Active government

Mariana continues her tirade against government capture by capitalist in general. It is interesting how her lessons for government applies perhaps overall to organisations and businesses just as well. That the point of the economy is not the profits but the purpose of the activities themselves. In short run, going for the profits may work but in longer run, it is knowing what problems you want to solve and working on them effectively that brings about the profits.

For governments, that is perhaps the strongest point. But when it comes to corporates, I still think that it is natural for the capitalists to hijack the agenda of the government, lobby for the focus on growth and highlight all of the social benefits of economic growth so much so that government keeps staring that way. The dominance of the economic agenda and how the goals of societies have become caught up with the principle of growth is perhaps something we should be discussing and considering as a society.

In Singapore, how we want to grow our society next needs to be considered. I think the Forward SG initiative was attempting that exercise through the idea of (re)formulating our social compact yet all too often, the logic of resolving the issues seem to boil down to certain initiative, formation of committees or some kind of organisation to look into things. Maybe it is not about adding components? What if it’s about discarding some of our existing things? Including our emphasis on academic merit?

We ought not lose heart but keep the conversation going.

Our memory is more like a web and less like a shelf

I had a bad memory and in school I was never quite able to cram for examinations. I found memorisation a complete chore and my mind really strained trying to remember things. Most of the time, the harder I try, the more difficult I find it. Subsequently, whenever I had to remember something, it was important that I found something already in my memory to associate it with so as to bond the materials better to my mind.

It turned out that this exercise from young did two things for me.

One is that it caused me to develop an interest for learning and genuine understanding when confronted with something new. Since I wasn’t able to retain much in my mind, what I did, I kept them for much longer than everyone else. And I had to develop my own reasons and purpose for wanting to put something into my memory since they were usually stored longer term.

Second, it gave me a method that increased my memory capacity as I learnt more. This requires a bit more explanation. When I recall things by associating the new information with something already in my mind, I’m actually causing the web of my knowledge to be denser. When a piece of information stands alone, it is easily forgotten. But when you connect it with other information, it suddenly becomes more memorable.

Take for example you meet a guy and he tells you he is 23 years old, then says nothing further. Your memory of him is reinforced by how he sounded, his clothes, hairstyle and perhaps handshake. But if he also tells you that his Mum is a widow, and he had gone to college in Boston, you might actually take all these pieces of information, form even more associations and once you meet him, you’d be able to recall him better than if he had not shared the additional information.

In other words, we actually have a slightly mistaken analogy for our memories. We tend to think there’s some kind of limited shelf space such that trying to remember more things means we need to forget some old things or remove some of the existing memories from the shelf to accommodate the new.

After years of experience trying to deal with that poor memory of mine, I noticed that our memory are more like webs. When we don’t have much in our memories, it is as though there are many gaps within our web and most materials that comes our way just fly through these gaps rather than getting retained. But as you are able to catch hold of more using what you already have, then you naturally hold on to even more memories that allows you to capture more.

Our understanding and what constitutes deep knowledge from repeated practising creates new contexts for us to absorb further new information and knowledge. This is incredible because it means that our memory capacities are not being consumed but rather expanding. Capturing more and richer information enhances our ability to compress new information and knowledge further, drawing upon what is already in the mind.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A version of this article on the same idea was published in here a while back.

Time for millennials to get out of the boomers story and write their own

Rice Media’s Ivan takes on what he calls The Boomer’s Mentality on ‘Hard Work’ in Singapore was a refreshing characterisation of the workplace issues faced by the millennials of this island state. I previously wrote about how the boomers taking ‘motivation’ for granted is a big problem for the younger ones. And I shared mostly about the factors that were driving the kind of narrative that we have for our lives and future in Singapore; the fact that our forefathers were driven by a vision of the future that consisted of lifestyle-deltas they could aspire towards but for Singaporeans today, to coax them into adopting that sort of aspiration would almost be demeaning to them. A new sense of purpose must be imbued in them — and it’s not longer about winning the race to be the top <fill in the blank> hub.

And while we did top the Smart City ranking for the second year running, it’s not about chasing league tables. We need to remind ourselves that indicators are by products that are correlated with desired outcomes but not outcomes we are gunning in and of themselves. Our forefathers did not set out to outrank other cities in ‘Smart City ranking’ — they had simple goals of improve water supply, sanitation, access to electricity, greater convenience in banking, access to government services, payments and so on. The question is, what are our simple goals now? What should the millennials aspire to, for their nation if not for themselves? How are we going to improve over the great achievements that our forefathers have scored for us and the successive generations?

I think we are running into what Clayton Christensen calls the ‘Innovator’s Dilemma’ if we are joining big firms, following our forefathers’ models of management and “innovation”, and walking the proven path. In fact, our newer generation of leaders are faced with this challenge. If we have the pressure of being mocked for taking actions that are not ‘needle-moving’, then we risk forgoing potentially disruptive actions with significant impacts that have yet to to be ‘proven’. And this, is where I think millennials will start to play an increasingly important role.

Our role is not to inherit the burden of a legacy or be benchmarked against our forefathers in our level of ‘hunger’ or ‘hard-working-ness’. In fact, I once saw Angela Duckworth post this quote when she was promoting a particular episode of ‘No Stupid questions’:

“Are you working hard to achieve your goals or are you working hard to avoid failure?”

Angela Duckworth (here)

Boom. Mind-blown. The latter point does describe me sometimes in my workplace! And that reveals to me that finding the right motivation and the right sense of purpose is so important. As each successive generation inherits the legacy of the previous, wildly-successful generation, a bit of their ‘working hard’ inevitably become just a matter of trying ‘not to be <fill in this blank>’ rather than ‘to be something’. Because we may have perfectly managed to capture their systems, processes and all manner of operating procedures but their intents, purpose, motivations are often lost with them. We need to find our own versions, and we have to craft our own story.

For me, it means being more selective about the purposes by which you devote your mental and physical resources and talents; and no longer subscribing to the traditional views of what constitutes merit. Perhaps we need to start creating our own industries domestically that creates the kinds of jobs that we want rather than to wait out for the government to draw the MNC investments, or for their direction on what is the next big thing. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the initial product we built is not global or doesn’t scale. How many decades did it take before Laksa was packaged and exported as a product and enjoyed by the west? Did it diminish the economic opportunity or our ability to capture its value? Get informed of our greater economic challenges, and opportunities and craft our lives around it so that we contribute to the narrative of our future rather than being just a passive recipients of circumstances.

The sense of ‘entitlement’ is sometimes a manifestation of high standards millennials have come to expect of others — turn it into a positive by applying that to oneself and to learn to be able to serve others with the standards you expect of others. Use your creativity, exposure to huge amounts of connections in the online world and digital-savviness to create and participate in new things. And I think our narrative is about dethroning the mindset of an ever-growing economic pie, or the anxiety associated with lack of economic growth. Our narrative should be about creating a more helpful, united society that shares with one another, that learnt to shed the neoclassical economic burden, to be a better version of Singaporeans than our forefathers have been, having forged ahead largely for themselves and their family in mind. Now we want to have more of our community in mind, more of even our environment and nature in mind.

We also want to rethink the role of the government; after all, they have actually accomplished quite a fair bit of what they’ve been trying to do by way of improving the livelihoods of general populace. Maybe they can shed some bureaucracy and release more talents into the economy to invigorate it with greater entrepreneurism? Beyond risk-sharing and incentivising entrepreneurship, maybe there’s some rewriting of the social compact where the extreme inequality generated by risks in the marketplace is being mitigated by risk-sharing across cohorts of entrepreneurs? This could be just about successful entrepreneurs hiring the ones who may not have done so well (a la Andrew Yang).

I think more importantly, we want to confess the failings of meritocracy even as we trumpet its successes. And we want to be more conscious as a generation to deal with the negative consequences of ‘meritocracy’ especially the psychological ones. As we de-stigmatise psychological and mental issues, we also want to recognise that building up mental strength of the society overall is as important as building up the physical fitness of the populace.

So let us build not just a smart city of the future; but one that is secure, and confident, not about chasing league tables, KPIs, or GDP, but about genuine well-being of our people. Walk the unproven path, because we need to disrupt ourselves to move on to our next S-curve as a society.

This is part of a series of republished articles from my Medium page because I am worried about the platform ceasing to be. A previous version of this article was published in here a while back.

Economics of whatever

In my line of work as a strategy consultant, I sometimes work on techno-economic studies. Using a combination of statistical analysis, forecasting techniques and calculations, we estimate various different cost trajectories, and examine the economics of something. It could be a project, a technology, or a decision that a company is trying to undertake which has some cost impact and some benefits somewhere else.

In economics, we can only perform estimates when we assume all else equal. That’s the only way to perform proper sensitivity analysis. When you change more than one parameter, then you’d call it a scenario analysis. There are infinite possible scenarios when there is infinite parameters to shift or parameters with continuous range of possibilities. So when we model the economics of something, we’d always be varying something that we think we have control over, or that we expect will be changing in the near term, and see the effects on the economics.

Yet we often think that the economics of a technology or something will remain the same unless something drastic happens. More often than not, economics of technologies shift when various players in the market make different investments, either in the underlying technologies, manufacturing capacity for the gears and components, or simply into research and development. The actions of many different parties can have a collective impact of making the economics work when at first it doesn’t seem to work.

When we critique the economics of a new innovation or project, we often forget we are comparing them against the status quo where many are already very well-invested into. The years, decades and even centuries of using a technology, manufacturing it, creating complex supply chain and auxiliaries around the status quo. It is naturally hard to beat. But what is critical about a new technology is that the incremental investments can make a large impact, small changes to scale can also make a difference. Coordination and changing expectations play a big role.

Will the economics of new innovations change overnight? Unlikely, but they typically change faster than you and I can work out the math for the economics of it.

What should capital chase?

The previous two posts are really just preparing me for this final one about returns on capital. We have talked about the aspirations of labour and that perhaps capital should be more like labour, where it is not just trying to get a return to multiply itself, but actually to look to more qualitative returns as well. But how would capital do that?

We see examples of this done using state capital. The government uses its capital to invest into public infrastructure, education or even public housing; all of these drives returns at broad economic and social levels. And this can generate more taxes in the future but the idea of the government isn’t to actually be able to generate more taxes in the future. Having more taxes is good because it can sustain the pace of these investments but the actual return is what the society reap in terms of better standards of living, greater knowledge in the people and so on.

Yet private capital holders are not exactly thinking this way. Private capital holders act as if most of what matters is that invested capital reaps more capital. And imagine if this was applied to the government, that it simply invests more so as to gain more taxes. It might end up investing in more coercive approaches to extracting more taxes. Or to just invest in areas that gives it more power.

If companies starts developing a vision of the future and of the world it wants to build, and define the returns on capital as what gains the world get in steps towards those vision, one could expect businesses to behave differently. In other words, we start investing the way we would want to be able to practice charity or giving effectively. We put our money where there can be most impact and action towards the future we want to see in the world. The returns come when we are able to step into the future that we had envision, not when the money flows back in. In most cases, if that future in our vision materialises, the monetary gains should come in to sustain that vision. If it doesn’t, then something is missing somewhere, and you either find another vision or path to invest into, or harness further resources needed to move towards that.