March 2009
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Pay-it-forward

Turning Short-term Stimulus into Long-term Value

Andy McMillanAndy McMillan
President and CEO
Teletrol Systems Inc.
President

BACnet International

Contributing Editor

The concept of “Pay-it-forward” has been around for a long time … at least as far back as 1784 when Benjamin Franklin described his practice of having a debtor repay a loan by loaning a similar amount to a third person in need, and enjoining that third person to then do the same.   Benjamin Franklin described it as “a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”   ("The Works of Benjamin Franklin")  Those of us involved in the energy field could usefully apply a similar principle to spending the energy-related money that will flow from passage of the stimulus bill … except, of course, it’s not a “little money.”  On the contrary, it’s a lot of money and it comes with a lot of responsibility.  

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The basis of the stimulus package is to spend money we don’t have to jump start consumption, accelerate economic recovery and (hopefully) recoup the money in the form of increased tax receipts as the economy improves.  Pretty much everyone I know has thoughts on the stimulus package and most of them are more than ready to share their opinion.  While opinions differ everyone seems to agree that we are mortgaging the future on a scale that that ensures our children (or perhaps even our children’s children) will bear the burden.  Details of the stimulus package and how it will be implemented are still emerging but it’s clear that a substantial amount of money will be directed toward improving the US energy infrastructure and the energy efficiency of buildings.  Building owners and building automation suppliers will likely benefit from these funds.  And we all have an important choice to make as we pocket that money … we can take it and run or we can take it and pay-it-forward. 

 Choosing a Path

The classic form of “take it and run” consists of focusing more effort on securing maximum funding for our own organizations than on actually achieving meaningful progress toward energy goals.  Implementing elegant “solutions” that save energy on the whiteboard but which make no difference in the real world is another “take it and run” approach.  Selling customers what we have when we could be pointing them to what they need is a “take it and run” approach.  Treating technology as the goal, excess profit as the purpose or winning as the only thing that matters are all “take it and run” approaches.  “Take it and run” may lead to short-term individual success but it falls far short of addressing the real imperative of the times.

The real imperative is to pay-it-forward and that is not about individual short-term bottom lines.  It is about collectively delivering long-term value commensurate with the huge burden of debt we’re creating.  To pay-it-forward we need to create far more long-term value than the typical performance contract or energy efficiency retrofit generates.  We need to create value that will stand the test of time in a world where we know that once the “crisis” has passed there will be little money available to maintain the systems we implement.  To pay-it-forward we need to create value that will endure well beyond the design intent of the systems we install – because the debt we’re creating is going to last that long.

Reliable Controls How do we pay-it-forward?  I think we start by redefining the meaning of our work.  I believe working on energy efficiency and alternative energy projects should be more than just a job – in the same way that working on the assembly line building planes and tanks during WWII was more than just a job … it was participation in the greater cause of freedom and national defense.  Our work, too, is an opportunity to participate in a larger cause that is critical to defending our economic and national security.  It’s a cause that’s larger than our personal interests and larger than our corporate interests.  It’s a cause consistent with the need to make a profit but also transcends it.  It’s a cause to which, if we dedicate ourselves, we can make all the difference.

 Setting Things Aside

Of course it is not enough to be dedicated, we also have to be effective.  And that will require that we set aside some things.  First, we need to set aside our technology biases.  The engineers among us (myself included) easily fall prey to what I call “techno-religion,” that is focusing on the “technical purity” of a solution rather than its real-world effectiveness.  That kind of thinking drives up costs, narrows technical options and builds walls between people and organizations.  It’s not good enough for the challenges we face.

The second thing we need to set aside is short-term thinking.  We cannot pay-it-forward by implementing systems that are obsolete in two years, ten years or even twenty years.  We know the energy infrastructure and environment will change dramatically over that period.  So we need to think deeply about systems that are fail operative, systems that evolve gracefully and systems that can adapt to a changing environment.  These are not options they are requirements.

Finally, we need to set aside any notion of “go it alone.”  The only way we can hope to pay-it-forward is to work together – users, suppliers, commercial and public sector.  To collaborate on technology development, on standards, on industry structures and individual projects with a clear focus on the goal – dramatically improving this country’s energy independence and security.  Nothing less will enable us to pay-it-forward.

Making a Difference

Making a sustainable difference will require not only collective action but also individual dedication.  None of us can escape our responsibility for paying it forward by leaving it to the “company,” the “government” or to “someone else.”  That mindset will not get it done.  So, as you sit at your desk, stand at a white board or pick up your tool belt, consider what one of the great minds of this century, Albert Einstein had to say about the relationship between technical work and the greater good: 

“Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”                                                                              -- Albert Einstein

It’s too late to avert the crisis and we can’t avoid the challenge ahead.  We’re faced with the responsibility to wisely invest billions of borrowed dollars in energy-related efforts.  We owe it to ourselves and those who follow us to harness our passion, apply our expertise and focus our persistence on an effort to pay-it-forward.

As always, the views expressed in this column are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position of BACnet International, Teletrol Systems, ASHRAE, or any other organization.  If you want to send comments to me directly, feel free to email me at andysview@arborcoast.com.

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