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: young people’s media and device use, Facebook Messenger’s evolution, grey zone conflicts and the gender pay gap

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.  Among the stories and research we look at in this edition are the habits of children and young adults, the growth of Facebook Messenger, grey zone conflicts, the gender pay gap and lots more.

There’s been growing speculation that Twitter may increase the character length of its posting as it looks to get ahead of Facebook in its user growth stakes (see below).  Shira Ovide gives a strong argument for retaining it as it is, although I would argue there’s definitely scope for excluding links, images and video URLs from tweets’ character limit:

Comparison growth monthly active users of Facebook and Twitter

Younger audiences given an indication of future habits of  the general population. Dan Kopf analysis young adults habits in the American Time Use Survey which unsurprisingly points to growing gaming, computer use and reading and decline in time spent watching television:

Which leisure activities are twentysomethings spending more time on?

Benedict Evans on the other hand has used Ofcom’s Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report to look at the habits of British children which points to the substantial transition to mobile phones and tablets:

What would children miss

Flurry has released their analysis of Europeans’ use of smartphones and tablets based on their app data which shows wide variations in device penetration as well as giving clues on how mobile devices are being used:

Smart device penetration in Europe

Facebook has done a great job of transitioning to a mobile world with 78% of its ad revenues now coming from mobile. Facebook though is not one to rest on its laurels, with Facebook Messenger seen as a key component in strengthening its hold on mobile consumers. Facebook has just published a review of highlights for Messenger from 2015 which gives an indication of the social network’s ambitions for the mobile messaging service:

Facebook Messenger 2015 highlights

As mobile phones approach market saturation in developed markets, consumer electronics brands are looking to new categories for a boost in their revenues. Unfortunately for the brands, Accenture‘s global research profiled by Matt Rosoff  suggests that consumers aren’t getting caught up in the hype for new products despite a growing array of offerings:

Consumers are bored with today's tech and nervous about tomorrow's

Gartner’s CMO Spend Survey points to growing marketing budgets and an emphasis on digital commerce, innovation, sales conversion and customer retention. You can find further analysis of the survey results from Simon Yates who points among things to the blurring distinction between offline and online marketing:

Marketing budgets continue to grow

Interested in knowing what jobs are likely to keep you employed into the future? The Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis has analysed employment and unemployment rates for jobs on the basis of how routinised and levels of cognition which might give you some pointers whether you need to be retraining:

Routine vs Non Routine Cognitive vs Manual EmploymentFigures from Bloomberg point to the substantial cuts in employment some banks have taken post financial crisis. It might be rather too optimistic to hope that those people whose actions fueled the crisis might have been among the first to leave:

Staff cuts at the World's biggest banks

Cass R. Sunstein profiles Gabriel Zucman’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens, examining the growing role that tax havens play in enabling corporations and the wealthy to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Zucman’s analysis provides a guide to the scale of the problem and also points to the successes and failures different institutions have had in addressing the problem of tax evasion:

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, you might expect that there would be an international crackdown on the use of tax havens, and as we shall see, international attention is indeed growing. But the numbers demonstrate that no crackdown has occurred. In Luxembourg, offshore wealth actually increased from 2008 to 2012 (by 20 percent). In Switzerland, the increase has been comparable; foreign holdings are now close to an all-time high. Disturbingly, the new wealth is coming mostly from developing countries, which poses a serious problem in light of the severe strains on their limited budgets.

China’s economy is going through a rough patch, with the share market in a nose dive.  Given the over inflated valuation of many of the assets. Given the overinflated value of many of the assets in the country’s equity markets, this trend is unlikely to change (unless the government chooses to prop it up):

China Battles to Shore Up World's Priciest Stock Market

High profile Silicon Valley venture capitalist Paul Graham’s recent blog posting in which he argues that income inequality per se is not a bad has inevitably kicked up a storm of reactions. Among the more nuanced responses is Ben Thompson’s analysis who points to the risks and benefits associated with a more deregulated economy and calls out for the need for a strong social safety net that is independent of our employers:

Technology is changing the world, and it is naive to not expect the world to begin to push back. Rather than always be reactionary, it is past time for the technology industry broadly and Silicon Valley in particular to get serious about what that world will look like in the future, especially given the fact there is actually a way forward that is a win for not just technology companies and their investors, but for those who are impacted — i.e. everyone. Just as we should separate the means by which Uber allocates drivers from the ability to pay for a ride, it makes sense to separate work from the provision of a social safety net, and those most able to capitalize on this new world order should be the most willing to pay.

The conflict in Syria and the resulting flood of refugees fleeing to Europe is unfortunately leading to an anti immigration backlash in many European countries. Victims aside from the refugees fleeing harm in the middle of a European winter include the Schengen Agreement which previously allowed the free flow of people across much of mainland Europe:

Recent changes to crossing Europe's borders

Peter Pomerantsev uses the examples of China in the South China Sea, Russia in Crimea and Syria and ISIS with its terrorist attacks to highlight the growing importance of messy grey zone conflicts around the world:

It’s a brave new war without beginning or end, where the borders of peace and war, serviceman and civilian have become utterly blurred—and where you and I are both a target and a weapon.

Whilst we’re on the subject of globalisation and its impacts, The Economist has updated its Big Mac Index, pointing to who is paying over the odds for their guilty pleasure:

The Big Mac Index

The Freakonomics podcast is one of my regular listening appointments and this week’s edition looking at the causes and effects of the gender pay gap is well worth downloading.

The featured mural is by eko from his Flickr page.