Demand side perspectives

The modern, capitalist, market economy is powered by demand. Demand for products, goods and services. And what drives these demand? Some would like to say, marketing, advertising. But more fundamentally, social comparison, desire for affliation/connection.

So the idea of market competition gets turned on demand itself. In other words, the seller turns to the buyer and say, “He’s got this, so you have got to get it.” This mechanism is so widespread and so completely ignored by economics that at a macro-level, it overturns more fundamental notions of allocative efficiency. The fact that demand is in itself premised upon the actions and long-term strategies of supply, makes the equilibrium in the market impossible to pin down.

There is no long term convergent points and what development has come to be is simply the ability for supply to generate more and more of its own demand.

Recycling woes

When you deposit a recyclable item into the rubbish bin or down the chute here in Singapore, did you know that it means the item will actually never be recycled? It will definitely end up in the incineration plant where everything is burnt. Metals are sometimes recovered but that is just about all. This is because everything collected in the green waste bin by the licensed public waste collectors have to be sent to the incineration plants.

On average, incineration removes more than 90% of the waste matter, leaving a residue which is buried in our offshore landfill at Pulau Semakau. Soon, when the Integrated Waste Management Facility in Singapore is built, there might be more post disposal sorting that takes place after our public waste collectors retrieve the waste. But before that, despite the possible economic incentive of picking out suitable waste materials or matters to be recycled before incinerating the rest, the market is unable to respond to them.

Incineration keeps going and expanding in Singapore as waste volumes increase because that had been a proven solution that is difficult to challenge even when contending technologies and approaches works. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Yet as our landfill approaches the point of its maximum capacity, we cannot keep kicking the can down the road.

Traffic jams

We spent more than 4 hours along a short 2km stretch of the Singapore-Malaysia second linkway last Saturday morning. It didn’t exactly feel that long as I was in good company and found it entertaining to watch how the buses, lorries, motorcycles and some defiant motorists use the left road shoulder as their fast-track lane.

It was interesting how some of the vehicles steered by really experienced drivers weaved in and out of the road shoulder and then moved to the middle lane at different points of time. The drivers were assertive but relatively patient, finding every opportunity they have to inch forward and wedge between the gaps between 2 cars in the adjacent lane.

There seem to be some kind of logic in the flows and it is questionable if there’s any kind of real queuing justice in the entire journey because there were merging and then diverging lanes. Fortunes of the vehicles could quickly change at these points. And everyone had to be on their toes.

It’s tiring to be driving in a jam because not only are you not making any progress forward but you’re competing to gain just tiny advantage and constantly watching that advantage to avoid losing it. I find this to be an analogy of living in Asia where there’s a lot of competition over very small rewards. Innovation is numerous and difficult to compare. There seem to be some invisible hand that is not just sorting and ordering of quality of ideas but who are behind those ideas. Who you are may determine if you would be penalised for using the road shoulder, and what you know might help you gain a small upper hand or two but overall, the society is held back by the cross-cancellation of the various innovative forces.

Chicken and egg problems

I first heard about this as a question around which came first and the challenge of studying causality in somewhat circular systems. But then it was also characterised as a problem when we want to develop a new system to displace the prevailing one. It is some kind of situation where you need something to start another and you need the other to get the something you need.

Classically, if you want a thriving business, you need customer, stakeholder support but in order to do that, you need to have the business first. Or that you need capital to build a business but then quite likely the route to getting money for capital is to have a business. When success builds upon success, based on what you can observe, then you have a chicken-and-egg problem on hand when you want to create the success to begin.

Essentially anything that involves some kind of circularity exhibits this kind of problem when it needs to be first put in place. Several strategies have been looked into for this problem. There’s bootstrapping – which generally entails squeezing out some resources from existing pockets/spaces to be able to get the first bit of results which will drive more. And then let it snowball.

There’s the ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it‘ approach, which involves essentially lying to at least a small group of stakeholders to get them onboard in order to bring in the others. I do not recommend this. Finally, you could also take immense amount of risks, exhausting resources, adopting the ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ approach.

Governments in particular do all three a lot. And it can be wise to learn from them when it comes to business. Sometimes they can be good entrepreneurs.

Real circularity

There is a collorary to our economic system in nature. It’s not considered a single subject or discipline but involves a mixture of physical geography with ecology, biology and so on. Nature is truly circular to the extent that the outputs of one system feeds into the input of another and the overall grand scheme of things is in a kind of dynamic equilibrium that eventually shifts over time.

For a while humans have mimicked nature in creating circularity in our economy. And then we gave up because it was easier to scale things up and create wastage in order to fulfill profit motives. The unequality in an economy, the more wastage is produced because production gets inevitably skewed towards satisfying a demand that is aligned more to the distribution of “means” rather than a distribution of “needs”.

Nature behaves differently because the currency of nature is multi-dimensional and rich. There is no “monetisation”; nature do not base its value on a single commodity. You can’t exchange one calorie for another easily within the diet of most animals.

Real circularity involves richness that the industrial capitalist manner of approach cannot replicate.

Plastic, cheap and perceptions

Singapore Airlines is trying to switch their in-flight dining serviceware to paper rather than the current single-use plastic and met with accusation of attempting to cut costs. There is an issue also of sacrificing in-flight experience of customers for the sake of costs despite profits.

There are a few dimensions to consider in the debate and wider issues around the consumerist culture and system we have created. For the longest time, it pays off for companies to upsell: by providing better materials, packaging, a little more space and convenience, they can sell at higher price than it costs them to deliver the service or product. In fact sometimes they spend additional costs to cheapen the alternative because encouraging you to consume more and creating the cheaper alternative simultaneously enhance their customer base without cannibalising on some of their profits.

But as we step into a world where sustainability matters increasingly, these values and strategies we used to leverage on becomes more complex. We no longer just trade off customer experience, price and the costs of providing that experience. Now we have to consider how much being sustainable adds or subtracts that experience, how perceptions will be reshaped. And how important this is, for our culture to shift towards more sustainable consumption.

What would a net zero agrifood business look like?

Talking about creating net-zero businesses reminds me of the time when I wrote about zero-based thinking about the education system. Only by reconstructing what we want to achieve from scratch, can we try to uncover new innovations and ideas that we have been missing out to think about problems we have.

The agrifood industry supposedly produces about one-third of all the carbon emissions that humans are responsible for these days. We can try to think about where to cut emissions or we can consider how to overhaul things. One of the chief challenge of the world today is that we have been taking the theory of comparative advantage and trade too far, forgetting in part the risk of concentration, and the issues around carbon emissions of the logistics and supply chain. Once we start factoring in carbon costs, we can start considering more about growing and consuming local more because it might actually be worth the while.

Overspecialisation in the agrifood sector may bring about economic efficiencies at the expense of carbon emissions and food security. A long time ago, there were stories about fish being sent from the Nordic seas to China to be fillet only to be sold back in the Nordic states. It is a reflection of how capitalism have morphed our appreciation of craftsmanship, and our values around environmental stewardship.

So a net-zero agrifood business quite likely will have start from considering crop cycles, relevant crops to be growing for the local taste and preferences, and the techniques for cultivation, processing, and marketing these products. It will have to reduce distribution or tap on synergies with other nearby industries for distribution. It should concern itself with strong focus on quality and selection of robust crops.

Of course, it will also concern itself with minimizing packaging, pioneering newer retail approaches; once again leveraging more on synergies with surrounding industries. Of course, there is still room for trade and exporting but it might be harder especially if the produce is perishable. Nevertheless, the idea is no longer to use economies of scale and efficiency to sell to the mass market and allow the whole capitalist-industrial complex to be built upon heaps of waste and trash.

Forecasting scenarios

What sort of forecasting is better?

  • If this, then …
  • It will be …

The first makes assumptions explicit. The second hides the assumptions and takes them for granted.

In my work as a strategy consultant, I make extensive use of scenarios, and often we might not consider the likelihood of scenarios while constructing them. It matters because it helps us to immerse ourselves into a reality such that our construction of the reality is not affected by how likely we think it would be. It is more important to be able to extensively work our the implications of our assumptions at that stage.

Only after the scenario modelling is complete, it makes sense to step back and examine the assumptions, perform sensitivity analysis and consider how the outcomes are sensitive to some of the assumptions.

And then what? Then we consider likelihoods of those assumptions manifesting.

Dynamic cost-benefit analysis

One of the most power tools that economics have brought to the world is cost-benefit analysis and really assessing what is the constitution of cost or benefits at various levels: individuals, firms, regional government, national government, countries.

Where it fails is the ability to properly ascribe who cares about what. The assumption around rational, selfish agents cannot possibly hold in reality. On the other hand, there is radical inconsistencies when you perform such optimisation on behalf of “government” which is staffed by human agents and with politicians have their own agenda. Over the years, these poor assumptions have made room for more colourful, richer analysis of agents, decision-making units at different levels.

Now if we move our attention to the dimension of time rather than perspective of our agents, we realise another issue. We can assess somehow the cost and benefits of today if we use our imaginations but to stretch it to the future would require even more manipulations. And the uncertainty make render the exercise less fruitful than one may expect.

Alas, we continue to use these tools expecting them to work while not having proper assessment of whether they work or not when the outcomes play out in reality. It is not the issue of calculating those figures but how we incorporate them into our judgment that matters. Yet with limited budgets and resources, most have chosen to opt for a semblance of the exercise, paying a smaller cost but getting almost none of the benefits.

Energy carriers

It can be pretty hard for me not to think about energy. It probably has to do with my job but the topic itself is fascinating. In some sense, ‘energy’ could be a subject itself that draws on science, mathematics, economics, engineering, law and many more disciplines to help us make sense of it. While we learn a lot about it in science, most of those fundamentals just remain where they are in our minds and do not connect with the wonders of modern technology and everything that we are so immersed in.

Electricity of course is the most fascinating of it all. It is the energy form that we have been able to manipulate with great precision and even enable energy to take on so much more new roles in life that it would not have been conceived to take on centuries ago even when electricity was first discovered. Electricity of course is a form of energy manifesting and needs to have various mediums, and the best carrier of electricity remains to be chemical batteries.

There are many other energy carriers as well and typically these are fuels; they are released through combustion. That produces heat energy which then can be transformed into kinetic energy, and in turn that tends to be then transformed into electrical energy with appropriate mechanisms such as some kind of motor and generator.

Carriers of energy are themselves interesting and fascinating because there are losses that results from going through the carriers and the various different forms of them. They also come in different forms, shapes and stability, influencing their functionality. Coal is a solid fuel; oils are liquid while natural gas is gaseous. Their state allows them to be conveyed differently and also affects the cost of transporting them.

Last century, the world was afraid of running out of them. Because they are commonly known as non-renewable energy. We use them faster than we can replenish them. Fossil fuels are created through millions of years. This century however, we begin to realise we will end up changing the climate of the world even before we run out of fossil fuel so we’re in a race to phase it out as quickly as we can. Alright it isn’t actually a race because many countries, organisations, assets are stubbornly using it.

But the point of this piece here is to help us recognise that fossil fuel does not have the monopoly in carrying energy and there can be more ways for us to obtain and use energy. Ways that can lead to sustainability and circularity in the world.