In the situation where capital investment in machines and technology becomes a more level playing field for companies, the edge that companies can get from replacing humans with machines becomes smaller. But it takes market leadership to decide that the new basis of competition is probably not about having more automation than the competition but to be able to attract and motivate the best frontline workers serving the customers and making their day.
Market leadership is not about following what the rest of the industry is doing but deciding what is the next basis of competition and focusing on those parameters. Scale helps but more critical is the courage and strategic thinking of those in charge.
Open dialogues with investors are needed by management of companies emitting lots of carbon dioxide. The investors are pushing for companies to decarbonise, disclose their emissions, create long term roadmaps for decarbonising their businesses. But what about making sure executive compensation is aligned with those goals?
What about the amount of returns they are willing to sacrifice in the short term to build greener supply chains? Must it be quantified in terms of reputational risks and climated-related financial risks? Are we overemphasizing the financial KPIs at the expense of the environmental values we should truly be caring about. Is our people and planet really put before profits? After all, businesses would claim that profits keep them alive to drive the goals of people and planet?
Maybe it is about agreeing on a minimum viable return or profit to keep investors there. Perhaps anything beyond that minimum viable return should be directed towards greater climate ambitions. If we truly believe that the future unit of competition is making a contribution to green rather than profits, we need to start acting as such.
Organisations work in silos and we often talk about breaking silos because it is a real problem. What is interesting is how silos form naturally and what keeps them functioning and feeds the way human behaves. The truth is that majority of people connect well only with a handful of people around them. It’s all they need to survive and even thrive. Organisations are set up for people to do their best work each day rather than over a long time horizon, and rightly so. Silos are natural tendency and efforts to resist them will be inefficient in short term.
The real solution to breaking silos is having superconnectors, being able to identify them in organisations and bring them into roles that allows them to help arbitrate across silos. They ought to be put in charge of coordination problems and given the authority to enable those connections. These people could also take the form of external consultants who have no stakes within the organisation.
Mathematically, clustering is just a natural population, psychological phenomena amongst people. Yet with just a handful of “super nodes” that connects across clusters, the other nodes within clusters can be quickly brought together and average degrees of separation reduced dramatically and really quickly.
Organisations need to recognise the role of these superconnectors that enable silos to continue working alongside in ways that are productive and non-duplicative. They allow everyone to remain efficient even as they ensure that the organisation overall operates strategically in the right direction.
This is the way the system works. For everything you see in the wild, every specie of plant, insect, animal out there, they are the survivors. Somehow, someone, somewhere is keeping them alive. There is an ecosystem and while it is not like they could get by without doing a thing, their survival comes not from them alone. There’s a system thing going on. And overall, the system keeps all of them alive.
Why are the households running well, and companies making stuff, selling them? Why are we all with jobs or having kids growing up well and paying taxes? That’s because we are fed in a system that manages and coordinates those relationships. And keep things going. Of course, some systems are sustainable and some are not. In most cases, one could say no system is infinitely sustainable, just awaiting our discovery of the break in it.
The oil companies continue to extract and sell oil; and power plants continue to burn fuels and emit carbon dioxide because there’s a system that works with them in the place. That will always keep them surviving – at the expense of the future that we want to create. To overcome that system, we need to be able to dream up and work towards the alternative system.
It’s becoming really hard to use experience as a way to measure people’s ability to perform certain work. The problems that our world is seeking to solve are what we have not seen before and if we know exactly what experience would help us find the solution, then we are already prescribing the solution somewhat. Moreover, a lot of innovations that are needed to deal with those problems only emerged in the last 3-5 years in a big way. The person with 10-20 years experience in wind or solar may not be adequately equipped to support a project today where one has to consider elements of energy storage and even green hydrogen production.
When we choose to specialise, and the area we enter is something growing and continually improving, we are caught in some kind of race – with the field itself and also other people who are pouring into the field. Energy and climate transition appears to be in that category and being a consultant in this space, I’m conscious that there are more consultancies who are entering this space without much credibility. It’s good to have more people championing this cause for mankind but there’s a risk that the transition gets slowed down by some of the ESG crowd that is distracting us from the true solutions by shifting the attention towards elements of compliance and reporting as opposed to real action.
In terms of recruitment and hiring, we are seeing more people trying to step up to the challenge but without the right or clear understanding what the energy or climate transition is about. I am seeing people who are intent on joining a hype train without recognizing its genuine significance in the world. The choice to specialise should not to be making more bucks but to make a greater impact than one would make merely from just doing the general. At this point when people are not going to be hiring for experience, young people have the opportunity to differentiate themselves. And this differentiation will not be just a matter of talking about passion but understanding the impact one is trying to make.
Each leap forward by technology is accompanied by fears around humans becoming or being mediocre. And most fears are basically exaggerated versions of reality as it turns out. So indeed, mechanisation has reduced the need for physical human labour and it has made majority of mankind physically less able than our forefathers but we’ve also been healthier and lived longer lives.
With the rise of AI, there’s fear of depending on it and concerns in schools about teachers losing their jobs or students outsourcing their work to ChatGPT. Lousy journalists who had been churning out mediocre pieces of work can be now replaced by AI, customer service representatives that don’t know their stuff can be replaced by chatbots and so on. The problem isn’t really about chatbots or AIs, or quality of humans. It is the issue around industrialization specifying standards, creating processes and expecting humans to fit into that.
We should begin to see all of the roles we humans can take as something relatively temporarily. That does not mean we shouldn’t invest in our craft and up our skills but that does put into question where is the boundary between human and machine in the work that we do. Measured in a single dimension, machines and technology can always be optimised to eventually deliver better performance than humans. The issue isn’t human’s mediocrity because there are mediocre workers and they’ve long been easily replaceable. Seth Godin recently talked about the matter on his podcast through two episodes (here and here).
The fact that AI frees us up from having to do the basic, minimum kind of work should present an opportunity for all of us. It might threaten some of us, but only if we allow it to.
The energy transition exposes the weakness of the current energy system of the world. It reveals how much we are reliant on a few resources to draw our energy to power the economy despite how dispersed and distributed energy resources are.
Take for example a rural area in Indonesia, where there are small farms and villages – and they are relying on diesel or kerosene refined and fetched from some far flung areas in order to power their generators or farm equipment. All the while just sitting beside heaps of bioenergy resources that are seen as waste.
The emphasis on low-carbon economy helps us recognise that we may have to start shortening our supply chains and reducing its complexity if we want to decarbonise our economies. Part of this has to do with how stuck we are between the CAPEX and OPEX distribution of the manner we consume energy. By consuming fossil fuels, we shift the burden of costs mostly to the OPEX since equipment are mostly standardised and so they are cheaper to procure and use while we adopt the long supply chains needed to achieve the delivery of fossil fuels on regular basis.
If we were to shift to shorter supply chains where the distributed energy resources were consumed instead, there might be more local equipment needed, the CAPEX might increase. But OPEX may actually decrease because now you’re saving on storage or disposal costs of some of the feedstock that might go into making the fuel you need.
If the world is to develop shorter supply chains, it will need more small firms. And governments all around the world needs to know better how to encourage, support and empower small firms to rise up to the challenge. We need local firms who are familiar with the local constraints, context and needs. They need to be upskilled technically to rise up to the challenge and generate solutions.
This mode of development is vastly different from the old school model of having a big multi-national firm come into a less developed location to help ‘develop’ it by reshaping local demands. Aside from how much this harks back to colonialism, it is creating long supply chains which seem to create more jobs but is not doing much for the climate and environment.
What is interesting about the coffee stories I shared is that entire cultures can be reshaped by business models and the slew of marketing that is fueled from the leverage investors allows. I’ve always shared the example of how Grab overturned the culture of hailing cabs off the streets in Singapore. Singaporeans don’t even hop on the cabs at the taxi stands anymore.
This has implications for government incentivisation and the manner by which incentives are doled out and the behaviours they are trying to change. Singapore government had been quite skillful in this area, having a smaller market to government and being able to impose ‘tighter’ controls. There are often careful checks and balances to prevent individuals and corporations from gaming the system to extract benefits from the system without abiding by the desired behaviours. And there’s also a big theme of maintaining consistency. This was why for the longest time, the government only allowed married couples to purchase public housing directly from the authorities; and even today, singles are only allowed to own these flats if they are aged 35 and above. The government wants to promote family formation and hence maintaining some consistency in the policy of public housing subsidisation.
Those elements recur in the position of offering tax breaks, providing further direct grants to new parents, priorities in public housing and so on. Businesses can learn from the same by ensuring that they steward the limited resources they have to reward those customers behaving in the desired manner (eg. referring other customers, posting about using their products) while making it harder for the ones whom the business do not desire as customers to consume the products.
When I was doing my masters in New York, I was drinking about five cups of coffee a day. On occasion, it could be five cups of double shot. I had this coffee subcription app that allowed me to order unlimited normal brews at $45/mth and those specialty coffees at $85/mth from a base of nice cafes around New York city.
I came from a coffee drinking culture in Singapore. I’d order my Kopi C each morning with breakfast and in those days, these drinks were less than $1.50 (USD) a cup, unlike the >$5 barista coffees in New York city. But strangely, I consumed more coffee than I ever did in Singapore because of the business model.
Business models are interesting and in some ways, they hack our demand curves, taste and preferences by targeting aspects of our preferences that the economists were not able to incorporate into broad demand analyses. And there are entrepreneurs, marketters who thrive on coming up with such hacks.
The issue about hacks and short term profits is that they accomplish little worthwhile in the longer term. And there are far too many short term studies in the social sciences that gives us a lot of “scientific results” which may be spurious correlations or short term correlations which do not persists. We need to engage our talents is more long term thinking and challenge them to deal with the longer term problems of our economy and societies.
Banking business is about trust and a lot of traditional trust is based upon relationship. And so it is not surprise that old institutions are tied in deep and strong relationships that we may not always be particular conscious of in trying to create a future for our economy and our world.
In this funny video, we are reminded of the bits of the iceberg we don’t see in all public communications of people, companies and governments. And in our bid to drive change, such exposure continuously played out, spoken of, reminding the public, every staff of financial institutions and workers of oil companies ought to put some tension for greater change.