Physical networking

Been at a few business functions lately; far more than I’ve been the past two years. It’s becoming a less surreal experience as the world eases into the state where covid-19 is endemic. Restrictions have eased and culturally, people are less wary about mask-wearing. The common flu and other cold bugs are back, ordinary immunity is probably improving.

I welcome the return of physical interactions as much as I discovered how many of them are actually easily substituted with online means. It is true that most of the online interactions lose out so much rich details and non-verbal dimensions of communication. In fact, especially for new connections and interactions, having that physical connection might be useful.

From just those physical functions, I discovered so many more companies I’ve never heard of. There are activities in the industry I wasn’t aware of from just reading materials online. A lot of chance encounters in the physical world are simply not possible online. In fact, I thought the online networking tools where you scroll through a list of conference attendees as poorly designed. Imagine in a real world when you try to go towards someone you want to speak to while the person is unaware and they are trying to talk to someone else. And all the responses are not exactly synchronous. Physical distances and actual visual observations in space performs a coordination function that technology has not been able to replace.

Primitive technology

Had a chat with a friend who used to be in the oil & gas industry; well at least along the value chain. He was also a bit on the old school side of things and he calls solar PV technology primitive because compared to the gas turbines whose efficiency is 60% when using combined cycle, the efficiency of converting solar energy into electricity is only 15-20%.

I was a bit surprised at that idea given that inputs in terms of the energy from the sun is free whereas you might need to calculate the energy cost from the drilling, piping, even liquefaction and then gasification of gas. Nevertheless, the point is that turbine technology has been widely adopted and used for many more decades than the solar panels. So a lot more money, time, resources have been invested into that those technology compared to renewables. That is simply fact.

Yet if you consider which technology has more room for progress and can move us to a future that we want to live in, the answer is just as clear. The problem again, with the economic analysis undertaken is that they are all based on individuals considering Ceteris Paribus everywhere else. The energy transition, decarbonisation is more than just that an individual decision and it was never meant to be worthwhile done alone. It was something to be coordinated, actions taken together. Which is why we cannot allow all of these technologies like solar, wind, EVs, hydrogen to be as primitive as they are.

Blue bins

In the first episode of my recently launched podcast, I kind of ranted about the blue bins in the National Recycling Programme that Singapore has. My major gripe was that the system for blue bins which was completely open access and operated by riding on the back of the public waste collection system was designed to fail because by seeking to include everyone, it made securing a clean stream of recyclables harder.

I noted that an alternative system where people sign up to gain access to the blue bin, and pledge to abide by the ‘rules’ of using the blue bins could do better. They could pledge the following:

  1. they will use the blue bin only for recycleables allowed,
  2. they will ensure the items are cleaned and ready for recycling,
  3. they will only access the blue bin themselves,
  4. they will ensure the blue bin is locked after their use,
  5. they will not deposit into the blue bin when it is full or when they note it is contaminated

Friends at Upcircle has shown that by giving assurance to people who care and show up for the environment that you are able to deal with the recyclables properly, you can actually obtain good quality post-consumer recyclable stream. By preventing those who doesn’t care about recycling from taking part in pseudo-recycling by their own terms, we can actually do better.

Recycling better by excluding people isn’t exactly the best narrative to the ears but in due course, that can actually change the culture.

What do you do with slack?

I recently spoke to a financial advisor. Not an independent one, just from a firm who was not tied to a single insurer. The idea is getting the best deal, the most competitive deal. This is a marketing business, about serving clients, reaching people. That’s a shame because financial planning should be about brains and not how much you like someone.

But maybe I’m ahead of myself because if brains mean to be able to optimise very well, lowering premiums as a share of overall risk cover, or increasing cover while keeping to the same levels of premium, then it’s not always that good. We need slack in the system. People who might be idling at any one time you sample the workspace. You need to ensure there is breathing space, chattering space, ideation space.

We pay for slack all the time; do you use up all your mobile data and telephone call minutes every month? Do you boil only enough water for a single pot of tea each time? Slack is not a bad thing and over-optimisation creates risks. Perhaps the risk is small but there is always a trade off to be made.

What about the baseload?

I get asked this question a lot; by the people operating power systems, by the Oil & Gas industry, and the traditional old school bankers. They also ask about price of intermittent renewable energy plus energy storage; and when that will reach grid parity. Essentially, they are saying that the new innovations cannot replace the current technologies because the cost don’t stack.

I’m not sure those are the right conversations to have or the right questions to ask. Economics do drive a lot of systems and considerations but they probably should not be hijacking our priorities and our realities. Climate change is real; and if we are to put our best foot forward to make the difference, we are not going to make it. Putting our best foot forward is about using our minds, engaging our hands and changing our lives.

Yes, baseload power will be changed, energy prices will increase, perhaps our spaces, our wealth will have to be sacrificed. But our earth can remain a sanctuary for life, and our world can remain intact; if only we are putting our best foot forward. Not dragging our feet, not trying to maintain status quo. Not trying to exercise malicious obedience.

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.

Doing the Tough Stuff

technology

Organic Growth for companies. Most of our Singapore’s small medium enterprises grow organically despite the introduction of much Merger & Acquisition support from the Singapore government such as M&A Tax Allowance (which was enhanced following the 2015 Budget) . In challenging times, even larger companies may still want to conserve cash to be invested internally rather than go on an M&A ‘spree’ – that is if they believe that they will be able to emerge larger after the temporary downturn.

To the end of doing the tough stuff called sticking to organic growth, McKinsey has a couple of pretty good questions to ask oneself when planning strategically for value creation along short to long-term timescale.

  • How balanced is our portfolio? If we take our portfolio of growth and innovation initiatives and plot them against NOW NEW NEXT, how balanced does the distribution look? Do we have a perspective on which of the six “growth plays” would be successful in our business?
  • Who is thinking about disruption? Are we as systematic in NEXT as we are in NOW? Is anyone tasked with disrupting our core business—or are we leaving it up to competitors? What are we doing to explore additive business models?
  • Are we limiting our horizons? In exploring NEW opportunities, do we impose limiting mind-sets on how we define consumers, our category, or the addressable channels?
  • Do we use advantaged insights? Do we rely on the same data and insights as our competitors—or do we have a source of distinctiveness?
  • Are we agile enough? Have we been able to accelerate our time-to-consumer and time-to-market? Or are we still stuck with cumbersome and slow innovation processes?

Source: Now, New, Next: How growth champions create new value.

Ultimately, these questions may also start leading companies to consider acquisition in the mid to long term horizon where threat of disruption may force even very niche companies to place some hedging bets through incubation of related peripheral technologies.

Wrong Concoction

Historically, technological advancement combined with economics have helped to push civilization towards greater levels of achievements; yet too often, there are times when they are combined in the wrong ways that produces somewhat problematic results for the aggregate society. An example would be the problem of counterfeit products, which is recently featured in The Economist. Interestingly it has extended beyond just luxury goods, luxury consumer electronics to the more sophisticated stuff like cars, computer and machine parts. The chief argument against counterfeits is not so much that they are unsafe. As technology advance, counterfeits that are of low quality would naturally be abandon by the market anyways. The reason for the market’s embrace is a result of their avoidance of taxes and the willingness to accept lower margins, which allows them to price way more competitively.

Another time when technological advancement is combined with skewed human intentions is the gender-based abortion that The Economist is hinting at. The distorted sex ratio have potentially disastrous consequences on society at large. Unfortunately the imbalance is already a fact and will take at least a generation to restore some balance so in the meantime we will probably have to put up with way lower rates of marriages (if rates sustain, it would only be because divorce rates have also been increasing; which implies re-marriages).

Well, more arguments for big governments, or if not, intrusive ones.

Dot.con

Dot.con
Popped!

I’ve recently finished John Cassidy’s Dot.con I got from library many days back. John Cassidy is a staff writer at The New Yorker and I always liked his writings about Economics. I’ll probably find a chance to lay my hands on his latest book, How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities soon.

Meanwhile, Dot.con have been an interesting read. It’s an old book, no doubt. I believe reading about the Internet Bubble now seem rather weird given that it has happened a while back and don’t appear to have any immediate relation with what I’ve been working on. Still, I think that events like this have lessons to offer that are often missed out and I was looking to read something a little further back given that I’ve been updating myself with The Economist all the time. John Cassidy didn’t fail me, starting his story from the time when the technology was developing for the rise of modern Internet, describing the roles that the US military and government played in its conception, research funding and even implementation. He combines the events leading up to year 2000 with interesting comparisons of speculative manias of the past and talks about retrospective telltale signs of irrationality.

He introduced me to Charles Mackay and his writing, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I subsequently realised I had the sections of Charles Mackay’s book in my 4-inch tome, The Real Price of Everything by Michael Lewis. Those pieces have just been added into my reading queue.

Cory Johnson reveals that John Cassidy was a rare skeptical voice with regards to the Internet Boom, but failed to live up to the promise of the title of the book:

Indeed, he is unable to dismiss the most fundamental notion (a mantra among the true believers) that the Internet changes everything. Despite the stock market meltdown, almost any reading of the evolving business practice wrought by the Internet suggests that more dramatic changes are yet to come.

In a sense, the Internet is not quite exactly an illusion so to speak. But I don’t think that was what John Cassidy was driving at. His idea is that business fundamentals have been abandoned during the period and it shouldn’t have been. The numbers he cites about businesses losing money even as stock prices climb is startling. He might have been against the arguments of the New Economy though, and he could have supported his argument with the fact that falling prices (with economic expansion) isn’t entirely an internal affair of US but a result of the external forces as well.

I’ve enjoyed the little stories told by Dot.con surrounding the whole boom and crash of the Internet, especially those about individuals trapped in those industries contributing and taking part of the boom. Besides that, Dot.con serves as a good look at human behaviours during a speculative mania.

Printing Stuff

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Imagine you need a square meter of light, perhaps for a single ’tile’ on the ceiling that emits lights at your building. You’d probably get contractors to make a box with circuits inside that connects to a couple of fluorescent tubes (or if you’re quite rich, a couple of LEDs) and then cover the thing with a translucent white piece of acrylic. The entire structure is bulky and probably quite energy consuming. Now, scientists have found a way to make a ‘sheet’ of LED that would allow you to make that ‘lighted tile’ much more easily and is also much more compact. Essentially, the technology allows you to print a circuit that is wired in a way that acts as a diode, and one that emits light.

And since we’re at the issue of printing stuff; we mentioned previously about industrial prototyping machines that churns out 3D structures/models. I was quite intrigued by the idea of being able to print out a peg for your clothes or even design a shoe that fits you perfectly. But perhaps even more amazing would be the ability to print out cells, tissues and even organs as reported by The Economist.

The article mentioned about growing organs from scratch and raised the example of bladders being grown from original cells of patients. Essentially the patients are donating organs to themselves; the same applies for the printing of organs. The idea is appealing because there’s nothing artificial about them beside the involvement of doctors in the process of growing the cells and putting them together – ultimately the organ is still organic and from the patients. Perhaps then, Iran’s model for kidney donation won’t be so appealing anymore.