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Welcome

Thanks for stopping by! Hi, I’m Kevin, with a dream to empower our generation to create a future for themselves and the world. I do this through my day job as an Energy Transition Consultant at Enea Consulting, my social media content curation (instagram), creation (blog), and my career coaching practice. I’ve a background in education and infrastructure industry, both in the public and private sector, which informs my writing and coaching practice significantly.

Transforming the value chain

A while back I did mention about the world being stuck in the traditional, carbon-intensive value chain and so decarbonising the world is a lot about transforming entire value chains and ecosystems. This means changing relationships across the markets and the world. Imagine when you change your production pathway for the goods you produce, you need to negotiate with new set of suppliers, source for new materials, come up with new structures for your companies and maybe engage different logistics partners. It is a lot of overhauling to do.

And that is why most companies won’t. Even when they know that the disruption is coming. They choose to keep their original identity and to think that the current set of value chain, suppliers, and relationships are what makes the business. To change all that is to tear down the entire business. In some sense, it is true. But consider that if you’re not tearing down the business, you might be tearing down the planet.

Besides regulations coming in to force these changes, another means is to change the identity that is held in the minds of the existing players. Many of the Oil & Gas companies are trying to lead this change by seeing themselves as a energy supplier as opposed to just providing fuels. This led them directly into power generation or other energy technologies supposing that they are not just green-washing. Banks are beginning to emphasize their green credentials but it is vital that their products, services and loan criteria starts following their claims.

It is not an easy journey and that is why many newer players in the market have taken it upon themselves to realign the value chain and actually build it up from scratch. SpaceX is a good example of how Elon Musk basically rebuilt the supply chain to produce rockets after discovering how expensive and broken the previous supply chain was. The same will happen in the space of green technologies, of new manufacturing processes that reduce waste and use more sustainable materials.

But this future can only be made if the consumers also start caring about how their goods and services are produced.

Physical retail

I loved visiting bookstores as a kid. But these days I just read ebooks; and the challenge is discovering new books. In the past, the visit to a bookstore always cause my reading list to lengthen; because you can pick up a book, browse any page, catch a whiff of the smell of its pages and for a single moment or more, feel as though the book actually belong to you. Though of course, it technically isn’t until you finalise the purchase.

But that is exactly the power of physical retailers. They give you the experience of the actual product and allow you to live concurrently in both realities of not owning and actually owning the particular product. It allows you to engage more deeply not just your sight and imagination but also other senses. And I think there’s something to that which allows physical retailers to be at an advantage to e-commerce players. It is an advantage perhaps more important in urban areas than non-urban; where the population density can support the business model.

Physical retail probably won’t be disappearing especially where there’s a measure of local monopoly. Yes you might have to experience some queuing, crowds, shoving around but you also get soak in the sights and sounds of life itself. And learn to engage the market as a real person rather than through a web-based account.

Original thoughts

How often do we come up with something original in our thinking? In fact, I don’t think I ever had any original idea – at least not original from scratch. Most of our ideas are adaptation of the ideas of others, which came from yet more ideas of others. And this is the beauty of human knowledge accumulation and innovation. It is precisely because we have been able to copy, to varying degrees that things improve and work. That is effectively what the process of evolution achieves in nature. It is the poor copying that results in innovation.

A successful copy isn’t exactly direct imitation but being able to interpret the original idea for a new audience, in a new context or environment. And that is why it is so difficult to have purely original ideas that take off or are useful. Most genuine original ideas have little place in the world. And most good ideas that have a place in the world can hardly be considered original. And so being original is really not that much something to boast about.

What we truly value and want to value is the ability to think independently and arrive at conclusions. The conclusions can be similar and reinforces what the world believes in already; but they can also be divergent and it becomes exciting how things bear out in reality.

Making up lost time

How do you lose time? Time passes at the same rate regardless. Lost time is a myth; and what you have lost is not time but progress that you had expected to make but didn’t. Everything happened at the level of your expectation. So rushing doesn’t help; there is no such thing as making up for lost time, only trying to shift reality to match up to your expectations, or changing your expectations altogether.

That tension of trying to catch up, and heart-wrenching feeling as you approach a deadline is created because we are unwilling to update our expectation. We’ve been conditioned so much that the only way we alter that expectation is to have none of it anymore – to give up. Before any bad things happen to require us to change our expectations, that may be true. But once something had happened, it is just an adjustment, not giving up.

When we get retained in school, when we had to go on a detour through education path because our results didn’t make the mark. Or we had to serve the nation in the military, instead of going straight to college. These are not lost time. They are times when one learns to adjust our expectations. These are times when we become aware of what the society is trying to impose on us and we let that go. And you learn to live a life that is truly your own.

Are some facts superior to others?

What I have attempted to explain…is how the scientist is to set about making a selection of the innumerable facts that are offered to his curiosity, since he is compelled to make a selection, if only by the natural infirmity of his mind, though a selection is always a sacrifice…

There is a hierarchy of facts. Some are without any positive bearing, and teach us nothing but themselves. The scientist who ascertains them learns nothing but facts, and becomes no better able to foresee new facts. Such facts, it seems, occur but once, and are not destined to be repeated.

There are, on the other hand, facts that give a large return, each of which teaches us a new law. And since he is obliged to make a selection, it is to these latter facts that the scientist must devote himself.

No doubt this classification is relative, and arises from the frailty of our mind…No doubt a vaster and a keener mind than ours would judge otherwise. But that matters little; it is not this superior mind that we have to use, but our own.

Henri Poincaré, Science and Method

My wife, a zoologist by training with an undergraduate degree in biology always lament the point that in our mainstream school system, biology is increasingly about genetics, DNA and proteins rather than about ecology, wildlife and biodiversity. That is true and I have myself experienced the change over the period of 15 years in formal education system in Singapore. Ecology played a smaller and smaller role then eventually disappears from the syllabus that national exams would be testing students on.

What Poincaré talked about is that there are so much facts in the world for us to collect and learn, why do science pick on certain rather than others? The more basic a fact is, the simpler the truth, the more we observe across the world we reside in, the ‘better’ it is. Hence in biology, we prefer to study cells, or proteins rather than to look into the behaviour of an entire specie of birds – because in some sense, the generalisations we can make on the biological impact of a protein can have greater impact.

To that extent, we observe that the spread of market-based capitalism and globalisation including the integration of financial systems across the world gradually makes such knowledge more common and broadly applicable, increasing the value of economics and business knowledge. To the extent we often assume there are global business practices when there isn’t. Businesses and the way they are carried out is different across the world.

It is hence paramount perhaps to establish the hierarchy of knowledge or facts that one ought to acquire about businesses and investments in order to function well and thrive in the world today.

When you get stuck

I’ve written a lot on problem-solving; and I had talked about different approaches to it. In particular, I think it is worth pointing out some heuristics which are more useful amidst the process of problem-solving when you get stuck. I observed myself getting stuck when one of two things happen in the process of thinking about problems:

  • Looping: I’m thinking in a circular manner where my thoughts lead on to the same thoughts and goes back on itself.
  • All at once: I’m thinking of multiple thoughts all at once with some order but interconnections that are too complex I can’t seem to entangle one by one.

In both cases, it is important to practice separation. Separation of elements that are being thought about. It could be that a problem has multiple components or aspects that is being considered. Dividing them up finely is important; or that a solution can tackle different aspects of a problem – again, to approach it first by dissecting them into separate elements.

We then visit these elements one by one and broaden or deepen them as we deem fit. By first separating the elements and then listing them down, we also keep separate the concepts and the connections between them. We then start ordering and putting in the connections one by one and slowly.

It will take patience, and a great sense of curiosity about being stuck itself rather than feeling like you’ve hit a roadblock to dealing with the main problem. Small problems thrown up along the way like being stuck is quickly forgotten when we manage to get them out but when they are in the way, it can really tear you down.

Good luck!

The polymath dream

By the age of fourteen, having discovered Wikipedia after living for slightly less than a decade on a diet of several different encyclopedias, I decided that I should want to be a polymath. My life will have to be split into various stages where I undertake different studies and specialties, with the goal of advancing my knowledge and understanding of all kinds of different fields – mainly in science and mathematics.

Yet at the same time, I was deeply involved in the arts; having practised Chinese Calligraphy, dabbled with western paintings, digital graphic design, animation and film. I also read various literature and philosophy extensively and had an interest developed in history by the age of sixteen. It was clear I needed to be a polymath and nothing less because there was so much to learn and I wanted to cram all of it into whatever short life I have.

The ability to study economics at LSE was an important step when I was planning my college education. In fact, my college admissions essay was about my fascination with Newtonian Physics juxtaposed with my interest in the arts and philosophy – the compulsion to choose a course for my university degree drove me to economics. Not because it made the most money (no it didn’t, at least not during my time), but because it seemed to me that economics sat in the Nexus of arts and science, being called a social science.

The thing is that once I embarked on economics, a career in the business of infrastructure and energy, another force took hold and the practicalities of having to develop skills that generated decent income occupied my attention. So instead of being a polymath, I became more of a trivia nerd who can rattle off random general knowledge about a whole bunch of topics across different disciplines.

My recent reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seem to have reawakened this dream of being a polymath. Perhaps it would be worth devoting more of myself towards a new path.

Mess of pioneers

Pioneering work is messy and not as glamorous as one might have thought. The first Prime Minister of independent Singapore Lee Kuan Yew was personally extremely concerned with the cleaning up of Singapore River because there was such a stench surrounding it that he personally supervised some of the clean-up. The clean-up later extended to other water bodies which eventually provided some degree of water catchment even in urban areas, securing more water supply for our island nation.

Yet caring about the dirty stuff, and doing the things that may not have been popular nor attractive was absolutely critical to pioneering work. Devoting oneself singularly to some vision of the future and bashing ahead without being entangled by the nitty gritty concerns of the smaller goals along the way is what makes one pioneering. In the passage to reaching the lofty goals, there would be a wake of destruction. Managing that destruction can be part of pioneering work but often it is left to someone else.

Typically it is long after the lofty goals have been achieved that we can sit down and try to clear up the destruction, or compensate those who have really suffered along the way. Such reorganisation of the society and markets comes by after a system perpetuated over decades accumulate lots of errors and they threaten to undermine the system itself. The Singapore River delivered a great deal of prosperity to Singapore and was providing opportunities to a great number of people, families and small businesses. It takes courage, vision and faith in an alternate reality to disrupt those activities and try to transform the Singapore River to what it is today.

The question is as we celebrate our 57th year of nationhood, are we prepared to recognise the areas where we truly need to rework and transform, then bite the bullet to do it?

Trusting the practice

Sometimes I almost feel that getting into a job role means you can never quite just operate within your own practice and trust it to deliver results. There is always a need to reference what was done before, to look at reference successes and to replicate them. The most capable employees tend to be the ones who seem to be on that kind of trail, being able to replicate successes or to scale that up.

Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, tend to appear as though they succeed because they dared to try something new or to solve problems in different way, or to simply see things that others did not see and captured that opportunity.

It is not so easy to be an entrepreneur within a job role. After all, there is probably a good reason one is choosing to be an employee instead. And that relates in part to the mediocrity that organisations lead people towards by trying to standardize, optimise, and make human management efficient. Because of salary bands, bonus pools and other industry standard management tools, people are nudged into conforming to some kind of common denominator.

So the first step as an individual contributor is to step out of that conforming, and to develop a practice you can trust in, regardless of what the organisation tries to conform others to. And if you do not succeed in that within the organisation, step out and prove your practice works. Entrepreneurship is often more about courage and self-discovery it seems – more than wealth and success.

Imitation of ability

A recent conversation with a Private Equity investor mentioned that there is a dearth of strong human capital in Indonesia. And her experience seemed to be that there were many people who worked a couple of months for Gojek or Tokopedia, or other brand name startups were going around expecting high salaries. They learnt to speak and use words that were common amongst the high power startups but provided little value or capabilities to their prospective employers.

It made me think about how often we develop real capabilities rather than learn to imitate ability. When I first joined the workforce and talked about topics on water treatment or subsequently about power generation, I was walking largely on thin ice and was just passing on knowledge I picked up from the internet or just speaking to one or two others in the industry. Within six months, I began being conversant even through I had little idea what I was talking about. I felt more like I was part of the industry but not quite sure what I gained were real understanding or knowledge. Or just the skills to mimic.

Maybe most of us developed this way. But I think we can forget that we need to move from feigning knowledge to having real knowledge. After all, while it is true that in schools, you only need to know what to do in exams to get the right grades, in order to solve real world problems, you do actually have to really understand the actual concepts and dig deep. Our modern complex world with its market systems, bureaucracy and layers of working relationships sometimes allows us to ride on others’ capabilities to deal with problems, but eventually we can’t go by without fundamentals. So please don’t count on imitation.