Gestating for scale

I loved my laksa example when it comes to talking about scale and growth. How long do you think a concept or idea needs to gestate before it experiences mass adoption and succeed? And does success mean growth and scale? Or can success mean mastery towards perfection?

Take Toast Box; they took the simple breakfast fare of the Southeast Asian chinese, created a system to deliver it elegantly, and scaled in it a big way. But how long did it take for the kaya toast and half-boiled eggs to gestate in the cultural environment before they were ready for this Toast Box model?

When something is gestating, there is growth as well. The growth may be of a different quality and require a different environment. Just as the pre-mature foetus won’t be able to survive the environment outside the womb independently. This may sound like the “infant industry” argument but perhaps different – I’m advocating that we don’t apply the same standards to evaluating business growth across all kinds of businesses or business ideas.

At the end of the day, it is a question of what capital is seeking. To replicate and produce more of itself without care for the impact to the world, or making a difference along the way

End of oil III

In the absence of the price signals I wrote about in End of Oil II, what do we do? And besides, there had been so many recent fiascos about carbon markets that this instrument risks losing its credibility entirely and make it even harder for carbon emissions to be priced.

Pricing carbon is not just about credits of course. Carbon taxes are forms of prices and if we want to be stigmatising carbon emissions, we can even call it a fine but then the difficult is that we all are emitting carbon so at the end of the day the price will still be sort of a “license to pollute”.

Perhaps better to suggest and highlight that the taxes, credit revenues are going to be reinvested into decarbonisation. In any case, we do need more investments, funds and support towards that. What better way to fund it than to use the proceeds from carbon pricing to achieve that?

And we really can’t wait for the private initiatives and the market to get that going. At the same time, governments cannot afford to try and design the perfect market for it all to work. Rather, if carbon credits is not going to take off, the whole slew of regulation will need to be rolled out including renewable portfolio standards, carbon taxes, renewable gas blending mandates, ban on internal combustion engines, etc.

Layoffs and humanity

There’s been loads of news of layoffs in tech and it coincided with huge investments made in Artificial Intelligence as well as the launch of a beta version of ChatGPT that somehow took the world by storm. The recency effect led people to think that the layoffs somehow might have something to do with the fact that AI might be taking away more jobs and so on.

For a long time, human labour have been relied upon to move good around, help with loading and unloading from transportation, stock-take and do records by hand. These jobs have gradually been replaced by machines though in rare instances, having a human do the job is still more efficient or effective. Switching human labour for machines is nothing new. And it has been a good thing because machines free up human to take on more challenging kinds of problems.

This is how the ratchet of progress takes place. We invest time and effort in developing machine solutions which would eventually be able to replace human effort. And once the solution is adopted across the board, there are so many people who are freed up to work on further solutions and the ball keeps rolling. From a fundamental perspective, the world is progressing and civilization advances.

It is strange that our economic system, the market system that we have lauded and embraced do not exactly work in the same way. It creates incentives and competition towards progress but the result is a lot of stress, anxiety, and pain when new solutions are adopted and manpower is freed up. This is because firms and businesses are not adapted in our system to focus on innovation for progress but simply innovation for profits. And when this is the case, unemployment is a logical approach towards the adoption of new solutions.

When firms and businesses cannot think broadly enough to embrace what is fundamentally beneficial to society and mankind, then individuals, talents and smart people like you and I, will have to develop the courage to step out and do the work that the world needs. Because in many ways, that is what makes us human. That’s what AI cannot replace.

Rainfall & showers of blessing

It’s been a really wet Lunar New Year season. The downpour was incredible and yet it did not flood. My expat friends were quite impressed by our drainage systems.

Well, we have had episodes of “ponding” which were pretty severe before. And the government agency PUB had stepped up on drainage management. Things have obviously improved since and to be really fair, we are really capable of continously improving the system as long as we are not complacent about what we have achieved.

We often take these things for granted here in Singapore because problems are either solved even before they occur or done for us such that we don’t even notice. The difficulty is that we are no longer capable of dealing with the problems when they do come. For example, our contingency plans for transport disruption is atrocious partly because we had been able to keep things going well.

In the next stage of our development, we need to develop resilience not through anticipating challenges but learning to live through them and deal with them. Otherwise, we are developing a fragile population.

End of oil

Many years ago when I first thought about the study of Economics, there was the prevailing concern about oil reserves running out and the world running out of fuel. It was 2005 and the economist even had an issue where the cover page was showing the reflective colorful swirls of oil. The economists would argue that the world will never run out of oil because towards the last drop of oil left, the price of oil would be so high no one would want it. And perhaps many other alternative technologies which were not commercially viable would have become so before oil runs out.

Those were days when we technically already know about greenhouse effect and the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. And I was particularly fascinated with the recurring debates between the Malthusians (and neo-Malthusians) and the others weigh on the hope of technology (and possibly economics).

It is funny how more than 17 years later, I’m in a career to try and reduce (and eventually end) the dominance of oil. Not to promote an alternative technology, not to rail against the political power of oil but to create a future that we all want to step into. Because climate change is an existential danger for us all and the planet as we know it. And because I believe our current economic system can be superceded by one that works for the future and not the tradition notions of wealth and fortune.

Sizing the slices

How much time do we take to bake a pizza compared to working out the even-ness of the distribution of various ingredients on the pizza and then slicing it all up into sufficient slices to be shared around the table. And why does that matter. So it matters when there are different people involved in baking the pizza and thinking about the size of the slice they will be getting later. There may be some putting different topics and determining how evenly distributed they should be and so on. And then there’s the guy determining how the slices are cut. And then maybe some kind of system determining who gets which particular slice. Maybe that is by a ballot or random system.

And yes in case you’re already suspecting, I’m thinking about the economy. An economy where people are obsessed with trying to secure a bigger slice for themselves will not behave very optimally to enlarge the overall pizza. Because their energies are caught up in the distribution process; then resources aren’t quite properly allocated. The best approach is to maximize the size of the pizza before splitting it up. But the challenge is that the way we determine the split can affect how to maximize the size.

And then how do you deal with people in the overall scheme of things, who genuinely has very little to contribute to the size of the pizza but is very much part of the overall process? Do you exclude them from the distribution? How are they going to affect the others who are productive? And if you do include them, will you be disincentivizing those who are contributing a lot more to producing the pizza?

As an economy moves from the early stage developments to more mature stages, and with more specialised industries and niches in the economy, these questions will crop up more often. What we need to do is to take a stance on which direction and how we want our markets to be headed. And what would we sacrifice to make that work.

Slow or fast

We think the world is better off faster mostly when we live in cities. When the train or traffic is slow, when the queue at the checkout counter is long, we have an issue.

Yet that’s actually a narrow perspective on things; it comes from that dominant, productive workforce view. In fact, maybe not even the workers’ view but that of the manager. That things have to move faster and we have to produce more.

Yet as the world progresses and the composition of our workforce and consumer class changes, there will be fundamental shifts in the way we think about speed and productivity. Dutch supermarket chain Jumbo introduced slow checkouts for lonely elderly who would prefer to chat with people probably both in line and with the cashier.

And there will be new business opportunities arising from a world that might be slowing down. For people entering middle age and confronting unhealthy lifestyles, falling sick frequently, they might soon be seeing their western medical doctors requesting they go to traditional chinese medicine (TCM) clinics to “rebalance” their health. TCM is generally seen as slow but that is unique suited to more long term issues and preventative in approach. In that sense, certain ailments lends themselves to this slow way.

Like parental controls and screen time limitations, speed limits on things, having the slow option might actually be an alternative for niche customers. And this pool of customers might be growing.

Subsidies and fundamentals

Huge amounts of subsidies goes into fuel and energy. The companies are not necessarily being the ones subsidised to produce the fuel but rather, domestic markets of net exporters tend to be protected somewhat from international energy prices through subsidies. The notion is to help maintain internal price stability and hence cope with cost of living.

Australia is one of the few markets who are net exporters of natural gas for example and yet do not really “shield” its domestic market from international price impacts. The result is that the recent price spike in natural gas had Australians screaming in pain and for perhaps the first times in decades, businesses and households are seriously considering disconnecting from the grid and electrifying.

But there can be a middle ground. Subsidies can exist for these energy exporters to protect their domestic users given that these exporters stand to gain when the energy price increase. How can they share these windfall with their own economy and the users in local market? The government can subsidise users but make the subsidy transparent. This way, households are not paying the full prices and they are also given information about how much the government is helping to make them affordable. At the same time, it becomes more politically acceptable to pull back on such subsidies for those heavy users who are higher on income brackets and can afford it.

For far too long, we shield the markets from the proper price signals and artificially create false sense of affordability by subsidies, we reduce the resilience of our economies and contribute further to wastage and carbon emissions. Making subsidies transparent is a great first step, towards removing this political gridlock around domestic energy tariffs.

Saving the earth

A friend in the finance industry who probably makes more than 150k annually repairs different stuff as a hobby. He volunteers to help people with repairing household appliances like electric fans, water kettle, and he also learnt how to fix bikes.

He has since fixed a few worn and old rusted bike by derusting them, replacing the broken components. And then he sells off the bike to cover the cost of replacement parts. He doesn’t get paid for his time. Yet he is satisfied because he knows he’s doing his part for the earth.

By market forces, his time would have been worth more and can be more productively spent. But he’s not valuing time the way the market does; and he is certainly not valuing the earth the way our market does. He is using the market to satisfy his needs while trying his best to “save his earth” by his individual efforts.

The market does not automatically align incentives for the best outcomes; and if the government doesn’t have the courage to do it. We have severely limited time left to be valued, if at all.

Market for talents

Are talents born? How would you know a baby is going to be a star violinist, or a top notch computer programmer? How would these kids first be incentivised to try things out to begin with? It’s more likely that there’s a market for the particular talent which the kid was exposed to and hence got started, and found himself or herself being able to do it well and hence the resources around him/her was attracted to support the development.

The market for talent is vital to encourage and develop talents. It is the presence of the market that allows people to aspire towards being a ‘successful X’ – be it a musician, or a chef, or mathematician. Kids don’t just wake up one day, look at a long path into the forest and say they want to work towards being a cross country runner.

Singapore have been able to nurture and attract talents essentially by drawing proven talents from elsewhere into the market and then celebrating them. The value of doing this can be powerful if resources are poured into directing the nurture of local talents concurrently. Careful thinking about this market and its design is important so that structures can be put in place to ensure this is a virtuous circle. Those identified as talents should be able to support others who are trying to develop themselves. Pay-it-forward type of mentorship should be encouraged.

And those who have benefited personally and individually can pool resources to nurture the next generation. It’s akin to successful lawyers or bankers giving back to their alma mater to start scholarships that support new lawyers and bankers.