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Will Fintech Change the World of Finance?

Posted By E. Alex Floate, Thursday, August 1, 2019

Alex Floate, a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the possibility of changing the world of finance by means of fintech in his seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

Fintech was coined as a phrase in the early 21st Century that described the internet enabled finance technology that began to appear. Later it came to describe the whole of the financial technology sector, and a buzzword analogous to ‘invest in us – we’re on the cutting edge’. Others then began to see fintech as a gateway to a post-capitalist system in which fintech will democratize finance and save the world in the process. These enthusiasts were literally banking on fintech igniting the forces of creative destruction that would bring down the old order of labor, land and capital and replace it a distributed tech model based on individuals, information and abundance.

 

Creative destruction is a concept dating back to Marx that capitalism will continually destroy the existing order to create new value and wealth. Creative destruction is caused by innovation which undermines the status quo, and de-values anyone or anything that continues following the old order, including skills, desires, function and capital. During Marx’s time this was the new industrial barons destroying the value and wealth of the landed gentry through commoditization. More recently technology entrepreneurs have unseated the established industrial conglomerates by expansive use of information.

 

Obsolescence and replacement are not confined to direct replacement of the new technology but can endanger whole systems. For example, the inefficient neighborhood grocery store within walking distance of its customers fell prey to the technology of the auto; it was now easy to drive to efficient and cheaper supermarkets. Now we see even those supermarkets and stores falling prey to the technology of the internet. Creative destruction in action. Is fintech a technological revolution causing the next evolution of capitalism?

 

That is the hope of those who see fintech as the democratizing influence on finance and capitalism. The use of fintech allows individuals around the globe access to information, platforms, cheaper capital, and stores of value without needing expensive intermediaries or even beholden to any one currency. By breaking the back of the old finance system, the new decentralized one will be distributed across the population. Fans of Austrian economics will rejoice as fintech skirts around regulations and allows individuals to choose where they access and store capital, at what interest rate they want, and in whatever electronic currency that best suits their needs.

 

But, fintech fans appear to underestimate the reaction that vested interests of governments, financial institutions and current technology leaders have in either blocking, slowing or hijacking this new round of creative destruction. Governments especially will see this new order as a threat that previous iterations of change lacked, as it will challenge their ability to regulate and exercise financial authority over their own economies. We are already hearing the mumblings about regulation of Bitcoin or attempts to thwart Facebook’s plan to create a digital currency. The fintech wars will truly be unleashed once a digital currency appears at enough scale to challenge the largest currencies. That most likely will be the Rubicon that needs to be crossed before governments fully assume a war footing.

 

Before that occurs though, the most likely scenario is an alliance of current financial powerhouses, tech companies and both groups pocketed lawmakers stepping in to create conditions that allow much of fintech’s promise to be purchased and assimilated. Until then fintech will be a race, not a war, to see how fast it can advance. The race will be to provide people the power of its promise before a behemoth financial Borg assimilates it and leaves the people as powerless as they were before.     

 

© 2019 E Alex Floate

Tags:  Economics  Finance  Technology 

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Will technology fuel or quench capitalism?

Posted By Felistus Mbole, Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Felistus Mbole a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the dual role of technology in her seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

We are living in a technological era like no other. The latest forms of internet and communication technology has made the world a global village. People can connect in real time across the globe. It is only three decades since the worldwide web came into being and roughly half of the global population has internet access according to UN’s International Tele­communication Union (ITU). Technology today is synonymous with internet and digital connectivity. Our lives have become so centred around internet connectivity and the opportunities that this creates.  It is hard to image life without digital communication. Will this new wave of technology quench or fuel capitalism?

 

The connectedness through digital technology has had clear benefits for society. Digital technology has possibly brought greater development than any other technology before it. It has enabled unprecedented levels of communication and the accompanying economic, political and social benefits. For instance, more people in Africa today have access to mobile phones than electricity. Mobile money is becoming a way of life for many, with about half of Kenya’s GDP estimated to be driven by it. This said, a significant digital divide, that is the gap between people who are digitally connected and those who are not, exists. The main reason for this digital divide is the cost of access in terms of data or airtime and the digital devices. Other reasons are poor connectivity and lack of digital skills.

 

Technology has long been established as a key driver of income inequality. In the emerging digital global economy, the economic gap between those digitally left behind and the owners of the technology is growing. The benefits of digital technology seem to be consolidated in the hands of a few. Digital technology has the power to change the market structure in a manner unlike any other technology. Disruptive digital innovations have changed the functioning of markets, resulting in the emergence of new dominant players with substantial long-term rents. Copyrights and intellectual properties out of these innovations give innovators an edge that their competitors cannot easily bridge.  It is a case of the winner taking it all, at least in the short-term. The impact of digital technology on society has been profound. Six of those on the Forbes list of top ten billionaires globally have made their wealth out of digital technology. They have mined their wealth out of data, the new oil.

 

Data is the lifeline of global capitalism today. It is the oil that lubricates the current economy.  A lot more data traverses the globe each day than goods and services combined. Big data companies such as Google and Facebook collect huge amounts of data from the population at minimal cost and sell it to others at a fortune. The data collected from the public can be used to improve services and products, making them more targeted and relevant. It can be used by security agents to fight crime and terrorism. Data has also been used to monitor and manage health related challenges. Data has however, been used to predict behaviour and worse still, to nudge human behaviour into the most profitable outcomes for business. Shoshana Zuboff terms this kind of data usage ‘surveillance capitalism’. It is not about the clients but centred on the business, promoting capitalism. Initially, it was individuals under surveillance. Now it is communities and soon it will be the whole of society.

 

Based on the current trajectory, technology will fuel capitalism even further in future. The progression towards a more connected world and artificial intelligence will generate massive amounts of data. This will present greater opportunities for capitalism and promote higher levels of inequality if unchecked. We are likely to see emergence of more stringent data protection regulations in future in an effort to guard against abuse of data. Innovation is good for the economy. Appropriate tax and innovation policies can help make the benefits of technology more inclusive. These could act to quench the fire of capitalism.

 

© Felistus Mbole, 2019

Tags:  capitalism  equality  technology 

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Who authors the automation?

Posted By Tim Morgan, Thursday, June 20, 2019

Tim Morgan published his sixth blog post in our Emerging Fellows program by checking the possibility of building intended and unintended governance into automation. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers? This question penned by the ancient poet Juvenal may have more urgency in the current automation age than it did two thousand years ago in the palaces of Rome.

 

Our money is stored as data and flows digitally at the speed of light. We socialize online. We play online games and stream movies. Apps record our exercise, sleep, and heartbeats. News comes via feeds customized based on our observed interests. Search engines return ranked results based on more than just the keywords. All of it is done via algorithms written by someone for a specific reason. Even self-learning AIs are ultimately built to fulfill a human desire or need. Automations are systems which embody someone’s values.

 

What values are being intentionally and unintentionally encoded into the automated backbone of current society? What intended and unintended governance is being built into automation? As automation advances and becomes ubiquitous, what we develop and how we apply it becomes critical.

 

Most automation is developed to meet specific requirements. Quality Assurance professionals analyze and validate software via requirements-based testing and analysis. Automations are systems, be they games or banking apps or robots.

 

Complex systems have complex behaviors. Complex systems create and reinforce values consistent with that system. Systems promote the values embedded into the software, whether or not the developer intended to embed them. Testing rarely goes beyond the mere functional requirements to measure the systemic impacts of automation against the larger world. The current Institutional and Market watchers are insufficient to that task.

 

Proactive policing software promotes racially biased patrolling patterns when systemic biases have been unintentionally embedded into data and code based on existing policing practices. Voting rolls are purged of legal voters because of erroneous, and sometimes intentional, partial name matches with convicted criminals. Traffic light cameras are used more for automated revenue enhancement than for protecting public safety. Social media and news media both use dynamic consumer metrics to automatically amplify attention-getting divisive stories ahead of socially uplifting ones. Successful games exploit known psychological triggers to promote compulsive game-play, even when embedding those triggers were not a conscious programming choice. Successful games, news, and social media have quickly evolved into attention predators via market selection. Automation is evolving, but market and institutional selection mechanisms are not necessarily socially benign.

 

The future holds some interesting values questions around advanced automation. Could we go beyond normal Don’t-Hit-A-Pedestrian safety programming in self-driving cars, adding in Good Samaritan assistance behaviors for the roadside stranded or injured? Will consumers ever get a Make-My-Life-Better setting on their social media? Will we find ways to create new Social Awareness algorithms and new Social Quality Assurance testing standards for commercial and institutional automation?

 

Failure to anticipate the untested social impacts of new automation before it is deployed turns the entire world into an increasingly bug-filled, chaotic, free-for-all of externalized impacts and socialized costs. How technology is applied is a choice. How to encourage development of future automation which balances profit or control with social good is an epic challenge of our current era for both developers and users alike.  Who authors the automation? Who watches the watchers? Ultimately, we all do if we want a better world.

 

© Tim Morgan 2019

Tags:  automation  governance  technology 

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Will technology enable more socially beneficial patterns of consumption and production?

Posted By Esmee Wilcox, Friday, May 24, 2019

Esmee Wilcox publishes her fifth blog post in our Emerging Fellows program. She investigates the possibility of applying technology to socially beneficial production and consumption. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

I have a stack of letters beautifully written and illustrated in a box at home, that represent a different world of communicating through my teenage years. With the technologies I have to hand today, the breadth of my network is vast. I can easily access individuals to work with, to share ideas, to tackle problems together. But the polarisation of views from vast echo-chambers is undeniable. These are the issues of trust we face by connecting more virtually. By 2050 we’ll have entered another paradigm shift from now in how and who we connect with and what technologies we use for this. So what can we do now to ensure that the technologies we design help us connect and organise in socially beneficial ways? What patterns of consumption and production would start to emerge if we did this? Why is this important?

 

Communities have always self-organised around the problems they notice. Whether child-rearing, food distribution, flooding or fracking. The intractable social and environmental problems of our time are also forcing state hierarchies to look more to community networks as better routes to tackling them. Social media ‘influencers’ are ahead in capitalising on technology enabled networks to commodify their personal social capital. Their skill is in making you feel personally connected whilst accessing vast networks. State actors are starting to look to their community equivalents, individuals who use social media to connect younger, apolitical audiences. Access to community grants is no longer dependent on institutionally biased, lagging processes, but the social capital that these influencers have accrued persuading funders of the local impact.

 

By 2050 we may be much more dependent on our ability to consume and produce locally with the environmental economics of long supply chains having long been unviable. We can imagine having to produce technology that we can degrade locally without poisoning the land we rely on for food. We can imagine the expansion of communities that are designed to enable consumption and production of food to connect people in socially beneficial ways.

 

But how might our ‘socially beneficial influencers’ design and make use of new technologies that make these patterns of consumption and production all pervasive? Influencers can readily participate in thematic and place-based communities, keeping the boundaries porous to access and welcome in new ideas. It’s not exclusively the proviso of the elites to have access to a range of networks. It’s not just the cities where the scale and movement of people brings in new ideas. Our influencers might look to technologies that can track and display the impact of communities’ collective behaviour to make it easier and more rewarding to see progress towards different social norms. That also make it easy for everyone to participate, countering the social gradient.

 

The more expansive social networks of local technology-enabled influencers should make it easier to readily connect our needs to produce with our needs to consume.

Co-housing developments and intergenerational living schemes are already in existence. These provide connectivity in place of privacy that help us produce and consume efficiently. We might not want to live that closely with each other but influencers can open up our private networks and build trust by proxy to put in and take out without high transaction costs. So the network that we utilise in creating closed-loop systems is expansive. We’re re-imagining closed-loop systems with technology that enables us to splice together as specialised units of consumption and production.

 

This is, of course, dependent on access to technologies that are being created by corporations and governments. To what extent will it remain in the interests of corporations to encourage over-consumption, and trust in our fellow citizens to be eroded by trust in the ‘brand’?

 

This is where social entrepreneurs have an interesting locus. They already successfully harness the technology of our day to create policy changes as well as changes in consumer behaviour. In what ways might social entrepreneurs persuade corporations that create technologies to move production and consumption into the hands of communities? Can our ‘socially beneficial influencers’ trade their social capital with corporations? Why would corporations be interested?

 

The potential is there for technologies to enable communities to self-organise systems of consumption and production that are no longer dependent on the arbitrary assets that they find within their local boundaries. We can imagine a shift in motivation to do so as we look ahead to 2050. We can imagine social entrepreneurs having a role in helping communities align their assets. We need to think further about the relationship between those who create the technologies and the communities themselves.

 

© Esmee Wilcox 2019

Tags:  corporation  society  technology 

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Will automation do away with markets?

Posted By Tim Morgan, Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Tim Morgan devotes his fifth blog post in our Emerging Fellows program to the role of automation in new dynamic systems of social self-governance. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

Markets are social systems which facilitate transactional exchanges of property, goods, services, and information. Markets reallocate resources and enable distribution. Exchanges within and between markets broadly establish the expected value of subsequent transactions. Markets can span the globe or a single neighborhood. Markets have created widespread material wealth by spurring economic growth via productivity. Markets are the social structures which define the modern industrial era.

 

Markets in toto form the social system known as the Private Sector. The Private Sector defines a sphere of control over a vast section of human affairs, one that frequently jousts with the older Public Sector of government institutions.

 

Markets benefit society by creating more prosperity for more people than is possible by the Public Sector alone.  However, the Private Sector’s flaws are now obvious. Markets have no inherent systemic mechanism for mitigating the problems they cause, such as environmental harm or social divisiveness. Markets cannot price or own non-market externalities, so they try to ignore them. Markets simply want to do Market things and consider anything else to be a distraction or interference.

 

Markets only price in externalities when they are forced to via constraints like taxation, regulation, legal liability, or mass social pressure. The strength of the Private Sector lies in its ability to create economic value for individuals via Markets. Its weakness is that it is systemically blind to non-economic value.

 

The Public Sector is failing to moderate the externalised damage created by Markets. Luckily the same information technologies which accelerate Markets are also enabling the emergence of a new sector centered around non-economic value. Digital networks and automation are allowing people to connect in new ways towards common interests. What is emerging is a new Social Commons Sector. Shared information is their resource, automation is their tool, and enhancing common social value is their primary concern.

 

This new Social Commons is forming because networks and automation can connect anyone into new dynamic systems of social self-governance. It has been increasingly disruptive to business-as-usual for years. The Arab Spring, #MeToo, and recent schoolchildren climate change walkouts are just a few examples of its ad-hoc social organizing power. Networked social power is also influencing how Private Sector market entities work. Social enterprises like Benefit corporations measure themselves by both fiscal and social bottom-lines. Publicly held corporations are increasingly being held to diversity and sustainability standards by their shareholders and customers.

 

Other groups are automating acts of public good. Custom smartphone apps schedule free pickup and delivery of excess restaurant food for the homeless, coordinate community composting, report pollution, or alert virtual guardians to watch your GPS-tracked walk home. The Social Commons is an automation-enabled sector which is filling-in the small gaps and beginning to take big swings at big problems. This nascent sector is poised to interpenetrate and rewire the other sectors to solve the wicked problems they have created.

 

Markets are not going away any more than Institutions went away when Markets bloomed into power two centuries ago. Both the Public and Private Sectors are necessary and are here to stay. But both will have to reckon with the rising influence and power of a new networked Social Commons.

 

© Tim Morgan 2019

Tags:  automation  society  technology 

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Do we need new levers to close infrastructure investment gaps?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Daniel Bonin‘s fourth post in our Emerging Fellows program concerns infrastructure investment gaps. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Forecasts suggest that infrastructure investment gaps are here to stay, especially when it comes to transportation and electricity. How can we close these gaps by 2050? The World Economic Forum distinguishes three major levers: (a) reduce demand, (b) build new infrastructures and (c) optimize existing infrastructures. There may be two additional important levers on our way to 2050 that stem from the growing connectedness of people and intelligent things paired with self-executing contracts (i.e. smart contracts). The first lever is novel pricing models for infrastructure usage or, more exactly an “intelligent user charges principle”. The second lever relates to effective altruism movement, the idea of identifying areas where one additional Euro can create the most impact.

Today, we are used to all kinds of pricing structures to pay for products and services. Product purchase, freemium models, flat rates or pay per use are part of everyday life. There is a second class of pricing structures that benefit from the growing connectedness and powerful algorithms. These have just started to become a normal part of life. There is Uber’s surge pricing that is based on market demand levels. Contingency pricing, which is common in the manufacturing or energy sectors, conditions the amount to be paid on the performance of the contractor. Any Mac user who tries to book a flight should be familiar with differential pricing, pricing based on the type of customer. So why shouldn’t we pay a dynamically adapted price for each time we “consume” infrastructures? Think of paying a certain amount of money per kilometer travelled? We could be reimbursed for travelling during off-peak hours or pay extra to have priority during peak hours. Depending on how the fuel economy of our car ranks compared to the median fuel economy or whether we share a ride or not, we would pay a dynamic price per kilometer travelled. And who has not yet dreamed about punishing the SatNav for inefficient routing? There could even be subsidies to foster the adoption of new environmentally friendly technologies. What about subsidies for vehicles that pro-actively improve the air quality in cities or discounts for socially disadvantaged families? The possibilities are endless and so are the synergies. If we track the kilometers we travel, we could also identify the roads that are working at a particularly high level of capacity utilization and allocate maintenance and expansion investments accordingly. This is similar to effective altruism, which tries to identify areas where a certain amount of money can generate the largest societal impact.

This may sound like Sci-Fi, but if we take all the buzz around the Internet of Things, distributed ledgers like Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence seriously, why shouldn’t the intelligent charge principle and effective altruism be feasible? Yes, there are various obstacles. For instance, we would need to quantify and balance a tremendous number of aspects. There are ethical questions like how should eligibility for discounts be calculated? Is it OK to favour densely populated areas and how can we make sure that infrastructures with low capacity usage are not side-lined? All these are questions and trade-offs that we need to find answers to in any case amid budget constraints. I believe that both, user charge principle and effective altruism driven infrastructure planning can help to find fairer answers and pose the right questions.

Another argument for why we need to consider both levers is, that on our way to a more sustainable world, certain trends undermine the ability of our existing infrastructure funding mechanisms to function properly. Firstly, we will need a lot of resources to roll out an intelligent transport and energy infrastructure. Secondly, E-mobility and mobility services with lower vehicle ownership have a negative impact on today’s infrastructure funding mechanisms. While E-mobility and more efficient transport systems reduce externalities and perhaps even infrastructure demand, they also reduce revenues from fuel taxes. The impact of E-mobility is even more far-reaching as this new paradigm will increase the investment needs for our energy grids. With lower private car ownership due to mobility as a service paradigm, countries with historically high motorization rates will see their tax revenues from car registration dwindle. In order to secure a steady monetary stream for infrastructure maintenance and expansion, we need to establish a policy that links taxes to the actual usage of infrastructures. These examples also raise another question: with all that change in terms of way of living and technology until 2050, do we overestimate future infrastructure demand or does Jevons paradox hold true? I will try to address this question in the next post.


© Daniel Bonin 2018

Tags:  economics  infrastructure  technology 

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Morality First, Knowledge Second?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, May 24, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Polina Silakova‘s fifth post in our Emerging Fellows program explores the role of morality and manners amid disruptive technologies. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

If you have ever travelled around Vietnam, you might have noticed at the main entrance of some schools the motto, previously ubiquitous in the communist era: “Tien hoc le, hau hoc van”. The direct meaning refers to the importance to learn proper manners in human relations first, and only then start learning other things that you would normally learn at school. Loosely it can be translated as “morality comes before knowledge”. In the past, it has served as a good call for millions of Vietnamese students and really, would not hurt anyone to be reminded of it. We are wondering if this prioritisation would still be applicable to our world of rapidly growing technologies?

The past couple of months offered us some food for thought on the evolution of business ethics in the light of technological progress.

– Facebook makes money from selling our data, which it gets in exchange for letting us share this very data free of charge – is it a fair deal? While regulators are only attempting to catch up with technicalities of this business model, Facebook continues benefiting from this knowledge gap.
– The first pedestrian died from an autonomous car approved by Uber for public roads, even with a vehicle operator behind the steering wheel. Was it human complacency with an autonomous vehicle offering a relaxing ride? Did the launch of the system happen too early, rushed by the appetite for a quicker return on investments? Or was it the lack of maturity in this field that prevented good judgement on whether the system is ready for operation?

What previously was good or bad as black and white, has now shifted into a grey area.

While in these cases Facebook users and Uber testing the driverless technology might be victims of ignorance and lack of caution, some other innovations make us concerned about the way the ethics of consumers might evolve in the future in our market society. Augmented reality and cruel video games; robots and the sex industry; more generally, robots as household servants (or slaves?). One can say that whatever people choose to do in their free time is their business, but wouldn’t it be naive to assume that the change in our own morality will have no implication for society?

A further twist to these already ambiguous scenarios came out of the study on human-robot interaction conducted by researchers from MIT and Stanford. Their experiments have shown that when people work with autonomous robots and errors occur, humans tend to blame the robots rather than themselves. Interestingly, when a success occurs, we humans take the credit more frequently than giving it to the machine. In another word, our habit to shift responsibility for mistakes from ourselves to other people remains unchanged when we get to deal with autonomous tech-friends instead of our familiar colleagues.

This poses further questions on what implications this might have for ethics in a high-tech post-capitalistic world. Who will take responsibility for decisions made by a board which consists of both humans and AI? One of the first non-human board directors – VITAL – already gets to vote in board meetings together with five human directors in a venture capital firm in Hong Kong. While VITAL only takes decisions on investments, where its skills in scanning large volumes of data come in particularly handy, we can only imagine how this might play out with advancements in deep learning. Will we still be sure that the machine is acting in the company’s interests? And if reality shows the opposite, who is to blame?

How will ethical decision-making evolve in the future? Will it be something a majority demands? Something the powerful agree on? Or something that AI would recommend as the least harmful option? What is clear is that it is becoming increasingly dependent upon how much we know about technology and its implications for society. Knowledge starts to inform morality and we should challenge ourselves to stay up to speed to make sure we take decisions that meet our moral standards.

© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  Facebook  society  technology 

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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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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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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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