creative... and to persist.

“Of course there is slight disappointment, because we hoped to stay out there a bit longer to do more experiments and to….solve the [plastic] retention issue,” Slat said. “But there is no talk whatsoever about discouragement.

What has to happen?  More development.  In a very odd way, this is a form of Agile, isn’t it?  Listen to the inventor again:

 “This is one of the classic structural engineering challenges,” Slat said. “You saw it first with the railroads, then with airlines and now with this first cleanup system. It’s very hard to predict. It’s very hard to model. So this is all very educational.”

In other words: design, deploy a prototype, fail, modify, re-design, deploy, fail a little less, learn each time, rinse and repeat until: success.

Despite the failure, I applaud the effort and find the attitude and focus very refreshing – and something from which we can all take a lesson.

I will be following up with two other ocean cleanup stories over the next weeks.  One involves an initiative to manually collect the plastic washing up on shorelines and turn the waste into bracelets.  The other is a story of an effort similar to Slat’s OceanCleanup system from Israeli company Soda Stream.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: February 09, 2019 12:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Have a... Seat

Many project managers are unfamiliar with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.  You can learn about them in this brief video.

If you don't have the patience for a 3 minute video, they're also shown below:

In this particular post, I invite you to have a seat, any seat, but consider that seat in your home that has a flush lever behind or above it.  In fact, I’d like to warn at least some readers that this post could make you a little bit queasy. 

Why?  Because this post is about Sustainable Goal 6: Sanitation.  And it’s something that showed up in PM Network magazine last month, and caught my attention.

The PM Network article was entitled “Cleaning Spree”.  It discusses a program in India called Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.  It is a $29B program (in other words, approximately 5 US-Mexico Border walls in size).  India is building about 62,000 toilets a day to eliminate open defecation, aiming to be ODF (Open Defecation Free) by a very specific program end date: 2-October 2019.  Mark your calendars!

As of the publishing date of “Cleaning Spree”, the progress was impressive, with the households having individual latrines going from about 39% in October of 2014 when the program launched, to over 95% now.  The program inspired me to dig a little deeper.  I found that the government had created a program website – something I encourage project and program managers to do, especially in civil works.  It informs citizens of how their tax money is being spent.  Here’s a screenshot:

This shows that the country is now not at 95% but actually almost at 99%.
Here, you’ll also find the program’s mission statement:

To accelerate the efforts to achieve universal sanitation coverage and to put focus on sanitation, the Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, launched the Swachh Bharat Mission on 2nd October, 2014. The Mission Coordinator shall be Secretary, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) with two Sub-Missions – the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) and the Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban). The Mission aims to achieve a Swachh Bharat by 2019, as a fitting tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary.

This site also branches to the official Indian government web pages which provide more detail on the progress by state (see below) and  the Vision and specific Objectives of the project.

The aim of Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) is to achieve a clean and Open Defecation Free (ODF) India by 2nd October, 2019

•    To bring about an improvement in the general quality of life in the rural areas, by promoting cleanliness, hygiene and eliminating open defecation.
•    To accelerate sanitation coverage in rural areas to achieve the vision of Swachh Bharat by 2nd October 2019.
•    To motivate communities to adopt sustainable sanitation practices and facilities through awareness creation and health education.
•    To encourage cost effective and appropriate technologies for ecologically safe and sustainable sanitation.
•    To develop, wherever required, community managed sanitation systems focusing on scientific Solid & Liquid Waste Management systems for overall cleanliness in the rural areas.
•    To create significant positive impact on gender and promote social inclusion by improving sanitation especially in marginalized communities
One of the things that impressed me about this program is that from the start, the principals realized that this was less a construction project and more of a mindset project.  The program produced a set of stories called “An Open Mind” which you can read in its entirety here:, and there was even a movie called “Toilet: A Love Story” which made this a key theme.  The trailer for this film is below.

  Bill Gates actually commented on this at the end of 2017, calling the movie one of the best things that happened worldwide in that entire year.

By focusing on the mindset and getting buy-in from the millions and millions of stakeholders, this project has been successful.

Sit on that thought for a while.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: January 26, 2019 03:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Trillions of Tons - Part 4 of 3


Yeah... Math was never a strong point for me.  Yes, you read that correctly, this is Part 4 of an originally-3-part series.  But I am being Agile.  Adapting. I'm allowing a new requirement to change the design.

This is a short post about a carbon-capture-at-the-source technique that was just covered a few days ago in Popular Mechanics magazine.


The idea is to actually use carbon to capture carbon at the source - at coal plants.

Of course, eventually we need to get "off" of fossil fuel, but for now, we need to do all we can to limit CO2 production at the source as we work on renewable, non-fossil energy sources.  For those carbon plants, the process to scrub and sequester carbon has been expensive.  This solution promises to be significantly less expensive and easy to implement.

Tiny carbon spheres with holes in them - holes so small that they are only slightly larger than the carbon dioxide atoms they’re meant to collect.

There's even a name for the material, reminiscent of a certain Mary Poppins song... "ultramicroporous" (see below - all along, it turns out they were singing about carbon sequestration!).

In this paper, the technique is explained in technical detail.  Bottom line: a powder made from ultramicroporous nanosphere.  From the abstract of the paper:

"An ultrahigh ultramicropore content of 95.5% was achieved for the optimally-designed carbon nanospheres, which demonstrated excellent CO2 capture performances with extremely high capacities of 1.58 mmol g−1 at typical flue gas conditions and 4.30 mmol g−1 at 25 °C and ambient pressure. Beyond that, the CO2 adsorption mechanism in ultramicropore was also investigated through molecular dynamics simulation to guide the pore size optimization. This work provides a novel and facile guideline to engineer carbon materials with abundant and tunable ultramicroporosity towards superior CO2 capture performance".

A product of work jointly done between Canada's University of Waterloo, by Professor Zhongwei ChenCanadian Research Chair Professor
in Advanced Materials for Clean Energy, and several colleagues in China, the work was recently promoted on that University's web page.

You add this to the list of carbon capture techniques although this one is meant to be a bit more preventive.

Next time, I'll try to do a better job of arithmetic!


Posted by Richard Maltzman on: January 10, 2019 07:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Trillions of Tons - Part 3 of 3

In Part 1 of this blog post, I introduced the idea of carbon capture (removing CO2 from the atmosphere), the drivers for the effort, but also the project, program, and portfolio management aspects of the idea.  In Part 2, since it featured the direct air capture technique, I went into some of the technical details of that particular strategy.

In that post, I asked readers to think about secondary effects of the technique, the fact that even in a project which is geared at long-term thinking, ecology, and sustainability, the second-order effects (secondary risks) must be taken into account – with at least as much vim, vigor, and vitality as in a “regular” project (whatever that means).

In this post, I’d like to take that idea a little further and also, as promised, survey the various strategies for carbon capture, beyond the direct air capture technique featured in the photos and in the first two posts.

Much of this material comes to you courtesy of an outstanding article by Richard Conniff in Scientific American.  Hey, it’s still effectively time for New Year’s resolutions, how about adding one for yourself – subscribe to this magazine, an American ‘treasure’ – the oldest continuously-published magazine in the United States.  Disclaimer: I have no connection to Scientific American, other than a subscriber, I just think that project managers can’t know enough about the world around them and this magazine provides that knowledge in an intelligent but accessible fashion.  Facts are good!


So: on to the strategies.  They are:

  • Bioenergy
  • Weathering
  • Forestry
  • Biochar
  • Direct Air Capture
  • Ocean Fertilization
  • Soil Sequestration

In summary:

 Bioenergy involves taking advantage of the fact that plants ‘breathe in’ CO2.  Plants are burned or fermented to turn them into fuel  The CO2 is extracted and stored underground.

Weathering starts by creating stone dust from rock.  The dust is then spread onto fields, and as it draws CO2 from the air, it fertilizes the soil.  Or it can be added to seawater converting the CO2 into carbonates that fall to the sea floor.

Forestry – really reforestation and afforestation involves planting trees (in large numbers) to replace clear-cut forests or to expand currently-growing forests.  This is about helping nature help us!


Biochar involves (hold your nose!) the oxygen-less heating of crops (technically called pyrolysis, see below), manure, or organic waste, which creates biochar, a residue quite like charcoal which is, of course, rich in carbon.  This can be used as fertilizer.

Direct Air Capture has been discussed in Parts 1 and 2.

Ocean Fertilization uses iron filings distributed into seawater, aiding in the growth of plankton, which breathe in CO2 and convert that into sugars (and more plankton).  Dead plankton (with CO2 embedded) sink to the sea floor.

Soil Sequestration takes advantage of grasses or other plants that breathe in CO2 and convert it to root material which helps bind the carbon into the soil.  Soil can hold a limited amount of carbon.

As you have probably deduced, each of these techniques have advantages and disadvantages.  Also, as a project manager, you are already familiar with decision making techniques such as weighted tables.  The chart below (courtesy of the referenced Scientific American article) does a good job of comparing each of the technologies (rows) and showing the secondary risks in the columns, taking advantage of color (maroon is negative, green is positive, amber is limited) to show whether we’re dealing with a threat or an opportunity.

Have a look at the article, in particular the section called “How the Carbon Capture Strategies Stack Up” to learn not only more about this subject, but how, as a PM, you can use a tool like the one shown here to compare options in any sort of project.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: January 04, 2019 02:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

A Trillion Tons - Part 2 of 3

In Part 1, I introduced the carbon capture technique being employed in Iceland.  In this part I’ll dive a bit more into how this technology works.  In Part 3, I’ll zoom back out to illustrate the variety of technologies (spurring many projects) that all aim at removing carbon from the atmosphere.

I was going to write a long, detailed post but found this wonderfully expressed video with outstanding imagery of the project and an explanation of how it works here:

AnthropoScene III : Hellishei∂i; or, the Post-Modern Prometheus from Adam Sébire on Vimeo.

This diagram also provides more for those with the technical inclination.


The project management question here (other than the scope, schedule, budget of the project) is this – for your consideration: are there any secondary risks to this process?  One article in Science magazine says:

Bigger field tests are needed, says geologist Peter Kelemen of Columbia University, to confirm that such a high fraction of the injected carbon was mineralized. (Columbia is a CarbFix partner, but Kelemen is not on the project.) Scaled-up demonstrations could also make sure that the speed of the reaction won’t turn into a drawback, Stanford’s Benson says. If carbonation generates minerals that quickly plug the pores in the basalt, she worries, they could trap CO2 near the injection site instead of letting it spread through the rock.

There is research in this area – some examples here and here.

Ironically, even in the area of sustainability projects, long-term thinking, and secondary risk considerations are critical.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: January 01, 2019 11:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."

- Albert Einstein