Tech Toys When Simple Will Do – $100,000 V $500

Give me $500 and I will fix the problem

 

On Monday there was a story here in Australia about traffic lights being installed in the pavement to reduce the risk of pedestrians crossing the road against the lights because they were looking down at their mobile phone screens: (Lights installed in Melbourne footpath to help distracted pedestrians cross safely)

pedstrians on phones abc traffic lights

source: ABC

Apart from the chorus of responses that people who were hit by cars when crossing against the light while looking at their phones is Darwinian evolution in action what struck me was the insane cost at $100,000 for one intersection. Now some of that cost is for the trial process but it would be enormously expensive to role out across the city. I am always reminded of the lyrics of 21st Century Digital Boy when I see this sort of stuff happening:

‘Cause I’m a twenty-first century digital boy
I don’t know how to live but I got a lot of toys

Not because of the phones but that we look at technology solutions when simple ones will do. Now some will argue that we should not be arguing about costs when lives are at risk but the hard truth is that if we spend money on this sort of thing then money is not available to spend on other things which may more effectively save lives.

Surely the simple solution here is to paint the approaches to the intersection a bright neon yellow so people who are looking down at know they are approaching an intersection and look up at the traffic lights, which are already there! This works for bikes on bike paths approaching risk areas. I have just come back from the World Science Fair in Brisbane where we walked in to South Bank from Milton each day and the bike paths/walking areas are great:

Bikeway_&_footpath_along_Brisbane_River_in_Milton,_Qld_07

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This issue is symptomatic of a wider problem across the community. As a futurist I talk to lots of people about technology, its impacts, and its capacity to change the way we live and work. However my constant refrain is if you lead a strategy with “shiny new toy syndrome” you will almost certainly fail.

Give me $100,000 and I will fix every intersection in the CBD with a paintbrush and a can of paint

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Musings on the future of US politics

As a futurist and two time failed political candidate for party pre-selection in Australia I am still fascinated by politics and have always had a strong interest in American politics.

Having read several interesting pieces on the current situation in the USA I have been thinking about the possible future scenarios we might see in the USA. As a basis for understanding these possibilities better I recommend you read Rules for a constitutional crisis by Lawrence Lessig and In this case, resistance is futile by Simon Wardley.

Lawrence Lessig calmly and clinically argues that the rule of law will assert itself and that the Congress and the Senate should do their job. That job is country before party. The premise is very well argued and if the rule of law does not assert itself then there are major constitutional problems to face. I argue below that more is needed.

Simon Wardley argues cogently and persuasively that Trump should be allowed to do what he promised to do to the American people but other things should be resisted. The argument rests on a view that Trump wants strong resistance for political reasons. If the situation in the USA worsens then he can point to people not allowing him to carry out his plans and call for more support from the people to allow him more power. If things in America improve despite everything then he will take credit (as every politician in power always has regardless of cause). Another facet of this view is Yonatan Zunger and his description of resistance fatigue. This essentially is that a master political strategy is being run by Trump and Bannon et al that is looking to exhaust the capacity of the people to resist by throwing out red Herrings until the general population is sick of the protests. While I think the arguments are well thought through the political reality of people mostly sitting back and waiting for 4 years seems very unlikely.

So lets look at some scenarios  with a HT to Jim Dator and his four scenario story structure). The scenarios are limited to the political situation but obviously can form the basis for effects on the rest of society and the world. The scenarios are not very detailed in order to fit them into  a reasonable post length but I would welcome input and comments to flesh them out:

Stability/Discipline

This is really the Lessig story and the view that the strength of the institutions of the US political system which were designed to bring stability.

The USA system is designed to limit the power of any one of the Executive, Legislative, or Judicial branches of the government.

Generally these act as shock absorbers although Presidential nominations to the Supreme Court with a compliant legislative branch can change the overall flavour significantly.

The story here would really be one of a long grind of tempering of Presidential actions by the Congress and Senate, and multiple court actions at a Federal and State Level.

This would slow any significant change, remove the excesses and provide time for the rest of the world to adapt. Assuming that there are not significant populist successes in other places such as France which cause rolling change.

This would lead to the next Presidential election being more of a conventional battle between Trump and a new candidate from the Democrats.

While this may create political stability of a sort it is hard to imagine it being good for the USA overall

Transformation

This is essentially a story of significant political change and is premised on a few basic statements (not of fact of course):

  • That the changes that are happening with the Trump Presidency mark the start of a great re-awakening of the political involvement of the centre/left of the American people. Examples such as the current protests and the significant raising of money by the ACLU (Donations to A.C.L.U. and Other Organizations Surge After Trump’s Order) in recent days support this possibility.
  • That political pressure of the sort that has shown success for the Tea Party in America puts pressure on members of Congress and the Senate. We have seen Eric Cantor unseated by an insurgent tea party candidate selection process. Can the same happen from the sort of resistance and political commentary we are seeing now? This requires far more discipline and organisation than what is happening right now and would have to be focused on the mid-term elections (where all 435 Congress Members, 1/3 of the Senators and 36 State governors are up for election).
  • A new leader emerges from the centre left of politics for the public outrage and political operations to coalesce around ( My pick would be Elizabeth Warren but I do not know enough about the next layer of leaders to be adamant about that).
  • A new leader emerges from the Republican side of politics to split the support that currently underpins Trump.

Nothing concentrates the political mind more than the possibility of losing an election. The mid terms are some way off, but if significant numbers of politicians are frightened of either not being selected to run again or not being elected then political opposition to the extremes of the Trump Presidency will grow.

In the USA this is complicated by the political gerrymandering of the seats ( which has meant the Tea Party concentrated on political candidate selection rather than elections) and the issues of levels of voter turnout in a voluntary voting system. This means that it is more difficult to get changes in representation in seats and that hot button issues that increase voter turnout can have a significant effect.

If we extend the scenario to the next Presidential election then it is possible to see a scenario where there is a four way competition for the Presidency:

  • A new Democrat leader
  • Trump but not with the Republican nomination
  • A new Republican leader
  • A popular independent – possibly being far more influential than ever before

An even greater departure from politics as normal would be the creation of  a new political party of the centre.

Side Note: Politicians of all stripes have always used “the enemy” to galvanise support. The picture I have briefly described above needs more – it needs a cogent story of action and policy, not just opposition. It also needs to bring large swathes of the Trump supporters on board , either to new Republican leadership or to the Centre/Left. As Lessig has pointed out the vast majority of the Trump voters are not evil and there are significant and legitimate claims and concerns that they have which need to be addressed. Not the least of these is the income and outcome disparities that exist.

Transformation Counter Scenario

If the Centre Left of American politics creates significant resistance to the Trump Presidency but fails to create a disciplined political operation on the ground we could see almost the opposite of the scenario above:

  • In reaction Trump supporters and the Tea Party put more pressure on sitting members of Congress and the Senate to not oppose the actions of the President by threatening to pile into the selection processes of the Republican Party. Possibly supported by people like the Koch brothers who have been running all sorts of polical activity over the last decade.
  • The economic situation of the USA appears to worsen through a range of factors, one of which may be change in trade and political allegiances structured around more isolationist policies and the desire of China to play a larger role in World affairs.
  • This galvanises Trump supporters even further as they are convinced the limits that are being placed on the President are the cause of these problems.
  • From both the selection processes and the mid term election the Congress and the Senate become more pro Trump.

Collapse

It is a truism in futures work that people commonly find it easier to find ways that disaster can occur than any other type of scenario. This situation is no different. Disaster politically could occur with:

  • Impeachment of President Trump due to multiple causes. Examples include findings of collusion with the Russians in the election campaign, hardening of evidence in the Steele dossier from multiple investigations or breaching the emoluments rules through all sorts of way through the Trump businesses due to his lack of willingness to divest.
  • Mounting debt levels if tax cuts are delivered, significantly cutting revenue (Budget office sees small deficit dip in 2017, then $9.4 trillion in 10 years). Market panics on debt problems could trigger a political crisis that Trump is unable to address.
  • Trade wars erupt with China and Mexico , causing rising reduced US growth and rising prices and cost of living squeezes on the very people that voted Trump in in the first place
  • An actual major war (China military official: War with US under Donald Trump ‘becoming practical reality’).

All of these possibilities and others can cause significant political upheaval. I think that in most people’s minds this can result in politics going back to “normal”. I would not be too sure. Impeachment would lead to a Pence Presidency, someone who most people do not know at all. There is also a real risk that people are too focused on sorting out the political structures and ignore the causes that created the issues in the first place. A political response that does not address the legitimate concerns of huge numbers of the American electorate will lead to rolling political crises.

Growth

  • Despite the current turmoil Trump manages to get most of his own way.
  • Tax cuts to the wealthy and infrastructure spending stimulate the economy causing an increase in GDP.
  • Re-negotiations of trade arrangements benefit the USA

The Trump way of doing politics is seen as the new way and a new breed of politician rises up to take advantage of the changes.

Twenty years of Billionaire Presidents or Billionaire backed Presidents ensue.

Australia

As I am an Australian (although I was born in England) it could be argued that these scenarios (and the many more that could be constructed)  are a bit irrelevant to me and the community in which I live. I would argue that both thinking about them and their implications is vital to us because of several key issues:

  • America is still a major economic powerhouse and what they do affects the whole world.
  • We are caught between a long and strong alliance with the USA and a trading and economic dependence on Asia, and China in particular. Changes in the political balance between China and the USA affect us more than most countries in the world.
  • We have our own populist political person in Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party as well as some fringe right wing elements. While to date they have been pretty chaotic and disorganised (and I would argue inherently so), the changes in the USA and Europe could both embolden them and give them access to people, tools and money to pursue their aims. What is about to happen in the USA could be played out here in the future so thinking deeply about them is well worthwhile.

One More Thing

Finally I think it is worth looking at the worldview of one of the main protagonists Steve Bannon. As a futurist I am constantly talking to people about how the mental models they use to construct their view of the world determine how they see strategy. In the link below Steve Bannon shows that he has a very particular worldview as stated in his own words rather than being interpreted by someone else . His views may significantly shape US policy in the next few years and therefore understanding them is important when thinking about the future. I personally find that a very scary thought but watch the video and read the transcript and come to your own view:

This Is How Steve Bannon Sees The Entire World

The soon-to-be White House chief strategist laid out a global vision in a rare 2014 talk where he said racism in the far right gets “washed out” and called Vladimir Putin a kleptocrat. He also outlined the view that we are at the early stages of a global war with Islam

Paul Higgins

More Than 300 Sharks In Australia Are Now On Twitter – Is it Bad Public Policy?

Over at NPR there is a story:

More Than 300 Sharks In Australia Are Now On Twitter

(seen via Estelle Mayer)

A shark warning is displayed near Gracetown, Western Australia, in November. An Australian man was killed by a shark near the area that month, sparking a catch-and-kill order.

It commences:

“Sharks in Western Australia are now tweeting out where they are — in a way.

Government researchers have tagged 338 sharks with acoustic transmitters that monitor where the animals are. When a tagged shark is about half a mile away from a beach, it triggers a computer alert, which tweets out a message on the Surf Life Saving Western Australia Twitter feed. The tweet notes the shark’s size, breed and approximate location.

Since 2011, Australia has had more fatal shark attacks than any other country; there have been six over the past two years — the most recent in November.

The tagging system alerts beach goers far quicker than traditional warnings, says Chris Peck, operations manager of Surf Life Saving Western Australia. “Now it’s instant information,” he tells Sky News, “and really people don’t have an excuse to say we’re not getting the information. It’s about whether you are searching for it and finding it.”

This is sort of an interesting use of technology but is it good public policy and use of resources? The article quotes that 6 people have died here in Australia from shark attacks since 2011 and certainly when they occur they are tragedies for the families involved and get a lot of public coverage.

However to put this in context almost 4,000 people died on our roads from 2011 to 2013 (statistics from BITRE and the ABC). With the beach crazy culture we have I would therefore think that the risk of driving to the beach is higher than being attacked by sharks by multiple factors.

There is something primal about the the thought of being attacked by a shark and I have certainly had those feelings while surfing or ocean swimming for triathlon training. There is also something about the thought that when we get behind the wheel that we are in control as compared to sitting in a plane or being attacked in the water.

The reality is that when we enter the domain of the shark we hand ourselves over to the elements and we live in a modern controlled world where that is unusual for billions of people in cities. However we shouldn’t allow those factors to skew our view of where money should be spent to reduce loss or suffering. If we want to limit public spending by reducing tax takes and minimising our own payments as much as possible we need resources spent in the best possible way, not driven by our emotional biases.

The story of our road toll here in Australia is a great one of steady reductions with a 29% reduction from 2003 to 2012 when looked at from a fatalities/100,000 population basis. I am not an expert on these issues but I find it hard to believe that funds spent on furthering this progress would be less well spent than tagging sharks and getting them to tweet. It may be that the notification part is a small amount of a project for other reasons and therefore the spend is justified but the debate should be had.

Far too much of our public policy is driven by emotion rather than careful analysis. A case in point is climate change policy. I am a strong believer in climate change and man’s contribution to it. That also means we have to marshal our resources and spend them wisely. However there have been some crazy policies here in Australia that have been middle class welfare rather than effective climate change policies (the Productivity Commission has detailed some of these).

The effective use of foresight requires the careful analysis of policies and their possible effects in the real world and then making the hard choices. That does not mean that it is all about logic and analysis because human beings and communities do not live by logic. It does mean that logic and critical thought has to play a central part.

I will be scared of sharks when I enter the ocean, I just don’t want significant amounts of public money spent on reducing the risk or my fears. We have greater challenges.

Paul Higgins

The Looming Crisis for Crowdfunding – Why it is a Good Thing

Crowdfunding, where you put up an idea for a project and ask people from all over the world to back it with a pledge from their credit card is all the rage at the moment but it will experience a disaster in the near future. That disaster will not kill the value of the system but it will cause a re-organisation and re-evaluation of value.

As an example of the system I have backed a crowd funded project here in Melbourne for the Scanbox (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/limemouse/scanbox-turn-your-smartphone-into-a-portable-scann) which is a portable box that folds down flat when you travel and stands up with small magnets when you set it up. You can place your phone on the top and it acts as a stable platform for taking photographs of receipts and documents up to A4 size. While you can already do that with your phone in your hands the photos can tend to be a bit blurred which causes problems with optical recognition systems and search. The project was designed by Lime Mouse (http://www.limemouse.com/) an app developer in Melbourne. They asked for $12,500 but raised $189,499. I have been giving Scanboxes away in my conference presentations and workshops for the last 6 weeks or so as a “prize from the future” and they have been so popular that I had to increase my level of backing to give more away.

In practice what happens is that people back a particular project and receive a reward related to the level of funding they have committed. This reward may be in product in the case of a music album or a new product, or it may be in recognition for community or environmental projects. This means that beyond raising money it is a great system for testing markets and support for ideas. If lots and lots of people love your idea and commit to taking product from you then you have tested the market in the best possible way – actual buying commitment rather than focus groups and market research questions.

Until recently you could not raise share capital on these systems here in Australia you can in Europe and the recent JOBS act in the USA is allowing that to occur in limited and controlled ways and that change is likely to spread. The system is going mainstream with the Australia Council for the Arts running a crowdfunding road show in July and August to show people how to use the system. (http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/events/2012/crowdfunding-seminars)

There has been huge growth in the last 6 months alone. I presented on crowdfunding as an option for the Daimler Financial Services Asia Pacific leadership team for financing car sharing systems in February. At that time the largest crowdfunding site in the world Kickstarter had not had a single project that had raised $1 million. By the middle of June there were 7 projects that had raised over $1 million, including musician Amanda Palmer who raised $1,192,793 for a new album, book and music tour, and Pebble which raised $10,266,845 for an e-paper watch that connects to your smartphone. The Economist reported in June that research firm Massolution was forecasting US$2.8 billion will be raised this year compared to US$530 million in 2009 (see chart).

 

 

Via: http://www.economist.com/node/21556973

In addition to market testing and fundraising the crowdfunding system is also changing the way that business models work. It is allowing musicians like Amanda Palmer to go their own way, outside of the standard music industry structures. Other musicians are using it to plan tours by committing to go to places that promoters would otherwise not even look at. In the future I can see venture capital firms that have high levels of trust and high profiles allowing their initial backing of projects and companies to then be used to influence people to back that company. That would increase the power of the entrepreneurs along with the influence of the best venture capitalists.

But there is a dark cloud among all this silver lining. There will almost certainly be a major financial or project scandal on one of the major crowdfunding sites in the near future. Those of you who have read my other articles will know that I don’t really believe in forecasting, so you may be asking yourself why I am making this prediction. The reason is the only sure fire way I know how to predict things is by looking at long standing human behaviour. If you had asked me 20 years ago what would dominate large sections of the internet I would have responded with gossip, gambling, pornography, and crime because humans have been carrying out those activities for thousands of years and would continue to do so on a new platform. People have been having wild and crazy ideas and scamming people for thousands of years, therefore it is highly likely to happen in a crowdfunding situation. What will happen is that an idea that is being promoted will not come into reality and therefore people will not receive the product they were promised, or someone will run off with a bucket load of money. That will generate huge publicity.

That disaster will re-shape how crowdfunding works with trust being a key determinant of success. The perceived increase in levels of risk will mean that funding will flow more towards those people with a strong track record, or with some sort of other validation from a trusted individual or organisation who would not risk their reputation or brand in a problematic venture. Over time this will strengthen crowd funding, and personally I would like to put my trust and money in the hands of an open and transparent system like crowdfunding than in the hands of bankers and traders given their track record in the last few years.