Category Archives: Society and the economy

How has technology development changed the nature of society and the economy?

The Digital Economy

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of being on the panel for Blockchain and the Digital Economy at ADC’s Leadership Forum. The session outline led with three questions:

  • How has 2020 accelerated the acceptance of the digital economy?
  • Is blockchain fulfilling its promise as the new universal disruptor?
  • How real is the role of cryptocurrencies as the new universal store of value? 

It’s a large topic and an important one, as if we’re to address challenges such as growing inequality then we need to find a way to make the economy work for all of us, rather than just some of us.

Unfortunately, as too often happens, adding blockchain to a topic results in blockchain dominating the discussion with other interesting ideas ignored. Blockchain is quickly positioned as the solution and all other ways of framing (and understanding) the problems we face are ignored. This panel was no different in this regard.

Some of the ideas that would have been relevant in a broader discussion are things that I’ve been exploring for a while. Before the panel I’d pulled together an outline of the argument as to why our future is not “the digital economy”, but something much more interesting, and which creates more opportunity and freedom to act in addressing the challenges we’re facing. Rather than let a good outline go to waste I thought I’d build it out a little and publish it here.

Continue reading The Digital Economy

A moral license for AI

We have a new essay published in Deloitte Insights, A moral license for AI: Ethics as a dialogue between firms and communities. This collaboration with CSIRO’s Data61 looks into the challenge of creating ethical AI, picking apart the problems and proposing a way forward. There’s a launch event on the 2nd of September, 2020, which you can register for via Zoom.

Continue reading A moral license for AI

On bland economic models and the colonial mindset

A team at Harvard has released a new version of the Atlas of Economic Complexity, an index of ‘economic complexity’. Journalists have pounced on the model to make that case—as they often do—that Australia is a second class country run by second rate politicians. The problem is that the model seems rather bland, only proving that Australia is a large country with a small population (and correspondingly small market) a long way from the major markets. We already knew this.

The atlas “interpret[s] trade data as a bipartite network in which countries are connected to the products they export, and show that it is possible to quantify the complexity of a country’s economy by characterizing the structure of this network”.[ref]Hidalgo, C.A. & Hausmann, R., 2009. The Building Blocks of Economic Complexity. Available at <>.[/ref] So complexity is a measure of integration into global and regional supply chains. This is assumed to correlate with the complexity of an economy.

Given that, any small populous country that is geographically situated near a large market (or cluster of markets) should do well. These countries are too small to export resources (due to lack of land and resources) while their domestic market is too small to soak up many finished goods. They are, however, well situated to be part of supply chains that feed the large market that they’re adjacent too, both importing and exporting intermediate goods. In a case of “no shit Sherlock”, countries like Singapore and Switzerland score quite well.

Large populous countries, such as the US, do ok as they can export products supported by their large domestic market as well as the large domestic market being a sink, importing products from other countries. Not as ‘complex’ as a less populous country importing and exporting intermediate goods, but there’s still a bit going on.

Small to mid-sized countries (in terms of population) that are far from major markets will do poorly. They’re too far from global or regional value chains to participate in them, and their domestic market is too small to support the development of finished goods for export. Here’s looking at you Australia.

Countries such as South Africa sort of fall into this bucket too, though being surrounded by a number of small markets does alleviate their problem somewhat. Australia, as we like to point out, is both a continent and an island. Being small and far from major markets is also why Australia doesn’t have a domestic car manufacturing industry: we’re not big enough to support a car assembly plant with domestic sales, while being too far away from major markets to export.

So the atlas does show a correlation, but it’s with population and geography more than anything else. Also, as the atlas is based on correlation, rather than a causal model, it don’t have anything to say about the future as they’re just extrapolating trends.

It’s a bit annoying that there’s not much to be learnt from the atlas. What is more annoying though is the colonial mindset in Australia that assumes that nothing good can come out of the colonies (Australia) as all good things come out of the colonial power (being Europe and the US).

The future of retail: The need for a new trust architecture

Deloitte ran a series of breakfasts recently for the retail community, and they kindly asked C4tE to participate. My contribution, which you can find at Scribd or embedded below, sprang out of our recent report The Future of Exchanging Value: Cryptocurrencies and the trust economy(FoEV) when, during a chance conversation, Robbie (the left-brained person who leads the Spatial team) pointed out that that we were arguing for a new trust architecture in retail.

The nutshell explanation of the idea is:

  • The current retail model is a constructed environment and shopping a learnt experience. This model is a response to the creation of mass market products and supply chains.
  • The model is build on there pillars: customers identifying a need, searching for a solution to the need, and then transacting with a merchant that they may not know or trust. Money – cash – facilitates this, as it enables us to transact with someone we don’t know and may never meet again.
  • However, a number of trends we saw in FoEV suggest that this model might be breaking down. The mid-market dies, consumers seized control of the customer-merchant relationship, peers replaced brands, value is now defined by the consumer rather than the producer, payments are moving away from the till, and shopping is becoming increasingly impulse driven.
  • What will retail look like in a world where need is never fully formed, search is irrelevant, and transactions are seen as distasteful? What is the new trust architecture?

See what you think of the presentation and feel free ping us if you have any thoughts.

The two reports mentioned in the presentation are:

Future of Retail – a New Trust Architecture by Peter Evans-Greenwood

Our Economic Future: Driving Innovation Through Better Public Policy

The following are the notes I pulled together for the first panel in ADC‘s Future Summit on Monday September 28th.

The major opportunity for Australia is to find and exploit new production systems and consumption models that are cheaper, simpler and more “digital” than the highly entailed product-creating systems that are the legacy of the previous industrial era. We also need to see this as socially driven change, rather than a technologically driven change.

Two quick examples of this in action.

First: cars.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment around self driving and electric cars. Tesla has built an expensive but unprofitable electric car on the back of over USD 4 billion of government grants, while Mercedes, Google et al are out there with prototypes for self-driving cars that look like a technoutopian’s fevered dream.

In the case of Tesla, on the production side, the firm is better thought as the ultimate expression of an industry structure established roughly 100 years ago by Henry Ford; but it might not be an exemplar of how we will build cars in the future. A better example of where car manufacturing might go is iStream by Gordon Murray Design in the UK. iStream is a new production process, one based on established and well understood technology, but which removes 80% of the cost from the factory, slashing the cost of cars in the process. The production process Ford, Toyota et al are using needs 150k cars from a single model to be profitable, which means that Austrlia was lucky to have an old skool car industry for as long as we did. iStream is profitable on 12,000 cars, and would be commercial viable in Australia.

On the consumption side, viewing self-driving cars simply as autonomous versions of manually operated cars ignores changes in consumption patterns where consumers are preferring to consume many products as (value-added) services (think Spotify et al). The car equivalent is Flexicar or GoGet (car-by-the-hour).

If we put the two of these together it’s possible to imagine a new public transport model based on cheap and flexible, locally built and supported, autonomous cars. Some of the cars might be contributed by the government. Some by private operators (Flexicar et al). Some might be from individuals who are contributing their cars to the common pool when they don’t need them (during the week when they work, or when on holidays) via something like Uber.

Second, a local example: the transformation of the  building industry.

Building mid-rise buildings—office blocks, hotels, apartment buildings, &c.—is currently a craft-based process. Design a building, create holding company, buy land, put together consortium, get funding from bank(s), and then go onsite and incrementally add value to the land by hammering in nails, pouring cement, running wires etc. There’s a lot of talk about new technologies “disrupting” building, such as 3D printing. This is unlikely. Buildings are complex structures with many interwoven parts. You might be able to 3D print a wall, but you still need to integrate the services, render it &c. While these new technology might make elements of the process more efficient, they’re incremental improvement at best.

Enter Unitised Building (UB), based in Melbourne. UB have created a new production process that enables them to build a mid-rise building in a fraction of the time at less than half the cost. A good example is 3:East, built in 11 days. UB takes a complete 3D model of the building—including services &c.—and uses digital tools to split the building into a number of units (the model has been “unitised”). A second layer of digital tools takes that unit models and splits out the files required by CNC machines. The units are built in a factory and then transported to the site where they are lifted into place (one every 8 minutes) and snapped together. The only requirement is that you need a crane on-site, which, practically, means that the UB approach is dramatically faster and cheaper once you hit 3 floors (and need a crane regardless).

What UB have done is create a new process that moves the complexity of building from the physical world to the digital world. Indeed, their CNC requirements are quite light and they need few machines, so their factory (in Brooklyn, in Melbourne) has a very small footprint by manufacturing standards. They’re even exporting by finding contract manufacturing facilities overseas and transmitting the digital files to the CNC machines in the remote factory.

Creating these sorts of system changes has a couple of problems.

First, the old industry / sector structures we use to frame regulation and government support make no sense in this new world, as these new solutions span industry sector boundaries and have different requirements. (Supporting manufacturing, for example, has traditionally been a question of ensuring that the manufacturers have lots of land, but the new generation coming through don’t need much land, while they do need access to lots of network bandwidth.) This miss-match between the demands of the new and how government frames public policy makes it difficult for the two to engage.

In the case of UB, two of their challenges have been getting the banks to fund buildings when the current building risk model (based on incremental value creation on-site and quantity surveying) doesn’t match their building process, and the challenge of accessing government support when they don’t fit in any particular sector/industry (Are they a builder? Or a manufacturer?). These new firms span sectors / industries, deliver products as services, and do a bunch of other things that don’t fit with the old industry models. If we’re to frame policy and regulation for the future then we need to set aside the old industry/sector-based view of the world. Fundamentally, we need to stop muddling through as incrementalism won’t fix this problem. There are signs of change though, such as UB winning this year’s “Victorian Large Manufacturer of the Year” award.

Second, we need to acknowledge the these innovations are not the result of light-bulb moments or heroic individuals—they’re the product of trial-and-error and collaboration. By definition, they’re a social process. There’s a tendency—particularly among the technology crowd—to frame the debate in terms of technological determinism. Or, put another way, futurism has a technological blindspot. Just because we invented nuclear reactors doesn’t mean that we’ll have one in every home, or every car. No technology has ever survive contact with society intact.

We need to acknowledge that while the shape of society will change in response to technology (just look at what the modern smart phone is doing to our sense of identity!), society will, in turn, shape the technology it adopts (note that many people now find phone calls rude as they interrupt the recipient, whereas messaging is async).

The current obsession with disruption is a case in point. (And first we must acknowledge that Clayton Christensen’s “disruption theory” is looking less like a theory and more like an interesting idea.) There’s cries that we should let these disruptors usher in the brave new world by allowing them to skirt existing regulation. This assumes that all regulation is bad, or the more nuanced version, that techniques such crowd sourced recommendations are superior to regulation in many instances (why have certification when you can have ratings?) This point of view ignores the fact that regulations are one of the tools we use to encode what we see as the socially acceptable uses of technology. Nuclear power is a really cool technology, but do we want people driving around with small nuclear reactors under their bonnets?

With regard to Uber, and the taxi industry, it’s worthwhile considering the following:

    • allowing taxi licenses to be transferable and limiting their number was probably a mistake, however
    • we provide taxi vouchers to pensioners, partly to to encourage them not to drive, and partly to help them stay mobile and engaged with society: should we compel (i.e. regulate) Uber et al to accept taxi vouchers, or will we allow the death of the taxi industry to disenfranchise these pensioners?
  • Uber separates the payment from the provision of the service, and some parents are using this as an opportunity to give their under 18 (even under 13) kids Uber accounts so that they can get themselves home from school &c. rather than need mum or dad to pick them up: does this mean than we need to compel (i.e. regulate) all Uber drivers to have Working with Children checks?

It’s best to think about three types of policy:

    • Enablers, what do we need to put in place to enable the society we want. One of the biggest boosts to start-ups in Silicon Valley, for example, was Obama Care, as it means that individuals in startups could now access affordable health care. We undervalue policies such as Medicare and HECS as tools to enable as many people in society as possible to engage in the trial-and-error innovation process.
    • Drivers, how can we encourage new developments / ideas that create new value, given that government has a poor record of picking winners? This comes down to how do we use policy support the demand-side to help society to pull in the technology it wants in the way it wants. Admitting that we will regulate driver services, and we will require these services to accept taxi vouchers, and their drivers to have working with children checks, are good examples, as is the policy in Tasmania to provide interest free loans to individuals who want to by bespoke products from makers. Germany’s high feed-in tariffs for solar are another example.
  • Barriers, where do we draw the line? Do we want nuclear reactors in cars? Do we want full-timeAustralian for-hire drivers earning under the minimum wage?

There is a lot of opportunity out there for everyone and Australia, as one of the most voracious adopters or technology in the world, is in a position to capitalise on these opportunities. However, we need to accept that we’re seeing with “digital disruption” is the leading edge of a massive social change, rather than a technological change. The future will not be determined by the disruptors. It will determined by how we, as a society, choose to engage with this change.

Image: Steve Gibson

Redefining education

Our latest piece at the Centre for the Edge is out: Redefining education.[ref]Peter Evans-Greenwood, Peter Williams, Kitty O’Leary (2015) The paradigm shift: Redefining education, Deloitte Australia.[/ref]

When we did an Australian version of the Shift Index[ref]The Shift Index in Slides @ PEG[/ref] we saw that while Australia has a pretty good digital foundation and society seems to be adapting to the shift fairly well, we’re not realising as much value as it could be. Or put another way, while we’re using digital technology to create new knowledge flows, we’re not as proficient at realising their value.

With the Shift Index complete we turned our attention to education, as it seemed logical that education would be the most effective fulcrum to use to improve our performance.

We took the major trends from the Shift Index – the move from stocks to flows, and from push to pull – and, as a bit of a thought experiment, applied them to the education sector to see what we came up with. This resulted in a slide deck The Future of the Education Sector[ref]The Future of the Education Sector @ PEG[/ref] and now this report.

The major finding in the report is that our relationship with knowledge is changing, and consequently our relationship with education is changing. The snappy version of this is “Why remember what you can google?”. The longer story has interesting implications for the education sector as by changing what it means to be educated has all sorts of potential knock-on effects for education and educators.

The report is our attempt move the current debate beyond pedagogy and edu-tech, funding and Australia’s ranking on international league tables to consider if our changing relationship to knowledge (the shift from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows, highlighted in the report) is changing the role and purpose of education and (by extension) the education sector.

The report is on Deloitte’s web site, and I’d love to year your throughs.

The car you just bought is the last car you will ever own

How long until it doesn’t make any sense to own a car? What if you considered a car an accessory for your phone, rather the considering a phone something you plug into your car? With decent smart phone integration (via CarPlay from Apple, and Android Auto) and for-profit car clubs (from ZipCar, FlexCar through Daimler’s Car2Go and BMW’s DriveNow to Hertz on Demand and Avis On Location by Avis) allowing you to only pay for the hours you use, that time might not be too far away.

Cars are status symbols. They’re expensive, typically the single most expensive item that most folk will buy other after a house. Since the around the 1930s your car has also been something of a fashion statement.

The car we buy is an extension of our personality. Agreeable individuals seem to prefer brands like Toyota or Nissan while Peugeot owners are extroverts and Volvo is associated with safety.[ref]Press release (2013), What Your Car Says About Your Personality, Veryday.[/ref] Black is the colour of luxury and status, while the owner of a silver or grey car driver doesn’t want to stand out; owner of blue cars want stability, truthfulness and serenity; a brown-car buyer wants value and a long life in their purchase, and doesn’t care about trends or fads; while yellow car owners exude joy and a positive attitude.[ref]Lora Shinn (2014), What Your Car Color Says About You, Fox Business.[/ref]

If a car is a status and fashion symbol then why don’t we change our cars when we change our moods? The zippy little commuter (or perhaps the impressive black executive conveyance) for the commute to the office, something fun and red for the weekend, or reliable blue people-mover for ferrying the kids to weekend sport.

The main problem for many folk is that we can only afford to own one (or perhaps two). Having a car for every occasion is just not financially viable. For-profit car clubs are changing that though. At the moment you can pay by the hour for something reliable but boring to get you from point A to point B and back again. What’s to stop the same services from offering something more exiting, or something with a little more room?

Then there’s the problem of carrying your preferences – the selection of radio stations, GPS settings, seat hight and so on that we’re dialled in – from car-to-car. If, however, we think of cars as smartphone (or even smartwatch) accessories, rather than the other way around, then it’s not hard to imagine hopping into the car club car you’ve just picked up and dropping your phone into the dock, only to find the seat hight adjusted, radio stations tuned and a route to your mother’s house out in the suburbs plotted by the time you mange to get the car started.

At this point the only thing tying you to owning a car is the golf clubs that you store in the boot (trunk), and the strange iconic role that buying your first car has in your formative years.

While the baby boomers have a strong attachment to owning a car, this is not true for Gen Y, who are ambivalent about car ownership. Studies have shown that fewer young adults have driver’s licenses, that they hate the traditional car-buying process, and that they prefer urban living and socialising online and consequentially have less need for cars.

Why invest a large chunk of your personal wealth in a single asset that is worth nothing when you finally sell it, when you can access cars on on-demand, picking the car that fits your mood and needs at that particular time, and have the car magically become “yours” when you drop your smartphone into the dock?

This creates an interesting dilemma for the car manufacturers. On one side that have younger cohorts coming through who don’t automatically assume that they need to own a car, and who are consequentially harder to market to. On another side they have the emergence of fractional car ownership: what’s happened to private jets[ref]NetJets has provided a fractional ownership service for private jets since 1986.[/ref] and handbags[ref]You can fractionally own, or rent, depending on your point of view, a designer handbag from services such as Bag Borrow or Steal.[/ref] is now happening to automobiles. And finally, on the last side, they have new approaches to manufacturing such as iStream[ref]iStream is a new approach to car manufacturing that reducing the cost of tooling by around 80%, enabling new car models to be profitable in much shorter production runs.[/ref] that slash the investment required to design and manufacture a car, potentially making all your expensive factories irrelevant overnight.

It’s not hard to imaging a time in the near future where you can have the car you want, when you want, without owning it. While it’s not an option at the moment, it doesn’t look like it’s to far in the future. The car you just bought could well be the last car you ever own.

Image source: Alden Jewell

90% of sales are in bricks-n-mortar stores, but many are dying anyway

The stats are in and the rush to declare bricks-n-mortar retail dead appear to be a bit premature. While online commerce appears to be growing at a fairly impressive rate (of somewhere around 15% to 20%[ref]NAB Online Retail Sales Index[/ref], depending on where you are) that growth rate is on a very low base. This means that somewhere are 90% of retail sales still occur in a bricks-n-mortar store, and that figure floats up to 95% if you include bricks-n-mortar stores with an online presence.[ref]Chris Lund (April 2014), “Reports of bricks and mortar’s demise have been greatly exaggerated”, Strategy.[/ref]

The problem with this point of view is that it ignores that fact that while the future might be here, it’s still unevenly distributed.

At a whole of economy level retail might be growing, and most purchases still occur in a bricks-n-mortar store, but when you dig into the details a different story emerges.[ref]Winners and losers in retail @ PEG[/ref] What we’re witnessing is the incremental destruction of small (and some not-so-small) areas of the retail market as consumer behaviour changes and makes them irrelevant.

The first wave of online retail – Web 1.0 as it’s called these days – was moving catalogues online. This enabled consumers, for the first time, to search for what they wanted from the comfort of their own home, rather than need to head out on a shopping mission. This created a distinct change in what consumers purchased, as they could now use the power of Google to find the best product at the best price, or the cheapest product at the lowest price, and make their purchase directly with the retailer (local or online) who offered precisely what they wanted.

This had two interesting effects. The first was the destruction of mid-market brands.

Historically consumers were forced to compromise, their choice limited to what the merchant around the corner chose to stock. Confronted with three options – a cheap option, a middle quality option, and a good option – the consumer was forced to compromise. They would pick the best that they could afford or the cheapest that the merchant chose to offer. Web 1.0 meant that if they they could find something better, possibly at a lower price in another country, then they could would avoid the middle quality option and go directly to the best. Many mid-market brands collapsed as a result.

The second effect was the destruction of many local retailers. Most of these local retailers – the small clothing shop on the high street, or the department store in town – were little more than the end point of someone else’s supply chain. Their value lay in the fact that they were convenient, being close to home. Web 1.0 enabled consumers to reach around these local retailers and source the products themselves. Unable to compete on price, quality or convenience, many local retailers collapsed (or are collapsing).

So while retail might be growing overall, some roles in the retail market are no longer sustainable. Typically this means firms that trade in easily transportable, durable goods, such as books, CDs, video games, clothing, jewellery and the like and offered little more than convenience shopping.

More recently the emergence of social media and smart phones (the information comes to us, rather than us going to the information) means that we no longer rely on brands or firms for the information that drives a buying decision. The tangible effect of this is a dramatic decrease in brand loyalty. Fast food chains have already seen this effect, as everyone from travellers to teens started using recommendation services (Urbanspoon, Yelp, etc.) rather than trusting the brand, and were heading to local bistros rather than the outline of some national or global chain.

This effect is causing consumer facing parts of the market to fragment. This is a second knife in the back for many retailers – such as department stores – as their “sell to everyone” model doesn’t work in a market that’s fragmenting into a range of niches. The firms that are successful in this space are those that use a range of media (face-to-face stores, pop-up stores, social media, mobile apps, web sites…) to build a relationship with the consumer, and/or which are focusing on niches. The balance of power has tipping into the hands of firms that are agile enough to address these niches, “sell to niche” rather than “sell to all”.

So, taking all that together, we can see that 90% of purchases are through physical stores is not surprising. The problem is that:

  1. retail sectors that are moving online will be seeing more the 10% of transaction leaving bricks-n-mortar (let’s assume 20%), which is enough to drive many firms out of business
  2. spend in many sectors is moving to the cheapest and the best, eliminating many local businesses and mid market brands
  3. mobile and social means that many niche firms are now successfully competing with larger firms, causing significant problems for the larger firms

While the top line number might seem quite benign, the terror for many firms is in the details.

Image source: Chris Talbot

The Shift Index in Slides

AU Shift Index External Overview (2014, C4tE)

I’ve taken the time to create a summary of the Shift Index as a handful of slides, and dropped the slides into SlideShare.

The question we asked ourselves when pulling the Shift Index together:

The world is changing faster than ever. However, we can only respond to and manage a change if we can measure and understand it. If we want to respond as a community, then we need to find a way to quantify the change. We need to ask ourselves whether the perceived change is real, and if it is, how we can capitalise on it.

is fairly straightforward, but the index is a sprawling beast.

The slides break this down into a few points:

  • Business is more intense.
  • The balance of power is changing
  • Adapt or die

and ties this back to the evidence from the Shift Index.