xrematon

November 21, 2019

E=mc2

What am I playing at here? Well, I just wanted to make the point that opting for more experiential consumption (e) actually often ends up equalling material consumption magnified (mc2).

The event which brought this home was when I was on holiday in Ecuador and we were visiting a reserve which had set up a (very popular) bird feeder.

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We had arrived early and got our fill of taking pictures. Then came a battalion of Japanese tourists who were clearly photographers in a different league. It is appropriate to use military vocabulary as these individuals were in full camouflage gear and burdened with bulky backpacks. It turns out these contained a quite extraordinary complement of photographic equipment: endless very very long telescopic lenses, stands, digital display units and other items I cannot name.

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These were clearly individuals who had achieved a comfortable level of affluence. They were now ‘doing experiences’ but doing so had clearly triggered a whole new set of purchasing – material consumption magnified.

In my own household I have noticed a similar trend. After careful deliberation, we have made a conscious choice to funnel our spending into good holidays and less on ‘stuff’ (accepting we have to drive old bangers and cope with unglamorous bathrooms as a result). However, we still seem to have been keeping Amazon in business, ordering at least six binoculars (upgrades, replacements), telescopes, boots, performance clothing etc. But it has produced good memories, which is the key thing behind experiences.

October 20, 2019

Stone Age – 5 star living with all mod cons?

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Innovation,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 1:40 pm
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On a recent holiday to Orkney, I had the opportunity to visit many unexpectedly fascinating Neolithic sites. I am not sure I had much of an opinion about this period in human history beyond a vague inkling that these ‘less civilised’ lifestyles might score higher in terms of overall well being than the settled agriculture communities that came afterwards: lots of fresh air, not too much proximity to lots of other people (reducing the risk of contagious diseases and unsanitary living conditions), and a wide variety of fresh food in one’s diet.

Here, in these Orcadian sites, I realised that there was more to the Stone Age than my simplistic assumptions laid out above. Though homes were not spacious, they seemed snug and secure, including a kind of enclosure for bedding, as well as a sort of ‘chill pool’ to keep fish and seafood caught in the surrounding wasters fresh till the moment of consumption. Ikea might not have existed but these homes had the equivalent of the ubiquitous Billy book case – a spacious stone (of course!) dresser.

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As with all things Neolithic, no one is quite sure what the purpose of this object was but it seems fair game to think it was an all-purpose useful storage device situated in the main living area. Everyone should have one.

My favourite Stone Age ‘feature’ was the sauna. I have to admit that, once again, officially there is no agreed use for this stone-lined ‘pit’ approx. 1-2m wide and 1.5m deep, but one suggestion is that it could have been a sauna: the pit would have been filled with water and then heated up by putting in hot stones from a fire. Others suggestions include a kind of laundrette – far less exciting – that doesn’t get my vote. (Alright, I know the photo below doesn’t look like much!).

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If I had to become a survivalist, I might opt for following the Neolithic lifestyles as practised in Orkey, complete with mod cons of course!

August 26, 2019

Choice or no choice – which path to take to make all the difference?

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I think we are used to the idea – in fact take it for granted – that we can make choices across many different aspects of our life, going from the routine, such as choice of breakfast cereal, to the more significant, such as choice of school or doctor.

In an earlier journal entry, I highlighted the extent of choice now available in the world of pensions. And what I wanted to emphasise was that this choice is full of complexity and very hard to navigate. There is, in fact, an argument for saying that, in certain situations, individuals and/or society might be better off if choice was removed and the default made the only option.

In the world of sustainability, which is another area full of difficult choices hard for the layman to accurately evaluate in terms of what is best for them or the planet, similar dynamics are at play. In some cases, it is ‘better’ all round to take choice away and put the ‘best option’ as the default. Free-range eggs are now sold in greater volumes than cage-farmed ones in the UK, in large part because major players, from retailers, such as Sainsburys, to food service operators and manufacturers, for example Hellmann’s mayonnaise from Unilever to MacDonalds, have gone free-range, reducing demand for caged eggs.

In pensions, both the share and absolute number of people saving into a pension has increased massively. This is not to do with more choice but a default option being brought in – namely auto-enrolment. And now there are plans to introduce ‘choice reduction’ in other elements of the retirement journey. As part of a recent extensive review of retirement outcomes, the FCA proposed that pension providers offer non-advised customers a choice of four investment pathways to best meet their retirement objectives – much simpler than having to work out if/how much money to take out now or later and what/how to save for later.

In other tricky markets, such as energy and other utilities where consumers can switch and choose but often don’t, other developments are afoot. In October 2018, Ofgem announced that it would be introducing price caps. This has meant that suppliers have to cut their prices to the level of or below the cap, forcing them to scrap excess charges for people on poor value default deals. https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/publications-and-updates/ofgem-proposes-price-cap-give-11-million-customers-fairer-deal-their-energy

In the face of increasing use of defaults and market intervention, strengthening the paternalistic perspective (‘we know best’), has peak choice had its moment?

 

July 27, 2019

Older and none the wiser

If I mentioned ‘pensions’, it’s likely that your mind will go blank, or you might start thinking about what you will have for lunch/dinner/snack on instead. But even if you try to think about pensions, it’s not clear that you will be able to make much progress. Pensions, over the past decade or so, have really become much more complicated and this means it is hard to keep track of what the situation is. There is complexity across many different dimensions and the overall result is that there are many choices to make and lots of uncertainty implicit within those choices.

Crudely, pensions were about paying money in and then getting a regular set sum back again once you had retired at some point in your early sixties. But this is no longer the case. For a start, you won’t be able to get your State Pension until you are 67 (well, I won’t!). And, as we have all been told many times, you really shouldn’t think that you can rely on the State Pension to survive in old age, unless you are very keen on leading a minimalist lifestyle.

So you need to set something up additional. This is where the questions and uncertainty kick in. You go for some private pension provision and most this is probably done through work – but how do you know what is best? And what if you have changed jobs and have an existing pension with another employer in another scheme? Can you remember who that is with? And should you consolidate them? How do you work out which offers best value? Do you know the charges? What about returns? What about other costs that are hidden away?

And, thinking about this additional pension provision, you won’t get a set amount (a proportion of your final salary) at the end. The times of Defined Benefit pensions are over. I am not going to go into all the background of why (perhaps for another time), but now the majority of schemes set up are Defined Contribution (where you put a set amount in but what you get at the end is far less certain).

And now for more decisions and choices. When you retire, you don’t simply get some money, you need to work out what you will do with the big lump of money you have carefully saved up. Before most people would buy an annuity, which gives someone a guaranteed sum paid out each month. Now you can take a substantial cash sum out in one go, but then again, you need to be careful as you might start paying a lot of tax on that if you take out too much as this is taxable income.

But if you took some out, you don’t want to put it in a bank as it will effectively lose money with interest rates so low. So instead you might decide to do something more sophisticated, such as keep some money invested so that it carries on making better returns, but will your current provider let you do this? And then perhaps you could take a regular small sum from that for current expenses. But do you know how to split up the amount saved – how much to invest and how much to take out?

And then another element to consider is how to get financial security for your final years, for example some kind of annuity. But the challenge here is to second guess when would be the right moment for this, and then what sort of amount would you need to live on? Most people tend to overestimate how much they will need at this stage and die with unspent funds.

I’m just hope that by the time it comes for me to grapple with all this, that the perfect product has been launched and I can live happily after thanks to it.

June 22, 2019

Totemic objects

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Things are never just ‘things’, are they?

There are some objects that manage to transform daily life into something very different to what was happening before they appeared on the scene. Now it would be very tempting to call out the internet here but not only is that not really ‘a thing’ (it’s too big and messy to be that), I am not actually sure it has radically changed my everyday life experience. As someone who grew up with a childhood that was internet-free and only encountered email, web browsers and more in early adulthood, I have to point out that I still seem to be living in a house built with bricks with tiles on the roof, with a car in the drive, a fridge in the kitchen full of the same kind of foods etc. Perhaps I might feel differently in a couple of decades.

No, I was thinking more of the objects found in Tim Harford’s book Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy. The book starts with the plough, which is a particularly striking example of a catalyst for change: as the author claims, it was the plough that kick started civilisation in the first place. The plough made farming much more efficient, thereby freeing up a large proportion of the population to do other activities and specialise in these, whether baking bread, building houses, constructing bridges and roads – in other creating civilisation. In addition, the agricultural abundance that existed as a result (people were no longer foragers living at subsistence levels), meant powerful people could confiscate food and thus reinforce their power. This enabled the rise of kings and soldiers, bureaucrats and priests etc to live off the work of others.

The plough also changed domestic arrangements. Ploughing was awkward and required men’s strength, whilst the wheat and rice grown required more preparation than nuts and berries, which became women’s work at home. And as these women were no longer out and about foraging all day, they were more able to look after little children and thus had more frequent pregnancies. This was supported by the guaranteed good supply of food, helping to increase population size significantly.

And that’s not all – there are other impacts set in play which are perhaps less positive: switching from foraging to eating grain was actually less nutritious and average height dropped, whilst living more closely with many other people increased the chance of disease, parasites and other challenges to good health.

That’s a lot from just a plough.

There are other types of objects which are notable not for what they trigger but for what they represent. This came through very clearly in an interesting piece from Vox on the rise of granny panties and why this happened. It’s about a number of different things: the rejection of hypersexualisation, the rise of female empowerment (you can wear what you want and feel good), the advent of new garment technology permitting seamless underwear, reinvented granny panties can be also folded into the athleisure movement as women now look for comfortable clothes suitable for everything from working in an office to working. It’s about more than ‘just underwear’.

What totemic object would you want to put on a pedestal?

May 29, 2019

Ecuador – on the Equator but a land of extremes

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Demographics,Sustainability,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 7:26 am
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In one sense, Ecuador is in the middle – the Equator runs all the way through its centre. However, in terms of what you can find there, it is more likely to be wild and wacky, rather than middle of the road. Let me illustrate with some photos from a recent trip.

Firstly, in terms of altitude and temperature, well, Ecuador includes both chilly snow-capped volcanoes and mountains that form part of the Andes over 6000m to long sandy beaches baking under a bright blue sky.

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Next, what about plants? Well, it is possible to find fungi that is not dark and shapeless but white and lace-like.

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Or flowers and berries that defy the imagination in terms of textures and colours they put forward.

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We came across insects which could have come from a ‘Lost World’: giant earthworms a metre long, odd clunky stick insects and vast but beautiful moths.

And I haven’t even got started on the birds. We managed to see over 400 different species whose plumage covered all the colours of the rainbow and astounded us with their minute or momentous scale.

Finally, a spotlight on the food, which ranged from the traditional and ‘homely’ to concoctions perhaps inspired by nouvelle cuisine.

April 23, 2019

The future was present – at the V&A

Was it really? The above is a mangled abbreviation of a quote from sci-fi author William Gibson. The full version (“The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”) is much beloved of people who work in ‘futures thinking’ (I’m avoiding the labels ‘futurists’ and ‘futurologists’).  Occasionally, yes, this statement does come through as a pretty good way of looking at the world.

My latest reinforcement of its validity came when I visited a recent exhibition at the V&A rather impressively titled ‘The Future Starts Here – 100 projects shaping the world of tomorrow’. I record my impressions through a series of observations.

Firstly, I should acknowledge that it was a good excuse to go to the V&A and inspect the new entrance – a rather interesting mixture of textures with different shades of white stone, as well as some fine wood structures (but those was only temporary, I think).

Then there was the descent into the exhibition space itself – a dark area with no natural daylight – is that telling about what is envisioned for the future? But luckily there was lots of lighting and colour to bring out the exhibits around which you gradually wound your way.

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Unsurprisingly, there were the obligatory techie items – robots, AI, smart objects that capture and analysis data – but also, later on, objects which are low-tech versions of the technologies we now have come to rely on – phones and internet access. I applaud a view of the future which sees the need for regression as well as progression in innovation.

There were a fair number of objects which were familiar to me, either the items themselves or the core concepts behind them. Examples include a restaurant setting meant to be inviting to the increasing number likely to be living ‘single’ and thus wanting to be able to eat out alone without feeling uncomfortable. There was also a bottle of Soylent on the table too – not sure about that one.

There was also a special personal cleansing care range, designed in response to the fact we now go to considerable effort to stay very clean and effectively remove all bacteria and dirt from the skin, despite the fact, just like the inside of our bodies, our skin also relies on good bacteria to be healthy. Hence the need for Motherdirect, which uses special bacteria called AOB (Ammonia Oxidizing Bacteria) to help convert the irritating components of sweat and turn them into beneficial byproducts like Nitrite and Nitric Oxide, which help to calm and soothe the skin.

Motherdirt was an item that is already being commercialised. There were some exhibits that have been in existence – conceptually at least – for many years but as a completed project, remain indefinitely in the future. See here a fabulous city – clean and smart – which uses the latest technologies and will be completely powered by the sun, or something like that.

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There were objects that are more about hope than rigorous assessments of what might be possible in the future. In contrast to the shiny technology devices, one case contained the pink ‘pussy hat’ which was developed to make a bold and powerful visual statement of solidarity in support of women’s rights and against Trump, ideally to be worn at the Women’s Marches that have taken place in numerous countries in recent months. Yes, a symbol for hope because Trump is still around and who knows how much has actually changed for women?

My final observation is very simple – I have chosen it to illustrate the fact that looking ahead into the future, we have to recognise that actually lots of how we live we still be very similar. There are certain aspects of everyday living which are remarkably resistant to change, in particular what we eat and drink. There was an exhibit displaying a coffee machine designed by Lavazza to allow people in space to still be able to have a good cup of coffee. Probably quite important actually!

 

February 17, 2019

A day out in London

Though I toil away at a kitchen table in rural suburbia for the majority of my time, every once in a while I head out for a day of adventures in London. In order to make the most of the trip, in the lead-up to the Big Day, I build up a list of interesting and exotic venues and establishments that seem worthy of a visit. Below, I shall share experiences from working through my most recent list.

First stop-off was the recently opened London Mithraeum situated on the site of Bloomberg’s new European headquarters. This is essentially a fancy little museum which showcases the archaeological remains of a Roman temple of Mithras. This temple was actually first discovered some time ago – in the reconstruction efforts immediately after WWII – but the display of the temple remains and artifacts found there were disappointing and did nothing to capitalise on the high levels of public interest shown when the Mithraeum was first dug out.

This new display does not disappoint – it is a slick and glossy affair, showing the latest in museum trends and technology. However, I must confess that what helped to bring the Mithraeum to life powerfully did not rely on snazzy tech – it was based on careful and thoughtful use of light and sound. In fact, the main element of the visit was effectively a short ‘show’ or ‘son et lumiere’ experience.

After having browsed through various rooms showing the different objects found at the site, visitors were invited to come into a dark room. The light then gradually increased, showing at first the outlines of the temple and then shadows ‘built’ the vertical pillars as shown below.

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Further light was used to create the famous sculpture at the back.

IMG_20190208_104523Finally, the whole temple room was properly illuminated.

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Accompanying this was no commentary, but insteads the sounds you would expect to hear when the temple was in use: men chatting, chanting, and then calm again. Overall, though there isn’t much ‘there’ at the Mithraeum, it is certainly engaging and intriguing, in particular as people still can’t really explain what the secret Mithraic cult was really about.

Next came hanging around the Bloomberg building itself – at least as far as members of the public are allowed. The lobby was full of swooping curves, built from planks of the finest oak imported from the other side of the world, placed on the finest stone, also imported from half way round the world. Not very sustainable if you think about the sunk carbon cost involved in digging all this material out and getting it here (though obviously the whole building itself cannot be faulted for its energy efficiency). Grumblings aside, the effect is beautiful and creates the impression of being underwater and floating past the curving hulls of majestic boats.

IMG_20190208_110242IMG_20190208_110308Final stop was up in the Kings Cross area in Coal Drops Yard. The reason this made it onto my list was the involvement of Thomas Heatherwick – yes, shameless star name power pulling me in. The weather on the day of my visit was not helpful – there was a wet and weeping sky, making the heavens press in and the stand-out undulating roof seem like one of those motorway service stations which bridges over the road.

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Luckily, there was not a Little Chef in sight!

I’m busy plotting my next trip – await the next installment.

January 15, 2019

Home from home

img_20181228_100504Where do you think the above snap was taken? Don’t look too hard as otherwise you will spoil the fun!

I’m hoping that you zoned in on the all-too recognisable Heinz tomato ketchup and thought the photo was perhaps taken in my local supermarket. Well, not quite. I took this picture in my Xmas holidays spent in the coastal area close to Malaga on the Costa del Sol. It is the heartland for ex-pat Brits and it was all too easy to find those little creature comforts of familiar foods readily available in the Mercadona next to the villa we were renting.

With all the chaos created by Brexit (at the time of writing, it is all very much up in the air), the number of Brits living in Spain has actually dropped. According to Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE), in the last five years, the number of British residents in Spain has dropped from 397,892 to 240,785 – a fall of 157,107. However, for someone who has no point of comparison, it felt like British presence was still a feature of the landscape in Cala de Mijas where we stayed.

I had a lot of fun ambling around the supermarkets, trying to spot the items catering to the Brits. Here are some of the treasures I found.

Brussels sprouts – of course! Well, it was Christmas.

img_20181228_100414And fancy a curry – albeit with salmon – but I guess fish is pretty hard to avoid in coastal Spain.

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Can you spot the bacon in the centre of the bottom shelf?

img_20181228_101327Spot the wannabe After Eights on the top shelf?img_20181228_100233But there were also some delicacies clearly aimed at the local residents. The below is not my cup of tea.

img_20181228_100726And out in the streets, there other similar indicators of Brit presence.

img_20181228_110112But I want to use my final photo to highlight a new dynamic reverberating in the area. Having chatted with a local (Irish!) estate agent, it seems that Scandis are the new big kids on the block since an airline started added direct flights between Norway and Malaga. So in the Mercadona, amongst the bacon and baked beans, I also found the dark rye grainy bread so beloved of Scandinavians.

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I can’t say that I saw any pickled fish, but that’s probably coming!

December 22, 2018

Eating less meat – what could this look like?

At this time of festive overindulgence, perhaps it’s good to think about opting for the opposite – ‘underindulgence’ – in particular the growing momentum around reducing meat consumption.

This is not a new idea but the dynamics swirling around it have changed. Whilst the key motivation when I was growing up was moral and centred around the idea of not wanting to inflict cruelty or be responsible for the death of animals, the environmental rationale for opting for a more vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is now paramount. Fresh evidence appears in the headlines almost daily:

‘Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.’

However, it seems that there are variety of different trajectories a meat-reducing world might go.

Let’s get insects out of the way first. Some people are very excited by the prospect of either making insects themselves palatable or grinding up them up to use as a nutritious flour of some kind. In fact, in November 2018, Sainsbury’s was proud to claim it was the first UK supermarket to stock edible insects, making packets of Eat Grub’s smoky BBQ crunchy roasted crickets available in 250 stores across the country. However, to produce insects at scale and for large swathes of the population to eat them is another matter, There is currently limited experience or knowledge about how to do this or what the impact might be. This is in terms, for example, of allergic reactions, microbial risks or even what welfare standards to apply to rearing arthropod livestock.

Others hope that cutting-edge science will have the answer and give us meat that either is not real meat or else real meat but does not involve rearing and slaughtering livestock as currently takes place.

The former, a meat-like product, is actually quite advanced in some markets, the US in particular. Companies such as Impossible Foods have created ‘foods’ which act like meat in every sense – they look, smell, taste and even bleed like meat – but are in fact newly manufactured foods. In case the case of Impossible Foods, they have created something magical reliant on their star ingredient, leghemoglobin. This ingredient is found naturally in the roots of soy plants and derived in a fermentation process similar to brewing. However, as this is effectively a genetically modified organism which has never been eaten before by humans, Impossible Foods sought approval from the FDA to confirm leghemoglobin was safe to eat and this approval was eventually given. Whatever reservations some might have about the safety of such products and in particular risks of allergic reactions, as well as the resource costs involved, the scale and ambition of Impossible Foods is impressive. Whilst it is easy to pitch non-meat options to affluent, health conscious and well educated individuals, it is a much harder sell to those who don’t have the means (neither the time nor the money) to be so selective and discerning. Impossible Foods has made a start to address this: its burgers are now being sold in the outlets of fast food chain White Castle across the US (albeit priced at one dollar more than their standard burgers).

The other way to get real meat but without all the usual associated negative impacts is to effectively ‘grow’ meat in a lab. This ‘clean meat’ is still at very early stages of development, but already significant progress has been made. Costs have dropped dramatically: from $325,000 for a burger in 2013 to $11 five years later with the potential to go lower. More importantly, clean meat is attracting the interest of investors already big in the meat world. In mid 2018, the American meat giant Tyson Foods announced a multi-million dollar investment in a cellular meat startup. This is a sure sign this kind of meat is to be taken seriously.

However, there are also challenges here, which relate to the fact that currently growing meat in this way relies on animal stem cells which are typically fed with a serum derived from the blood of calf foetuses – in other words, clean meat uses animal products and is not vegan.

Now, for our third meat-free path, let’s go back in time to when this involved going for something that didn’t have any pretense at being meat – a veggie alternative that was clearly veggie. I’m thinking of something like a good old-fashioned nut roast or veggie burger made of beans and the like. From having spoken to colleagues, it seems there has been a shift in expectations between one generation and the next. Some Millennials expect going meat-free to mean having something else that is just like meat, whilst older generations expect meat-free to look ‘veggie’. I wonder how this will pan out and whether there are also comparable regional differences in attitudes.

The final trajectory for meat-free is to put forward to the idea of preparing dishes that are designed to be vegetarian or vegan from the outside. An example here is the cuisine from Asia which makes use of vegetable and vegetable forms of protein such as bean curd, nuts and pulses. This seems like a much simpler path – we use ingredients that have been tried and tested over many generations, with the promise of lots of spice to keep things interesting.

However, no one would try to claim that anything can match up to the smell and taste of a proper bacon sarnie! I wonder if Impossible Foods is working on that.

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