If you follow this blog, you know that it is about the intersection of PM and ‘sustainability’. Sustainability, for our purposes, is the consideration of the impacts of your project on the Triple Bottom Line (TBL), with the three elements being social, ecological, and economic.
In simple terms, it means considering the long-term operation of your projects outcome. It doesn’t mean you have to be the one operating it, just that you have considered what that operation means (from a TBL persective) as you initiate, plan, and execute your project plan.
This post focuses on the ecological element of the TBL, and it’s a different angle for me, because it is about software and programming languages, something I’ve not written about before.
I found a fascinating one-page (well, two sides on one physical page) article in Nature’s 1-August-2019 edition, about Julia.
No… not this Julia.
And not this Julia either…
And not even this Gulia.
Instead it’s the programming language Julia. You can’t consider me an expert in this area; my background includes programming, but it was in Assembly language, BASIC, Fortran, and Pascal. However I remain fascinated by the art and science of writing code.
What does this have to do with projects and sustainability? Well, the article is about a project undertaken by CliMA –the Climate Modeling Alliance.
Here is the CliMA mission statement:
We know that climate change is poised to reshape our world, but we lack clear enough predictions about precisely how. At CliMA, our mission is to provide the accurate and actionable scientific information needed to face the coming changes—to mitigate what is avoidable, and to adapt to what is not. We want to provide the predictions necessary to plan resilient infrastructure, adapt supply chains, devise efficient climate change mitigation policies, and assess the risks of climate-related hazards to vulnerable communities.
We are a coalition of scientists, engineers, and applied mathematicians from Caltech, MIT, the Naval Postgraduate School, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. We are building a new Earth system model that leverages recent advances in the computational and data sciences to learn directly from a wealth of Earth observations from space and the ground. Our model will harness more data than ever before, providing a new level of accuracy to predictions of droughts, heat waves, and rainfall extremes.
CliMA needed a programming language to build a climate model from scratch. They chose Julia, and this article describes the WHY and the HOW.
Julia is an open source programming language launched in 2012. It combines the capabilities of scripting languages such as R, Matlab, and Python, but it is also known for the speed of compiled languages such as C and Fortran. Yes, Fortran. You can imagine that young coders are not exactly thrilled to be coding in a programming language that hails from the same era as this car:
Attracting young, talented programmers is part of the project’s resourcing problem, and using Julia has helped solve that problem. Aside from attracting talent, Julia simply does things faster.
From the article:
Michael Stumpf, a systems biologist and self-styled Julia proselytizer at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who has ported computational models from R, has seen an 800-fold improvement. “You can do things in an hour that would otherwise take weeks or months,” he says.
Julia simply excels at what the article calls “computationally-intense” work. With the advent of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and big data in projects, it behooves us as PMs to introduce ourselves to Julia (and vice-versa). Should you want to emulate the success of the CliMA researchers for their project, here is some assistance.
• Julia: julialang.org
• Juno, a free Julia language ‘integrated development environment’ including a code editor, debugging tools and interactive console: junolab.org
• Debugger: go.nature.com/2jdfr5g
• IJulia, a ‘kernel’ for writing Julia code in Jupyter: go.nature.com/2jldaj2
• Packages: go.nature.com/30brtxe
• Julia language documentation: go.nature.com/2nxrqup
• Think Julia: go.nature.com/2y7skii
• Slack: julialang.slack.com
• Discourse: discourse.julialang.org
• Gitter: gitter.im/JuliaLang/julia
• An interactive and executable Julia notebook, highlighting some key features, is available at go.nature.com/2lxllfd
An old television show in the US called Laugh-In used to have a “bit” in which they awarded the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate to some entity they felt deserved … well, to be pointed at.
Big data can be a finger-pointer. That is, with big data and the availability of AI and analytics, a line between cause and effect can be made clear, as described in a very recent issue of Nature.
That’s the case with a connection between two provinces of China and a spike in the rise of atmospheric trichloroflouromethane emissions which was traced to Hebei and Shandong in northeastern China (see highlighted map below).
This chemical, also called CFC-11, or R11, was used as a refrigerant but also can be used in the manufacture of insulating foam.
Monitoring stations in Japan and South Korea detected the spike and via analysis were able to definitively point to these two areas, which in the past had been manufacturing insulating foam using that chemical, and now are suspected to have started again, although the production of this material with that chemical is against international regulations – it generates an ozone-depleting gas.
For its part, China disputes the specific claim but does agree that more data is needed to understand the problem. Trichloroflouromethane, also called CFC-11, has been banned by the Montreal Protocol of 1987, to be totally phased out by 2010. Measurements indeed confirmed that the presence of CFC-11 had dropped, until 2013, when the drop slowed suddenly – indicating that there was a new source of CFC-11 emissions offsetting the decline.
What’s the connection to project management?
As PMs we need to be savvy about project rationale – project launch – project selection. In this case, the rationale for a major monitoring network, to be built by the Chinese government, is the focus of this article. In May of this year, the environmental ministry wants to provide its own monitoring to either confirm or deny - using data - what the studies from South Korea and Japan are showing.
There will be stations located in Hebei and Shandong, with a goal to pinpoint the source. The hopes are that the Chinese ministry will share its data openly with the US (the NOAA), Japan, and South Korea.
Indeed, China has acknowledged some illegal production of CFC-11, and that it had seized 114 tons of illegally-produced CFC-11 since 2012 but that does not approach the roughly 7000 tons that are estimated to have been produced according to the analytics.
As a project manager one could certainly look at the findings from the analytics to be a project launched in response, and we could also look at new atmospheric data collection initiatives as projects as well. One mentioned in this article is that being led by Professor Claire Reeves of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, which is building a CFC-11 data set from samples taken in Taiwan – which has independently found a source of new CFC-11 from northeastern China.
Regarding the monitoring project, it will make use of the existing 1,000 air-quality monitoring stations (such as the one pictured below), but will require updating of the stations, programs to make more frequent readings, and will establish six new labs capable of doing testing for ozone-depleting chemicals.
In December, 2019, China has said that it will report on the progress of this project at a global meeting on this topic.
Here are the articles covering the studies which detected the CFC-11 emissions:
Montzka, S. A. et al. Nature 557, 413-417 (2018).
Rigby, M. et al. Nature 569, 546–550 (2019).
Zhang, G. et al. Atmos. Environ. 160, 55–69 (2017).
Here is part II of my interview with Ajaita Shah. For background on Ajaita Shah, Frontier Markets (FM) and to find out what the heck a Solar Saheli is… please see Part I.
Rich: What are the threats and opportunities of a typical Frontier project, and how to you respond to some of your more interesting threats and/or opportunities?
Ajaita Shah: FM has built a proven and scalable model with a network of 2,500 women entrepreneurs (Solar Sahelis) that are trained and access technology, marketing, and technical repair, to provide innovative solar solutions to sell to rural households. However, as Frontier Markets expands into new states and new business lines, it faces many risks in the process. Frontier Markets has systematically identified all risks that could possibly impact their current operations and future operations in states of expansion. Both external and internal risks are identified and are constantly monitored to appraise management of the risk possibilities.
Rich: You’re doing a splendid job empowering women. What advice do you have for our female project managers?
Ajaita Shah: Solve a problem, don’t create one. If it’s just about making money, then by all means make money. But your life is more than money. It should be fulfilling, it should feed your passions. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. But if you’re like me and you feel it in your bones–then launch a business that will be successful because it solves a real problem and provides real value. In the end, that will be sustainable and profitable and better fulfill your life. Be ready to make mistakes, be ready for chaos, be ready for failures, and do not focus on the successes, do not focus on yourself – it’s a crazy ride, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you recognize that the people along the ride are your partners in the journey.
Take the time to truly understand what youre looking to solve, and why you want to become an entrepreneur; the best thing I did was spend years working with other social enterprises that were addressing challenges or working with communities I was interested in – I had the opportunity to truly learn about the market, the problem, how to run a company, while also being an asset to a new organization – it’s a win-win. I have met many people that want to jump into setting up social enterprise, but actually have not take the time to truly experience the problem they are trying to address – also partner! There are brilliant ideas and people trying to address common challenges, ideally we start understanding shared value better and start partnering to address the challenges – reduces wastage of resources, and also creates an opportunity to focus and invest in solving challenges leveraging targeted skills.
Be humble – assume you know nothing, and that the person that you’re working for, knows everything – your job is to understand it in a way that allows you to find an approach that works. We talk about Human-Centered thinking, but true practice is when we’re willing to have the right people on the table to help build a solution.
Rich: What comments do you have in general about projects that work to improve social or ecological conditions, rather than strictly economic measures?
Ajaita Shah: For renewables market. I am very optimistic – we have been seeing it happen with our own eyes – the sheer adoption, and the impact of the adoption; rural households are recognizing the value of embracing off-grid/ clean energy solutions for a few key reasons:
a) they own their systems – hence having 100% control over their power consumption
b) they understand the reliability is based on the sun, not distributed connections or politics, hence having more control
c) they are seeing the outcome of their investment: saving on kerosene expenses that are linked to both kerosene as a cost, and the sheer amount of health scares that are linked to it. Productivity: people are keeping their shops open for longer hours, they are working on additional income opportunities at night, they are seeing their children study safely, they are applying it to machinery that they require for their occupations. Safety – the fact that families don’t have to worry about kerosene fires, or disasters is huge, the fact that they have control over darkness is huge.
My optimism comes from the stories I’ve heard, and the families I’ve met and the Sahelis of course who tell me their motivation to make this happen for all villages quickly. I believe the energy transition will lead to a new rural consumer, a new rural economy, because we’re providing an opportunity of infrastructure that creates a fair level of productivity for farmers to earn more and be heard.
As promised in a prior blog post (which also contains the background), here is Part 1 of 2 of my interview with Ajaita Shah (thanks to Amrit Mohan of Frontier Markets for providing some of the answers as well).
Have a look at this brand-new video from CNN featuring Ajaita.
Q1: Let’s start with your company’s Mission Statement and then we’ll get to the good stuff – the projects.
According to Wikipedia, your mission is to provide over 10 million products to 30 million households in India and become a global leader in rural distribution and products for low-income households. FM (Frontier Markets) also trains women (known as "Solar Sahelis") to market, sell, and service renewable energy products in rural Rajasthan. FM has sold 703,000 products, and trained over 5000 entrepreneurs (50% women)
PMI says a project is: ‘a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result’. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. Given that,
How do you see the mission in terms of projects (or do you)? Or is this more of an ongoing operation? Do you launch projects? If so, how do you define them in terms of scope, schedule, and time?
Frontier Markets (FM) is a rural distribution company that markets high-impact consumer durables in India through a network of digitised local entrepreneurs with women at the centre of the value chain. FM helps rural communities achieve “Saral Jeevan,” or “Easy Life” by providing targeted, customised product solutions designed with direct input from rural communities. FM developed innovations like a solar torch and home lighting system, solar-powered television with built-in access to a wide range of channels that retails for less than $200, solar-powered poultry farming devices, and induction stoves.
At the core of FM’s model are women leaders and entrepreneurs, called Solar Sahelis. FM’s network of Sahelis is FM’s direct link to remote households. They bring products to customers, relay insights back into FM, and create an ecosystem of shared value and trust between FM and rural communities. By investing in Solar Sahelis’ long-term professional growth, FM helps her develop the skills she needs to understand her customers and meet their needs. FM offers a range of income-generating opportunities and helps her develop the skills she needs to fill these roles. FM’s model is built around women leaders because we believe that they are a bankable investment with the potential to drive deep social change.
To date, FM’s network of 2,500 Solar Sahelis have contributed to 703,000 clean energy solutions sold to 600,000 households, impacting 3.5 MN lives, preventing the release of over 950,000 tonnes of carbon.
FM believes that rural households are the future economy of the world and need their voices to be heard; that providing them access to quality products and services that address their safety, productivity, and aspiration will drive a systemic change to the world. FM believes that investing in women is “Smart Business,” and the KEY to poverty alleviation at scale.
Q2: Who are your stakeholders? Clearly the Solar Sahelis are, but who else? And for our audience, could you tell us about the profile of a Solar Saheli, what they do for you, and what you’ve done for them?
I think it’s best to reply with our Unified Partnership Model: Operating Together for Shared-Value Impact
Government: FM is leveraging the Rajasthan government’s E-Mitra network to digitize orders, build local stock points, and rapidly scale operations in new areas. FM partnered with the government’s National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) initiative to develop a network of women’s livelihood enhancement groups. FM is involved with Niti Aayog to convert Solar Sahelis into recognized business owners.
Civil society organizations (CSOs): FM contributes to CSOs’ financial sustainability by hiring experienced CSOs to train Solar Sahelis. FM recruits Solar Sahelis through the CSOs’ networks, linking the skills acquired through the training to financial opportunities. Through successful partnerships with Barefoot College, Ibtada, Grameen Evam Samajik Vikas Sanstha (GSVS), Manjari Foundation, and Spectra, FM can rapidly expand into new areas and reach more villages.
Companies: FM provides market insights to manufacturers and businesses planning to enter rural markets. After partnering with FM, one manufacturer reported a 15 to 30% decrease in total costs across the value chain and a 2 to 5% increase in net income.
Financial institutions: Through partnerships with financial institutions, FM has co-designed several financial products to test in rural markets, including a model for rural women to access working capital. This model has been net income positive for the last two years, demonstrating opportunities for strong return on equity to investors.
Ecosystem Enablers: Industry platforms like GOGLA gives FM the access to new future partners which include manufacturers. IFC gives FM strategic guidance, access to new partners as well as penetration inside rural villages through its Consumer Awareness Campaign for Lighting India. FM has been engaging with UNSe4All for leadership structures and participating in pushing gender energy access on global platforms. Ashden has helped FM showcase its story.
FM believes innovation lies in the core of its philosophy; deep and targeted linkages between wealth creation and social impact. Empowerment is linked to financial gain. Therefore, FM’s lens is market based to drive value and wealth throughout the value chain; for rural consumers, women leaders, innovative product and service solutions, partners, and employees. The business model is a “bottoms-up” approach with women at the center of design. FM uses an investment lens that is long-term equity vs. short term gains believing this eventually leads to exponential profit with exponential impact. FM invests in a leadership network, and village consumer as an asset class.
Women Leaders: Investment Strategy:
FM invests in women with a belief that she is necessary to drive systemic change. This is because of FM’s understanding of the village ecosystem; in order to introduce high impact high, quality products that are costly, there is a behaviour change that women can drive because women are emotionally connected and build trust in communities. Enabling them to drive behavioural change faster. FM recognized that:
We invest in women leaders, not sales agents. Therefore, we invest heavily in her capacity, support her in marketing, and do it in incremental ways to ensure it’s effective giving her the time to become confident in what she is doing and investing the next.
Skill-development training: FM collaborates with CSOs that specialize in rural livelihood education to provide appropriate and targeted training to develop Solar Sahelis’ digital, financial, and marketing skills.
Continued support: After training, FM provides continuous operational, marketing, and coordination support for Solar Sahelis.
Tools for success: FM invests in Solar Sahelis by providing demo kits, stock, and helps her access capital to grow her business faster.
The long-term investment strategy is to develop her resume, to build her ability to access capital on her own, to build her credit history and justify returns through outcomes.
Take a long-term approach to investment: FM’s interventions generate life-time value for customers in the form of durable, high-quality, and context-specific products with reliable after-sale service plans. FM provides Solar Sahelis with skills and opportunities to sustainably generate income.
Diversify income sources for the rural workforce: FM involves Solar Sahelis in a wide range of wealth-creation opportunities, which has created a 400% increase in her income level over the past 4 years. She can also leverage the skills she acquires with FM to gain employment with firms.
Leverage data: FM’s evidence-based approach contributes to better decision making, faster response to market changes, and deeper insight into rural communities. FM reduces the costs of working in remote villages by collecting data through its call center and is currently developing a mobile app to improve connectivity.
Take a bottom-up approach: FM listens to rural customers because they are experts on their own needs and aspirations. By collecting feedback and insights from customers, FM created a product basket that is tailored to meet the needs of rural customers and designed an effective after-sale service plan.
Create a customer-centric model: FM selects products based on the needs of the rural customers. If the product doesn’t exist, FM works with product manufacturers to find a solution. For example, FM’s Solar Rakshak Plus, a long-range solar torch, was designed based on inputs from rural women.
Capacity optimization: By investing in Solar Sahelis’ long-term professional growth, FM helps her develop the skills she needs to understand her customers and meet their needs. FM offers a range of income-generating opportunities and helps her develop the skills she needs to fill these roles. Collecting data to inform the decisions of product manufacturers, for example, is one source of income she can access through FM.
FM’s Returns on Innovations
In Part 2, coming later this week or early next, Ajaita will discuss aspects of project risk management, her views on corporate social responsibility, and give some advice for female project managers.
As a ‘seasoned’ project manager, I often find that the tools we use in PM are useful elsewhere – and I’m always on the lookout for tools and philosophies from outside our discipline that can be adapted and brought into PM to help us manage – and contextualize – projects from a broader viewpoint. In a way it's like having a river of sustainability thinking running through PM and a river of PM running through sustainability thinking.
Such was the case from a recent article in Nature, Prepare River Ecosystems for an Uncertain Future. I mean, the title says it all, Project Managers: Preparing for an Uncertain Future – well, projects are unique, which means they are, by definition, working with an uncertain future. We’re in unknown territory. With climate change, it’s the same thing. We’ve never seen some of the things we’re going to see over the next few decades. How do we deal with that?
The article states:
Rivers around the world are struggling to cope with changing weather patterns. In Germany and Switzerland, a heatwave last year killed thousands of fish and blocked shipping on the River Rhine. California is emerging from a six-year drought1 that restricted water supplies and devastated trees, fish and other aquatic life. Across the US southwest, extended dry spells are destroying many more forests and wetlands.
The article says that “the tools of old” will not serve us in the same way. We can no longer even hope to restore river systems to their original state as the climate warms. We need to be less reactive, says the article, and more proactive. We need to identify risk, it says in so many words, and come up with risk responses in advance, rather than reacting in real time to the massive changes expected. Sound familiar?
In short, the article (and others like it) are promoting the use of tools we know and use in project management: data analytics and modeling (a la Monte Carlo simulation), trend analysis, and so on. Note this extract:
Today, river managers track properties such as species diversity and population abundance, and compare them with historical averages. If they spot troubling declines, they might intervene by, for instance, altering the amount of water released from dams. But by the time trends are detected, they can be impossible to arrest.
Understanding how sensitive ecosystems might change is crucial to managing them in the future.
Again, this is about being proactive, about understanding systems on a system level as opposed to measuring specific reliable attributes we’ve always used in the past. Those indicators simply may not be as trustworthy when the system itself is dynamic and being driven by sweeping changes – overarching changes – that we have never seen before. And, armed with this information (and knowledge and wisdom) we can plan risk responses that are effective:
...in the US southwest, river flows could be increased strategically from reservoirs to protect important species, such as cottonwoods. And in Australia, letting more water pass through dams in spring could stop rivers drying up while the eggs of Murray cod mature.
The reason Murray cod are mentioned in particular, is the recent demise of thousands of these very valuable fish (Australia’s largest freshwater species) in a recent heat wave there.
Assuring that risk response is both efficient and effective is key here. We’re all familiar with the use of Pareto analysis to choose the 20% of problem causes to get rid of 80% of the problem effects – and the same applies here. So does the concept of secondary risk. If actions are taken to intervene, what are the possible secondary risks? This also comes up in the article:
Process-based models can look further ahead and save time, money and disruption by limiting the number of interventions as well as avoiding adverse impacts. They would help stakeholders and managers to choose which features of ecosystems to maintain, to justify costly interventions such as major engineering works and to weigh trade-offs to build resilience under increasing climatic uncertainty
An example of using system models to predict change decades or even centuries in advance is shown below. We’re not used to this as PMs, are we? Our projects last months, years, or in some rare ‘megaproject’ cases, last decades, but not centuries. Yet our “planning horizon” can and should be broader, especially when climate change is in the picture.
In other words, we, as PMs, can learn a lot from what these researchers are doing – and I would assert that ‘vice-versa’ is true as well. Since we, as PMs are masters (or should be) at managing in uncertainty, we can help with the application of our mindset and tools for dealing with uncertainty to the important work of identifying, analyzing, and responding to the coming threats (and perhaps even opportunities)