Apr 252015
 
Courtesy of Wikipedia

can Wellington become a global tech hub? raised an interesting question, how big does a city need to be in order to be successful in the new economy?

Does a compact city with a few hundred thousand people have an advantage over several million inhabitants sprawling across a huge metropolis?

The romantic view is the smaller cities should prevail but history, particularly given the wide sprawl of Silicon Valley, indicates the opposite.

While Silicon Valley, and most of the other Twentieth Century industrial hubs like Detroit, were sprawling conurbations it may be this era’s centres are more compact with towns being walkable.

Certainly this is what we’re seeing with the tech industry’s shift into San Francisco as workers find they’d rather walk or cycle to work than spend hours on freeways each day.

So it may be the newer breed of businesses and industries that don’t need massive infrastructure also don’t need to sprawl.

If that turns out to be true then cities like Wellington could do well.

Apr 252015
 
wellington-new-zealand-city-view

It bills itself as ‘the coolest little capital in the world’ however something is going on in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, as its technology sector takes off.

Last week I was in Wellington, partly to attend the Open Source, Open Society conference and also to have a look at how the city is doing so well as one of the leading startup cities.

While I’ll have a number of posts about the city, startup scene and conference over the next couple of weeks, it’s worthwhile noting some basic impressions that came from the visit.

The size of the city, Wellington is a small town with a population of 200,000, brings both advantages and negatives for the business and startup communities.

Small is sweet

One of the advantages of being so small is the business community is relatively accessible, a number of entrepreneurs told me how easy it is for them to find the specialists they need given there’s usually two degrees or less separation between everyone.

Normally having a small business community means it gets insular, particularly in a capital city where the business of government can create a bubble effect. What’s notable about Wellington is most of the businesses are looking outward towards the US, Australia and East Asia.

The city’s intimate business environment also improves trust within the community as one Aussie expat told me, “if you rip off anyone in this town pretty well everyone knows about it by the end of the weekend. It keeps everyone honest.”

Being small, the city makes it easy to walk around which compounds the business networking opportunities. A businesswoman, who is also a lifelong Wellingtonian, observed how she allows an extra 15 minutes to walk anywhere as she finds herself stopping for conversations.

Three dominant businesses

Having three successful businesses in the city – TradeMe, Xero and Weta – has both its upsides and disadvantages with the bigger players tending to dominate the employment market and funding opportunities.

Of the three businesses, TradeMe is the most domestically focused while Xero is growing in the tech sector and Weta is the most diverse with its range of special effects and movie production services.

With Weta, the business is exposed to the vagaries of the global film industry as Statistic New Zealand survey of movie production shows.

The film industry is one of Wellington’s important employers with the sector supporting around two thousand businesses in the city, although I didn’t get time to explore how much of an overlap there is between the tech and film industries.

TradeMe is largely a domestic focused business that provides a steady work and skills base for the local workforce. While it’s the least internationally exposed business of the three, it’s probably also the most consistent.

Xero, like Weta, is a globally expanding business and its success is attracting investors and expats from North America and Australia. While its the smallest of the three it’s probably the business that has done the most raise Wellington’s profile in the tech industry.

Community spaces

What’s particularly notable are the number of coworking spaces in Wellington ranging from the straightforward Bizdojo and Creative HQ through to the quirky Enspiral.

The availability of shared spaces makes the city attractive to startups and adds to the vibrancy of the local tech community which links into hipster pursuits such as craft beer.

Communities like Enspiral also add another dimension to the local startup and creative industries environment by connecting entrepreneurs with their peers and service providers.

Partnerships with government

One aspect I didn’t get to explore while in Wellington was the relationship between the city’s educational institutions, particularly Victoria University, with the business community.

Similarly I didn’t get the opportunity to discover how much of a role local and national governments have had in the development of Wellington’s tech scene. It seems to be relatively hands off although some government agencies have supported Weta with co-investment funds.

Talking to some of the US and Australian expats it was clear that lifestyle combined with opportunity with lifestyle, as one Aussie emigre told me “I couldn’t get the water views, access to the city and be able to walk to work back home like I can here.”

While these are superficial thoughts that I’ll expand on over the next week as I decipher notes and listen to interviews, there’s no doubt that Wellington is carving a position as one of the global centres of the new economy. How big it becomes will depend on how many other businesses grow to the size of Xero or Weta.

Apr 142015
 
Skilled workers are essential to building industries

Yesterday this site looked at the shortcomings of the Australian government’s Inter Generational Report and criticised it primarily for its failure to imagine how society and the economy would look by 2050.

While no-one has a crystal ball, making projections on how government spending will look in the future without having some basis for the assumptions on revenues and expenditures renders a document like the IGR somewhat useless.

So what might Australia’s economy in 2050 look like? Here’s a quick list of thoughts.

Rethinking retirement

The obvious is most western societies, including Australia’s, are going to be older. This has a number of consequences, particularly with the retirement age.

In 1909 the old age pension was introduced in Australia with eligibility starting at 65 for men and 60 for women. At the time, life expectancy was 55 years for men and 59 for females.

Today age pension age has barely moved with it becoming 67 for those born after 1952. Life expectancy today 91.5 years for men and 93.6 for women, this expected to increase by 2055 to 95.1 and 96.6 respectively.

More importantly, life expectancy at age 60 will move from 16.9/19.3 years today to 21.3/23.1 in 2055.

Quite clearly the superannuation assumptions of being able to get a tax free pot of gold at 60 are doomed, few people will get enough from their lump sum to see themselves through twenty years retirement.

That throws them back on to the state. Given these numbers it’s clear the eligibility age for the old pension is going to have to be increased.

Coupled with a declining birth and participation rates seeing fewer taxpayers contributing to government coffers, the need to reform the pension age is going to become more pressing.

A healthier population

One of the differences between 1909 and today is that we’re far healthier. A fifty something today is generally in better shape than a thirty year old of their grandparents’ time.

Coupling that with the changing nature of work where most workers of a century ago were employed in exacting physical labour, today’s employees are far more likely to be sitting on a computer. This means the working life can be extended.

While the population is going to be healthier, an older population is going to mean more people with chronic conditions and those with serious issues like dementia are going to be an increasing drain on medical services, not to mention increased incidence of cancers and possibly diseases related to sedentary lifestyles.

This means the nature of medical treatment is going to change, a lot more is going to be spent on early identification and intervention of chronic and debilitating conditions.

Changing the workforce

While the workforce is going to get older, it’s also going to become more precarious. This is already clear in the long term trends since the 1980s and with the rise of ‘collaborative economy’ businesses like O-Desk, Mechanical Turk and Airtasker we can see jobs becoming more casualised.

Today’s children will not have a steady career path and governments have to plan for extended periods of unemployment. This too affects the participation rate and the levels of household spending.

A precarious income also means workers are less likely to take on large debt commitments. This trend is already apparent and is the main reason why companies with a 1960s consumer spending model are struggling in the economy of 2015.

Property stagnation

The Australian middle class model that depends upons highly indebted householders paying down mortgages is likely to be unpopular by the middle of the century as people will be reluctant to take out a huge loan to buy a property when their medium term job prospects are uncertain.

This one aspect is where the Australia government projections go badly awry. It’s understandable not to consider this given the political poison of telling the population their assumed property gains aren’t going to happen but it damns the IGR to failure.

A society with lower levels of property ownership means a dramatic shift in the tax mix and government expenditures. Assuming that today’s normal will also be tomorrow’s is very risky.

Changing technologies

The technologies themselves are changing the revenue and expenditure streams for government, just rolling out diverless vehicles might eliminate the need for half the US’s police force while reduced registration fees, taxes and fines will hit state and local government budgets.

Similarly the global nature of digital businesses is going to challenge governments as the locations of where work is done, goods are delivered and profits made becomes less certain. Right now tax officials are struggling with the revenues of multinationals but increasingly smaller companies will present the same problems.

The other changing nature of work is going to be its composition, just as a hundred years ago nearly half the workers in western countries were in agriculture, a number that’s below one in twenty today, we can expect changes in employment sectors as robots and algorithms take over many of today’s jobs.

All of this means a very different society and workforce to today’s. While it’s difficult to envision what it looks like from here, just as the current economy was almost unimaginable in 1975, it’s necessary to give some thoughts on the shifts to make informed policy choices rather than the opportunistic populism displayed by most of today’s political leaders.

So how do you see the economy of 2015 looking? And where are governments going to raise their money from? I’d be interested to hear what you see in the crystal ball.

Apr 132015
 
Does the digital divide really exist

“If you don’t know where you are now, you don’t know where you’re heading” says science presenter Karl Kruszelnicki – aka Dr Karl – in the publicity for the Australian government’s latest Inter-Generational Report.

Doctor Karl is part of a glossy campaign based around the report with the grand title of The Challenge of Change. The problem with the report is that it barely identifies any of the changes, let alone the effects, that might affect the economy over the next forty years.

The aim of the IGR is to identify the long term trends in the Australian economy and provide a basis for policy development. The first was delivered in 2001 and one has been produced roughly every five years since, making this the fourth.

An aging population

Much of the 2015 IGR hangs on the observation that Australia’s population is aging; stating the bleeding obvious that became apparent when the nation’s post World War II baby boom came to an end in 1965.

While the fact Australia’s population is aging despite massive immigration in recent years is undeniable, most of the report is a mish mash of motherhood statements that expose the key contradictions – dare one call it schizophrenia – lying at the heart of Australian politics and society.

The motherhood statements are all quite valid; the nation needs to develop better infrastructure, build a more skilled workforce and develop new industries as the mining boom sputters to a messy end.

Cutting education

Sadly the actions of Australian governments at both state and Federal level are in direct opposition to these laudable aims. The discussion on training and education illustrates the contradictions;

Under the ‘proposed policy’ scenario, Australian Government spending on education and training is projected to decline to 1.0 per cent of GDP by 2054-55. However, these figures do not take into account the significant increase in lending to students through the higher education and vocational education and training loan schemes.

Despite recognising the importance of training the workforce in order to keep the nation competitive the Federal government is actually forecasting to reduce spending on education and worker training.

Given the typical government education spending among developed nations is around 5% of GDP – in Australia total government spending is 5.1% for 2014 – this indicates a lot more cost to be pushed onto states to make up the shortfalls, if it is being made up at all.

A lack of investment

Particularly notable in the report is the scant talk about what industries are going to develop over the next thirty years or where the money for investing into them is going to come from.

The little discussion there is around private sector investment revolves around the superannuation system – the Australian equivalent of the US 401(k) personal pension accounts where workers are compelled to contribute into private schemes.

Total Australian superannuation assets have increased strongly since compulsory superannuation was introduced in 1992. At the end of 2013-14, total superannuation assets were $1.84 trillion, around 116 per cent of GDP. As the superannuation system matures and wages grow, total Australian superannuation assets are expected to continue to increase and make a growing contribution to national savings.

This statement ignores how the pool of superannuation funds is going to decline as baby boomers and Generation X reaches retirement age and starts to draw down its savings.

An even more important aspect missed by the authors are the risks Australian workers are exposed to as the only thing guaranteed by these funds are the rich fees charged by the managers.

During the global financial crisis of 2008 both the returns and asset bases of superannuation funds were hit hard with some funds suspended from trading and withdrawals restricted. The risk of similar event happening in the next forty years and its impact on household savings and business investment is simply ignored.

Ignoring the elephant

The key to understanding the Australian economic miracle of the last 25 years lies in the property market where housing lending has been boosted at the first sign of economy trouble.

As a consequence Australian households have become amongst the most indebted in the world and the bulk of domestic savings are in housing assets. Housing is the cornerstone of the Australian economy and the source of its middle class wealth.

Remarkably in the entire document the words ‘housing’ and ‘property’ only appear twice and three times respectively.

In ignoring the effects of housing on both state and Federal budgets, the bureaucrats have ignored the single most important factor in Australia’s wealth.

Given even in the most favorable projections, baby boomers and Generation Xers will be selling down their property portfolios to fund their retirements during the IGRs forecast periods, it is nothing short of amazing there is little mention of such a critical factor.

A flat line future

An important feature of the IGR is its focus on government spending with a strong ideological bent supporting the Australian political obsession with privatisation and currying favours from the deeply discredited and corrupt global ratings agencies.

This blinkered view of the world makes it hard for the authors to give a balanced analysis of the risks presented to the Australian economy and this weakness is exacerbated by poor analysis.

Each of the reports has featured ‘flat line’ projections for growth, unemployments and trade. For example here are the terms of trade projections from the current report.

Australian-terms-of-trade-projections

Such analysis is effectively useless and, because of each of the reports features such lazy forecasting, the projections in each time period end up being distorted by the circumstances of the day; forecast economic growth for the 2020s across the four report has varied between 1.6 and 2.8% over the reports.

Indeed the latest report is possibly the most optimistic with a 2.8% forecast growth rate which is at odds with the comparatively pessimistic view of 2.3% in the halcyon days of the 2002 report.

Lazy analysis

The IGR’s forecasters justify the flat line analysis by claiming long term trends will be due to underlying changes in the economy which will smooth out business cycles.

It is also important to keep in mind that the long-term projections look through business cycles and assume a smooth growth path through to 2054-55. In reality, it is almost certain that any economy will go through such cycles over a 40 year time period. However, the outlook to 2054-55 will not be driven by these cycles, but by the underlying trends in population, participation and productivity.

While this is to an extent true as short term cycles oscillate around the longer term trends, the forecasters do nothing to identify what will drive growth in the Australian economy for the next thirty years.

The IGR’s greatest failure is in not considered the structure of the economy and the workforce over the next three decades is its greatest flaw. How people are working and where they are working is going to shape the nation and government revenues.

Compounding the report’s failure to at least attempt to forecast the workforce’s changing structure, the authors’ projection of unemployment are almost an insult.

estimated-australian-unemployment

As this blog has pointed out constantly over recent years, the workforce is undergoing fundamental shifts in the face of automation, robotics and intelligent systems. While it may turn out five percent is the average rate of unemployment over the period we can expect major fluctuations in the workforce as industries are dislocated.

In turn those fluctuations are going to affect government revenues and expenditures, not to mention their influences on home prices and the superannuation balances of those facing extended periods of unemployment.

A flawed roadmap

Ultimately the Inter-Generational Report is of little use in helping policy makers and the community plan for the challenges and opportunities facing Australia over the next thirty years.

Like the Australia in the Asian Century report it’s a curiously selective document that fails to consider most of the external factors that are going to shape societies over the upcoming decades.

Just as the Australia in the Asian Century paper is a dated and discredited document a mere three years after its release shows the calibre of advice being given to the nation’s leaders.

While Doctor Karl is exactly right that we can’t know where we’re heading unless we know where we are, this report fails to acknowledge how Australia came to be in its privileged position and what the opportunities are in a radically changing world.

It may well be that The Lucky Country stays lucky to the middle of this century and caps off two hundred years of good fortune. If that does happen though it will not be because of this flawed and shallow report.

The authors of the Intergenerational Report ducked the challenge of change.

Apr 122015
 
ge-jet-engine

In his mission to refocus GE on its engineering roots, CEO Jeff Immelt last week announced a restructuring plan that will see the company divest most of its real estate portfolio and shrink its finance arm faster than expected.

Bloomberg News reports the stock market took the announcement very well with the shares jumping 8.7% on the news.

GE now expects “high-value industrials” such as jet engines, oilfield equipment and diesel locomotives to generate more than 90 percent of earnings by 2018, up from just over half in 2014.

That the company’s announcement has been taken so well by the market shows how the US economy is slowly shifting from financial engineering and debt driven spending to building real products.

For the rest of the world there’s a clear message – the 1980s era of Gordon Gekko is coming to a close. It’s time to start figuring out where the real growth is going to come from rather than just goosing household spending with easy credit.

Where companies like GE are going today is where governments will be looking in five to ten years time. Some will find they are further behind than others when the shift becomes apparent.

Apr 022015
 
cheap robots cleaning computers

Transaction based businesses are in the firing line as robots and algorithms are taking over the tasks that are the mainstay of many service businesses.

In How To Know if a Robot Will Take Your Marketing Job, Gartner consultant Martin Kihn identifies two factors that indicate roles at risk of being overtaken by technology.

“The two dimensions relate to the things computers do best: (1) repetitive tasks, and (2) structured data,” states Kihn. “If you’re a knowledge worker, your biggest enemy is routine. To the extent your work is predictable, it’s codable . . . and you’re a target.”

Kihn describes a curve where repetitive, structured jobs are at risk of automation while at the other end are more abstract analytic roles which are relatively safe from the algorithms and robots.

will-a-robot-take-your-job

While Kihn is focusing on marketing jobs, his message is clear for all occupations and businesses – if your company makes most of its revenue from low skill, easily automated tasks then it is ripe for being overtaken by algorithms or robotics.

Even for businesses that are higher up the value chain, there are roles that can be replaced within the enterprise; a good example are the mining companies replacing high paid drivers with automated pit trucks.

There are even many management jobs that may be affected as artificial intelligence advances. Approving spending or hiring requests for example can be largely dealt with by algorithms with only the rare exceptional case requiring a manager to intervene.

So the executive suite may well be just as vulnerable as the lower status roles in an organisation.

MIT professor Andrew McAfee who Kinh quotes has been clear that we’re on the cusp of massive change in the workplace as robots, algorithms and artificial intelligence progress. It may well be there are far more jobs and businesses at risk than we think.

Mar 152015
 
640px-Fresno_CA_Van_Ness_portal

Does the real opportunity for tech entrepreneurs lie in the agriculture sector? An article by James Fallows looking at Fresno’s startup community for the Atlantic Magazine suggests that might be the case.

Fresno, in California’s agricultural Central Valley, doesn’t have the glamor of the global startup centres but offers a focus on neglected sectors as Fallows quotes Jake Soberal of Bitwise Industries.

“My guess is that 5 to 10 percent of the tech need of the farming industry is now being met,” Fallows quotes Soberal as saying. “You could build a technology industry in Fresno based on that alone, not to mention the worldwide need in agriculture.”

While there isn’t a great need for another coffee app, pizza delivery service or online store, there are far more opportunities in other sectors to address unmet needs.

This is probably where the opportunity lies for cities like Fresno that are trying to create their own mini Silicon Valley – build a technology sector to address the needs of your existing industrial base.

In agriculture there’s a plethora of Internet of Things, Big Data, analytics and other technological applications that addresses issues in the industry. Farming is not the only sector which presents these opportunities.

Fresno’s ambitions aren’t unique but as Fallows points out this is not a zero sum game and there’s no reason why dozens of cities shouldn’t be able to build their own niches with new technologies.

Picture of Fresno from David Jordan via WikiPedia