Thought Starters: electric cars, decline of European business and music as cultural signifier

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at the hegemony of agile, growth of electric car, the relative decline of European business, a critique of the Olympic movement and music’s changing role as cultural signifier among other things.

Jennifer Pahlka warns against switching from the tyranny of waterfall to one focused solely on agile, calling on users to selection the right tools depending on the situation they face:

Why do we experience any of these doctrines (agile, lean, six sigma, in house, outsourced) as tyranny? Well, in the current moment, in government largely, it’s been the tyranny of waterfall, not agile. Most government IT projects have been relentlessly shoehorned into waterfall project management nightmares for the past few decades. Agile has been the knight in shining armor who rode in and broke waterfall’s grip on procurement, the key to power. But can we solve all of government’s technology needs through agile development?

Whilst electric cars are beginning to emerge in some of our major centres but their impact has so far been minimal outside of a few neighbourhoods such as Silicon Valley. Michael Liebreich and Angus McCrone provide a forecast for their future growth but more interestingly, look at some of the industries that are likely to be helped or hurt by their rise:

If it is hard to predict when phase change in complex systems begins, it is even harder to predict where it ends. No list of potential impacts of the Transformation of Transportation can be complete.  However, one thing is for sure: if our predictions for the uptake of electric vehicles are anything like correct, there is no part of the global economy which will not, in some way, be affected.

Lawrence Lenihan provides a valuable forecast for the luxury goods sector suggesting that falling barriers to entry will make it increasingly difficult for new companies to grow to the size of the current fashion giants as they’re “out-niched” by newer entrants:

The future will be about specific companies addressing specific markets

The Economist has done a comparison of the performance of leading European versus American firms and Europe has unfortunately comes up wanting with the suggestion that the continent needs to do more to enable world leading companies:

Performance of the top 500 European firms vs the top 500 American firms

The poor performance of managed funds has led more and more investors to switch to index funds but Jason Zweig looks at some of the potentially unintended consequences if investors move on mass to index funds

Index funds don’t “vote with their feet” by selling when they disagree with companies’ managers. They are quasi-permanent investors.

Because corporations know that, says Prof. Heemskerk, coziness and complacency may arise. “If you have only long-term investors, how do you keep management on their toes?” he asks. “Where are the checks and balances when you have such large block holdings?”

Branko Milanovic looks at the different cohorts that are winning and losing in the reshuffling of the world’s global income distribution:

The effects of of globalisation on income distributions in rich countries have been studied extensively. This column takes a different approach by looking at developments in global incomes from 1988 to 2008. Large real income gains have been made by people around the median of the global income distribution and by those in the global top 1%.  However, there has been an absence of real income growth for people around the 80-85th percentiles of the global distribution, a group consisting of people in ‘old rich’ OECD countries who are in the lower halves of their countries’ income distributions.

Will Chalk, Simon Maybin and Paul Brown worked with University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD) to better understand how deaths from terrorism in 2016 compares with previous years and with other fatalities. Let’s hope the killings stop soon:

Historical terrorism deaths in Europe

Max Fisher provides a dire report on the situation in Syria where a variety of factors mean that even analyst’s best case scenarios sounds terrible:

Professor Fearon, listing the ways that Syria’s war cannot end, said that in the best case, one side would slowly grind out a far-off victory that would merely downgrade the war into “a somewhat lower-level insurgency, terrorist attacks and so on.”

As the warm glow from the Rio Olympics recedes, Aaron Gordon takes a cold hard look at the Olympic movement and points to the one group it really serves, the spoilt sportocrats:

After every Games, there’s a tradition of determining whether or not the event was a “success.” This depends on who’s judging, and what they consider important. Usually, it’s journalists evaluating if the focus remained on athletic achievements and good TV, rather than the surrounding unpleasantness—as if the suffering of thousands and corruption of city officials is simply a regrettable side story, another disposable thread in a quadrennial reality show. But for the people who call Rio home, the Games weren’t just programing inventory for NBC to sell ads against, or the set of a late-summer blockbuster. They were real, with a real, lasting impact. From a human rights perspective, from a human perspective, attempting to determine the success of the Games is the wrong question. There has never been a successful Olympics. They’re all, as Gaffney puts it, different kinds of total disasters.

There’s been a lot of talk about the dematerialisation of content which has been particularly apparent in music with the growth of services like Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal. Mun Keat Looi profiles Japan which is proving one of the hold outs in the growth of digital music with physical artifacts maintain a hold on the consumer’s psyche, for the moment:

Sales of physical music formats as a share of total

Thiago R. Pinto looks at the changing ways we are consuming music, suggesting it’s becoming much less important as an identity signifier:

Here is the big issue. Music for new generations is not about reflecting their unique personas, but a mirror of the activity he or she is performing. Music was once a question of loyalty and identity. Today it’s a good consumed according to moments. So the musical preferences of these listeners is much more flexible and no longer the reflection of their identities.

Brian Raftery argues that despite movie studies best efforts, films are declining in cultural importance as consumers are faced with more competing options for their attention:

These movies didn’t just fail; they almost seemed to never exist in the first place, having been dismissed or disposed of almost immediately upon impact. And even if they did do OK for a weekend or two, they never reached beyond their predictable (and increasingly stratified) core audiences. Instead, they were dumbo-dropped into our ever-expanding cauldron of content, where they played to their bases, while everyone else turned to the newest videogame, or the latest Drake video, or some random “Damn, Daniel” parody.

Aleks Eror mounts a strongly worded defence of that much derided phenomenon, the hipster, pointing to  to their role in reviving neglected neighbourhoods, democratising entrepreneurialism and promoting a slightly more benevolent view of consumerism:

They’ve undoubtedly been a homogenous force, but they’ve also done some good, and if people were really honest with themselves they’d admit that hipster bashing is a manifestation of their own insecurities – hipsters are said to think that they are the definition cool, which must imply that everyone that isn’t one is not cool. Whether they are or not is up to debate, but their influence cannot be questioned.

Sun is the featured photograph from eko.

Thought Starters: look at AMP, Amazon’s dominance, corporate profits & music industry

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review the research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at the launch of Accelerated Mobile Pages, Amazon’s growing dominance in the digital world, rising corporate profits, the declining fortunes of the music industry and terrorism among other things.

Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages is now out in the open. Alex Bauer profiles what it offers mobile internet users and also what is going on behind the scenes:

AMP isn’t actually new technology. In fact, AMP is what the web could have been all along, if it had been originally designed with nothing but mobile device performance in mind. This “mobile-only” approach is important because one of the ways AMP achieves its blazing-fast performance is by completely ignoring any device that is not small enough to fit in your pocket. AMP is emphatically not about making desktop websites look good on phone screens, but rather a totally separate, alternative presentation of the same content. It’s the web we already know, except stripped back to the bare essentials and then subjected to aggressive validation and rendering controls.

Alex Muir points to Facebook’s Hydra like offering as something any entrepreneur should consider as a competitor before launching a business into the B2C space:

Today, **if you’re building a service for communities or individuals then Facebook is almost certainly your biggest competitor. ** B2B: Excel, B2C: Facebook.

Ben Thompson recently profiled how Amazon is leveraging its scale in ecommerce and cloud computing to gain a near insurmountable competitive advantage. Eugene Kim’s collection of charts profiling Amazon provides a valuable complement to Thompson’s words illustrating what a behemoth the organisation present (at least in the US):

Amazon's long term growth

Bastion of free market economics, The Economist has made a convincing argument that the US economy needs more competition (and regulation) pointing to growing concentration and rising profits among the country’s leading firms:

Even better at making money

Scott Santens joins the chorus of voices raising concerns about the threat automation poses to employment with Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo illustrating the major advances in artificial intelligence capabilities which could upturn society as we know it:

No nation is yet ready for the changes ahead. High rates of labor force nonparticipation leads to social instability, as does a lack of consumers within consumer economies. It turns out, humans are good at designing things, but not so great at picturing a world that their technology will create. What’s the big lesson to learn, in a century when machines can learn? Maybe it is that jobs are for machines, and life is for people.

Ben Sisario and Karl Russell profile the declining fortunes of the music industry over the last ten years with growth streaming services and vinyl sales failing to fill the hole left by declining CD sales. Whilst the figures don’t allow for revenues from other revenue streams such as concerts, sponsorship and branded content initiatives, overall, the picture isn’t particularly healthy: 

Music industry revenues

An interview with Michael Rosenfeld sheds some light on how online dating is (and isn’t) changing the nature of relationships in the 21st century:

I don’t think that that theory, even if it’s true for something like jam, applies to dating. I actually don’t see in my data any negative repercussions for people who meet partners online. In fact, people who meet their partners online are not more likely to break up — they don’t have more transitory relationships. Once you’re in a relationship with somebody, it doesn’t really matter how you met that other person. There are online sites that cater to hookups, sure, but there are also online sites that cater to people looking for long-term relationships. What’s more, many people who meet in the online sites that cater to hookups end up in long-term relationships. This environment, mind you, is just like the one we see in the offline world.

The rise of Donald Trump is one of the more interesting (and scary) phenomenons in the US’s current election cycle. Clare Malone looks at where Trump’s support comes from:

The Upshot’s look at the geography of Trumpism showed a number of variables linked to areas of deep Trump support — counties where a high proportion of the population is white with no high school diploma, where there are large numbers of mobile homes, and where there is a poor labor-force participation rate. Political scientists Michael Tesler and John Sides recently pointed to new research that shows “both white racial identity and beliefs that whites are treated unfairly are powerful predictors of support for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.”

Whilst playing to race is an important part of Donald Trump’s success, changing demographics point to a strategy of appealing to America’s white population as becoming increasingly untenable in the future according to Pew Research forecasts:

The changing face of America

The recent terrorist attack has led to an inevitable concerns among Europeans about their personal safety. Annalisa Merelli’s analysis of deaths and injuries from terror attacks in Western Europe point to the region being no more dangerous than in the recent past although digital media is no doubt amplifying current fears:

Dead and injured in terror attacks in Western Europe

The featured image shows a Hazul Luzah mural from Underground Paris’ interview with the Portuguese artist.

Thought Starters: the fallacy of maximising shareholder value, the impact of climate change on your wallet and our responses to ISIS

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.

The following figures presented by DoubleLine Capital’s Jeffrey Gundlach point to the fact that the global economy isn’t out of the woods yet:

Global nominal GDP growth

Steve Denning uses Roger L. Martin’s analysis in Fixing the Game to point out how management’s focus on maximising shareholder value comes at the expense of long term value creation and ultimately society:

“In today’s paradoxical world of maximizing shareholder value, which Jack Welch himself has called “the dumbest idea in the world”, the situation is the reverse. CEOs and their top managers have massive incentives to focus most of their attentions on the expectations market, rather than the real job of running the company producing real products and services.”

Om Malik covers the release of the latest Ericsson Mobility Report, highlighting growing penetration of different technologies (smartphones, mobile internet etc) and the regions where we’re forecasted to see  particularly strong growth:

Connected devices forecast

We’re seeing technology have an increasingly significant role in the employment landscape as machine learning, robotics and a growing array of sensors expand the range of tasks we can automate. The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andrew G Haldane recently gave a speech where he explored these changes and their implications which can be found in an abbreviated form on re/code:

Average probability of automation by occupation

Chris Field and Katharine Mach profile the work of Marshall Burke, Solomon Hsiang, and Edward Miguel who have researched the economic impacts of climate change. With the Paris Climate Change Conference fast approaching, now is an important time to make your concerns known about global warming to your local government – not one to stand on the sidelines for:

“Their conclusion delivers two blockbusters. First, in contrast to past studies, they argue that 21st century warming could lead to huge global-scale macroeconomic impacts. The best estimate from Burke and colleagues is that business as usual emissions throughout the 21st century will decrease per capita GDP by 23% below what it would otherwise be, with the possibility of a much larger impact.

Secondly, they conclude that both the size and the direction of the temperature effect depend on the starting temperature. Countries with an average yearly temperature greater than 13°C (55°F) will see decreased economic growth as temperatures rise.”

Before you suggest the issue of climate change is too difficult, it’s worth reviewing research at the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University which points to the feasibility of a move to a society that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels: 

“In a few decades, the world could be powered by nothing but wind, water, and sunlight. That’s the conclusion of a new study released just before world leaders head to Paris to strike a climate deal.

“These are basically plans showing it’s technically and economically feasible to change the energy infrastructure of all of these different countries,” says Mark Z. Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, who worked with University of California colleagues to analyze energy roadmaps for 139 countries.”

Chain founder Adam Ludwin is interviewed for Andreessen Horowitz’s podcast focusing on the growing world of blockchain innovation. Among the subjects covered are the merging cultures of finance and tech, the price of bitcoin, the importance of blockchain (rather than bitcoin) and a review of  private and permissioned blockchains and uses for colored coins and sidechains:

Michael Vakulenko looks at at how the movement to self driving cars is likely to unseat traditional manufacturers’ position in the car market. Among the particular technologies and innovations he points to as catalysing change are services and apps, transportation platforms, fleet routing and navigation:

“It’s still too early in the game to say which companies will dominate the future transportation market. One thing is a safe bet: The future transportation ecosystem will look very different from the existing automotive industry. It will resemble modern technology ecosystems with their platform business models, permissionless innovation by developers, and domination of software-centric companies.”

Technology based disruption hasn’t received the same level of media attention in education as it has in other sectors with the possible exceptions MOOCs reflecting a more constrained funding pool and the comparatively complex web of different stakeholders. The NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition provides a valuable review of emerging innovations in the primary and secondary education sector, with technologies typically augmenting rather than replacing current ways of working:

Edtech Trends

The New York Times‘ experiment with Google Cardboard has gained lots of plaudits for pushing the boundary for online journalism at scale. Whilst the experiment has catalysed interest in these new formats, Will Smith stresses the need for fully featured virtual reality platforms such as Oculus Rift to differentiate themselves from Google Cardboard:

“In the meantime, if you enjoyed your first taste of VR, courtesy of Cardboard and 360 video, that’s great! Welcome to the future! But if that first taste of VR turned your stomach, please know that it doesn’t have to be this way. The problems that affected you have been solved—you just need better hardware than comes free with the Sunday paper.”

Steve Albini wrote the essay The Problem with Music in 1994 critiquing the music industry and its ability to both give musicians money and then take it back with a litany of expenses. Albini gave an update of sorts last year at the Face the Music conference where he saw musicians as now being in a better position to take control of their own destiny:

The Socio-Economic Segregation in European Capital Cities project has been looking at levels of inequality and the proximity of the rich and poor in 12 different cities across Europe. Richard Florida’s summary of the research points to a general trend of increasing income inequality (measured by Gini coefficient) and residential segregation (measured by index of dissimilarity) across Europe, although Tallinn and Oslo make for interesting outliers:

European Cities Economic Segregation and Inequality

ISIS’ attack on Paris on the 13th of November was a tragedy which has led to some important discussions about how we deal with the threat of terrorism. The Economist’s look at global deaths from terrorism puts the deaths in perspective, pointing to how much the West has in many cases been spared the worst effects of terrorism:

Global deaths from terrorism

The attacks have led to renewed calls for backdoors in secure products and encryption software. Kim Zetter provides a valuable rebuttal starting with the lack of evidence to support the view that the terrorists used encryption technology.  She then goes on to point out that there will always be homebrewed encryption alternatives, encryption doesn’t hide metadata and weakening existing products ultimately makes everyone vulnerable:

“If Snowden has taught us anything, it’s that the intel agencies are drowning in data,” EFF Attorney Nate Cardozo says. “They have this ‘collect it all mentality’ and that has led to a ridiculous amount of data in their possession. It’s not about having enough data; it’s a matter of not knowing what to do with the data they already have. That’s been true since before 9/11, and it’s even more true now.”

Adam Shatz writing for the London Review of Books reports more broadly on ISIS’ aims with the terrorist attacks and the options the West has in reducing chances of future incidents:

“Now IS is unrivalled among jihadist groups, and no one knows quite what to do that won’t make the problem worse. Anything that can be done now risks being too little, too late. It’s true that IS is no match, militarily, for the West. The attacks of 13 November were in the anarchist tradition of the ‘propaganda of the deed’, and we shouldn’t fall for it: the social order of Europe isn’t in jeopardy. But it would also be a mistake to underestimate the problem. IS has managed to insert itself, with no small amount of cunning, and with acute sensitivity to feelings of humiliation, into two of the most intractable conflicts of our time: the relationship of European societies to their internal, Muslim ‘others’ and the sectarian power struggles that have engulfed the lands of Iraq and Syria since 2003.”

One of my real concerns is that the attacks could further marginalise Muslim populations already living in Western Europe and USA and lead to the closing of borders to refugees fleeing turmoil in places like Syria and Afghanistan. By doing this, the West would essentially be handing ISIS a victory of sorts as Adam Taylor reports:

“The very same refugees entering Europe are often the very same civilians who face the indiscriminate violence and cruel injustice in lands controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (though, it should be noted, many in Syria are also threatened by the brutal actions of the Syrian government). Globally, studies have shown that Muslims tend to make up the largest proportion of terror victims, with countries such as Syria and Iraq registering the highest toll.

If Muslim refugees come to Europe and are welcomed, it deeply undercuts the Islamic State’s legitimacy. Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has helpfully catalogued some of the Islamic State’s messages on the refugees pouring into Europe from the Middle East. The messages give the impression of deep discomfort and even jealousy that the Muslim population the Islamic State so covets for its self-proclaimed “caliphate” would rather live in “infidel” Western lands.”

The Economist’s analysis of health spending and life expectancy point to the fact that there’s a far from direct correlation between the two with the United States’s poor performance in particular standing out:

Health spending and life expectancy at birth

Raffi Khatchadourian has written a thought provoking profile of Nick Bostrom for the New Yorker profiling the latter’s research into whether developments in artificial intelligence and other technologies will lead to human extinction. His approach is definitely more thoughtful than your average Hollywood blockbuster.

The featured image is Phoenix by DALeast in Penang, Malaysia and published in StreetArtNews.