Sunday, 22 July 2007

Fairtrade And The Future

Two strands of the future came together for me this week. On Monday, the BBC business programme ‘Working Lunch’ carried a feature on Divine Chocolate (see news clip). Divine Chocolate is an interesting company. It is a chocolate manufacturer, but with a strong corporate ethos of fairtrade. Not only does it purchase the cocoa from Ghana for a price above the market rate, it also has helped to develop the cocoa producers into a collective body, and gives 45% of its profits to social projects within the producing villages. On the company web site (see site), it states that just under half of the company has been given to the producers.

On Tuesday, I attended a session in London on the ‘Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland’, co-hosted by the NCVO (see site) and Carnegie UK (see site), which provided the second strand of the future. It was interesting to meet and listen to a number of people - who are not based in mainstream corporate or governmental bodies – talk about their hopes and aspirations for the future of their work. I will put a fuller review of the day on our Blog later this year, but for now, it is enough to say that the day was quite stimulating in a number of areas. The two futures strands came together in the form of describing the Social Enterprise.

As we move away from Hierarchy World (the economics of scarcity) and towards Network World (the economics of abundance), an interesting paradox is emerging. If you are in the Network World, you create more value for your company by giving it away. Value is enhanced through sharing and co-operation. This is why I always feel uneasy about those Information Age companies who are reluctant to share and co-operate. A good part of the value in Divine Chocolate is because it has given away part of itself.

Why should that be? The chocolate sold by Divine is not a commodity. It is an experience. Not only do the customers buy the chocolate, they also buy the story behind the chocolate. It makes them feel good to eat chocolate and to know that they are contributing to global development in doing so. The experience of Divine Chocolate is an action firmly rooted in the Dream Society, where we no longer buy goods but the stories behind those goods. The act of philanthropy has created the added value within Divine. This is the upside to living in an age of spin.

Does the social enterprise need new forms of corporate ownership? According to the press release issued by Divine on the declaration of the first Divine Dividend (see release), the existing corporate structures work just fine. What is needed more is a willingness to share and co-operate. If, in the West, we do not share and co-operate more, what sort of future can we expect for ourselves?

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Drawing Boundaries On Conservation

This week at the Time Bandits we looked at Drawing Boundaries on Conservation. Overall the article is a good idea. The Time Bandits think that some animals that we should be watching out for are cod, red squirrels, hedgehogs, stag beetles, eels and jelly fish. Mainly because there are so many of them being killed each year but not many people do much to help save them. The Time Bandits thought that the main ways to help cod is by not eating them and most of the other animals by leaving food out for them so they don't starve.

The article has a number of problems that the animals would face and the Time Bandits thought that the problem of paper parks is the worst because if parks are not marked down then people will keep going on and chopping down the trees, littering the areas and generally ruining the areas.

The Time Bandits were really mixed when I asked them if we should have more zoos because some thought that zoos preserve the animals, educates the people and gives people jobs. But on the other have some Time Bandits thought that the animals are in bad conditions, not given enough roaming space for it to be natural for the animals and the zoos are exploiting animals for money. The Time Bandits came to a decision that zoos are only OK when the animals have less than 100 in the wild but other than that the animals are being exploited.

I asked the Time Bandits, what animal if it became extinct would have the largest impact on the ecosystem? A Time Bandit made a really good answer by saying humans would have the largest impact as the world would change so dramatically. What do you think?

Friday, 13 July 2007

Living Without The Dudes In Suits.

An interesting news item caught my attention this week. I saw a piece on a lunch-time BBC news bulletin about a local group (Mesh 29 – see website) who have charted without a record company, a record deal, a distribution deal, or even producing anything more tangible than an internet link (see news feature). I found this to be an interesting example of disintermediation (cutting out the middle) that the internet has allowed. We might view it as the hollowed out organisation, or evidence of a flatter earth, or even an act in the long tail, but I see it just as an example of consumers getting much closer to producers.

Although the technology has allowed the spread of disintermediation, the growth of global markets has given the volume needed to cater for minority tastes. I often wonder if disintermediation – doing away with all of the middlemen (and women) – is an important corollary to globalisation. Could we have the one without the other?

Globalisation without disintermediation would represent the world of corporate hierarchies, where one mass unit would interact with another. This is the nightmare world of Orwell’s 1984, of Mussolini’s dream of a Fascist State. Equally, disintermediation without globalisation would be rather anarchic – a world of broken promises. In many respects the world was a bit like this during the dot-com boom of 2000 – orders made and taken, but with very serious problems in fulfilment. It is interesting to reflect on how far we have come in seven years.

This has some resonance for the future. There is nothing to suggest that the process of disintermediation has abated. Indeed, we speculate that part of the crisis in the retail end of the financial services industry is that people simply want to stay much closer to their savings. Additionally, despite the setbacks in the Middle East, the world is still adding connections rather than disconnecting them. If so, the future trend would be for a continuation of companies needing to be much closer to their customers.

Perhaps we all, eventually, will be represented by the switchboard business model where every consumer talks directly to every producer?

Friday, 6 July 2007

The Architecture Of Globalisation

Much has been written about Globalisation. It usually tends to focus on the really sexy aspects of the process – trade flows from exotic places, hot money sloshing around the world, gizmos and gadgets that will revolutionise the way in which we live, and so on. And yet, it is the really mundane things in life that are the more appropriate measure of the process of Globalisation.

A story this week brought it home to me. I dislike air travel very much. I don’t like airports – they are far too soulless for me. I don’t like the insincere veneer of customer care offered by airlines. I don’t like being herded around from one place to another. And I really dislike being interrogated by immigration officials who, if they had paid more attention at school, would be qualified to flip burgers. Wherever possible, I prefer an alternative form of transport.

My preferred method of travel is the train. It is relatively green, relatively relaxed, and a more enjoyable way of travelling long distances. The problem is that, in Europe, at least, the rail system is so fragmented. For example, in booking a ticket to the European Futurists Conference in Lucerne, the system will force me to buy a ticket from Ipswich to London, from London to Paris, and from Paris to Lucerne.

I welcomed with joy the news this week that a number of European train companies are to pool their ticketing arrangements (see story). Apparently, this is an attempt for the train companies to compete directly with the airlines. It is certainly the case that Ipswich to Amsterdam, via the ferry crossing, is quicker by train than by plane, if we add into the mix the travel to the airport and the hanging around in the airport terminals. At £50 return, it is also cheaper to travel by train.

This news is of great significance to our model of globalisation, as it provides an example of how the architecture of globalisation is being built. In our view, globalisation is all about the integration and the harmonisation of the world economy, global society, and the global political sphere. There is still some way to go, but the vision of the end state of globalisation is starting to take shape. Companies such as the rail companies (an interesting mix of public sector, private sector, and a hybrid group) are finding that the benefits of collaboration far outweigh the benefits of competition. This is the force of globalisation that is turning the world upside down.

The authorities in China and India are presently engaged in building a rail link across the Himalayas so that Beijing will link, by rail, to Mumbai. There is a great amount of geopolitical significance to that project – it cuts out the maritime choke point in the Straights of Malacca – but it will have quite some commercial significance as well. From my perspective, it means that I will be able to travel by train from Ipswich to Cologne, from Cologne to Warsaw, from Warsaw to Moscow, from Moscow to Vladivostok, from Vladivostok to Beijing, and from Beijing to Mumbai. And back again.

How about that for a connected world? I guess that you all now know what to buy me for Christmas!

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The Wellbeing Of Nations

After every Time Bandit had finished reading the article I asked them are you surprised that Britain is so low down on the worlds happiness scale, 41 out of 178?

All of the Time Bandits replied by saying no. I asked them why and they answered by saying that there are so many depressed people in Britain and very few of them are getting help. When it comes to children and being at school many Time Bandits thought it was no surprise that people are depressed. To do well in life you need to be poplar, do well in school and be prepared to ruin your life i.e smoking, drugs and sex. If a child doesn’t fit into any of those categories then the chances are that person will be unhappy.

Unfortunately one would hope that you could forget about it in class but it seems not as teachers turn a blind eye on bullying, pile you with homework and scare you about “important” exams.

The Time Bandits came up with some ways of trying to make Britain happier. Some of which were taking away crime, poverty and the majority of depression. Stop doing pointless things like wars and mainly stop having rulers who are just in it for themselves.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Timeline Technology

This week at the Time Bandits we looked at Timeline Technology.

Overall there were very mixed views as some thought that it was a great idea but unlikely to happen whereas others thought it was wrong in many ways. The most changed subject, the Time Bandits thought, were Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Computing and Communicating. On the other side the Time Bandits thought that the least changed were Security, Biotechnology and Environment and Resources. The overall view I was getting from the Time Bandits was that we don’t need any of this and will simply end up more screwed up.

The Time Bandits thought that the hardest thing to make would have to be the robots outnumbering all the armies, also that could be quite dangerous. But the easiest thing to make is new forms of animals simply because if you breed different animals you will get new forms of animals anyway.

Going into more detail on certain subjects, the Time Bandits kept coming back to the idea of a full direct link which can seem good but will probably end up very bad. It could easily end up helping child perverts as they could lead a child into an alleyway without their parents knowing. On a better note, electronic pets would be quite good as they can be a lot easier to look after than normal pets.

Something that should never happen, the Time Bandits thought, was thought recognition as if you think of anything and it happens then teenage pregnancies could go up, death rates could go up and many other bad things could start happening. If all this does happen, a Time Bandits pointed out, would we not end up living in a virtual world. And people may give anything to make and have these things but why would you want to give up your humanity to become just another animated person?

Monday, 2 July 2007

Here Comes the Rain Again!

It has rained this week. You might feel that there is nothing unusual in that – Britain is known for its rain. It has, however, rained this week. We have been experiencing unduly heavy rain storms that have quite disrupted the northern parts of England (see story). With the rain came flooding and destruction (see story). And then it rained again (see story). There is much of the future wrapped up in this sequence of events.

First and foremost, there is the question of dramatic climate change. We believe that opinion on climate change has shifted slightly over recent months. In our view, it now seems to be taken as a given that climate change will occur, and the discussion has moved on to what we need to do about it. Much of the discussion has been around what to do in the long term – ways of adjusting our carbon footprint. Despite this, there is also the much nearer term to think about.

The tale of Ulley Reservoir may be a portent of things to come. This reservoir became so full of water that the fabric of the dam that retained the water started to give way. There was so much water in the reservoir that the engineering tolerance built into the dam was being exceeded. (See story). As we saw this story unfold, we wondered just how much reconstruction of the infrastructure would be needed to cope with dramatic climate change. In the last week, roads and bridges were washed away because their engineering tolerance had been exceeded.

If we, in the UK, are to preserve our infrastructure, then it seems to us that we are on the verge of a fairly major construction boom, as much of our infrastructure needs to be reinforced, if not replaced. This begs the question of how such a construction programme would be financed. It also begs the question of the supply of the building resources (the global market in building materials is still very tight), the supply of the human resource to do the work (we don’t have enough engineers in the UK, can we import them or train them ourselves?), and the supply of the management know-how for such a reconstruction.

We suspect that, very slowly and immeasurably, climate change is changing the nature of the insurance industry. Those poor souls flooded out in South Yorkshire will now be unable to obtain household insurance, if they were able to in the first instance. The question of how to compensate those who are victims of natural disasters – particularly if their plight is the result of public policy – is a political issue that may well climb the agenda in the next few years.

There was some upside to the week. When we compare the floods of South Yorkshire with the flooding of New Orleans a number of key differences are striking. It is interesting how easily the public services have been able to retain control of the situation. There has not been a repeat in South Yorkshire of the mayhem that was associated with the flooding of New Orleans. If anything, according to our correspondents in the area, the recent flooding has kindled what, in the UK, we call the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ – where personal differences are laid aside in order to resolve the emergency facing a community, where everyone accepts the authority of the rescue services, and where all agencies pull together for the public good. This has assisted recovery efforts greatly.

It is important in future terms, as both New Orleans and South Yorkshire provide different, but empirical, models of how a community can react within a disaster scenario. South Yorkshire has demonstrated that public disorder is not inevitable after a disaster, that emergency services can co-ordinate to deliver effective relief, and that engaging the local community aids rather than hinders the recovery operations. Thomas Barnett was not entirely right – the guns don’t always come out after the third day.