Jiva Technology

Why its time for a post-oil economy

There was a time when I thought that governments in general and government ministers in particular actually new what they were doing. The events of the past few years have firmly dispelled that notion. Its not surprising really, these are very complicated jobs with a lot of ambiguous information and politics just doesn’t really do complexity and shoes of grey.

When I ask friends about the most important things they think need to be addressed; those things rarely show up on the front page of the newspapers for urgent government action. Too often, they require tiny improvements over a long period of time; the benefits will accrue to the future and not to now – what sane politician would want to do that.

But there does seem to be one area where important area where everyday concerns can coincide with big politics and that’s climate change. People are looking for action; they’re looking to take action. We’ve lived in an oil based economy now for over 100 years, the job of building a new post-oil economy should be the job of everyone, not just the younger generations. In the US, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has championed the Green New Deal, a reference to the New Deal policies that lifted the US out of the Great Depression, but to me, this is something far simpler. We have the wealth and the expertise and the desire to build an entirely new economy that relies to a far lesser extent on fossil fuels. Ramez Nam’s piece on decarbonising America provides a great overview of the challenge we face in everything from farming to construction and from transport to public policy. This is not a partisan political issue, there is agreement across age groups and political persuasions that something has to be done and the time to do it is now. Sleep walking into catastrophe was never a good idea, but the recent school strike and Extinction Rebellion protests show just how strongly people feel about the issue.

At the moment, the talk is negative, about avoiding bad things, but the reality is that upbeat leadership towards a de-carbonised world is a good thing for everyone. Its positive, its good for the economy and its good for the one world that sustains the life we live. It will be fascinating to see how this unfolds, but its hard to believe that the necessary leadership is not going to emerge in the near future. Its not hard to imagine a conversation in twenty or thirty years time where people wonder how anyone thought it was a good idea to light a fire under the bonnet of car to provide motion. You did what?

Something we never think about.

Amongst all the excitement of developing and rolling out a new product and entering a market, the focus falls squarely on attracting early customers, making them as excited as you are about the product and adding features that will bring in the next wave of enthusiastic early adopters. It’s all about delighting the early advocates and generating the buzz required to build early momentum. As someone once said to me, the first 1,000 users are the hardest.

And it’s true … to a certain extent. Because those early days are hard, you need the energy and commitment to believe the product and market into existence. Caution and concern are not all that helpful. But an outstanding blog post by Sahil Lavingia reminded me of a problem that I see more and more. One that lurks over the horizon ready to trap the unwary.

During that early phase of product release and user traction, you pay very little attention to what happens when you’ve attracted all the users you’re going to attract for your product. What happens when you sign up the 1,501st customer in a core market of 1,501 users? Like a rocket that has insufficient fuel or stages to reach escape velocity, you continue for a while and then slowly start falling back to earth. Lavingia is refreshingly honest about his experience and he performs a service to fellow entrepreneurs in talking about a topic that, well, most entrepreneurs don’t talk about. Loss aversion kicks in, no one wants to let go and some very hard decisions have to be made. It reminds me of all those micro messaging services, like Pownce, that emerged in response to the launch of Twitter. Most gave up early without the traction needed to keep going, but in the back of the mind, there’s always the story of Slack or Paypal to keep you going. Billion dollar successes that rose from failing projects.

It’s something to think about when you’re starting your new project. Being crushingly honest about exactly who will see value in what you’re doing in a detailed way, rather than a vague and generalised fashion. Focusing on the value of how that values delivered helps size the market in an honest way. It’s possible to build decent, profitable companies in small markets. But not in micro markets. Best to know that before you start. Just another thing to consider, alongside technology execution, marketing strategy, funding, competition, recruitment. Who’d be an entrepreneur?

 

The scramble for a quality education

As education continues its journey from being a good thing in itself to being primarily viewed as the gateway to well paid employment, the scramble for entry to high quality institutions has intensified to the point where bribery and corruption has now become commonplace.

Perhaps its merely one step further in an arms race where parents pour money into camps, tutoring, books, websites and other educational resources. But somehow everyone agrees that the recent allegations of cheating and bribery to gain access to prestige US universities crosses a very important line. It’s not throwing resources at the problem of improving student performance; its accepting poor performance and getting prize anyway.

Parents are stressed and under pressure, worrying that their children will be consigned to the slow lane no matter their capabilities if they don’t get into the right school or the right college. Unsurprisingly, that stress is being transmitted to the kids themselves. The fight for places ends up as a fight being waged by 5 year olds, 7 year olds and 17 year olds.

We cannot allow this situation to continue. We need to find a more flexible approach to reduce the stress levels and frustration that have built up over the last ten years. We cannot allow the best resources to be cornered by those with the most money. And it’s not simply a question of fairness, its a question about economic performance in a knowledge-based economy and the ability to solve the big problems in our societies.

Flexibility inevitably needs to thoughts about technology. It simply has to be the case that with intelligent application, technology can make a major impact on the availability and quality of teaching for people at all ages, not just at school and university. So far, we’ve been making baby steps in that direction. Perhaps it’s time to turn them into giant strides.

On climate protests and school strikes

The school strikes and climate protests in the past ten days have kicked off predictable responses from the media and commentators; ranging from ‘good on ya’ to ‘go back to school’.¬†Originating with a single Swedish school girl, what cannot be denied is that her protest struck a chord and has spread in meme worthy fashion across age groups, geographic boundaries, political and social classes. A conversation has been started, so what should the response be? Close it down or continue in a reasoned way?

A friend who teaches describes it as a classic teachable moment. It’s possible that the protest is a fad, but I suspect not. I think there is a genuine concern (as there should be) that insufficient action from the ‘grown ups’ will leave our planet as a barely lovable remnant of its former self. The balance of evidence overwhelmingly supports the existence of man made climate and in any case, who wants to take the risk?

It seems to me that a proper response is first of all to take the protest seriously, to understand the concerns and use it as a starting point in a much larger dialogue; whether this happens in schools or in wider society. It provides a platform to discuss what steps have been taken so far, not just in a political sphere, but by engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs. It provides a perfect opportunity to talk about the challenges that will be inevitably faced by 15-20 year olds, but also the role they’ll play in providing a solution. Todays’ twenty year old will be 50 by the time the real extent of the damage begins to unfold. We’ll need the best minds with the best skills to mitigate the damage that’s been done.

To my mind, the worst possible thing would be to close down the debate. There’s a reasonable chance that a lot of the current protesters won’t stay engaged in the topic, but that’s bad thing, not a good thing. Talking about the ideas and technology that is already in development, from electric car ‘skateboards‘ to carbon capture, plants¬†that return carbon to the soil, high altitude kites that generate electricity; this is an amazing opportunity to fire young minds with an optimistic outlook on the future, not one filled with doom and gloom. And the ideas are not just limited to the field of technology and science. In the US, proponents of a Green New Deal are making their voices heard and young politicians like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are a signal that times are changing.

There is an energy and enthusiasm around these protests that needs to be harnessed in a productive way; channelled into something that can live beyond a single day of protest into real action and the possibility of positive change.

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