Mar 272016
The community theatre

One of the features of the Twenty-first Century will be how communities take over providing their own services as cash strapped governments find it difficult to provide the services citizens expect.

In many respects the United States is ahead of the rest of the world in this as the decentralised nature of US government sees many functions being the responsibilities of local county and city agencies.

Following the 2008 financial crisis many smaller cities and rural counties found their revenues crunched, for many of them this compounded thirty years of economic decline as local industries folded or fled overseas.

James Fallows in the Atlantic recounts a trip with his wife across the United States where they visited communities rebuilding themselves in the face of economic adversity.

In his long piece detailing how those different communities are rebuilding, Fallows comes to the conclusion a new political consciousness is evolving among the groups working to change their cities. While early, the common objectives of these groups will evolve into a movement.

Fallows marks what will almost certainly be a defining feature of today’s first world nations as their politics evolve around these movements.

Mar 142016
Demonstrating the benefits of the national broadband network

“The minister sends his regrets….”

Yesterday I commented how the Australian Tech Leaders event would be a good measure of the state of the country’s technology industry. Instead it illustrated the sheer contempt the nation’s political leaders hold the industry.

One of the government’s key platforms in the upcoming election is its Innovation Statement and the accompanying Ideas Boom so it wouldn’t have been expected that a minister or at least an informed backbencher would address a room full of technology journalists.

Instead the government drafted one of their local MPs, Fiona Scott, to make the short drive up the hill from her electorate to haltingly deliver a poorly written speech that focused on her local electorate issues.

To be fair to Ms Scott, the outer Sydney suburban seat she represents is a bellweather electorate which tends to swing between parties as government changes. It also happens to have a workforce that’s beginning to feel the effects of a shifting economy. Her focus on local issues is understandable.

However as a member of a government aspiring to drive a technology driven jobs boom and the representative of an electorate whose workforce is in transition, it is remarkable that Ms Scott is so poorly briefed on tech issues.

What’s even more remarkable is the contempt shown by the government towards the country’s technology sector, a long standing problem in Australian society but particularly stark with the current administration given the Prime Minister’s fine words on the topic.

One of the saddest things about Australia’s squandered boom is how the nation turned inwards at the beginning of the Twenty-First century and decided to ignore the global technological shifts.

The contempt shown by the current government towards the technology sector shows a much deeper problem in the Australian mindset, if the country is to rely on more than its luck in the current century then it’s essential to shake off that way of thinking.

Mar 052016

Four months ago, the Australian government launched its innovation agenda with the noble ambition to put the nation “on the right track to becoming a leading innovator.”

The keenly awaited innovation statement was seen as a defining the new Prime Minister’s agenda after two decades of complacent political leadership. At the launch of the paper Malcolm Turnbull said “our vision is for Australians to be confident, embrace risk, pursue ideas and learn from mistakes, and for investors to back these ideas at an early-stage.”

One of the early stage investors currently investing in Australia’s startup sector is Brisbane based entrepreneur, and Australian Shark Tank judge, Steve Baxter who spoke to Decoding the New Economy last week about where he sees the strengths and weaknesses in the proposals.

Beating the rhetoric

“Competitive threats are far more effective than rhetoric from a Prime Minister,” says Baxter in observing what really drives adoption and change while emphasizing that the announcement is a welcome shift,  “the change in messaging from the government has been very important. It’s having an impact and a future looking message has been fantastic.”

While Baxter is positive about much of the incentives on offer and the importance of changes to regulations around bankruptcy and treatment of business losses, he flags the the delay in implementing the tax incentives as being a problem.

Too focused on commercialisation

Baxter though has been a long standing critic of Australia’s research sector and the emphasis on commercialisation of academic work is in his view one of the Innovation Statement’s major weaknesses, “commercialisation is a concept that we’ve failed at. It’s dead. We’ve put so much money into it, it’s actually embarrassing. We need a new mindset towards it.”

“there are seven hundred million dollars of a billion going to the research sector. That’s not entrepreneurship. In fact universities and research institutes are the least entrepreneurial organisations you’ll ever come across.”

“We need more business model innovation, we’re seeing too many people in lab coats with synchrotrons, square kilometre arrays which we have to do,” Baxter states. “What we’re not seeing the Dropboxes and the Instagrams and the Facebooks and the Wayze’s, the cool stuff that doesn’t need a two hundred million dollar building.”

Thin pipelines

As an early stage invest Baxter sees the real challenge for Australia lies in encouraging individuals to launch their own ventures, “I don’t think we’ve done enough yet to prove we have an investment problem when it comes to early stage companies,” he says. “I don’t believe we have a lack of capital”.

For those starting their own ventures, Baxter sees the word ‘innovation’ as being a barrier in itself.
“The entrepreneurs I back aren’t those who say ‘I’m going to innovate’ but those who say ‘I can see a problem’.”

While Baxter doesn’t say this, the real challenge lies weaning Australians off property speculation and encouraging investment and risk taking, something that requires major tax and social security reform.

Sadly, the Turnbull government has abandoned the prospect of any immediate taxation reform and even the Innovation Statement’s more modest agenda is now in doubt as the nation’s febrile Parliament prepares itself for an early election.

Baxter’s views, and his optimistic but guarded outlook towards the Innovation Statement reflect the opinion of many of those in the Australian investment community, it would be a shame for the country if the current opportunities are lost for short term political maneuvering.

Nov 262015

In the early 1990s I was working for a British company in Hong Kong and regularly commuting to Taipei. On a Cathay Pacific flight back from Taiwan one Friday afternoon, I found myself on the same flight as the organisation’s Asia-Pacific director who graciously got me into the lounge for a beer.

Over that beer he told me how earlier in the year he’d been asked by one of the pukka English directors why he was bothering spending so much money in business development for ‘third world countries’ like Taiwan and South Korea.

Jeff, as we’ll call the director, laid down a challenge to his board. “Come out and have a look for yourself,” he told them.

Some of the UK based directors took Jeff up and flew out to Hong Kong, first class on BA of course, and then continued on to Taipei where they suitably amazed to be greeted by a first world city.

“They genuinely believed they were going to fly in a DC-3 and be met by a bunch of rickshaw wallas,” laughed Jeff, a long standing English expat. “The Brits don’t get East Asia.”

It seems things haven’t changed much as veteran venture capital investor Mike Moritz made a similar point at a speech in London yesterday that the West doesn’t understand China, particularly Europe.

“People underestimate China, especially in Europe,” Business Insider quotes Moritz as saying. “They have very little sense of the size, strength, and scale of ambition of the leading Chinese technology companies.

Moritz pointed out the fund he leads, Sequoia Ventures, is now placing over half its money in non-US companies with Chinese businesses being high on the list.

The West’s misunderstanding of China goes beyond business, with The Economist warning that many nations are soon going to have to choose between the PRC and the United States as Beijing sets up its own network of global alliances and trade accords.

So far the United States has responded to this with clumsy efforts like the Trans Pacific Partnership, an attempt to quarantine China’s influence in the Western Pacific that actually gives PRC  based businesses a competitive advantage over nations that enter the deal which does little more than strengthen US corporate interests.

Already in Africa, the results of China’s economic efforts are being seen. A good example is the new Ethopian Railway where the Chinese were quick to fund a project that EU and World Bank lenders had dragged their feet on.

Just as English businessmen in the 1990s misunderstood what was going on in East Asia, it seems ignorance of Chinese growth and intentions are even more widespread today. There may be some shocks coming for countries like Australia who assume today’s realities are tomorrow’s.

Nov 032015

Today San Francisco goes to the polls and one of the many questions being put to voters is Proposition F, an initiative to put restrictions on short term rentals.

Also known as the AirBnB initiative, Proposition F is also being seen as part of San Francisco residents’ push against the tech community’s takeover of the city.

In countering the Proposition F supporters, AirBnB hasn’t helped its case with a clumsy public campaign and an aggressive $8 million war chest to support the initiatives opponents, but the real problems for the service lie in the hostility towards the tech and startup community in general.

A notable thing about the new tech community is how their staff are isolated from the community around them. Probably the worst example of this in Southern California where Google has been accused of harassing homeless people on the public footpaths around its Venice Beach complex.

While having onsite facilities may make sense in remote Silicon Valley business parks, in city areas like San Francisco this only creates hostility from those who feel displaced by the new elite.

The remoteness of the new tech elite is also shown in their companies’ attitudes towards customer support. Services like AirBnB, Facebook and Google consistently try to reduce their support overheads by pushing responsibility onto users and contractors by making it difficult, if not impossible for the public to contact them.

Inevitably that remoteness from the general community breeds distrust and hostility. Which is what we’re seeing now being directed towards AirBnB.

Paradoxically, despite the hostility towards the tech community and AirBnB, they are probably not the reason for San Francisco’s soaring property prices as around the world the price of homes is soaring as the effects of cheap money filter through investment markets.

As long as those prices keep soaring beyond the reach of working and middle class residents, AirBnB and the tech community can expect to continue feeling the pressure. Although it’s not hard to think though that a bit of humility might help their case.

Nov 032015

Watching from afar, the reaction to Malcolm Turnbull becoming Australia’s 29th Prime Minister has been remarkable as suddenly the nation seems to have collectively woken up to the fact they are fifteen years into a new century.

In a few short weeks Australian public servants have started engaging in hackathons and business leaders whose idea of an investment was a property plan disguised as a casino have started raising VC funds.

The question though for Australia is this too little and too late after three decades of concentrating on property speculation and betting on a never ending Chinese economic miracle?

New leadership

In Malcolm Turnbull – who only rejoined the Liberal Party in the early 2000s after careers as a journalist, barrister and banker – Australia for the first time in forty years doesn’t have a party apparatchik as Prime Minister.

While this wasn’t a problem during the 1970s and 80s under Fraser and Hawke, by the 1990s the shrinking membership base of Australian political parties meant increasingly the ‘talent’ coming up the ranks was lacking perspective outside the narrow factional groupings most of them were beholden to.

This became brutally apparent with the last three Prime Ministers who were fully hostage to their party factions. In Gillard and Abbott Australia had two party operatives who were no doubt talented in internal party manouvering but hopelessly out of their depths as government leaders – Abbott often seemed to be more interested in settling the battles of 1980s Sydney University student politics than governing the country.

Describing Prime Minister Rudd would take a thesis in political psychology which is way beyond the scope, or interest, of this writer.

The consequences of this were an Australian political leadership that was disinterested in the real economy beyond guaranteeing the social compact that property prices would double every decade and ensure their support in the key swing electorates of suburban Australia.

An insular business community

For the business community the insular focus of Australian society and its politicians worked well too. As the economy turned inwards in the 1990s under the Keating and Howard governments, so too did Australia’s conglomerates who realised clipping the ticket of a consumer economy was far easier than competing on global markets.

The best example of this were Australia’s banks which essentially gave up on lending to business unless it was guaranteed by property. This graph from Macrobusiness illustrates just how the nation’s banks focused on property speculation.

Australian bank lending, courtesy of Macrobusiness.

Australian bank lending, courtesy of Macrobusiness.

That focus on housing and consumer spending underpinned on rising property prices distorted the entire business sector and ingrained in the Australian psyche that the key to riches and prosperity was to get a relatively low skilled ‘safe job’ and borrow as much money as possible.

A good example of this are the regular stories of sweet twenty something wunderkinds who have built multi million dollar property portfolios while working in pizza shops or as administrative assistants.

Possibly the greatest damage Australia’s property obsession has been on the nation’s youth where the message has been ‘don’t gain a globally competitive skill set or education, just get an entry level job at the real estate agents and buy as much property as the bank will allow you.’

Turnbull’s challenge

Like Gough Whitlam, the last Prime Minister not a creature of their party factions, the reform challenge facing Turnbull is immense as 25 years of complacency have left Australia with an uncompetitive economy – as it had for the incoming Labor government of 1972 – with added complexity of having to maintain property prices to keep its economic miracle and social compact ticking over.

The similarities to Whitlam are also striking in the support Turnbull has from the population. One of the striking things on returning to Australia after spending most of the last three months in the United States has been the sense of relief that the inept horror movie of the Abbott government (Attack of the Clueless Zombies) is over and a realisation that Australia has actually entered the 21st Century and not regressing back into the 19th.

Agendas for reform

Entering the 21st Century won’t be easy though for Australia. Completing the reforms of the education sector, started half heartedly by Gillard and then trashed by Abbott in settling the scores of his student politics days, is one major challenge along with reforming tax and social security systems that focuses on asset hoarding and speculation over productive investment.

Possibly a greater challenge is to wean the Australia business sector off its ticket clipping mentality and rediscover its desire to compete globally. It may well be that encouraging the startup sector makes more sense in rebuilding the economy’s competitiveness as many of the nation’s insular conglomerates and their well fed executives are too used to milking the domestic consumer rather than taking on the world.

The end of kitchen renovations

The biggest challenge of all though will be to wean Australians off their property addiction, particularly those under 50 who have neglected their global skills as they focused on renovating their kitchens.

Given the scope of these reforms, such an agenda will require a clear mandate from an electorate that has been complacently accepting guaranteed good times as long as refugees are turned back, the terrorists among us imprisoned and gay couples prevented from marrying for the last 25 years. Making the argument for change is probably going to be Malcolm Turnbull’s greatest task.

For Australia the stakes are high. It’s not likely the 21st Century will be as kind to The Lucky Country as the Twentieth was.

Jul 262015
how easy is it to make money online

Is capitalism dead? Journalist Paul Mason discusses his book outlining a post capitalist future on a Guardian Live panel that covers how technological change is undermining the foundations of what we understand to be capitalism today.

While it’s arguable that capitalism is dying, more likely its evolving away from the current corporatist, consumerist model driven by easy credit, the panel makes some excellent points about how technology is changing the underpinnings of our society’s economic structures.

While the video’s long at 90 minutes, it’s well worth watching for some interesting observations on how our society and economies are evolving in a connected century.