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The End of a (Virtual) Way of Life

Posted By Administration, Monday, May 21, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his fifth article written for the program. In it, he explores the virtual spaces where we currently base our economy.

10,000 years ago, our economies were largely mobile and borderless. We roamed, we hunted, we foraged. One of the earliest clashes of economic models was when land ownership and borders, spurred on by the Agricultural Revolution, disrupted the nomadic lives of a decreasing proportion of the population. From the earliest evolutionary days of humanity until now, hunting and gathering was the dominant societal and economic model for approximately 90% of our history. Today, nomadic peoples number around 40 million.

Parallels between nomadic hunter-gatherer societies and contemporary, Generation X knowledge workers were made in the late 90’s. But these observations were more often than not quirky, meant to emphasize a “new” way of working. Not to mention participate in a bit of generational bashing that has not evolved a whole lot now that it is being applied to millennials.

Foraging societies are typically characterized as not placing value on fixed resources (i.e. land), are collective, typically non-hierarchical societies with immediate-return economies. They derive benefits from their activities immediately, not in a delayed-return economy where benefits from activities occur over a period of time and are often associated with property rights of some sort.

Virtual foraging is such an innate activity that we do not even consider it as such – no different than our nomadic ancestors. We “search” the web for what we are looking for, we hunt, and we roam across countries and worlds. While traditionally this has meant searching for food, what real difference is there between finding food and finding information that can be utilized in such a way as to monetize that information and purchase food? Virtual foraging and knowledge work is not typically an immediate-return economic environment, but the other characteristics of a foraging society are evident in the form of non-hierarchical groups without fixed resources, exploring open spaces.

Much has been written about censorship and net neutrality. There is still a very strong assumption that the virtual world is an open, borderless world. But as we increasingly migrate – and colonize – virtual spaces, will this continue? The bulk of the conversation has been at the micro level. We typically point to Big Brother-type influencers. Nefarious government organizations monitoring and censoring us, or corporations manipulating us. The issue is never us – it’s someone else. At the macro level, we see echoes of our old ways of living and working. Vast open plains, forests, and oceans. A limitless world for us to wander and forage within. And the relatively brisk pace at which we have begun to colonize, divide, and weaponize this space.

We have an unnerving ability to replicate our collective behaviors across time and space. It took thousands of years to erect barriers and borders on earth, and less than 20 years to begin the process in the virtual world. This is our capitalist model in its truest form: find or create space, break it up into pieces, monetize those pieces, move on. Capitalist free “safe spaces” have been created, but the walls erected around them, like all walls, don’t last for long. That capitalism is a relatively recent phenomenon in human existence is both reassuring and frightening.

What else is left? Creating or finding more space. Making the intangible tangible. Taking the unreal and making it real. If it is unmonetized, monetize it. When the first group of settlers head for Mars, it should not surprise anyone if one of those settlers has already incorporated a new business. “Martian Fencing Ltd.” You know, just in case.

© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  economics  technology  virtual reality 

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Nationalism: The Byproduct of the Nation-State

Posted By Administration, Friday, May 11, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

David Roselle‘s third post in our Emerging Fellows program concerns the changing face of the nation-state. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

How do nations produce a society that will develop a shared sense of identity around a fictive narrative of citizenship? This is, and has been, the challenge for the nation-state. Leaders of nation-states deploy nation-building strategies to create unity by spreading nationalist consciousness to form a social order. This may mean relying on linguistic tools like symbols, mottos, or anthems to create an identity for the nation. These tools are reinforced through both the mundane of daily life — schools, newspapers, pop culture — and through the extreme of war and hardships.

Nation-building is challenging, however, in postcolonial nation-states or countries with high-ethnic fractionalization. High-ethnic fractionalization means a nation-state’s demographics are comprised of societies with different ethnicities, languages or religions. This is true for many, postcolonial nations in Africa (Tanzania .953, DRC .933) and Southeast Asia (Indonesia .766) whose borders were drawn without regard to local knowledge. Denmark (.128) and South Korea (.004), on the other hand, have low level of fractionalization. The quoted numbers speak to the probability that two people picked at random will not share the same ethnicity. For example, a score of .953 implies a 95.3% likelihood that two, random, Tanzanians will not share the same ethnicity – Tanzania has over 120 distinct ethnicities.

Nationalism forms as a byproduct of the nation-state’s architecture. The modern ideology has become an effective vehicle for nation-building. Scholars identify two forms of nationalism: liberal (or civic) nationalism in which collective bonds are formed through shared values of non-xenophobic tolerance and liberty; and ethnic nationalism in which collective bonds are formed through shared ethnicity, language and territory. One bond is by choice (liberal) while the other is congenital (ethnic).

Understanding these two forms of nationalism is essential to make sense of current and future geopolitics. France and the United States are credited with forming the modern, liberal nation-state through their revolutions against monarchies centuries ago. However, in this last presidential election, both countries experienced a strong pull towards ethnic nationalism where it nearly won out in France – with National Front Marine Le Pen’s de-demonization campaign to soften her father’s nationalist ideology – and where it did win in the United States. President Donald Trump used the slogan “Make America Great Again,” to activate ethnic-nationalist populism to appeal to the majority despite the US’ high-ethnic fractionalization. President Trump ostensibly sought to undermine liberal nationalism by uniting anti-globalist, ethnic nationalists to scapegoat the “other”, which has subsequently ostracized Muslims, African-Americans and Central American immigrants.

The future of the nation-state must reconcile with nationalism while understanding the nature of mass migration and globalization. While certain nation-states thrive, many do not. Syria, Yemen and Nicaragua continue to see their populations disperse across boundaries for survival. This large-scale migration caused by religious wars, political corruption and organized crime triggers the defensiveness in nationalist thinking to reject and assign migrants as ‘others’.

As globalization matures, we must wonder how strengthening transnational, economic network flows between global, urban centers will trigger nationalist reactions as new relationships transcend citizenship. Moreover, nation-states must anticipate for the latent disruption posed by climate migration. This leaves unanswered: how will nationalism react to the next surge of human flow?


© David Roselle 2018

Tags:  economics  nations  politics 

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Thank You for Eating

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Monica Porteanu has written her fourth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, she explores food security amid massive population growth. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Unless a major pandemic, war, or other disaster happens, the world population is projected to grow from about 7.5 billion today to a number in the range of 10 billion by 2050.

How would such growth be possible when, even today, there are large regions in the world struggling to provide basic needs, such as food to its population? This significant question is not only on the minds of many but also a strong focus for many organizations.

As a result of the abundant discussions, approaches, and actions, food has become a substantial political issue and one that is interconnected with multiple other even more significant debates. Major disputes that come to mind relate to the environment (e.g., habitat loss, soil degradation) and climate change. Resource (e.g., water, land) usage
and rights are equally important. More complications are brought onboard by international development, global trade, health epidemics, and societal problems (e.g. access to basic food, poverty, education and literacy, rising middle class in developing nations and their changes in taste and consumption). Last but not least, corporate
interests, food lobbies, and technocracies also add to the list of significant debates related to food.

It comes as no surprise that such a complex and disjointed food system is profoundly struggling. Estimates indicate that the global society wastes 24% of the food produced for human consumption, 28% of people overeat, whilst 28% of individuals are malnourished.

Some can afford to take the problem in their own hands by embracing various movements such eating local, following a specific diet (e.g. paleo, gluten-free), preoccupation with ingredients and nutrient factors, etc. And then there are the “foodies” with appetites for sophisticated ingredients, food designs, experiences, and entertainment.

On the other hand, those who can’t, scramble to find affordable options, which, many times comes in the form of fried, processed, loaded with salt and sugar food, thus continuously increasing health and other societal issues. How to tackle them?

Futurists imagine what food nutrients, gardens, and farms might look like several decades out. Activists have started talking about the Big Food, as an analogy to Big Tobacco. This is not a coincidence at all. After all, paraphrasing Hippocrates, food is medicine. Similar to how tobacco has generated severe health conditions, so does the current corporate and industrial food paradigm.

Consistent and persistent anti-smoking national policies have been hugely successful in North America, where the smoking rate is at an all-time low. How did we get there? As WHO points out, there are six measures responsible for the progress: “(1) monitor tobacco use and prevention policies; (2) protect people from tobacco use; (3) offer help
to quit tobacco; (4) warn about the dangers of tobacco: (5) enforce bans on tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship; (6) raise taxes on tobacco.” These measures have been implemented over several decades, resulting in the decline in smoking rates in adults from over 40% to about 15%. Can we imagine what a similar reduction in diet-
related diseases (e.g., obesity, heart disease, diabetes) would mean if similar food policies were implemented?

For countries like Norway, such imagination might already be a reality because of its recent introduction of a hefty tax on all sugary drinks, sweets and chocolate, chewing gum, and sweet biscuits. Other nations, such as France or UK have taken a timider approach by taxing only sugary/sweetened drinks. As a result, even Norwegians might still be able to satisfy their sweet tooth just by crossing the border.

In the meantime, when health gets personal, it hits you head-on and might change habits much faster. It has worked for many people. It certainly has worked for me in fighting cancer. It was two years ago, ironically, in the middle of an advanced Futures class when my own future was in question.

While it looks like I’ve beaten it so far, I credit this victory to a radical change in my approach to eating and drinking. It includes not only what, but when, how, and at what temperature, and learning how my body produces probiotics (and why they’re important), and exchanges energy with the environment. I also learned how little food I need if I get the essential nutrients. As a result, I am now exploring how I might grow what I eat indoors. As a starter, it looks like
even some veggies such as brussels sprouts are quite easy to grow. Sugar is not.

So, would a world void of sugar be possible? Furthermore, would a world in which the only food available is the one we grow at home be possible? What might that look like?


© Monica Porteanu 2018

Tags:  health  population  technology 

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The crypto-cowboys and the Wild West

Posted By Administration, Friday, May 4, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Nichola Cooper‘s fifth post in our Emerging Fellows program explores crypto-currencies. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

In 2013, conference attendees were watching a panel as a young, unassuming, chap describes his idea for an alternative method of capital finance: “…a protocol on top of Bitcoin. It’s going to have new features X, Y, and Z on top of Bitcoin, and here’s who we are and here’s our plan, and here’s our Bitcoin address, and anybody who sends coins to this address owns a piece of our new protocol.” This chap is J.R Willett, who launched the first ICO, of Mastercoin (now called Omnicoin).

The beauty of the Initial Coin Offering as a method of raising capital is found in its simplicity. If you have an idea for a project and need some seed funding. Instead of following the well-trodden path of venture capital and handing over a stake in your project, an ICO allows you to attract community backing without being burdened by the red-tape involved in traditional capital-raising exercises like Initial Public Offerings.

In other words, an ICO is like an IPO except, instead of purchasing a ‘share’ in a business, you are purchasing a ‘token’ in exchange for an agreed bitcoin/Ether value. It is exceptionally popular; growing from 7 ICOs in Q1 of 2017 (US$28m raised in total) to a total of 480 so far in 2018, having raised over US$2.2b for blockchain-based start-ups.

In an unregulated market, the relative ease of conducting an ICO has created a marketplace described by crypto-investors as analogous to the “Wild West”, where the unsophisticated easily fall prey to hoaxes, cloned websites and ‘pump-and-dump’ schemes. Telegram, one of the largest ICOs to date, raised US$830m during pre-sale, but not without fake websites trying to scam crypto from unwise investors.

The equal chance of making or losing a lot of money has attracted regulators’ interest. China and South Korea placing sweeping bans on ICOs and sending the value of cryptocurrencies into freefall. The US Securities and Exchange Commission and ASIC in Australia have warned, regardless of the terminology used, the sale of digital coins may be regulated as securities, meaning operators must comply with local reporting legislation, including maintaining a register of investors.

The outlook for ICOs remains promising, notwithstanding the volatility of the crypto-market. Registration isn’t compulsory, the set-up costs are low and investors rely on the tokens appreciating in value. A successful ICO is predicated, however, on the quality of the advisory team and provision of sound legal advice. That advice now includes the broad reach of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Enforced on 25th May 2018, organisations that fall foul of compliance face potential fines of up to 4% of turnover or EUR20m.

Few people, apparently, realise the jurisdiction of this regulation. The GDPR doesn’t only harmonise privacy laws within Europe but applies to organisations processing data relating to EU subjects. As a Londoner based in Australia, if I participate in KarmaKoffee Melbourne’s ICO, for the sake of illustration, they are not only obliged to comply with securities regulation but, soon, privacy regulation too.

I wonder how many people will be caught unawares by this?


© Nichola Cooper 2018

Tags:  Bitcoin  cryptocurrency  economics 

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Universal Basic Income: A Tool to Reimagine Human Dignity?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, May 3, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Daniel Riveong has written his third installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, he explores the possibilities of governments implementing a universal basic income. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Since the late 1990s, there has been an explosion in excitement around the idea of universal basic income (UBI). As of April 2018, there are UBI pilots underway in parts of Canada, the United States, Netherlands, Spain and other countries. While the concept was previously popular among policymakers in the 1970s, today’s interest in UBI has been driven by increasing anxiety over inequality and the threat of automation, especially among Western countries. For the Global South, UBI could be a useful tool to challenge our ideas about labor, poverty, and dignity and help us imagine alternatives.

The concept of UBI is less radical in the Global South as countries like Indonesia, El Salvador, and Brazil already has extensive conditional cash-transfer programs (CCT). Brazil, for example, is home to Bolsa Família one of the most famous conditional-cash transfers, which provides qualifying poor families cash-aide in return for school attendance. UBI differs from CCT in that is supposed to be both universal and unconditional. It is less open to political favoritism, corruption, and avoids debates over defining poverty.

For much of the Global South, the promise of UBI – rather than a bulwark against automation or inequality – is as a powerful tool to alleviate poverty. The assumption here is that the lack of income is a major source of poverty. At its most utopian, UBI is an attempt to decouple the myth that a dignified life – a life of security, health, and education – requires labor-derived income. Further, if we can decouple dignity from labor then we can also challenge the need for endless economic growth.

To spin this the other way, if dignity is not dependent on labor and an economy driven by growth then from what path? Answering this question, there are proposals for a Universal Basic Services (UBS): universal access to housing, food, healthcare, education, and efficient government services. Government policy focus on UBS could a framework for accomplishing the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which also focus on ending poverty through better access and better quality of services. Additionally, by focusing on access to services over income, it would help support the movement to shift away from GDP as the leading indicator of welling being.

For the Global South, where such access may not be as robustly supported by the government, universal access to services may be more critical than receiving an unconditional income from the government. Indeed, a set basic monthly income may pale in comparison to housing cost, where the cities of the Global South – such as Hanoi or São Paulo – rank among the most unaffordable in the world.

Together, UBI and UBS are powerful concepts that could multiply the number of possible futures. Given the correct set of larger supporting policies, these policies can encourage entrepreneurship, risk-taking, and innovation to reimagine capitalism as a tool to maximize an individual’s opportunities rather than maximize corporate growth. More powerfully, however, by asking us to disaggregate labor, income, and dignity it may help pave the creation of new post-capitalism alternatives.


© Daniel Riveong 2018

Tags:  economics  politics  society 

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Should we learn to stop worrying and love the bomb?

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, May 2, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Craig Perry has written his fifth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece looks at the Cold War and issues surrounding the atomic bomb. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

“There’s no such thing as a winnable war, it’s a lie we don’t believe anymore.” – Sting, “Russians”

The Cold War was a scary time for citizens on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The United States and the Soviet Union each wielded massive nuclear arsenals with the capacity to destroy the world many times over—and they came perilously close to unleashing these awful weapons on more than one occasion. Yet for all the anxiety this decades-long standoff entailed, it fostered an uneasy peace between the superpowers.

Once the United States demonstrated the terrible potential of the atom bomb at the end of World War II, it was only a matter of time before the Soviet Union and other would-be great powers sought to acquire their own nukes. By the 1960s, the two superpowers had so many warheads—deliverable by a triad of airborne, land-based, and submarine platforms managed by robust command-and-control systems—that neither side could launch first without precipitating a devastating counterattack. The era of mutually assured destruction had begun.

While such strategic deterrence has produced a degree of stability in international affairs, it also creates perverse disincentives for arms control. Any developments that might undermine this suicide pact—for example, by defeating incoming weapons (anti-ballistic missile systems), overwhelming missile defenses (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles), or making limited regional nuclear exchanges more plausible (intermediate-range nuclear forces)—are seen by the other side as dangerously provocative. Even the dramatic cutbacks of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the follow-on New START left Moscow and Washington with more than enough firepower to obliterate each other. In the nuclear arms race, at least, Russia remains every bit as powerful as its American rival.

Yet while mutually assured destruction makes large-scale wars between nuclear powers less likely, it paradoxically permits them to engage in smaller conflicts without fear of escalation. During the Cold War, U.S. nuclear strategy quickly evolved to deemphasize massive retaliation in favor of more flexible responses as the superpowers found themselves embroiled in numerous proxy conflicts. This stability-instability paradox also encourages nuclear proliferation among lesser powers seeking to guarantee their own regime survival. Although small nuclear stockpiles with limited delivery means may deter regional rivals (e.g. India/Pakistan), they offer no guarantee against a determined great power—and a rogue regime’s pursuit of the bomb can just as easily provoke crippling sanctions and preemptive war.

While the end of the Cold War reduced the risk of global thermonuclear war, it hasn’t done much to curb the enthusiasm of great powers to maintain and enhance their strategic forces. Shortly after the Pentagon released its 2018 nuclear posture review calling for new low-yield warheads and sea-launched cruise missiles, the Russian president publicly revealed several other weapons under development. Meanwhile, China continues to modernize its much smaller but quite capable triad as a hedge against first-use by its great-power rivals—and has likely reconsidered its previous, destabilizing support for Pakistani and North Korean nuclear ambitions.

Not surprisingly, efforts to ban the bomb—including the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—enjoy almost no support among nuclear powers and America’s NATO allies. Still, with the majority of the world’s states, the ocean floor, and even outer space now legally designated nuclear-weapons-free zones, there is a growing international consensus that nuclear warfare is beyond the pale. Despite some backsliding in recent years, the great powers are generally committed to arms control and nonproliferation as a means of preserving strategic stability—and even junior members of the nuclear club have existential incentives to behave responsibly. But whether or not you love the bomb, there’s not much point worrying about what’s become a necessary evil in our anarchic international system, which will continue deterring great-power conflict for the foreseeable future.


© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  politics  strategy  war 

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Surveillance capitalism and the liberal democracy

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Nichola Cooper‘s fourth post in our Emerging Fellows program explores privacy, trust, and social media. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

When Mark Zuckerberg was designing The Facebook in 2004, he was staggered that people were willing to share their personal data, “they just submitted it, I don’t know why, they just trust me – dumb f**ks”.

Well, those “dumb” people have just realised what Facebook harvests and monetises personal data for in the Cambridge Analytica shenanigans. Zuckerberg is contrite, of course, that’s this thing; apologising for a “breach of trust.” But, users don’t really trust social platforms anyway. Their upset is probably because they didn’t see this coming. It’s the advertisers Zuckerberg is really apologising to. Facebook’s business model relies on users sharing content and being receptive to advertisers’ messages. As the mantra goes: “if the service is free, you are the product”. Judging by the #deletefacebook and #faceblock campaigns, people don’t want to be a product.

Of course, widespread abandonment of social media is unlikely. In a globalised world we need a way of connecting, so regulators are starting to act. On 25 May, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will come into effect which will shift the balance of power from the company to the user and Facebook will need to watch their step. Article 25 – privacy by design – addresses how privacy protocol redesign should be interpreted: proactively. Yet, given Facebook’s history of asking for forgiveness over permission, users might be forgiven for expecting future privacy breaches despite regulatory controls.

Looking forward, there remain serious concerns about the future of democracy. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office is investigating 30 organisations – including Facebook – as part of its inquiry into the use of personal data and analytics for political purposes. The UK’s final European Commissioner for security, Sir Julian King, writing to the European Commission that Cambridge Analytica’s psychometric profiling during the Vote Leave Brexit Campaign was “a preview of the profoundly disturbing effects such disinformation could have on the functioning of liberal democracies”, asking for plans to manage social media companies in preparation for the European political campaigns of 2019. Emmanuel Macron supports Sir Julian, promising to ban fake news during election campaigns. It follows Malaysia. One of the first countries in the world to put an Anti-Fake News bill before parliament which will penalise those who create or circulate fake news with 10-years imprisonment or a fine of up to 500,000 ringgit (£90,000).

Then there are Comcast and Verizon to worry about. After the US Congress extended the same data-gathering practices to internet service providers like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, US consumers are concerned about their role as internet gatekeepers. The risks of exploiting personal data are far higher, beyond unsolicited book recommendations. Several companies are holding the length and breadth of your entire digital footprint. Take China as an example; from May, Chinese citizens with poor “social credit” may be banned from public transport for up to a year based on what they buy, say and do.

We are at a critical juncture where the sociopolitical consequences of surveillance capitalism can get much better, or much worse. Can we afford to not pay attention?


© Nichola Cooper 2018

Tags:  economics  politics  privacy 

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Growth or sustainability: Which response to the wicked problem will we choose?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, April 12, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Polina Silakova‘s fourth post in our Emerging Fellows program explores sustainability and the wicked problem of the limits to growth. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Grow not stop. Where shall we put the comma in this sentence? For a long time, growth has been the key focus of countries’ GDPs, business plans, and individual’s bonus schemes. But is it really a good way to measure our progress towards a better life? What is a “good life” anyway? And what does our good life mean for its key enabler – the Earth?

A group of British scientists recently tried to answer some of these questions, namely: is it possible for everyone to live a good life within our planet’s limits? They defined a good life very modestly – the satisfaction of basic needs – yet the result of their analysis of 150 countries is quite disheartening. Put on a map, the countries we know as well developed (Germany, Australia, Sweden, US, Japan) are clustered in the dangerous corner, having surpassed multiple biophysical boundaries. Moreover, if we were to try to equally distribute this modest standard of living for every person on the planet – without putting the very planet in danger – we would need to use up to six times more resources than what we currently consume. Quite a sobering calculation, isn’t it?

This study is not the first to address issues concerning our growth-oriented society. Back in 1987, the Brundtland Report called for changing the quality of growth. It stated: “Sustainable development involves more than growth. It requires a change in the content of growth, to make it less material and energy-intensive, and more equitable in its impact.” The report alerted that growth combined with acute inequality can be worse for a country’s development than the lack of growth. Currently, in 2018, we are obviously a long way from either reducing inequality or growing sustainably.

A contemporary economist, Kate Raworth addresses the same growth-related issues and warns about the obsolescence of the economic theory taught in schools and universities. In her book “Doughnut Economics” she urges us to shift the focus from the growth in GDP towards creating a more just society instead. To treat natural resources as an integral part of economics, not some loosely related externality. Although her book was shortlisted by the Financial Times as one of the best business books of 2017, Ms. Raworth points to the challenges of getting outdated academic views replaced by a more accurate and holistic understanding of economics. In an attempt to make this change happen, Ms. Raworth invites us to start a guerrilla campaign to fight against the invalid economic dogmas in a non-traditional way.

At the same time, students in Oregon, US have chosen to act even more radically to ensure their voices are heard. They took the federal government to court for “profoundly damaging our home planet by subsidizing fossil-fuel production which violated [the government’s] public-trust responsibility and threatens the plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty”. This accusation probably goes beyond any other environmental case so far. The outcome of this case is still pending, but other similar cases initiated by plaintiffs between 10 and 20 years old may start to see some success around the world.

What is an appropriate response when the traditional structures are so imperfect? When teens who compete to study in the best universities, hoping to get the knowledge they need to change the world, graduate from their courses to be disappointed by the obsolete theory they were taught. When representatives we elect to act on our behalf go astray, blinded by the short-term goals linked to their terms of power; is it a revolt like the one in 2014 organised by economics students in 30 countries against a curriculum disconnected from reality? Is it a guerrilla campaign to stealthily re-draw diagrams in university books like Kate Raworth proposes? Do we have to go as far as taking to court the very government we elected, like the boys and girls from iMatter and other environmental groups do? What actions should citizens take to make sure that the voices of future generations are heard at the tables where big decisions are made?

Something that each of us could do is at least to make sure that our own children get a systemic, big picture view of the world, as opposed to narrow opinions dictated by short-term capitalistic values. Knowing what the choice actually means of a comma’s position in the “grow not stop” sentence might become a much more important knowledge in our kids’ life than many other things in their curriculum. The question remains though – is it enough?


© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  government 

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Hyperloop: Will infrastructures of today be the border posts of tomorrow?

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, April 11, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Daniel Bonin‘s fourth post in our Emerging Fellows program concerns infrastructure for emerging technology such as the Hyperloop. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

According to dictionaries, borders are “a line separating two countries, administrative divisions, or other areas.” They separate areas with different laws and norms. Borders tend to follow natural features and have been the result of war and negotiation in the past. Considering this logic, what are the implications of high-speed transportation infrastructures like the Hyperloop, a vacuum-based transport system that is 2-3 times faster than today’s fastest trains? Could it be that they create quasi-borders within countries that follow the logic of inclusion and exclusion based on speed and accessibility?


Cities and their suburbs are growing in terms of population, economic, political and social power. They might have the power and the critical mass to make costly high-speed transportation systems viable. But on the other side, rural areas and structurally weak urban areas will struggle to keep up with that pace. They will suffer from tight budgets and fail to attract investors due to a lower population density and their demographic challenges of depopulation and aging. Establishing an interstation there is also rather unattractive. If not a network of entitled cities, who would manage to create a high-speed transportation link like a Hyperloop?

A new common identity of interconnected mega corridors, a connection of two or more cities via a Hyperloop link, would emerge as resources, people, commuters and ultimately ideas, values, and norms wander back and forth and merge faster than ever before. There is another side to consider: disparities within countries are reinforced as excluded areas are at the risk of transport disadvantage. Disadvantage stems from a lack of such a system or inaccessibility of a system in reasonable time. It results in the inaccessibility of excluded areas to people, goods, services, networks and decision making. Outsider areas will lose out in the competition for factors like inhabitants, labor supply, enterprise locations, tourists and political influence. In addition, borders are created within cities that have a Hyperloop. Neighborhoods in close proximity to stations will experience gentrification and repurposing of residential areas for commercial activities. Even negative externalities are created for those excluded but traversed by the infrastructures, like in the U.S. when major roads were routed through neighborhoods of minorities. Thus, transport infrastructures threaten to exclude outsiders and draw borderlines within countries.

The question then becomes what is the role of outsider areas, or put differently, what are the limits of the borderlines? Apart from international connections, a Hyperloop could bridge vast distances within large countries like the U.S., India or even China, where the state-owned Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation dreams to combine vacuum and magnetic levitation. However, the impact is at least as decisive in smaller countries like Germany, Japan or the UAE, where nation-wide mega corridors in commuting distance could emerge. To get an understanding of the limits of the borderlines, there is the over 20-year-old idea of Marchetti’s constant, stating that the time budget people give to commuting is on average one hour per day independent of the distance traveled. Autonomous vehicles and ubiquitous internet, enable superior feeder services and change our perception of what it means to spent time bridging the first and last mile to stations in cities plagued by congestion. Given superior feeding services, we might be well willing to increase our travel time budget. Today, people commute between Berlin and its outskirts, tomorrow they may commute with high speed between Germany’s two most populous cities: Berlin and Hamburg. The travel time budget of at least 60 minutes becomes the borderline. Beyond that line, outsider areas could be considered remote and exposed to transportation disadvantage. This implies a three-tier hierarchy: Hyperloop cities, areas with sufficient accessibility and outsiders beyond the border.

Yet the disparities are not inevitable. The central question is where should a high-speed station be based, within a city center or its suburban belt? How can outsider areas ensure accessibility to stations? Can outsider areas make traveling less desirable and necessary, especially aging areas whose residents might have a lower mobility demand? If one were to consider politics: could a Hyperloop counteract populism and deglobalization or could initiatives like the One Road One Belt be exploited to play hardball in a more multipolar world?


© Daniel Bonin 2018

Tags:  Hyperloop  infrastructure  technology 

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As much as we might deny it, we always trust the bank

Posted By Administration, Sunday, April 8, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Nichola Cooper‘s third post in our Emerging Fellows program explores trust, blockchain technology, and banks. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

The future of trust is topical. A sustained spate of political and financial calamities has accelerated the decline of global trust levels and enhanced interest and development in decentralised technologies and peer-to-peer networks. This blog post marks the first in a series regarding how that trust is expressed in discernible changes in social organising patterns, engagement with technology and financial markets.

We begin with Bitcoin. You might have heard of it? It is commonly thought that its creation was a reaction to the global financial calamity; from a desire to obviate unscrupulous bankers and prevent bad lending practices. This is not quite true.

In fact, the Bitcoin protocol was designed to resolve the double-spend problem of digital currencies. Unlike physical money which is reasonably difficult to counterfeit, digital currencies can be replicated quite easily – they are basically like a file on your computer that you can email to a friend. There is nothing stopping you and your friend both copying (counterfeiting) the file and sending it multiple times across the network. The Bitcoin blockchain prevents double-spending by verifying each transaction with a proof-of-work algorithm which made digital currencies as a medium of exchange all the more viable. The proof-of-work is why a common refrain has become that the blockchain negates or even creates trust.

This also is not wholly true. There is an increasingly prevalent inverse relationship between trust in institutions and peers. For, unlike Bitcoin, decreased trust in centralised institutions can be attributed to corporate malfeasance and bankers’ chicanery. Whilst transactions on decentralised networks skirt institutions, they are not inherently trustworthy for this reason alone.

Despite excited claims that we evidently trust technology more than institutions, I suggest that blockchains are simply an artefact of greater trust in peers. In the cloud of blockchain and cryptocurrency confusion, we have forgotten Bitcoin’s famous integrity is designed and maintained by a community of users – people just like us. In other words, social trust is not shifting to technology, but ourselves.

In financial transactions, we deal with three particular kinds of trust: institution-based, character-based and process-based. Institution-based trust is self-explanatory: we trust the authority in the transaction, usually a bank or government. Characteristic-based trust is awarded to someone that reminds us of ourselves. Process-based trust occurs when precedent indicates reciprocity in an exchange. For example, if I go to shake your hand, I trust you will reach out to take my hand and return my handshake.

It naturally follows that trust in our peers would increase when we lose trust in central institutions and we don’t understand technology. Part of our fascination with cryptocurrencies is a yearning to be able to stick it to the man while making a quick buck. The dominant, practical part of ourselves, however, simultaneously wants to be protected from risk.

It’s all fun and games as long as the price of Bitcoin keeps going up. But it isn’t. Bitcoin’s price has lost 27% during the time it took to write this post, commentators blaming volatility in the markets on banks’ demands for regulatory intervention. Academics have observed banks’ demands are motivated by challenges to their power and legitimacy; technology that disintermediates them suggests lack of relevance.

Yet, the evolution of money has consistently shown approval by a central authority to always have been necessary. Gold has been valued by a jeweller, money dispensed by a bank, tax paid and refunded by a government agency. As much as we might wish the success of digital currency its use as a medium of exchange is probably dependent on support by governments or central banks; as seen in movements towards cashless societies in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, India, and Venezuela.

As much as we might yearn otherwise, we always trust the bank.




© Nichola Cooper 2018

Tags:  blockchain  economics  technology 

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