Thought Starters: a look at where startups are at, approaches to self driving cars, the decline of peak oil and the impact of an ageing population

The following is a look through articles, research and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

First Round Capital have just released their State of Startups research profiling the opinion of startup founders. Among the findings are that 73% of founders believe we’re in a bubble and that they expect to see a shift in power from startups to funders:

73% of startup founders say we're in a bubble

On the subject of bubbles, Abbas Gupta looks to sort out the unicorns from the donkeys by looking at the ratio of a startup’s lifetime value of customer compared to the cost of customer acquisition.

Kickstarter has become an important source of funding for creators and makers, particularly when founders don’t have a proven track record that enables them to tap more traditional sources of financing. Ben Einstein compares the pros and cons of pre-sales (eg Kickstarter), factory financing, purchase order financing and venture debt for entrepreneurs. For consumers, it’s worth considering that 9% of Kickstarters fail to deliver rewards, so get behind interesting projects but be aware that things don’t always go to plan.

Adam Satariano’s research reveals Apple spends a considerably smaller proportion of its revenue on R&D than its technology competitors. Apple’s position is boosted by the company’s large revenues and its ability to leverage innovations from its array of suppliers and partners:

Tech R&D Spending Comparison

Airbnb has been criticised for driving up property prices and in the process, making homes increasingly unaffordable for local residents. The company has defended itself, claiming that the majority of visitors are staying in properties only occasionally available to let but Ben Popper’s analysis of Airbnb’s data from New York doesn’t quite match the company’s claims.

Adrienne LaFrance contrasts the different approaches of Google, Uber, Apple and the major auto manufacturers in moving towards self driving vehicles and points to the hazards of the halfway house:

The question of which path to take to full autonomy, a ground-up approach or a more gradual semi-autonomous one, is at the center of many debates about the technology. A more pressing question in the short-term is this: How much does a person’s perception of the computer’s job make a difference? “This intermediate area where it may not be clear—is the vehicle responsible, or am I responsible?—is a hazardous place,” Gerdes told me. “There’s room for confusion that could reduce safety instead of increasing it.”

Peak oil is a spectre that has haunted the petroleum industry in the past but new discoveries, talk of a decoupling of energy use and economic growth and concerns about climate change have seen these concerns recede. Liam Denning looks at how this changed environment is forcing the hand of OPEC and how this could potentially damage the renewable energy sector:

Peaking Out

Credit Suisse research provides further evidence of the rising labour costs for manufacturers in China which is likely to see it the made in China tag appear less. No surprise then that the country is looking to invest more in robotics and automation:

Comparing manufacturing costs in Mexico Brazil and China

The recent pictures of pollution in Beijing were alarming. Unfortunately citizens in some of India’s cities face even worse pollution levels according to figures from the World Health Organisation reported in the Guardian:

Worlds most polluted cities

The recent terrorist attack in Paris provided a boost to Front National during France’s recent regional elections. It’s important to understand the party’s success is not a one off blip, with Julia Amalia Heyer charting Marine Le Pen’s move to reform the party and broaden support among the wider French public. Worth reading for anyone interested in the rise of nationalism and xenophobia in European politics.

Greg Ip profiles the ageing population of many western societies and the challenges and opportunities this poses for their economies. The Wall Street Journal article is well supported with graphs and interactive infographics charting the changes and forecasts for the future:

Social Security Enrollment

For something rather different, Priceonomics‘ profile of Richard Prince makes for an interesting read charting how his photographs of photographs became some of the most coveted prizes of the contemporary art world.

If you find yourself at a loose end in London between now and the end of February, it’s worth checking out the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House. It kind of feel like a walk through of an issue of Wired, but it’s great to see data science get its place in the spotlight with the many benefits and challenges it poses for today’s society.

The feature mural is Eva & Ave by Hazulfrom Loures, Portugal and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: innovation, unicorns and a critical look at the sharing economy

The following is a look through articles, research and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

Matt Ridley focuses on the forces that drive innovation forward, describing it as a more organic and chaotic environment that isn’t something that governments can readily turn on or off:

“The implications of this new way of seeing technology—as an autonomous, evolving entity that continues to progress whoever is in charge—are startling. People are pawns in a process. We ride rather than drive the innovation wave. Technology will find its inventors, rather than vice versa. Short of bumping off half the population, there is little that we can do to stop it from happening, and even that might not work.”

Activate provide a valuable look at the intersection of media and technology, focusing on the evolution of media usage, mobile messaging, audio, television and mobile apps. Good overview of how the landscape is likely to evolve over the next year:

Benedict Evans and Steven Sinofsky explore how smartphones represent the latest format in computers evolution, expanding technologies reach and ask what might be next in this cycle:

Wall Street Journal’s data visualisation (click through for the interactive version) makes apparent the massive growth in valuation of various venture funded startups over the last two years…exciting but also scarey:

Companies valued at $1 billion or more by venture-capital firms

The rapid growth of various unicorns has not come without its critics. Airbnb has accelerated the process of gentrification as property developers shift their focus from local residents to visiting tourists in markets already dealing with shortages of affordable housing. Steven Hill states:

“In a tight housing market, rent-controlled apartments are prey for what we might call “slamlords,” who promote condo conversions or renovations that would justify massive rent increases. Airbnb provides another layer—a powerful financial incentive as well as a technique for landlords to convert their apartment buildings into tourist hotels.”

Zeynep Tufekci looks more broadly at startups associated with the ‘sharing economy’, characterising them as fueling a growing gap  between the winners and losers in our current labour market:

“It sounds great, except for the ugly reality which lurks under the proliferation of “uber for…”s: the calcification of the two-tiered system between the overworked who need and can afford the “uber for…”s and the underpaid who are stuck in its 1099 economy of unstable, low wages.”

For the moment, the impact of the “gig economy” might be overstated. Figures from America’s Bureau of Labour Statistics points to self employment as actually decreasing in recent years (although that’s not to say this trend will continue):

The Self Employment Rate in the US

The majority of developed market economies are facing the challenge of an aging population as fertility rates decline so it’s interesting to look at those countries with large young populations with China and India standing out. A closer look at the statistics by John Poole reveals some more unsettling truths with China “missing” about 24 million girls between the ages of 0 and 19:

Half the world's teens live in these 7 countries
Countries with the largest teen populations

Climate change is reshaping our planet and forcing many indigenous ecosystems to adapt with a negative impact on our planet’s biodiversity. The effect on countries’ economies is more of a mixed bag according to Marshall Burke, Sol Hsiang, Ted Miguel’s forecast with winners and losers (click on the map for more detailed information). Whether such modelling can accurately accommodate all the different consequences of climate change remains to be seen:

Economic Impact of Climate Change on the World

The featured image is a mural by Italian artist Tellas in Shoreditch, London and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters

A mixed collection of materials looking at societal trends and the impact of technology on the way we live.

The McKinsey Quarterly profiles technological disruption, emerging markets growth and ageing population as trends that will have a substantial effect on business in the coming 50 years:

Workers per Dependent

Going on public confidence, we’ve still got a long way to go before the world pulls out of the recession according to research from Pew Research, although reassuringly, UK is among the more confident:

Economic mood

Americans are seemingly chain to their desks, followed not too far behind by the UK according to research from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Salon’s reporting of the research also highlights willingness of Americans and Britons to work weekends and evenings:

Working hours

The Economist profiles  the world  of real time bidding for online advertising which has gained a strong foothold in US and UK markets and looks likely to rapidly spread to the rest of the world:

Real time bidding

Research from Harvard Business School profiled in Forbes contrasts the ROI from search and display advertising. I won’t giveaway who came out on top.

Much has been made of the impact that Amazon is having on the retail sector with effects particularly felt in the book sector. Zachary Karabell’s reporting points to the independents rather than the larger book store chains as proving best able to respond to Amazon’s encroachment.

The Guardian has avoided adding paywalls to its website unlike competitors The Times and the New York Times. What the organisation has done is follow the lead of other move media organisations and establish a membership led events programme offering that will bring its staff more into face to face contact with its readers:

Guardian

The New Statesman profiles bellingcat which looks to use a citizen based journalism model to shed light on conflict zones, with successful reporting from Ukraine and Syria among other locations.

There’s been no shortage of coverage of Apple’s launch event for Apple Pay, iPhone 6 and Apple Watch. Marco Arment looks at what we would like to see with the Apple Watch but then goes on to praise Apple for its ability to produce best in class product design:

The ideal smartwatch would have a high-resolution, color, self-illuminated but not too bright, highly visible yet completely subtle screen that’s always on, but isn’t tacky and doesn’t draw much attention to itself from others. The screen must be as large as possible so you can read and touch it nicely, but as small as possible so it isn’t ostentatious and doesn’t look out of proportion on a wrist. This screen, and all of the other components, must use as close to zero power as possible because the battery needs to last at least a week (ideally much longer), weigh as little as possible, and occupy almost no space.

So it needs to be bright, dim, bold, subtle, large, and small, with a battery that lasts a month with zero mass, and some compelling everyday applications beyond telling time and showing phone notifications. The true design challenge isn’t making it pretty — it’s making it good.

Horace Dediu in his analysis points to Apple’s presentation which highlighting the Watch’s role as timepiece, communicator and health and fitness device but he goes on to suggest that we will see lots more use cases emerge in the coming years.

Whilst much of the consumer attention was on the iPhone and Apple Watch launch, we may well find that it’s Apple Pay that will have the most substantial long term effect  on our society, giving the mobile payments sector an important boost.

For those of you wanting to find out more about the wearable technology sector outside of Apple’s launch, you might want to try PSFK’s recently released presentation:

Tinder has reshaped the way that many people approach dating and relationships. If you’re interested in finding out more about the site, I’d suggest you try Kiera Feldman’s oral history or for a more analytical approach try Anne Helen Petersen looking at how race and social class affects people’s choices on the platform.

Tinder

A lot of noise has been made about the disruptive forces of Silicon Valley. Airbnb founder and CEO Brian Chesky argues that the tech sector should be more selective in their use of the phrase and suggests that Airbnb is more a return to older ways of doing business rather than something totally new:

 Dougald Hine highlights the need for reflection as consumers are faced with an ever expanding hosepipe of information:

The latter requires, among other things, space for reflection – allowing what we have already absorbed to settle, waiting to see what patterns emerge. Find the corners of our lives in which we can unplug, the days on which it is possible to refuse the urgency of the inbox, the activities that will not be rushed. Switch off the infinity machine, not forever, nor because there is anything bad about it, but out of recognition of our own finitude: there is only so much information any of us can bear, and we cannot go fishing in the stream if we are drowning in it. As any survivor of the 1960s counterculture could tell us, it is best to treat magic substances with respect – and to be careful about the dosage.

The featured image is by Ben Slow in Vitry, Paris and was found on vitostreet’s Flickr stream.

Thought Starters

A mixed collection of materials looking at societal trends, the role of technology and other content that has resonated with me.

The World Bank has combined population and GDP per capita statistics in a graph, providing an indication of current spending power as well as an indication of future opportunity.

Real GDP Per Capita and Share of Global Population

Gartner has updated its Hype Cycle which gives an indication of maturity and adoption of different technology platforms around the world.

Gartner Hype Cycle

American consumers are now faced with a growing array of video content through a range of platforms but consumer spending has actually decreased according to analysis from Liam Boluk.  In a world of all you can eat subscriptions such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, consumers are arguably choosing to spend their money elsewhere.

Entertainment Industry Ecosystem

Andreessen Horowitz has announced a $50 million investment in BuzzFeed, gaining mixed reactions from the news media.  Felix Salmon warns that comparing BuzzFeed to traditional media sources risks missing the business’ true potential.

The best way to think of BuzzFeed’s various products, then, is probably as a proof of concept: it’s a way to show advertisers that the company is able to reach a large, young, mobile, social audience in a multitude of different ways. The ability to reach those people is something of a holy grail for advertisers, who are therefore very willing to pay top dollar to anybody who can help them achieve their goal. The idea is that if BuzzFeed can reach a broad audience with its various editorial products, it can then sell that secret sauce to advertisers, and help them reach the same audience, using the same tools.

There’s been a lot of noise lately about the unbundling of mobile apps in Western markets with the launch of Foursquare’s Swarm and the splitting out of Facebook Messenger. Taylor Davidson warns against seeing this as a natural conclusion with app extensions, deep linking and notifications providing a countervailing force to this trend.

And as the platforms, hardware, and operating systems in mobile continue to change how people use their devices, don’t be surprised if the rationale behind unbundling shifts as well.

I think we think of unbundling as the end-state, but instead, it’s a process that leads to it’s reversal. Unbundling creates the incentives for rebundling.

The constant, as usual, is change.

We’ve seen strong growth from shared economy based enterprises such as Uber and Airbnb which use rating systems as a means of engendering trust on the part of consumers. Danny Crichton in an article for TechCrunch warns of the corrosive effect of these computational trust systems on wider society.

Our growing need to feel connected is confirmed by research from the US which found that 60% of US internet users were almost always connected.

Three in five internet users are almost always connected

British communications marker regulator Ofcom’s report The Communications Market 2014 is a treasure trove of insights into the UK market. Find below some key insights.

Reinforcing the earlier message of the always on lifestyle is the following graph looking at consumers engagement with media and communications during their waking hours.

Media Consumption Activity

Looking at how media and communications time is spent across different age cohorts provides clues as to how we can expect media to move in the future.

Media by Time

A similar analysis of internet consumption by device type points to the importance of smartphones for younger audiences.

Device usage internet

Providing further data on the UK market in the 4GEE Media Living Index which provides figures on mobile data usage from EE customers. Among the interesting data points are the following which point to the strong presence of Tango in the mobile messaging space and Soundcloud in audio streaming.

Instant Messaging Audio Analysis from Comscore points to Snapchat moving from outsider to well established member of the communications space in the US having long passed what Comscore considers critical mass in the 18-24 aged audience segment.

Snapchat PenetrationPew Research Center’s analysis of Twitter traffic provides an interesting breakdown of social communities and how they interact, converge and/or diverge. Something well worth considering when we see issues emerge that have the potential to bring us together or divide us.

Twitter CommunitiesMalcolm Gladwell’s look at organised crime among immigrant groups in the US point to this ‘career’ as being seen as an important enabler of upward mobility in what makes for an enjoyable read.

The point of the crooked-ladder argument and “A Family Business” was that criminal activity, under those circumstances, was not rebellion; it wasn’t a rejection of legitimate society. It was an attempt to join in.

If you find yourself in London between now and the end of August, do check out Lucy Sparrow’s The Cornershop in the Columbia Road area recreating various household goods in felt. You can find an interview with the artist over at Folksy.

felt-food

The featured image is Beautiful Bridge #1 by Sabina Lang & Daniel Baumann in Recoleta, Buenos Aires.