Aug 312014

One of the mantras of technologists like myself when challenged about where jobs will come from after existing industries are automated or become redundant is “we don’t know where they will come from, but they will.”

Assuming that is true and the jobs will come in industries we’ve barely begun to contemplate there remains the question of what happens to the families and communities that depended upon the displaced industries.

Two stories this week from opposite sides of the world show how how poorly we’re answering that question; in Tasmania the Idiot Tax describes what happens to a region with no economic value while in the UK the ongoing Rotherham sex abuse scandal portrays a community debilitated by unemployment.

In both regions local industries collapsed through the 1970s and 80s and the local working classes became the welfare classes, stuck on benefits with at best poorly paid casual work available.

As the Idiot Tax describes in Tasmania’s Burnie, retired older workers reaped the benefits of a life of full time employment that town’s youngsters will never know.

History has no shortage of examples of cities that disintegrated when their economic reason for existing became no more — a process we’re seeing in Detroit today.

Now we’re seeing almost every industry being changed with far greater potential for job losses and fractured communities.

That we’ve dealt so poorly with the process over the last fifty years means we have to start thinking about how we as a society manage this adjustment.

Jobs will come to replace the ones lost, just as through the Twentieth Century new roles developed to replace those displaced from as nations like the US, France and Australia evolved from largely agricultural economies into industrial and then service industries.

But the human cost is real and there are no shortage of shrunken or abandoned towns that were once thriving market or railway hubs at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

For technologists, this is an issue that has to be faced as we enter a period of economic and technological change far greater than the one we saw in the 1970s and 80s.

Car wreck photo courtesy of CBR1000 through

Aug 222014
communications is critical to modern business

In the early hours of this morning I spoke with Rod Quinn on ABC Overnights about what exactly is metadata in light of current Australian government plans to mandate a data retention law for internet service providers.

Part of the problem in the debate is defining exactly what metadata is, something I’ve attempted to do previously.

The attempt to bring clarity to the discussion isn’t being helped by the confusing explanations of politicians as shown in this interview with Malcolm Turnbull, the communications minister, shows.

One of the things that kept coming up in the conversation, which we hope to have available shortly, was people who have nothing to hide should have nothing to fear.

These two videos — Don’t Talk To Cops Parts I and II — feature a law professor and police prosecutor speaking about how innocent people can be caught out by the law.

First the law professor;

Then the police prosecutor;

A question the law professor asks, “did you know it’s a Federal offence to posses a lobster?” The answer is ‘yes’ and in every country there’s almost no way any individual can be confident they haven’t committed a crime under some obscure or archaic law.

This is why an adult discussion on laws that change the burden of proof and how government agencies conduct themselves is important.

Another key point from this morning’s conversation is how we need to reconsider the boundaries of privacy and personal information.

Jul 202014
cheap robots cleaning computers

Last Friday the Global Innovation Index was released rating nations on their ability to adapt and compete in today’s global economy, the authors though believe the measure is more than just economics.

The Global Innovation Index is a joint venture between Cornell University, INSEAD, and the World Intellectual Property Organization which measures 81 economic factors that across 143 countries.

Its release in Sydney last week was part of the B20 conference – the business offshoot of the G20 Heads of Government meeting taking place in Cairns later this year.

European countries top the list with Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Finland and the Netherlands making up the leading five. The US and Singapore break the European monopoly at the sixth and seventh positions.

As the results indicate, rich countries have a natural advantage in the index with index scores tracking national GDP – the highest ranked middle income country is China at 29th and the leading low income nation is Kenya at 85.

Innovation index versus GDP

Innovation index versus GDP

Kenya, and Sub Sahara Africa in general, is one of the highlights of this year’s report with with countries in the regions being nominated as ‘innovation learners’ with them performing above their expected level of GDP.

“What we find in Africa is growth rates are stabilising,” says Francis Gurry, the Director General of WIPO in discussing the report. “That creates the space for better policy and investments.”

Smaller is better

A key finding in the report is that smaller countries tend to perform better; “there’s a slight bias in the index,” says Gurry “as there’s more evenness across the economy.”

This works against larger countries like the United States while favouring countries such as Switzerland and Singapore.

Being affected by the 2008 financial crisis doesn’t help economies either; “the countries you see on top like Switzerland and the Nordic countries have been less affected than countries like Spain and Greece” says Bruno Lanvin, the Executive Director of the ISEAD Global Index.

Europe’s growing divergence

“Yet Europe remains a land of innovation,” continues Lanvin. “Europe has no choice, it is an aging economy and it has to innovate its way out.”

“A divide has been recreated within Europe, the whole European edifice has been a terrific machine for convergence. This has disappeared with the crisis where we see a new divergence.”

“We see countries like Spain and Italy, not to mention Greece, where the proportion of research and development has been decreasing which has not been compensated by private investment.”

This lack of private investment is a concern that constantly came up in the B20 discussions; despite the world being awash with capital, little is finding its way into infrastructure funding and business lending.

Falling R&D spending

Another area causing concern for the index compliers is the falling rates of research and development spending, noting that support for R&D efforts seems to have lost momentum in some countries with most growth in this area over the near future expected to take place mostly in China, the Republic of Korea, and India.

Innovation by Region
Rank in Region GII 2013 Overall Rank Country Name
Central and Southern Asia
1 76 India
2 79 Kazakhstan
3 86 Bhutan
Sub-Saharan Africa
1 40 Mauritius
2 51 Seychelles
3 53 South Africa
Southeast Asia and Oceania
1 7 Singapore
2 10 Hong Kong (China)
3 16 Korea, Rep.
Latin America and the Caribbean
1 41 Barbados
2 46 Chile
3 52 Panama
Northern Africa and Western Asia
1 15 Israel
2 30 Cyprus
3 36 United Arab Emirates
1 1 Switzerland
2 2 United Kingdom
3 3 Sweden
Northern America
1 6 United States of America
2 12 Canada

While the index was notable for its stability among the top ranking countries, there were stand out performers with the United Kingdom charging from tenth in 2011 to third in 2013 and second this year.

Much of the UK’s success has been around policy reform, something discussed on this blog previously, and the social diversity of London and South East England.

The value of diversity

Along with ethnic diversity, the advantages of having deep, varied economies and societies is emphasised by the report.

“When you’re measuring all of these, you’re measuring the ability of a country to compete;” says Gurry. “The intensity of competition will only increase between countries in respect to both regulatory regimes but also between enterprises.”

For all the talk about the importance of innovation Lanvin sees limits to what governments can do; “innovation is not a matter that can be decreed or implemented by governments alone, government can give the right signals and create an environment.”

Creating a mindset

“In the end it is the dynamics between business, government, academia and civil society that create the right mindset for a country to become an innovator,” continues Lanvin.

Lanvin also observes that innovation is about more than technology, “clearly technological innovation will remain a critical component, but you should expect to see social innovation and political innovation.”

“When we need to address the major challenges of this planet like the environment you need more than technological innovation; you need creativity, new mindset and new attitudes.”

“That’s part of the innovation mindset.”

Jun 212014
capital is one of the great barriers for business

“95% of economics is common sense” says economist Ha-Joon Chang in his book The Little Blue Book — Five Things They Don’t Tell You About Economics.

In a presentation at this year’s RSA conference Chang explains some of the underlying themes of his book, particularly the point that the various schools of economics theory are based on their own sets of cultural assumptions and that every group struggles to explain the world, especially when asked to fit Singapore into their models.

Chang’s five points are a call for the average person to understand economics and be prepared to challenge the orthodoxies being trundled out by business and political leaders.

You should be willing to challenge professional economists (and, yes, that includes me). They do not have a monopoly over the truth, even when it comes to economic matters.

As economists have been allowed to become the high priests of modern society — or possibly the court jesters of the corporatist world — it may well be time to challenge them.

Jun 202014

Last week I wrote a piece for Business Spectator on the contrast between countries competing for tech investment and skills.

Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny was in Silicon Valley promoting Ireland as an investment and operating location while in London the Queen hosted 350 British tech companies at Buckingham Palace.

Earlier this week President Obama hosted the first White House Makers’ Faire with over thirty inventors showing their ideas.

All of this contrasts with the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s recent North America where he touted the country was ‘open for business’ by offering mines and toll roads to Canadian pension funds.

It’s clear some countries’ leaders recognise they live in the Twentieth First Century while others are struggling with Twentieth Century.

Jun 092014

Last year I posted the Geek’s Tour of Barcelona, looking at the town’s smartcity initiatives after visiting the city for Cisco’s Internet of Things World Forum.

At the Australian Internet of Things Forum in Newcastle last month I cobbled together a quick presentation around the topic to illustrate what smartcities can deliver.

This was particularly topical for Newcastle as the New Lunaticks and the local business community are supporting the Kaooma project run by Vimoc Technologies in one of the city’s entertainment districts.

Kaooma – which is an entrant in Cisco’s IoT Innovation Grand Challenge – is particularly interesting because it’s a wholly private project with little, if any, formal government support as opposed to London’s Regent Street Internet of Things initiative that’s part of a billion pound regeneration of the precinct.

Australia’s Newcastle, the world’s largest coal port, has a number of challenges itself as the country’s once in a century mining boom unwinds and city deals with a neglected downtown in the face of a rapidly changing economy.

While the Barcelona project is in early days, the presentation shows how cities are using the Internet of Things today and gives us some hints on how those uses will evolve over time.

Paul travelled to Barcelona as a guest of Cisco Systems

Jun 012014
how are we using data in our business

Late last month writer, painter and software developer Maciej Ceglowski spoke at the design and technology conference, Beyond Tallerand in Dusseldorf.

The Internet with a Human Face is his closing keynote for the conference – let’s try to kill that kill that awful term ‘locknote’ for closing presentations – and is a wonderful overview of the unintended consequences of the internet we’re now seeing emerge.

Maciej compares the internet’s effects with that of the motor car in the Twentieth Century – the rise of the automobile totally changed society in ways our great grandparents couldn’t have expected.

Unexpected consequences

In many respects the changes were positive; the age of the motor car saw massive increases in living standards through the second half of the century. However the immediate downside of those efficient supply chains were equally massive increases in obesity rates, suburban alienation and urban sprawl.

A similar thing is happening with this wave of technological changes; as Maciej describes in our presentation, our views of how the web was going to evolve is turning out to be very different to what we expected.

One great example is in small business advertising where we expected online channels would democratise marketing. Instead the exact opposite has happened.

Maciej’s view is far broader than just the relatively trivial problem of small business advertising, particularly with the ‘Internet never forgetting’ with the concentration of the industry in one of the world’s great earthquake zones as another major risk.

Building an internet we’re not ashamed of

Ultimately, though Maciej sees the problems facing the internet industry as a design problem.

“I have no idea how to fix it. I’m hoping you’ll tell me how to fix it. But we should do something to fix it. We can try a hundred different things. You people are designers; treat it as a design problem! How do we change this industry to make it wonderful again? How do we build an Internet we’re not ashamed of?”

While being ashamed is a big call, and probably unfair in that it’s like blaming Henry Ford for 2014 childhood obesity rates in Minnesota, Maciej has flagged that there are real adverse unintended consequences to the way the internet is evolving.

All of us involved in the industry need to recognise those adverse effects and start acting to fix these problems.