Thought Starters: innovation, intellectual capital & circular economy

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at questions over the pace of innovation, the growing portability of intellectual capital, the American presidential nominations and the circular economy among other things, all making for great weekend reading.

David Rotman profiles the work of economist Robert J. Gordon who takes a relatively dim view of the productivity gains over the last ten years. A valuable perspective although one focusing on economic gains doesn’t necessarily encompass other benefits enabled by new technologies and innovations:

Peak innovation

An interesting complement to the Rotman’s article is Prashant Gandhi, Somesh Khanna and Sree Ramaswamy’s review of the levels of digitisation across different parts of the US economy. Information technology inevitably leads the charge but it’s more valuable to look at the laggards where we’re likely to see considerable changes and innovations in the coming years:

How Digitally Advanced is your Sector?

One area that we have seen substantial advances recently is technologies that enable remote teams to more readily collaborate (eg Slack). Samuel Hammond points to a world where intellectual capital is increasingly portable even if immigration barriers mean that this mobility is more virtual than actual:

Consistent with the premature futurism thesis, smart writers have been predicting large and looming social implications from telecommuting and remote work for decades, only to have their visions stymied by some unforeseen technical or psychological barrier. While hiring international freelancers has gotten a lot easier, for many jobs people just prefer face to face contact. Yet we seem to be finally reaching a critical point where video streaming, virtual reality, and collaboration tools are converging to make even the most complex team production viable across borders.

Uber is one of the shining stars of the startup sector with its growth and funding leading many entrepreneurs to pitch their business as ‘Uber for ____’. Farhad Manjoo points out that we should be wary of trying to draw direct parallels between Uber and other business use cases given the particular characteristics the ridesharing:

But Uber’s success was in many ways unique. For one thing, it was attacking a vulnerable market. In many cities, the taxi business was a customer-unfriendly protectionist racket that artificially inflated prices and cared little about customer service. The opportunity for Uber to become a regular part of people’s lives was huge. Many people take cars every day, so hook them once and you have repeat customers. Finally, cars are the second-most-expensive things people buy, and the most frequent thing we do with them is park. That monumental inefficiency left Uber ample room to extract a profit even after undercutting what we now pay for cars.

But how many other markets are there like that? Not many. Some services were used frequently by consumers, but weren’t that valuable — things related to food, for instance, offered low margins. Other businesses funded in low-frequency and low-value areas “were a trap,” Mr. Walk said.

Dan Lyons’ rather humourous account of joining HubSpot provides a valuable antidote to some of the overinflated hubris sometimes associated with startups:

The truth is that we’re selling software that lets companies, most of them small businesses like pool installers and flower shops, sell more stuff. The world of online marketing, where HubSpot operates, though, has a reputation for being kind of grubby. Our customers include people who make a living bombarding people with email offers, or gaming Google’s search algorithm, or figuring out which kind of misleading subject line is most likely to trick someone into opening a message. Online marketing is not quite as sleazy as Internet porn, but it’s not much better either.

A lot of noise has been made about younger consumers fleeing Facebook for the newer social media platforms but comScore data from the US points to the platform maintaining its appeal among millennials – suggest we’d  see teenage audiences telling a rather different story:

Age 18-34 Digital Audience Penetration vs Engagement of Leading Social Networks

Snapchat updated its mobile messaging platform recently providing a richer range of features for users as well as changing its privacy policy which is likely to see a broader array of targeting options for Snapchat advertisers. It’s worth reading Ben Thompson’s piece on Snapchat if you want to take a broader look at how the platform has evolved since its launch in 2011.

Virtual reality is now well and truly out in the open with Oculus Rift now available to the general public. Brian X. Chen’s review of the headset suggests that in its current state, it’s one for the early adopters:

The Rift’s graphics, sound and head tracking, which is the device’s ability to follow where the viewer looks, do feel like something out of science fiction. While the system’s setup is somewhat complex, the smoothness of the graphics and the high-quality design of the headgear make virtual reality feel ready for prime time.

And yet there may be a higher reward for those who wait to buy the Rift.

Soundcloud Go launched on the 29th of March in the US, adding to the list of streaming providers that are offering a subscription service for music consumers. Another route to monetise content might sound great for musicians but Dave Wiskus’ review of the service suggests something much more insidious:

You can slice it, package it, or spin it however you like, but the bare fact is that you’re making money off of songs you aren’t paying for. Worse, you’re doing it while perpetuating an air of exclusivity around the concept of making money. All while you’re pretending to be a friend to the little guy. There’s nothing artist-friendly about this approach.

Sven Skafisk’s overlaying of smartphone sales on top of traditional camera sales illustrates how much mobile phones have come to dominate how the majority of consumers experience photography – click through for the full length chart which really puts things in perspective:

CIPA camera production

The success of Amazon’s Alexa highlights the significant market opportunity for user friendly smart home solutions, which has even led to religious authorities offering advice on its use during Shabbos. What consumers may be less aware of is that in many cases they are buying into a service rather than a piece of hardware with the demise of Revolv leaving consumers in the lurch (although it looks like Nest may be stepping in to address some of these concerns now).

With the release of the Panama Papers, it’s worth revisiting which countries enable financial secrecy. One of the interesting insights to come out of the reports is the relatively limited number of Americans caught up in reports reflecting relatively lax controls in some states. The US falls in third place in the Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index.

NPR’s Planet Money (well worth subscribing to their podcast) has looked at the changing structure of employment in the US where you can see changes both in terms of the number of jobs and as percent of the total. No huge surprises but it will be interesting to see how the chart changes as machine learning and artificial intelligence make inroads into white collar professions which have traditionally proven more immune to automation:

The Decline of Farming and the Rise of Everything Else

Another podcast worth recommending is Vox’s The Weeds, providing a valuable window into American politics and policy. A recent episode looks at the tax implications of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ policies (from 34:20). One of the interesting conclusions is how comparatively robust both Democratic candidates proposals are compared to the leading Republican candidates despite Clinton and Sanders taking rather different policy approaches:

One area where Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump do seem to have something in common is their relatively protectionist approach to trade. Whilst I am all for ensuring employees gets appropriate protection around the world, it could put a real dampener on emerging markets’ economies as Jordan Weissmann points out:

With those last few words, Sanders has effectively written off trade with any country that is not already rich and prosperous—which is simply inhumane.

Encouraging the circular economy is likely to be a more appropriate way of encouraging local employment. Walter R. Stahel profiles this closed loop approach to production which offers benefits in terms of reduced emissions, increasing in employment and reduction in waste:

Closing Loops

As UK fast approaches the Brexit referendum, immigration and the country’s health system lead concerns facing Briton’s – issues not unrelated given the reliance Britain’s NHS has on foreign born staff:

What do you see as the most important issues facing Britain

Potentially allaying the concerns of immigration opponents is research from Mette Foged and Giovanni Peri in Denmark which points to the benefits of immigration, even for the low skilled populations:

Instead of a small negative effect on the local native-born — as most studies in the U.S. tend to find — Foged and Peri found a positive effect. That’s right — low-skilled immigrants actually raised the wages of their less-educated native-born counterparts in the surrounding area. The data followed the native-born workers for a long time, letting the authors confirm that the change was durable.

The featured image is a Nelio mural made for the Marion gallery in Panama.

Thought Starters: the outlook for the global and the Chinese economy, India’s middle class, the growing importance of migration and publishing in the digital age

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through articles, research and opinion pieces, highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. This edition looks at forecasts for the year ahead, China’s economy and India’s middle class, migration’s growing role in contemporary societies, publishing in the digital age and lots more.

The Economist has published its forecast for the global economy which sees a further shift in momentum from emerging to developed markets, although India, China and Indonesia are seen as top performers:

Emerging markets losing their grips

Malcolm Scott takes a closer look at the slowdown in China’s economy, suggesting that it’s not nearly as significant as some of the more vociferous critics are suggesting:

China's slowdown in context

India as The Economist’s figures above suggest, is one of the powerhouses of the global economy and the country’s growing middle class is seen as providing enormous opportunities for local and international brands. The problem is there are wide variations in estimates of India’s middle class depending on the spending power you apportion to the Indian rupee as the Research Unit for Political Economy shows:

Some estimates of India's middle class

The Wall Street Journal in its profile of demographic trends has taken a closer look at the globe’s growing migrant population. Kim Mackrael and Charles Forelle in their broader analysis of immigration contrast Canada’s more assimilationist and economically driven policies with those of Europe. Whilst I’d argue that Europe is currently in a very different position to Canada due to its proximity to Syria, it does provide some valuable pointers as the continent faces an ageing population:

A growing migrant pool

Angus Hervey provides an important reminder that for many important human development indicators things are on the up (although this is certainly no argument for complacency). Among the indicators he points to are reductions in poverty, malnutrition, polio, infant mortality and AIDS deaths and improvements in universal education, internet access and financial inclusion:

Global poverty has reached a record low

Felix Salmon looks at the maturing of the fintech sector as it  focuses on providing tangible improvements on services offered rather than rhetoric about turning the financial sector upside down:

The problems such fintech companies are trying to solve aren’t the type that can be tackled by a few hyperactive coders in a garage. Rather, they require dozens of different skillsets, not to mention the ability to manage them all. In that sense, the startups are becoming much more like the banks they’re seeking to disrupt. That’s Lunn’s Great Convergence. No one believes the banks are going to solve these problems. The trillion-dollar question is, can the fintech companies do something important and socially useful before they, like the banks, become bogged down in regulation and bureaucracy.

Om Malik reports on how the movement towards a software enabled world has moved a lot of business categories into a winner takes all market (eg Amazon, Uber, Google). It’s also worth adding that innovations in technology and business strategy can see even these advantages quickly fall over time if management aren’t vigilant:

This loop of algorithms, infrastructure, and data is potent. Add what are called network effects to the mix, and you start to see virtual monopolies emerge almost overnight. A network effect occurs when the value of a product or service goes up with the number of people using it. The Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe called it Metcalfe’s Law. Telephone services, eBay, and Skype are good examples of the network effects at work. The more people who are on Skype, the more people you can call, and thus the more likely it is that someone will join.

While physical book sales in the US are on the up according to Nielsen BookScan figures, ebooks are heading in the opposite direction with a consolidation around the Kindle and Kobo platforms according to Michael Kozlowski’s report:

In a few short years most digital bookstores will be out of business and Amazon and Kobo will likely be the only players left standing.  The only digital bookstores that will survive will be companies offering both hardware/software solutions to encapsulate people into their walled gardens.  The destruction of the digital book market has already been set in motion and nothing will stop from the industry from collapsing.

In 2013 Amazon created a media storm by announcing they were working on drone delivery with commentators debating whether this was a real story or a public relations stunt. Two years on and the pathway to drone delivery looks clearer. Dan Wang looks at where drone logistics have proven successful and where we’re likely to see it make real inroads in the near future:

Amazon Drones vs Current Delivery Options

As we start a new year we’re seeing various commentators giving their prognosis for the year ahead. Fred Wilson and Bob O’Donnell make good starting points.

Finally, it’s worth watching Extra Credit’s review of China’s Sesame Credit which has seen the Chinese Government collaborate with Tencent and Alibaba on gamifying good behaviour by Chinese citizens. A case of Nudge theory heading in a distinctly dystopian direction:

The featured image is an INTI mural from the Artesano Project in Nagua, Dominican Republic.

Thought Starters: looking critically at mobile apps, venture capital, how Volkswagen ***ked up and the decline of pornography

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.

Consumers are spending more of their time on their smartphones in mobile apps which inevitably leads many media owners to see the development of their own as a means of increasing consumer engagement. Priya Ganapati warns that this approach is flawed in many cases with the development of mobile web offering providing a much better use of resources:

“Apps aren’t magical universes. They are part of a platform that is not viral, resource-hungry and hard to grow. So why not bet on the mobile web instead?”

Sam Altman and Paul Graham look critically at the financial fundamentals of startups in a market where valuations don’t necessarily match up with future prospects:

“Here’s a common way startups die. They make something moderately appealing and have decent initial growth. They raise their first round fairly easily because the founders seem smart and the idea sounds plausible. But because the product is only moderately appealing, growth is ok but not great. The founders convince themselves that hiring a bunch of people is the way to boost growth. Their investors agree. But (because the product is only moderately appealing) the growth never comes. Now they’re rapidly running out of runway. They hope further investment will save them. But because they have high expenses and slow growth, they’re now unappealing to investors. They’re unable to raise more, and the company dies.”

Also looking at the startup universe is Ben Thompson who points to less successful venture capitalists as being increasingly squeezed between angel investors below and more traditional investors above:

“So it is with venture capital: once startup funding requirements were reduced, the superior information and the willingness to hustle of angels and incubators earned the trust of the big companies of tomorrow, reducing more and more venture capitalists to dumb money hardly worth the 20% premium. The inputs to the Silicon Valley system have been changed, and we’re only now seeing the effects, and that should be a cautionary tale for just about everyone who thinks they and their industry are safe from the Internet’s impact.”

Matt Roskoff contrasts the falling prices of consumer electronic hardware with the rising price of television and radio services:

Prices for Electronic Goods and Services

Paul Kedrosky suggests that the Volkswagen emissions scandal may have been the result of cultural norms within the engineering department rather than a deliberate move on the automotive manufacturers management:

“It is still possible, of course, that we will learn that the engineers were under orders from management to beat the tests by any means necessary, but based on what we now know, that seems implausible. It’s more likely that the scandal is the product of an engineering organization that evolved its technologies in a way that subtly and stealthily, even organically, subverted the rules.”

Credit Suisse in their annual Global Wealth Report looks at the current spread of financial wealth across countries and regions including the disparities between the wealthy and the poor:

Global Wealth Pyramid

We are seeing a broader array of jobs affected by technology, as smarter systems enable more technically complex tasks to be automated. MIT Professor David Autor looks at the costs and benefits of these changes, suggesting that the opportunities will outweigh the threats if societies ameliorate the negative effects with education, taxation and transfer programmes.

The migrants pouring into Europe has focused largely on the plight of refugees fleeing civil war in Syria. What Alex Tabarrok points to is that by focusing on the plight of refugees, we fail to acknowledge the benefits that more open borders would provide both to people trapped in less developed societies and to global society as a whole:

“Closed borders are one of the world’s greatest moral failings but the opening of borders is the world’s greatest economic opportunity. The grandest moral revolutions in history—the abolition of slavery, the securing of religious freedom, the recognition of the rights of women—yielded a world in which virtually everyone was better off. They also demonstrated that the fears that had perpetuated these injustices were unfounded. Similarly, a planet unscarred by iron curtains is not only a world of greater equality and justice. It is a world unafraid of itself.”

Pornography has been getting plenty of column inches lately thanks to Playboy’s announcement that it will no longer be publishing full nudity, reflecting falling profitability of ‘legitimate’ operators (no tears shed here). Whilst the industry has long been pointed to as technological leader, recent changes mean that the sector is becoming something of a technological laggard according to Cade Metz:

“With the rise of mobile devices and platforms from the likes of Apple and Google, not to mention the proliferation of free videos on YouTube-like porn sites, the adult industry is in a bind. Money is hard to come by, and as the industry struggles to find new revenue streams, it’s facing extra competition from mainstream social media. Its very identity is being stolen as the world evolves both technologically and culturally.”

Another area where technology has changed the balance of power is music where we’ve seen a democratisation of the tools of production. Art Tavana looks at GarageBand’s role as a stepping stone for many budding musicians looking to get their music out and about.

If you find yourself in London between now and the start of January, I’d definitely recommend visiting Ann Veronica Janssens’ yellowbluepink installation at the Wellcome Collection. A great exercise in disorientation:

The featured image is the SatOne mural Insomnia in Mannheim, Germany and published in Graffuturism.

Thought Starters

The following is a collection of articles and thought pieces highlighting interesting trends and changes in the world you and I live in.

Authors of The Age of Cryptocurrency, Michael  Casey and Paul Vigna talk about how Bitcoin is no longer being seen as a novelty in the world’s financial system.

Leslie Berlin provides a valuable account of the history of Silicon Valley, pointing to the technical, cultural, and financial forces that have shaped its growth.

Silicon Valley
Santa Clara Valley before it became Silicon Valley, OSU Special Collections.

Amazon recently released its financial results which broke out figures for its AWS cloud computing offering for the first time. Ben Thompson profiled the growth of Amazon and the increasingly important role that AWS now plays for the tech juggernaut, fueling the company’s forays into new markets. Jan Dawson on the other hand takes a critical look at some of Amazon’s forays into foreign markets which have met with mixed success and suggests that the company should double down on those markets where it has critical mass.

Amazon Services
Amazon’s array of services with Jan Dawson arguing that the company should concentrate on depth rather than reach.

Elon Musk’s launch of Tesla Energy has raised a lot of comments about the disruption of the electricity sector. Davide Castelvecchi takes a more critical view

Senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development, Michael Clemens argues the case for opening Europe’s doors to immigration, providing a marked contrast to politicians response in the European Union.

The UK election has come to a close and I can’t claim to be happy with the result. The Financial Times has some valuable data visualisations which allow readers to quickly grasp trends in voting.

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 10.55.28

Want to know where you’re likely to find racism? PLOS ONE used Google’s search data, providing a source of information that’s free of some of the biases traditionally associated with survey data on racism:

Google Racism

Ryoji Ikeda’s Supersymmetry exhibition at the Vinyl Factory’s Brewer Street Car Park space is well worth a visit for fans of digital art at a more visceral level.

The featured image is 1010 piece in Fondi, Italy for Memoire Urbane and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters

The following is a collection of articles and thought pieces highlighting interesting trends and changes in the world we live in.

Mobile messaging continues to grow as a communication format and as a platform which The Economist profiles in its latest issue. Mobile messaging sector has been given a boost  in the tech press by recent announcements at Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference which  has seen Facebook Messenger repositioned as the hub  for consumer’s smartphones. It’s an interesting strategic play by Facebook as it could potentially see the messaging platform become a gatekeeper across mobile regardless of which mobile operating system consumers are using.  I recommend checking out Benedict Evans and  Charlie Warzei’s take on things if you want to find out more.

Jay Z and friends have launched the Tidal streaming music service into what is an increasingly crowded market. Ben Thompson uses this as a starting point to look at how has the bargaining power in the music industry value chain…and he concludes that Tidal doesn’t have a particularly strong position.

Amazon Dash Button provides an interesting example of the changing face of marketing and Amazon’s move to bind consumers more closely to its ecommerce ecosystem. Eugene Wei has an interesting review of the service or for a more critical perspective, try Ian Crouch. I don’t think I’m ready to have little brand advertisements all around my home quite yet.

The popularity of UKIP and other parties hostile to immigration across Europe point to concerns about ‘job stealing foreigners.’ Adam Davidson provides a valuable retort to this view drawing on the Lump of Labour Fallacy.

The drop in global oil prices has helped and hurt different countries. Moisés Naím picks out who the winners and losers are.

Fareed Zakaria advocates the benefits of a liberal arts education pointing to the benefits it provides in enabling countries to be economically successfully and warns of the risks of putting too much emphasis on STEM  focused education.

There’s been a fair amount of talk recently of the impact that technology and automation is having on employment in the developed world. Noah Smith suggests that this argument is overstated pointing to the massive impact that China’s workforce is having on the global economy.

It’s worth checking out  Evan Osnos’ detailed profile of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his view of development which doesn’t include Western ideals of democracy and press freedom. One to watch given his role in shaping international relations in years to come.

Scott Harrison’s profile of  the Moscow apartment bombings of 1999 and Vladimir Putin’s alleged involvement paints the Russian leader in a much less flattering and ultimately rather scarey light.  Well worth a read, particularly in light of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.

Who are the happiest people in Europe? The social democratic model appears to be working in Scandinavia whilst the economic crisis in Southern Europe appears to be dampening things according to Eurostat figures.

Qualityoflife

For those of you in the UK, you might want to check out Cambridge University research reported on in the Guardian which looks at which parts of the UK are the friendliest and most neurotic.

Featured image is a John-Thomas Nagel photo taken in Sao Paulo in Brazil published in Street Art Utopia.