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: children’s media use, app streaming, Dribbbilisation and privacy

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.

Ofcom released Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report this month which provides a detailed look at the media consumption and device usage of children and teenagers in the UK. Among the interesting statistics are changes in the social media usage and inevitably high penetration of smartphones:

Main social media site used by children

Consumers movement from a browser to an increasingly app based interactive experience poses a significant threat to Google’s business model where the majority of income continues to come from search.  Among the ways that Google is looking to address this threat is the deeper indexing of content from apps and the launching of app streaming smoothing the transition from search to app usage.  You can see an example of it in action below with a search for a hotel in Chicago leading to the Hotel Tonight Android app below:

Google App Streaming

A further indication of the growing importance of mobile can be seen in the growing share mobile is taking of ecommerce revenues in the US according to figures from comScore:

Mobile commerce as share of total ecommerce revenues

An interesting companion piece to comScore’s forecast are figures from the Wall Street Journal which point to a decline in retail space per capita in the US which is no doubt fueled by growing ecommerce sales:

Retail space decline

WeChat provides an interesting case study in how we might see the mobile ecosystem developing in the West with mobile messaging becoming a hub for an increasingly diverse range of services. Edith Yeung profiles some of the different services currently offered in China – we’re beginning to see this with Facebook Messenger’s expansion of functionality and there’ll no doubt be plenty more to come in the near future.

Paul Adams criticises many designers for paying too much attention to aesthetics and not enough attention to purpose in what he describes as the Dribbbilisation of Design (referencing design showcase site Dribbble).  Adams argues that designers need to give greater consideration to outcomes, structure and interaction, particularly as we move to an environment where interactive design permeates everything:
The Dribbblisation of Design

Tony Aube points to the move to an increasingly messaging based world driven by artificial intelligence as making the traditional model of visual user interfaces irrelevant:

“What I do believe, however, is that these new technologies are going to fundamentally change how we approach design. This is necessary to understand for those planning to have a career in tech. In a future where computers can see, talk, listen and reply to you, what good are your awesome pixel-perfect Sketch skills going to be?

Let this be fair warning against complacency. As UI designers, we have a tendency to presume a UI is the solution to every new design problem. If anything, the AI revolution will force us to reset our presumption on what it means to design for interaction. It will push us to leave our comfort zone and look at the bigger picture, bringing our focus on the design of the experience rather than the actual screen. And that is an exciting future for designers.”

Benedict Evans reviews the competition for control of the television which he characterises as a ultimately a sideshow to the broader battles for the PC and more recently the smartphone and tablet:

“Games consoles’ closed ecosystem delivered huge innovation in games, but not in much else. The web’s open, permissionless innovation beat the closed, top-down visions of interactive TV and the information superhighway. The more abstracted, simplified and closed UX model of smartphones and especially iOS helps to take them to a much broader audience than the PC could reach, and the relative safety of installing an app due to that ‘closed’ aspect enables billions of installs and a new route to market for video. It’s not that open or closed win, but that you need the right kind of open in the right place.”

GroupM has released its forecast for the UK media sector, with a continuation in the trend of decline in print advertising and robust growth from television and interactive advertising:

Media Spend Forecast

The Flexport blog looks at the overinvestment in freight shipping capacity where the impact has been compounded by a decline in Chinese exports leading to some unintended consequences:

“It costs $300 to move a 40-foot container from Rotterdam to Shanghai, which is barely enough to cover the cost of fuel, handling, and Suez Canal fees. Here’s some more context. Let’s say that you want to travel for a year; it’s cheaper to put your personal belongings in a shipping container as it sails around the world than to keep it at a local mini-storage facility.”

Germany has long been a manufacturing powerhouse (see below). What The Economist asks is whether the country can adapt to an environment where a greater share of the value added comes from outside the traditional domains of designing and assembling goods:

Manufacturing as percentage of GDP

Turkey’s recent shooting down of a Russian air force plane has raised serious concerns about a further escalation of the conflict in Syria. Liam Denning argues the conflict reflects the increasingly embattled position Russia faces as oil prices decline (I wouldn’t paint Turkey’s role as necessarily benevolent given its support for anti Kurdish forces in Syria):

“Two things flow from this. First, Syria may represent just one front in a many sided struggle by resource-dependent countries such as Russia to maintain their position in oil and gas markets that suddenly look more like actual competitive markets than they did just a few years ago as new supply has entered the scene. That, rather than a Turkish border dispute, is the central geopolitical drama affecting energy.”

We’re seeing privacy at the centre of debates around online advertising and state surveillance but Greg Ferenstein explains that the concept of privacy is a relatively new one. He explores the emergence of privacy and looks at how we’re likely to see it further evolve in years to come:

The History of Privacy

The Economist has produced a valuable interactive infographic (it’s worth visiting The Economist for the interactive version) allowing viewers to examine which countries are doing a better job of empowering women in the workplace. Britain seemingly doesn’t do well in any of the measures:

The glass-ceiling index

The US is often characterised as deeply religious which has an inevitable impact on national and ultimately international politics. Given this, it’s interesting to see Pew Research Center’s latest recent research into religion and faith pointing to the country becoming more secular:

How the U.S. public became less religious

The featured image is Pistache, Bleu Gris et Noir by eko.