Mar 062016

The single economic event that defines Generation X was the 1973 Oil Shock, the OPEC embargo on the west bought the post World War II era of economic growth to an end.

With stagflation gripping the western world, new solutions were sought and by the end of the decade governments touting ‘business friendly’ economic policies – more accurately ‘corporation friendly’ – were seen as the solution.

As Robert Reich described in the New York Times, these policies were not only a disaster for workers but also for the middle classes and business productivity.


A notable aspect missing in the above graph is US productivity growth has since stalled as corporations have focused on stock buy backs rather than investment. The problem has been compounded by the use of tax shelters that have resulted in huge amounts of American corporate profits being locked away in offshore bank accounts.

While those stock buy backs and arbitraging tax regimes have benefitted executives and a small cabal of fund managers, the diversion of capital from productive investment has weakened the US and global economy.

For the baby boomers, even those of the Lucky Generation who preceded GenX, that lack of investment now threatens their retirement lifestyles as incomes and government spending stagnates.

The ‘big business friendly’ ideologies of Thatcher and Reagan defined the late Twentieth Century and continue to dominate government thinking in much of the western world, it may be though that we a reaching the end of that era as the costs to the broader economy are beginning to be recognised.

For GenX and their kids, the costs are being borne now but their parents may be about to feel the costs too.

Aug 132015
General Electric GEnx jet engine is social media enabled

Technologies like the internet of things, cloud computing, 3D printing and big data are changing our industries and society. At the ACI Connect event today, I gave a presentation on some of the opportunities, risks and ethical issues facing technologists and engineers in the connected economy.

While many of the engineering principles underlying these technologies aren’t new, their scale and the power they give businesses and governments means there are serious ethical, security and societal issues we have to consider.

This presentation explores some of those issues and the technologies and trends driving them.

Entering the Data era

A conceit among technologists is that we’re in an unprecedented era of change. This is not true.

The Twentieth Century saw massive restructuring of our society as the telephone, mains electricity, the motor car and television changed our society. Many of today’s settled industries came out of the huge technological steps forward over the last hundred years.

Just as cheap energy – delivered to us through the motor car and mains electricity – defined the Twentieth Century, this century will be defined by easily accessible and abundant information.

Those changes over the last hundred years give us some hint as to where we are going; the shifts that saw coal carters, newspaper sellers and night soil men eventually become extinct, along with a shift from a largely agricultural workforce to industrialised employment, is going to be repeated this century as information becomes abundant.

Harnessing the Internet of bees

Cheap and small sensors mean it’s easier to put a chip on something. In this case we have a CSIRO project tracking bee activity where Tasmanian scientists have put tracking devices on bees.

Those tracking devices would have weighed several hundred grams and cost hundreds of dollars ten years ago but today they are small and cheap enough to fit onto the backs of bees.

Being able to deploy these sensors means we can fit them to things we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago and the data they generate is going to give us insights into patterns and behaviours we couldn’t have contemplated.

However not all of this data is useful or necessary and some may even be damaging to individuals and groups. One ethical question we have to ask ourselves is whether it is in the community’s interests to collect this information.

Another aspect of connecting devices, or even animals and people, to the Internet or a network is it opens the possibility of hacking, as we’ve seen in the recent Jeep case where engineers showed they could control a vehicle remotely. The security and privacy aspects of the IoT are critical and something designers and product engineers can’t overlook.

Decoding the data

It’s often said that Data is the New Oil. In truth it isn’t, data is increasingly cheap and easy to access. Being able to analyse that information is where the power lies.

Data analytics is probably going to be one of the most important fields in an information rich economy and already we’re seeing companies springing up to help farmers estimate crop yields, truck drivers plan their routes and even organisations like the Royal Flying Doctor Service using cloud services to better plan their operations.

Again these services plan a lot but there’s also downsides as inappropriate data matching risks breaching consumers’ privacy and even drawing false conclusions from confusing correlation with causation. A good example of this is Facebook being used to judge credit worthiness.

Removing the human element

Automation – whether it’s through robotics, machine learning or algorithms – will change many industries and the workforces employed by them.

One understated field is management where many white collar supervisor jobs are at risk from business automation. It may be that the executive suites are the next sector to be decimated by computers and robots.

Similarly, many services industry jobs such as taxi drivers and baristas are at risk from robotics while large scale 3D printing of buildings threatens to put many building trades under pressure.

No more truck drivers

Driverless vehicles have a whole range of applications, in logistics were seeing them put forklift drivers out of work while mining companies are rolling out massive dump trucks in their new mines that don’t require $200,000 a year drivers.

One study estimates that half the police workforce in the United States would become redundant as law abiding driverless cars become common.

Similarly electric cars will have a massive impact on government revenues. Currently Australian governments raise $17bn a year from fuel excise and has ramifications for businesses involved in the supply chain for service stations.

Once driverless vehicles become commonplace we may well see them changing industries like daycare, public transport and couriers as it becomes possible to summon an autonomous vehicle, put the kids or the luggage into it and then send it off to its destination. If you’re worried, you can track the progress on an app.

The effects of the driverless car show how we have to think laterally about the effects of new technologies on our businesses, sometimes the effects of a new way of doing things could indirectly hurt our business or create new opportunities.

Squeezing out inefficiencies

One of the great promises for the IoT, Big Data and business automation is to remove inefficiencies from industry. Cisco believe that up to 14% of the Oil and Gas industry’s costs could be stripped away with today’s technologies. That in itself is worth over a 100 billion dollars a year in cost savings.

GE are deploying their technologies into a diverse range of industrial equipment ranging from jet engines to railway locomotives and wind turbines with spectacular results in reducing costs and improving productivity.

The effect of these improvements means less downtime and maintenance costs which are good news for customers and shareholder of these companies, but bad news if you’re a maintenance business. It also means the speed of change in business is accelerating.

Skilling the future workforce

In summary the skills needed today are very different to those of 1915 and 1965 and those of the next fifty years will be even different.

As a society we have to decide what skills we are going to give not our children but those currently still in the workforce who are going to be working longer and later into their lives as the workforce ages.

We also have to consider what sort of ethical compass we have. While the technology we have today is powerful and capable of great things, it’s also capable of great harm. We need to have an understanding of what the effects and limits are of our actions with the Internet of Things, Big Data and analytics.

Ultimately we need to ask what value we as individuals can add to our communities and society.

Jun 092015

The Twentieth Century was defined by abundant and cheap energy while this century will be shaped by our access to massive amounts of data.

How do managers deal with the information age along with the changes bought about by technologies like the Internet of Things, 3D printing, automation and social media?

Management in the Data Age looks at some of the opportunities and risks that face those running businesses. It was originally prepared for a private corporate briefing in June 2015.

Some further background reading on the topic include the following links.


Jun 072015

Last week convicted fraudster and one time Australian national hero Alan Bond passed away. In many respects Bond’s rise, fall and comfortable dotage tells us much about Australia today.

Originally born in England, Bond was a ‘ten pound pom’ – like this writer and two of Australia’s last three Prime Ministers – whose family took advantage of subsidised immigration programs to leave the cold climate and dismal British economy for sunnier, more prosperous parts.

Building the Australian dream

In Australia Bond prospered. On leaving school he became a sign writer and set up a business where he quickly gained a reputation for sharp practices and cutting corners. However as with much of his generation real wealth was to be made in property speculation.

As Australian cities expanded through the 1960s, developers and speculators were at the forefront of the nation’s economic growth. Perth, Bond’s home town, doubled in size between 1961 and 71 and the once dodgy sign maker made his mark as a wheeler and dealer as he traded properties and build his fortune.

As the 1980s began a cashed up Bond was ready to take advantage of the economic orthodoxy of the time that to compete internationally, Australian businesses had to consolidate domestically to gain the scale required to be global players.

Bond added to his claims in 1983 when he wrested the America’s Cup out of the cold dead hands of Long Island’s Newport Yacht Club. Suddenly businessmen were the national heroes and Australians, particularly politicians, fell over themselves to bask in the glow of the nation’s entrepreneurial summer.

Dancing on the world stage

Around the time of the America’s Cup win the newly elected Hawke Labor government deregulated the Australian banking industry providing a ready supply of hungry financiers prepared to fund the global ambitions of Bond and his contemporaries.

The rest of the decade saw Bond leading a wave of Australian entrepreneurs using easy money to build international empires. Bond himself ended up building one of Australia’s brewery duopoly, holding prime Hong Kong property, buying the nation’s most popular TV station and owning a Chilean telephone company.

Naturally much of his money ended up in Switzerland and Lichtenstein, something that would work in his favour early in the 1990s.

The larrikin streak

Bond’s disregard for the law, investors and anyone unfortunate to get between his cronies and a bag of money – politely described as a ‘larrikin streak’ by many – continued as regulators and governments indulged his behaviour.

One good example of the free pass he received from Australian regulators in the 1980s were his insider dealings with his then mistress Diana Bliss, the latter of whom exquisitely timed a purchase of a small energy exploration company stocks in 1988 a week before Bond Corporation announced a take over offer.

Regulators at the time dismissed any claim of insider trading after being assured that neither Bond nor Bliss would ever countenance such behaviour, the Sydney Morning Herald later reported.

When the luck runs out

Eventually the 1980s Australian economic miracle and the entrepreneurs leading it proved to be chimeras based upon property valuations. When the 1990 downturn hit, the rampaging Aussie business heroes all quickly fell as their overindebted empires collapsed.

Bond’s personal fortune however survived thanks to his judiciously salting away assets controlled by loyal advisors. His 1994 bankruptcy hearing ended in farce when he successfully convinced the court he was suffering dementia and couldn’t remember anything of his business dealings.

He couldn’t stay too far ahead of the courts however and ultimately Bond served two prison terms totalling four years for dishonestly pillaging companies to keep his operation afloat.

At the same time Bond was being chased through the courts, Australia’s banks were licking the financial wounds incurred from their irresponsible exposure to the nation’s entrepreneurs. The lessons they learned define modern Australia.

Bearing the brunt

The country’s small business community eventually bore the brunt of the Australian banks’ losses as lenders’ balance sheets were rebuilt through high interest rates, massively increased fees and charges and tightened lending criteria. Many of those high fees and rates continue to cripple Australian business twenty-five years later.

Adding to the Aussie small business sector’s woes, the 1998 Basel I Accords were coming into force favoring property lending over business finance. Increasingly it became harder for any Australian businessperson to raise money from local banks while property speculators were welcome.

Over the next twenty years the result was stark. One chart from the Macrobusiness website illustrates the huge growth in Australian residential property lending and the stagnation of business finance since 1991. Only at one stage, in 2008, has business lending matched the levels of the late 1990s.


That shift to an economy based upon property prices, particularly speculation on residential accommodation, has served Australia well with the nation not experiencing a recession since the 1990s downturn.

The Australian economic miracle

Australia’s success allowed Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens to sneer in 2010 that Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ warnings about the Australian economy lack of diversity were misguided and foolish – the mining boom coupled with never ending property price growth guaranteed the nation’s prosperity.

In this respect, all Australians have become Alan Bond. Just as the bold riders of the 1980s boom based their future on property valuations so too have Australian households and the entire economy thirty years later.

Hopefully for Australians in general it will end better than it did for Alan Bond in 1996.

One though should not weep too much for Alan Bond, after being released in 2000 he quietly rebuilt his empire and in 2008 BRW magazine estimated his wealth at $265 million and named him among the 200 wealthiest people in Australia.

Time will tell if Australians share the deceased tycoon’s luck but in a way we’ve all become little Alan Bonds now in our dependence upon the valuations of our real estate holdings and the indulgence of those financing our lifestyles.

It may well be having a few bob hidden away in Switzerland might the best way for Australia’s indebted homeowners to protect their future.

More reading on Alan Bond

Jan 182015

Today’s links include a look at the complexities of the Charlie Hebdo discussion, how Lithuania intends a passive aggressive response to a Russian invasion and how Winston Churchill was not always Britain’s most admired figure.

Should we hang Mr Churchill?

The New Statesman has delved into its archives to find its articles on Winston Churchill, it’s an interesting article that shows the complexities of the Churchill myth and legend.

Lithuania’s plan of passive resistance

Having the Russians occupy your country is a living memory in Lithuania. With the troubles in the Ukraine, the Lithuanian authorities are planning for a future invasion. Their advice is to be passive aggressive.

The world’s highest cost living

Which countries are the most expensive for a British expat to live in? Switzerland and Norway top Movehub’s list with the UK coming in tenth, New Zealand seventh and Australia sixth.

No, I am not Charlie

A British cartoonist’s view on the Charlie Hebdo murders illustrates the complexities beyond the facile soundbites.

The popping of the tech startup seed bubble

Has the tech startup mania peaked? The funds being invested into startups at seed stage seems to falling away, which may not be a bad thing suggest Alex Wilhelm.

What’s your password?

The Jimmy Kimmel show went onto the streets asking people what their passwords are. The results, sadly, are not surprising.

Sep 252014

It’s been a tough week for Apple, after the spectacular launch of the iPhone 6 the company has had two humiliating and worrying setbacks that indicate standards may be slipping at the once untouchable giant.

The iPhone 6 Plus should have been a triumph, and for a while it was, but the news the phones bend and distort has tarnished the product.

Compounding the bendable phone problem are the claims users are being charged to replace their damaged handsets.

On its own this problem might have been manageable like the iPhone4’s antenna problems in 2010, however today’s news that the latest iOS8 has had to be withdrawn after user complaints indicates a sloppiness has crept into the company.

Both problems, or all three problems if it turns out the stories of Genius Bars charging to replace damaged phones, show Apple isn’t paying attention to detail to the degree they’ve become known for.

The botched iOS8.0.1 rollout is sloppy work while the bendable phone is very much an uncharacteristic lapse in design.

For a premium brand with a large dose of arrogance, shipping defective products is both an embarrassment and damages the company’s name.

This inattention to detail is horribly reminiscent of Microsoft’s horror days at the turn of the Century where the company repeatedly rushed incomplete products to market — Windows ME being the most notorious example.

So maybe we are seeing Apple become the new Microsoft and the iPhone 6 Plus as the Windows ME of our time.

That doesn’t mean we’ll see the end of Apple, Microsoft is still a huge corporation, but it may be the tech industry’s most iconic business is beginning to lose its edge.

Image of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates via Wikipedia