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A New (Environmental) World Order?

The Rubble Left Behind

During former United States President Trump’s first and only term, with militant and uncompromising discipline, quick work was made of immeasurable environmental laws and policies. In most cases, little debate or weighing of merits accompanied these initiatives. More often than not, it was “off to the chopping block” for one rule after another. From weakened carbon emission standards for the car industry to minimal environmental review for big, sweeping projects, the oil and gas industry was consulted early and often as the administration’s fossil fuel-centric agenda took shape. Progressive environmental leaders around the world watched in horror as pro-conservation policies were steadily peeled back. The warpath was well-defined and action was swift. Anyone tracking the speed with which the U.S. reversed long-entrenched environmental policies (both domestic and international) couldn’t help but be impressed.

Respected international agreements—notably the Paris Climate Accord—suffered as Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Treaty. Refusing to attend climate discussions held at the 2018 and 2019 G7 meetings, Trump scorned scientific findings and refused to recognize or take action to curb sizable US contributions to world carbon emissions.

Higher Goals

By contrast, throughout his campaign, President Biden made no secret of his intention to champion the environment and elevate the issue of climate change to a national and world priority—if not an international emergency. Biden pledged to mobilize all players to reduce carbon emissions, making this singular goal the primary axis around which the U.S. economy would rotate, create jobs and grow in years to come. All this is detailed in the “Building a Better Future” report. Whether and to what degree elected representatives will support Biden’s plan is still unclear, but the President is ambitious. What he is unable to do initially on a large scale with agreement from both houses of Congress he may tackle on a smaller scale via executive order and shrewd choice of leadership for key cabinet positions. As leader of one of the largest economies in the world, Biden’s action on climate issues can create momentum for change on a global scale. The scene is set, but will the show go on and will the curtain rise…? Here’s where the details count.

Redesigned Spaces for Work and Life

Real change in carbon emissions can’t be done without real change on the ground, which means shaking up the way goods and services are produced and delivered around the world, people move and live, and cities develop and function on a day-to-day basis. The incoming administration understands this, which is why the “Building Better” plan underscores the importance of infrastructure. The physical structures that make up our living spaces—the roads and bridges, urban areas and systems that make it all work—would be redesigned using modern technologies and sustainable design concepts:

  • Buildings retrofitted for resilience to floods and rising water,
  • The transportation industry remade to accommodate electric cars and trucks,
  • Clean alternative fuels.

Roads, highways, and bridges—many in poor and deteriorating condition—would need to be rebuilt to embody innovation, strength and sustainable transportation design and construction in urban and rural spaces alike.

Now science acts as Manager in Chief, cracking the whip in a massive redesign of modern life and culture. China’s economy is already at the center of the world’s solar photovoltaics industry and well-positioned to meet rising world demand for new technologies. Several countries in Europe are already on course to reduce carbon emissions. Norway makes strides to be carbon-neutral by 2030. More than 100 countries around the world aim to have zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is clear from watching environmental disasters unfold across the globe—flooding in India to historic forest fires in the US, to record-breaking storms in the Atlantic and Pacific—that a swift international “reset” is needed. Will this new vision help drive other world economies towards change?

A New Mission for Engineers and Engineering Tools

As much as we want this new world environmental order to kick-in, propelled by clean energy and spitting out clean jobs right and left, many elements need to fall into place to make it happen. With luck, all the working parts—visionary leadership across the globe, political will and international cooperation, and robust funding—will line up as they need to do.

The private sector’s role will be significant if—NO, WHEN—this new world agenda kicks into high gear. Highlands, for one, accepts the challenge. Building resilient infrastructure across the globe will be a non-negotiable mandate of 21st century modern life. Engineering tools need to be flexible, tough, ready to analyze complex (and changing) scenarios, and deliver accurate results. Here’s to new directions for global economies. We as an Indian software company that makes engineering tools for the world’s engineers welcomes the chance to build and modernize world infrastructure. Highlands will deliver, as we always have, when the call to action comes.

Points of Light at the Heart of a Pandemic

Most would agree that the year 2020 has tested us as businesses, communities and as individuals in ways that few could have foreseen. Natural disaster, political turmoil and disease have always been a part of life, but the pandemic has delivered a real blow to the global community. There is no doubt about it: We will be struggling to regain some level of normalcy for months to come. Covid-19 has spared few countries; only nine months since the first cases of infection surfaced and already more than 1,000,000 people, world-wide, have succumbed. Economies have come to a virtual halt. People have lost work and income and suddenly find themselves in desperate situations. The lucky ones are able to work from home. What conclusions can we make about where we are now? The bleakness of the current situation colors our outlook and the difficulties are certainly easy to see, but is there anything positive to consider in all of this?

First, let’s think about the loss…

Loss of Partners, Friends and Family Members

Without a doubt, the passing of family, coworkers and others within our communities is the most tragic aspect of the pandemic. This virus has created death on a massive scale, the likes of which we are more likely to see during times of war. We lose people yearly to illness and many hundreds of thousands die from heart disease every year, but the numbers lost to Covid-19 exceed these numbers, even though we are well short of the 12-month mark.

Daily Life with Covid-19 Comes with Risk, The Magnitude of which is often Unknown

We have made significant strides as a civilization in the last 100 years. We know what is needed to sustain life and to protect human health. Science and technology have developed medicines and vaccines to treat countless medical conditions and to protect against more than a few horrific diseases. We know how to purify water, forecast extreme storm systems, and build the bridges, buildings and other infrastructure that support our modern way of life. But Covid-19 has forced a “reset” on what we thought we knew. It has shaken confidence in our ability to handle a global health crisis. We know now, without a doubt, that we are still vulnerable. Although the scientific community has made inroads, what we don’t know still dwarfs what we do. Navigating daily life in the last nine months has been an exercise in moving through uncharted territory. If I enter a public space, what will be my level of exposure? If I contract the virus, will my case be life-threatening or mild? These are the questions that haunt us—unanswered—from one day to the next.

Basic Social Interactions…Upended

The pandemic has forced us apart physically and we keep our distance—even, in some cases, from members of our own families. To avoid the spread of the virus we check all impulse to communicate via friendly physical gestures. Forget about the fist-bump or the friendly handshake. I can’t share tomatoes without taking precautionary steps to disinfect and sterilize my hands. It’s harder to communicate; I can’t read body language over Zoom. In person communication means I need to get better at reading other physical cues, like eyes for examples, which has never been a particular strength of mine.

But there is a silver lining to all of this, and it starts with what we have learned about ourselves.

We are Asked to Test our Resourcefulness and our Willingness to Sacrifice

Let’s not neglect the positives of this situation, because they are there, hiding in the midst of this crisis. As we reexamine how we go about our daily lives, our world view is bound to change. Forced to alter our daily habits and to forego social outings and other perks we want, many of us have reconsidered our place in the world. Maybe we’ve thought about the vulnerability of people in poorer communities or the front-line workers, or how lucky we are relative to the situation of so many others who have less resources to protect themselves. In some cases, we’ve accepted the risk and elected to help the weaker members of our communities to simply survive.

We have had to alter our expectations, make adjustments and make more than a few sacrifices over the last nine months. This kind of self-reflection and self-denial can only be good for personal growth and for our evolution as a tightly interconnected world community.

We Charter New Ground with Our Company

Not only have we been forced to be more thoughtful and resourceful as individuals, but as a company as well. Within a matter of days, and before the city of Noida officially went into lockdown, Highlands elected to move all employees out of the office. Staff rallied, organized, and set up all employees at home with computers, desks, chairs, printers and everything else needed to make work happen at a distance. Aside from a few minor delays, the well-oiled machinery that is Highlands at the Graphix Tower in Noida’s Sector 62 shifted into high gear, albeit remotely. Programmers collaborated and scrummed at a distance; sales representatives contacted clients and HR still looked after the interests of our highly valued employees. We made it work.

Yes, we as individuals and as a business are resilient. In the midst of a pandemic, we’ve managed to find a few “points of light.”

We Thank Our Lucky Stars in 2020

In a year that was hit, broadside, by Covid-19 and that witnessed the loss of over 1,000,000 people (and counting) to the virus world-wide, do we really have anything to be thankful for? I would argue that although the end of this challenging situation is not yet in sight and massive human suffering continues, we do have reason to be thankful. Let me explain why.

Resolve of Global Community to Work Together on Solutions

On one level, we heard our share of polarizing words, accusations and friction, all of which seems to go hand in hand with an international crisis of this scale. But along with all of this political posturing, particularly from certain parts of the globe, we also experienced real leadership. Effective and life-saving efforts came from unexpected as well as expected places. Real leadership was focused, uncompromising and unequivocally based on and driven by data, statistics and fact. Local leaders advocated for commitment, service and personal sacrifice. Under the best of circumstances, a quick response resulted in a swift decline in case numbers. New York City, for example, was the world’s Covid-19 epicenter for weeks in early 2020 but managed to bring deaths/day down from a peak of 952 at the beginning of May down to 2/day by the end of September. This drastic shift in the city’s trajectory was nothing short of remarkable.

At clinics and hospitals around the world, hundreds of thousands of medical practitioners rallied to treat those afflicted with Covid-19, not knowing if they were to be the next victims. Most had families and dependents at home. According to Amnesty International, over the last nine months over 10,000 health workers lost their lives taking care of patients with Covid-19. These selfless individuals remain and continue to be an inspiration to us all.

Numerous teams across the globe launched accelerated vaccine research initiatives. Political boundaries become secondary as scientists and medical practitioners shared information and discoveries relative to potential treatments and cures. Many countries and professionals rose to the occasion to collaborate and avoid reverting to a vaccine “arms race”.

A Dedicated and Committed Team that Continues to Rally and Push Forward

Closer to home, the work ethic and drive of the individuals that make up the team at Highlands continues to impress me. When it became apparent that the world was on the brink of a crisis, yet Noida was not yet shutting down, everyone at Highlands shifted gears in the blink of an eye. Within a matter of days, workstations and necessary equipment were moved from corporate headquarters to home offices. Giving new meaning to agile teamwork, Highlands employees are safe at home and working remotely.

Employees Game to Learn and Grow

The key word is humility. We approach everything we do here at Highlands with some level of humbleness. Here at Highlands we have recruited the best in class and the best in profession, but this doesn’t mean we think we know it all. No matter status, education, or years of experience, we know we are all still students of life and work. Crises are, if nothing else, an opportunity for growth. We strive to learn from our mistakes and move forward, capitalizing on any insights we’ve gained through our mistakes to make this living, breathing system—which is Highlands—maintain its edge.

Not only is humility necessary to move a team forward but change and evolution are necessary as well. Each day at Highlands is different because the needs of our clients—the engineers and the global communities they serve and the problems they need help with—are different, from one day to the next. At the core, we are dealing with natural systems and natural systems are fundamentally dynamic in character. Engineers need to have tools to grapple with change, unpredictability and flux, and we want to continue to make the tools that facilitate reliable analysis.

Customers that Push Us to Do More

Could you design a car without the driver in mind? Could a playground be fun and surprising without plugging into the imagination of a kid? Highlands customers are not on the payroll, but in view of how they drive and shape our products, they very well could be. They are as much a part of the development team as any of our programmers. The practical knowledge and insights they offer into how to make our engineering software functional and relevant for today’s engineering problems are invaluable. We treasure these customers for their drive, interest and contributions towards making our solutions for the world’s engineers the best they can possibly be.

Parting Thoughts on the Year 2020

This has been anything but a typical year, but even a year of challenges can offer surprising opportunities. Here’s to putting a positive spin on otherwise difficult circumstances. Here’s to counting our blessings and giving thanks when it’s hard to see what is still good in the spaces and in the lives of the people around us. Here’s to looking ahead with hope and optimism.

Project Management in the Age of Covid

If there is one positive to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that we’ve been knocked out of our comfort zones, forced to recalibrate and reevaluate the important things in life and in business. The virus and global economic downward spiral have driven home the fact that we and our businesses are significantly more vulnerable than we thought. Seasonal flu and its annual culling of the human population have always been a fact of life, but COVID-19 is now one more potentially deadly and unknown variable in the mix. Clearly, modern medicine can only do so much.

What does all of this mean in the context of running a business? We’ve always known that time is valuable, and that lost time is lost money, but these clichés seem more relevant and poignant today than ever before.

If you only had so much time available and your business’s financial viability depended on making the right decisions and effectively executing on them, how would you go about it? How, in other words, would you manage a project in the age of COVID-19?

Planning: Identify the Mission (and then Carve it to Down to Core Objectives)

Beware the nonessential in any plan. If your plan of action is cluttered with multiple objectives and ambitious vision statements, you are wasting time. This is the time to be clear, concise and ruthless: What is primary to the mission and what is secondary?

Identify the essential goals without which the mission is certain to fail. It can take time and substantial effort to whittle it down to the bare bones of the mission, but it is necessary. Accomplished businessmen have always understood this. Steve Jobs once remarked, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” Ideally, you identify three or four essential goals to control the scope of your project. Examples of essential goals: A new product line must be preceded by extensive market analysis. The development of effective drug therapies cannot move forward without an exhaustive period of controlled research and study.

Prioritize Your Objectives as if your Life depended on it

If you only had so much time to execute on the goals identified in the exercise above, how would you do it? Clearly, you would prioritize and deliver on the most important objectives first. Among the essential project goals identified above, which are absolutely vital to the mission? If time is short, these get done first.

Find Darwin’s Fittest and Delegate to Them

Who would you trust with your life? If this seems too extreme a criterion, consider who you would trust with your business, or better yet a particular business task? Identify the team members that have specific strengths and leadership skills. These are the people you want at the helm of the project’s sub-teams. The principle of “survival of the fittest” applies here; in the age of COVID-19, raw talent wins. It is that simple.

Execution: Identify Non-Negotiable Benchmarks

A plan needs to include measurable benchmarks that show that the project has reached key targets. Identify business metrics, like response rate to email campaigns, or statistically significant study results, that are an indicator of success. Design your plan of execution so that attainment of benchmarks is a condition of moving forward.

Identify the Timeframe to hit specific Milestones

When do the project’s objectives need to be met? Time your own benchmarks so that they are in sync with key user group timelines or the larger industry. Examples here could include peak customer use periods, product conferences or holiday sales.

Monitor your Progress with a Sharp and Uncompromising Eye

Early signs of dysfunction need to be addressed as soon as they become apparent. Don’t dither and lose time hoping that flawed systems will magically turn around on their own. Take steps to remediate flaws in process or execution.

Value proactive measures. If there is one lesson we’ve learned in the age of COVID-19, it is that a business cannot afford to be reactive. The time to act, as they say, is now.