The image for this blog post is oddly appropriate. It’s about a breakthrough in science which is called “a milestone” by Nature magazine in a recent article. Nature is not exactly a sensationalist journal. So when they say milestone… it is one.
The article’s key paragraph is here:
The achievement is a milestone, say scientists, because it drastically alters the inner workings of one of biology’s most popular model organisms. And in the future, CO2-eating E. coli could be used to make organic carbon molecules that could be used as biofuels or to produce food. Products made in this way would have lower emissions compared with conventional production methods, and could potentially remove the gas from the air.
Normally, E. Coli (officially Escherichia coli) prefers to eat sugars and emits carbon dioxide as a waste product. In other words, it eats here and gets gas. We want the little critters to instead consume carbon dioxide. There are aquatic microbes that transform CO2 into oxygen but these are difficult to genetically modify in quantity so that they could become a “biological factory’ to mass-capture CO2 and produce beneficial outcomes.
E.Coli is actually easy to genetically modify – and it grows quickly, so the engineering changes can be quickly optimized. But it has that sweet tooth habit that’s hard to kick.
The breakthrough that’s taken place here is a switch in diet. The E.Coli can be tricked into eating CO2 for their source of carbon rather than eating sugars and er… gassing out… CO2.
Paraphrasing the article:
Ron Milo and his team at the Weizmann Institute in Israel used a mix of genetic engineering and lab evolution to create a strain of E. coli that can get all its carbon from CO2. To trick the E.Coli, , they gave the bacterium genes that encode a pair of enzymes that allow photosynthetic organisms to convert CO2 into organic carbon.
To overcome the fact that E.Coli does not have any means to use light to process the CO2 into organic carbon, they inserted a gene that lets the bacterium glean energy from an organic molecule called formate.
But that wasn’t enough. The E.Coli still wouldn’t go for the CO2 meal. The project team had to persist.
To further tweak the strain, the researchers cultured successive generations of the modified E. coli for a year, giving them only minute quantities of sugar, and CO2 at concentrations about 250 times those in Earth’s atmosphere. They hoped that the bacteria would evolve mutations to adapt to this new diet. After about 200 days, the first cells capable of using CO2 as their only carbon source emerged. And after 300 days, these bacteria grew faster in the lab conditions than did those that could not consume CO2.
Isn’t that interesting? It’s almost like breeding dogs for certain behaviors, as we did with shepherds to modify their hunting instincts into one that stalks but does not kill sheep. This team found a way to turn the hunting (sugar eating) bacterium into herding (CO2 eating) bacterium.
Milo and his team hope to make their bacteria grow faster and live on lower levels of CO2. They are also trying to understand how the E. coli evolved to eat CO2: changes in just 11 genes seemed to allow the switch, and they are now working on determining how.
See a short video explanation of the work here:
From a project management perspective here are a couple of takeaways:
Persistence – this team had to deal with setbacks when the bacterium did not respond as they had hoped to the first modifications
The multi-disciplinary and global nature of projects – this team combined engineering, biology, genetics, analytics – and many others to achieve success.
Long-term view – this team focused their efforts on producing a solution aimed at helping to solve climate change.
Reference: Nature 576, 19-20 (2019)
Also, you can find the technical article from Cell right here: https://www.cell.com/cell/pdfExtended/S0092-8674(16)30668-7
I'd like to share an initiative started by some like-minded colleagues in the United Kingdom. They have joined up with a group called "Construction Declares" to launch "Project Management Declares".
Project Managers would be joining over 11,000 scientists who made a declaration just last month. Read that article from Bioscience here. Or view the YouTube summary of a Guadian newspaper story below:
I'm sure some of you have varying degrees of belief in the climate crisis but if you are a project manager, I think you'd have to agree that the 6 actions that are called for will require our talents as project leaders. Feel free to share your opinion in the comments below. Intelligent and rational discussion is never a bad thing.
I invite you to visit the projectmanagersdeclare site and at least see what they have to say - and if you agree, join in the effort to "up the game" for us as project managers with respect to climate action.
If you want a sneak peek...here's some of what they have to say:
Project Managers Declare is part of Construction Declares, a global petition movement uniting all strands of construction and the built environment. It is both a public declaration of our planet’s environmental crises and a commitment to take positive action in response to climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse.
We know that we have just over a decade to address these global emergencies, or we risk catastrophic damage to the natural world. Yet as the earth’s life support systems come under increasing threat, the scale and intensity of urban development, infrastructure and building construction globally continues to expand, resulting in greater greenhouse gas generation and loss of habitat each year.
For everyone working in construction and the built environment, meeting the needs of our societies without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in our behaviour. If we are to reduce and eventually reverse the environmental damage we are causing, we will need to re-imagine our buildings, cities and infrastructures as indivisible components of a larger, constantly regenerating and self-sustaining system.
Such a transformation cannot happen without a wide-ranging declaration of intent, followed by committed action, international cooperation and open source knowledge sharing. A united declaration will support more effective lobbying of policy makers and governments to show leadership and commit resources. The next few years will decisive in shaping our collective future - now is the moment to act.
Following up on my last post about lessons learned, this brief post is about the need for collaboration. Lessons learned are meaningless unless they are collected from a diverse set of projects – and teams that tend to work in silos tend to ignore those well-collected lessons.
So collaboration is key.
That’s why this article from Nature, entitled “Science Weathers Political Ill Wind” caught my attention.
It focuses, of course, on science, but it is very project-oriented: in fact, the second word of the article is “projects”.
Some projects are too big for a single lab. Or, for that matter, a single country. Hongkui Zeng, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, is working on an ambitious project that spans the Pacific. Her team is attempting to untangle the subtle structural differences among groups of neurons in the mouse neocortex, where higher cognitive functioning such as sensory perception and spatial reasoning is processed. The pursuit requires major assistance from scientists in China, whose international research presence is strong, despite growing mistrust from the US government.
So the backdrop for this article is the fact that although tensions between nations might indicate otherwise, collaboration between Chinese and US project researchers is increasing (see chart below from Nature magazine). Why is it so important that science transcends political boundaries?
Like different silos in an organization, project managers, and scientists rely on a free exchange of wisdom. Project managers, like the neocortex of a mouse’s brain (in structure, not intelligence) rely on a strong network – and that network is increasingly global.
One example of a collaboration that is working is the Harvard China Project, which is quickly summarized in this video:
In this collaboration, which resulted in a Nature Sustainability paper, we find that China may be five to ten years ahead of schedule in meeting its Paris Agreement goals by 2030. The article co-authored by both US and Chinese researchers, who collaborated on the wok from Harvard and Nanjing University.
I was very encouraged by the article and its theme of collaboration. I hope you are, as well and that you push for inter-organizational and international collaboration in your projects.
Source: Nature, Vol 575 21 November 2019 P S27
For project managers, lessons learned are an essential part of our job – more so than for most professions. Why? Projects are unique. Your project, by definition has never been done before, ever!
Luckily, there may have been a similar project, perhaps in a different location, or using a slightly older technology, but like a snowflake – yours is different than the others before it. However, just as in snowflakes, your project does have some structural similarities – it’s made from frozen water, and will have six points and/or sides.
From an excellent article1 on Project Management available for free at PMI.org, there is this statement:
Most project managers know the importance of capturing lessons learned; it is good for the team, organization, existing and future projects. Lessons learned are the documented information that reflects both the positive and negative experiences of a project. They represent the organization’s commitment to project management excellence and the project manager’s opportunity to learn from the actual experiences of others.
The article also provides a visual that describes the process which seems straightforward but we can stand to be reminded of the steps:
So, we do use lessons learned to guide us, if we are wise.
An article from Sydney University, entitled “Why revisiting the Great Barrier Reef’s past could protect its future” recently caught my attention and brought to mind just how important lessons learned – and the archived history of the past - can be not only to project management but to science; in this case, the science of understanding the survival of the Great Barrier Reef.
University researchers are reimagining 500,000 years of evolution to conserve one of the world’s greatest natural wonders: the Great Barrier Reef.
This innovative approach creates an archive of environmental change from the distant past that is then linked to the present and provides invaluable intel for protecting the reef in the future. For example, carbon dating of ancient coral and algae extracted from reef cores helps to determine the historic life-and-death impact of climate change.
How can all of this historical data from the past affect the future? It’s a baseline. It’s informative on multiple levels.
The data generated are already having an enormous impact, nationally and globally. Australian governments and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority routinely use the information to determine optimal reef management. Associate Professor Webster’s team’s high-resolution mapping has provided more precise guidance on dividing up reef zones and his environmental thresholds data from the past can help determine how sensitive the reef is to sediment run-off and nutrient delivery from waterways that feed into it. This is a critical part of reef management as debates continue about land use in the reef’s hinterland by primary industries, including agriculture and mining.
But here’s the thing. These scientists are having to use a wide variety of sophisticated tools in order to uncover the history. As project managers we need only one tool: our brains and our motivation to record what has happened. We need to remember to archive and make available to our project management community the wisdom of past projects. We need to record – when the pain or pleasure is fresh – what went poorly, and we NEVER WANT TO EVER EVER DO AGAIN, and what went well, and thus we WANT TO REPEAT WHENEVER POSSIBLE.
This brings to mind a Far Side cartoon from the 80s – one of those classics drawn by Gary Larson. In it, we see a couple of cavemen near a felled mammoth, in which one little arrow – in a particular soft spot of the animal, has brought it down. Here it is:
This spot would be a good one to remember for the future, don’t you think? Even the cavemen know it. One says, “maybe we should write that spot down”. He’s “write”, you know!
In this image, we’re the cavemen. These are ancient knowledge transfer agents, advancing information into wisdom for future use. We need to be more like them – and less like the mammoth.
FINAL NOTE: Since this post – and the article to which it refers - to concerns Australia, I thought you may appreciate this video treatment of “What Every Australian Should Know About Climate Change”.
1Rowe, S. F. & Sikes, S. (2006). Lessons learned: taking it to the next level. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2006—North America, Seattle, WA. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute
As project managers we are (or should be!) very familiar with the concepts of risk response, including secondary and residual risk. As a quick refresher, secondary risk is new risk (threat or opportunity) generated by the risk response. For example, an air bag is a risk response to the impact of a car crash on a human. It is possible that this very air bag causes injury to you (this has happened - see this video). The new threat, generated by the air bag, is a secondary risk (in this case, clearly a threat). If the air bag does not do a sufficient job in reducing the impact (perhaps it does not inflate fully), and injury still occurs, then that’s residual risk.
In this post, I’ll talk about CO2 emissions (which 99% of scientists agree is a threat) and the threat responses that have been proposed. This is taken mainly from a Nature magazine article from this month (Vol 575, P87) and 10 “pathways”, which we can consider risk responses, and the potential secondary and residual risks of these pathways.
Below is the abstract from the article:
"The capture and use of carbon dioxide to create valuable products might lower the net costs of reducing emissions or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Here we review ten pathways for the utilization of carbon dioxide. Pathways that involve chemicals, fuels and microalgae might reduce emissions of carbon dioxide but have limited potential for its removal, whereas pathways that involve construction materials can both utilize and remove carbon dioxide. Land-based pathways can increase agricultural output and remove carbon dioxide. Our assessment suggests that each pathway could scale to over 0.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide utilization annually. However, barriers to implementation remain substantial and resource constraints prevent the simultaneous deployment of all pathways."
The pathways focus on utilization of carbon dioxide, as opposed to carbon capture and storage (CCS) which I have blogged about several times on People, Planet, Profit, and Projects, for example here, and here.
Why talk about this in a project management blog? Well, there’s already the connection to risk identification, analysis, response, and control, but the ten pathways discussed here each offer significant potential for project initiation – and project management jobs. So there’s another good rationale to cover this topic!
So: on to the ten ‘utilization pathways’. Utilization here refers to the use of carbon dioxide – not as naturally occurring, but ‘concentrated’ at levels above those found in nature – to serve as raw material to supply or fuel a machine or industrial process (feedstock). One example is using derivatives of ammonia to capture and condense the CO2 from the air for use as feedstock. The article defines utilization as “a process in which one or more economically valuable products are produced using CO2 whether the CO2 is supplied from fossil-derived waste gases, captured from the atmosphere by an industrial process, or – in a departure from most of the literature – captured biologically by land-based processes”.
Covered below are some – not all – of the utilization pathways, but the ten that are illustrated will give you an idea of the potential projects that could be launched, and some of the secondary and residual risks involved.
In short form, the 10 pathways are:
The image below (from Nature magazine) provides a clear graphic explanation, including net flows, and coding as to whether the pathway is closed, cycling, or open.
(Figure from cited Nature magazine article)
Fascinating to me as a project manager were facts such as this:
“perverse indirect effects – such as land-use change resulting from BECCS* – could increase net atmospheric CO2 concentrations”.
This is actually up for debate. See the video below for coverage of that scientific debate about BECCS:
As far as the 10 pathways, I won’t discuss them all, but here are a couple of examples (see the article for a table that summarizes all of them):
In this technique, atmospheric CO2 is mineralized through the use of pulverized igneous rocks to be used for cropland, grassland and forests. The product is agricultural crop biomass, and it has low probability of release, except under extreme acidic conditions. The process is described in the 8-minute video below from Harvard University.
Products from microalgae:
CO2 from the atmosphere is absorbed by microalgae, producing biofuels, and bioproducts such as food for aquaculture (fish farming). This has a high probability of release, based on combustion and consumption of the bioproducts.
This process is explained in the short video below:
Again, what was fascinating to me as a project manager was the attention that this article gave to secondary and residual risk. In particular there is a sidebar in the article dedicated to “net climate benefit” which refers to doing LCAs (Life Cycle Analyses) on the entire pathway to see if the process under consideration actually does contribute a net benefit or a net problem with respect to carbon impact. The conclusion of this article is as follows:
Life-cycle analyses on some industrial CO2 utilization pathways suggest that the potential for net emission reductions is much larger than for net removals (CCS) which appears very modest.
The article closes with a mildly optimistic view of the pathways of carbon utilization:
CO2 utilization is not an end in itself, and these pathways solely or even collectively will not provide a key solution to climate change. Nevertheless, there is a substantial societal value in continued efforts to determine what will and will not work, in what contexts the climate will or will not benefit from CO2 utilization and how expensive it will be.
From a project management perspective, the “efforts to determine what will and will not work” sounds to me like a set of projects to be launched. The 10 pathways are already launching real projects all over the world, and the lessons learned from the life-cycle analyses are applicable to projects of all kinds.
So whether this means a new job – or even a new career path – for you, or whether this simply yields a learning opportunity, there’s value in discovering what is being done in this area of CO2 utilization.