Seize the Janus Moment

January 11, 2012 · 1 comment

by Mark S. Brooks, State Climate Office of North Carolina

Ancient Romans worshiped and studied many gods. One such god was Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. Janus is often depicted with two heads facing opposite directions. They simultaneously peer into the past and the future. He looked over pathways, causing all actions and presiding over all beginnings. Our first month, January, was named after Janus. The symbolic icon of Janus is a great metaphor for the 92nd AMS Annual Meeting’s theme – “how we got here and where we’re going”. Asking that question can lead one to think about the transition from past to future and put into motion a plan to bridge the gap between research and operations. I call that a Janus moment.

Where We’ve Been. Technological innovations enabled quick advancement of weather and climate services. Radar, satellites, numerical weather prediction–each helped revolutionize meteorology and its related disciplines. But to get here, the development and understanding of these technologies had to transition from research to operations. Each had a Janus moment.

Today, as our sensitivities to climate variability become more pronounced and the demand for climate data and forecasts steadily increases, it is time for another major push of innovation – a new Janus moment. I believe that weather and climate services can help society adapt to climate change by helping people mitigate its negative impacts and capitalize on its favorable impacts.

The Role of Innovation in Weather and Climate Services. My favorite category of innovation is the disruptive or discontinuous kind, which addresses existing market needs or creates new markets by enabling customers to solve problems in new ways. Such innovations change the world. We can all think of many examples. In the early days of the Internet, I tried to be disruptively innovative by creating weatherimages.org. Although now woefully outdated, the website changed the way people consumed radar imagery, surface maps, satellite imagery, forecast images, and the like. The site was ranked in the top 3% of the entire Internet in 1999 by Alexa Internet.

A new era of Weather and Climate Services is now possible — a discontinuous, disruptive, and transformative innovation helping weather and climate sensitive clients solve problems in new ways with new data products.

Henry Ford once said: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Weather and climate services should not be making faster horses.

Steps to Accelerate Innovation in Weather and Climate Services: 3E’s. So how do we answer the demands of society without simply producing faster horses?

1. Be engaged. At the end of many episodes of Star Trek TNG, Capt. Jean-Luc Picard sets course for a new destination and embarks on his next mission with his favorite word:

It was a metaphor for the entire story: to learn, teach, and improve humanity. Engagement, in the context of weather and climate services, is about increasing society’s climate literacy, learning about society’s weather and climate sensitivities, and building a mutually beneficial relationship so that data and science can be made useful. Engagement also includes increased collaboration with one another. Transdisciplinary engagement, that which transfers knowledge across disciplinary boundaries, is also needed to create a new generation of weather and climate services.

2. Be entrepreneurial. This may be peculiar and even uncomfortable to many of us, especially in government. However, Rosabeth Kanter writes in her book, On the Frontiers of Management, “Innovative accomplishments are strikingly entrepreneurial.” Entrepreneurship is about creating something new with value by demonstrating initiative, creative thinking, and by organizing social and economic mechanisms to turn resources and situations into practical outcomes. Saras Sarasvathy crisply summarizes the entrepreneurial way of thinking as

believing in a yet-to-be-made future that can be shaped by human action and realizing that, to the extent that such action can control the future, one need not expend energy trying to predict it. It is much more useful to understand and work with the people who are engaged in the decisions and actions that bring it into existence.

Entrepreneurial characteristics for weather and climate service providers include: communications excellence, focus, transparency, adaptive ability, cohesive partnerships, hands on management, and effective incentives. Entrepreneurial behavior is also tolerant of ambiguity and failure. Blogger Max Pucher, a long-time IBM engineer said as much recently:

Tom Watson had called a VP to his office to discuss a failed development project that lost IBM in the range of $10 million. Expecting to be fired, the VP presented his letter of resignation. Tom Watson Jr. just shook his head: “You are certainly not leaving after we just gave you a $10 million education.” In those days, failure was not a problem at IBM as long as it was turned into a learning experience….During my tenure in IBM’s Havant plant I had learned that I needed to turn my thinking upside down: Not failure is the outlier, but success is! Trying to understand why we couldn’t fully control and predict how a complex system would work led me to learn about evolutionary concepts and complex adaptive systems.

Most weather and climate service providers cannot afford such mistakes, yet the ability to tolerate failure and learn from it is critical because it will happen and enables failure to occur at earlier and cheaper stages of investment.

3. Evaluate progress. Success is a moving target. To make continuous improvements, all weather and climate service providers should employ a balanced suite of metrics and performance tools to evaluate performance. And of course we need to continue efforts to quantify the value of weather and climate services.

I am excited about the 2012 Annual Meeting because several sessions and papers strike me as embracing at least one of the above components. For example, the session about Risk, Vulnerability, and Decision Support for Weather and Climate Hazards on Tuesday (11 a.m., Room 335/336);  a papers by Awdesh Sharma et al. (11:15 a.m., Thursday, Room 242) on NOAA/NESDIS’s reasearch-to operations process, and the Town Hall (Monday, 12:15 p.m., Room 244) following up on themes from the AMS Summer Community Meeting on building a stronger weather and climate enterprise. I look forward to these talks and many others.

Where We’re Going

Back in the heyday of weatherimages.org, I was interviewed by a radio station about my prediction for the future of weather and climate information delivery. My answer: “One day, we will be able to simply push a button and get timely, relevant information for where ever you are and whatever you’re doing.” I stand by this prediction. Timely, relevant, actionable, translated weather and climate information for the farmer in the field, the truck driver on the highway, the airline diverting planes, the insurance company underwriting policies, the engineer constructing a building, the energy company trading watts, the municipality planning for future water demand, and yes, even the newly engaged couple picking a wedding date.

We see a growing, $1+ billion weather services industry. The same level of economic development is possible with climate services. Government, academia, and private sector each have a major role to play in growing this industry and making our world a better place.

That is where we’re going.

Make a Janus Moment

Janus moments are not exclusive to technology, science, or innovation. Janus moments may also be found within each of us. Ancient Romans viewed Janus as a representation of new beginnings and transitions. As you experience this week, think about how you got here and where you’re going. Meet people outside your area of expertise. Sit with someone new at each meal. If you’re following this conference from home, connect with your colleagues who are here and join the online discussions, on Facebook, Twitter, and in this blog. Where ever you are, consider how to bridge the gap between research and operations. Perhaps you will have a Janus moment.