xrematon

May 17, 2020

Carpe diem under duress

For a considerable part of my professional career, I worked for an organisation that aimed to help clients unlock growth. A large part of this involved thinking about being dealing with change: anticipating it, responding to it and shaping it. In those projects, a lot of energy would focus on the ‘what’ (how should we innovate; what new direction should we take to survive or thrive in the future environment; what new products or services will best meet these new needs?). In the current pandemic, there is a lot of change going on but it is not really quite the same as those snazzy and exciting consultancy projects. Now it is all too clear what is needed (more hand sanitiser, more PPE, more testing kits, more resource to get things where they should be when freedom of movement is compromised, ways to keep people happy and secure at home etc).

There are endless stories appearing of how brands and businesses are responding to the need to support the Covid 19 effort. I don’t want to list them all here but it’s interesting to see the nitty gritty details behind these glowing stories of corporate resourcefulness. Beer producer Brewdog was one of the first to ‘pivot’ (note also the new vocab we are deploying in these testing times) its operations from drinks to hand sanitiser. A blog post provides a revealing insight into what’s actually involved. ‘Due to demand, there is a real shortage of suitable types of packaging so you will need to get creative here. So far we have filled 50ml glass bottles, 100ml glass bottles, 100ml plastic bottles, 200ml plastic bottles and larger containers too. We have even filled some 110ml mini beer bottles when no other type of packaging was available.’

And here is an example of a more straightforward ‘I see a gap in the market – ‘let’s go for it’ response. Supplydrop was ‘created to supply you with everything you might want/need to thrive under lockdown.’ It has a growing range of packages, from the pamper kit, the germ killer kit, the birthday kit and the survival kit.

In my household, we have our example of flexible thinking and making do. We were due to go on holiday to Cyprus. Instead, we went there ‘at home’. For two days, we drew and cut out local birds, dotted them around the house in various locations representing different habitats, and then rounded it off with a local meal, complete with Greek salad, fresh hummus, pitta bread and halloumi, all serenaded by Greek music and under a blue sky. Almost as good as the real thing – at least we didn’t have to negotiate Stansted airport to get there!

March 14, 2020

Getting up close and personal to a real brand story

As everyone in marketing knows, these days it’s all about developing brand stories and brands with genuine purpose and strong heritage. It’s not clear that it has to be completely ‘real’ – it just has to satisfy our current craving to buy something more meaningful. And some brands have got really good at it – think about the old stalwarts Ben & Jerry or innocent, both of which started small, but have since been bought up and mass produced, whilst still riding on their credentials of being a bit more ‘indie’ than say, Heinz.

On a holiday to Ecuador last year, I had the opportunity to visit a small-scale artisanal chocolate production site. It was really low key but let me show you the end product so that we are clear the brand could genuinely hold its head up high in terms of visual and taste appeal – you will have to trust me on the latter!

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I actually really like the down-to-earth more crafty and ‘ethnic’ look to the packaging. In the UK, we don’t really see that kind of thing in chocolate. Instead, the visual codes tend to be more refined and upmarket in non-mass market chocolate – recall the minimalist matt black and white of Hotel Chocolat, the more ornate gold, greens and pinks of Prestat or the more decorative Divine.

Being on site at Mashpi meant that I was able to see for myself how the on-pack and website claims were fulfilled in reality. Walking through the plantation we were shown plants that naturally protect the cocoa plants from pesticides and whose leaves fertilise the crop. There was also a resident goat as it turns out their manure is particularly effective.

Mashpi also grows many of the ingredients it uses to create the additional flavour variations. We were shown ginger plants, the inside of the cocoa bean whose pulp is boiled up with sugar to create a kind of jam filling as well as fragrant cardamom.

The actual manufacturing process was a quixotic combination of low-tech basic stages, such as spreading out the beans to dry and then effectively baking them, to the parts which need to comply with health and safety requirements. The latter meant the use of shiny steel equipment seemly very out of place in the midst of this rainforest environment.

Let me end with an image of the actual reason we went to visit Mashpi (coming across a chocolate production site was an unexpected happy bonus!): we were there to see a very reclusive forest bird. The owners of Mashpi have managed to sort of tame this bird to come out more into the open in response to calls and offerings of grubs and other insects. Meet the ant pitta.

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February 15, 2020

Canary Wharf – my work home for a year

When you commute somewhere, it is all too easy for the routine to take over and you become blind to what you see every day around. Just over half way in to a year long contract, I have realised that it was time for me to look up and remember to actively see the place I take many hours travelling to and many hours present at. The buildings are most just glassy or else stony pastiche.

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Please note the green spaces include fake grass. Does it still ‘count’ as a green space then, I wonder?

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So Canary Wharf – what is there? I must confess that I don’t think I will be particularly complimentary. My overall impression is that it is rather shiny and soulless, with a focus on making money and spending money.

Its redeeming features are the elements that stand out as being uncharacteristic of the place. These include certain pieces of art that are dotted around the area. My favourite is the statue below. I like it because it is imperfect; if it is wasn’t made of bronze, I would describe it as a bit shabby; and I still haven’t worked out whether the gesture of the statue is one of joy (thanking the heavens for their happiness) or of utter desperation (calling upon the heavens for support and consolation).

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The other parts I enjoy being in are at the edges – where real life and real London creep it. This comes through most strongly once at the river when the forces of nature do their thing: the tides expose unseemly muddy flats and cormorants pose and stretch to dry their wings at their own chosen spot.

 

I did wonder whether I was being rather harsh and bringing in ‘history’ would make me feel there is more character and depth to the place. Whilst it is certainly true that acknowledging Canary Wharf’s earlier activity in trade adds more colour to the picture, I am not sure it really changes the dynamics. This trading – as it does today – is about wealth, greed and exploitation of global resources. There was lots of trade in slaves, sugar, tobacco and drug smuggling. Hmmm. Like today, Canary Wharf was the place which could show off ground-breaking / landmark developments – for example, the first ever tunnel under a navigable river and the world largest ship built in the 19th century.

Luckily (and perhaps somewhat ironically) the place where I work is one concerned with supporting those on low to middle incomes and where the principle of paternalism (not relying on consumer choice) reigns supreme.

December 14, 2019

Polishing up my perspective on Poland

Over the past year, I have had the privilege to be involved in a deeply fascinating pan-European project with the objective of thinking about the future of the postal sector in 2030. I was working as a part of the team from a German foresight agency and participated by attending three workshops in Paris, Bonn and Warsaw.

The project was so interesting across a whole variety of dimensions: experiencing cultural differences in discussion and social dialogue between countries and generations; different attitudes towards worker rights and protection; the manifold challenges of working with translators; understanding the importance of universal service obligations (all you folk living out in the sticks be thankful for this).

And though I work on what are ostensibly ‘international projects’ as I need to investigate, explore and explain the difference between attitudes and behaviours across different markets, such projects are vicarious. I do not live the differences. Here I did – to a certain extent.

It was only to a certain extent as a number of the aspects of my experience at the workshops did not vary hugely across markets. We stayed in large hotels catering to business travellers and which therefore tended to offer identikit services and products. Take, for example, the buffets of breakfast food from everywhere: some eggs things, some sausage meat things, some cold meats, some bakery and other bread bits, fruit and cereals. Likewise for the lunches, though there were some intriguing local stand-outs of varying appeal. We were in Bonn at the start of October and every single meal (bar breakfast) included the seasonal offering of pumpkin in some form or other (soup, in ravioli, in stew etc), whilst in France, there were macaroons (better) and in Poland, well, it was lots of beetroot (fine but not in excess).

But perhaps the most interesting learning was a realisation that Poland, beyond the beetroot and the rather extraordinary socio-realist architecture, is really going places. I am so used to thinking about Europe as a mature market with very slow growth and that all the whizzy GDP growth rates belong to BRICS, CIVETS and their ilk. Well, it seems that Poland is not hitting double digit growth but certainly compared to other large EU markets, it is operating in a different gear.

The trigger moment was moment was during a presentation midst workshop, when as has been customary for each of the host countries, there is a chance to show off about how brilliant their postal business is. To be honest, it’s most often about how they are managing the commonly felt challenge of mail volumes falling off a cliff whilst trying to snatch up as much as they can of the growing but much more competitive parcels business. However, in Poland, there were pronouncements about doubling revenues and huge growth in activity. To make clear how extraordinary this is, a recent annual report from Royal Mail can only talk about small incremental gains of revenue rarely in double digits.

Yes, it seems that, now I have opened my eyes to it, that Poland is the tiger of Europe. Output growth reached 4.6 percent last year, compared with 2.5 percent for the European Union as a whole, unemployment has dropped to a record low of 4.4 percent. Many other EU states would envy this performance. Poland has reaped the fruits of opening up and liberalising its economy, as well as benefiting from its particular attributes of a large educated population (admittedly somewhat depleted by all those who disappeared off to the UK – probably on their way back now) and its location as being the first EU country Asia encounters as it moves West, and more.

However, some have concerns that this has come at a hidden cost and does not represent sustainable growth or wealth creation. In an interview in October last year, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki commented, ‘We have sold pretty much all of our economy. Money is being sucked out of the country, “transferred every year in the form of dividends or interest on capital, interest on loans, deposits and current accounts.”

From now on, I shall make sure that I stay up to date with the next stage in Poland’s development.

PS Did I forget to mention the dumplings?!

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September 22, 2019

Making it big

How do you view the world and which criteria do you use to determine who is ‘top dog’? If you focus on landmass, then Russia does pretty well; if you look at GDP, it’s the US that comes out as number one; taking population brings China to the fore; and so on.

And then if we think about how these countries got there, it changes the picture yet again. I like thinking in terms of systems and stories, but having just read Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall, I have understood there is another way to frame country narratives. And thinking about things in this way has made some current dynamics clearer/easier to comprehend.

This is best exemplified by focussing on Africa. Over the years, this continent is subject to great paeans about its future potential (as yet unrealised) but which are now ‘almost there’. Why is this?

Well, it’s worth remembering that Africa actually has a head start – it’s where Home Sapiens originated 200,000 years ago. Though Africa is a great place overall and in terms of the specific regions within it (which contain a huge amount of diversity across many different dimensions), what they have in common is isolation: isolation from each other as well as from the outside world. This is significant as this stops the all-important flow of ideas that drive progress.

Let’s come in a little closer. There is the Sahel which cuts across the top third of the country, and whilst the north, in particular those places with access to the Mediterranean and technologies, agriculture innovation and trade from Europe, managed to develop and change , below the Sahel, it’s quite different. Here, there are few plants willing to be domesticated, and animals even less so. Much of the land is jungle, swamp, desert or steep-sided plateau, none of which is good for growing crops or grazing for easy livestock, such as sheep. There is a good quote from Jared Diamond which reinforces this point: “History might have turned out differently if African armies, fed by barnyard-giraffe meat and backed by waves of cavalry mounted on huge rhinos, had swept into Europe to overrun its mutton-fed soldiers mounted on puny horses.”

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And then there is challenge of getting goods in and out. Africa has lots of rivers, but they aren’t much use in this regard as they begin in high land and descent in abrupt drops which thwarts navigation. Going to the sea doesn’t improve the situation much: there are few natural harbours – the coast line across much of Africa is too smooth (where can ships aggregate safely together if that is the case?) and around the beaches the water is too shallow.

However, perhaps some of the ‘challenges’ can now come into their own as the means by which we rely on sharing ideas and goods have changed. For example, those same rivers that hampered trade are now being harnessed for hydro-electric power. That’s one bright spot in the prison of geography. Let’s see how long it takes for more to make a real difference.

 

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?

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!

 

March 14, 2019

Data-rich in the analogue world – challenging grey-tinted glasses perspectives on the times gone by

It is all too easy to slip into lazy thinking and simplistically assume that pre-internet, Big Data, cookies, mobile phones and so forth, it was like the Dark Ages and that options in terms of tracking and surveillance were limited. Well, think again. My own such assumptions were challenged from an unlikely source: a detective novel written in 1929 (“The Man in the Queue” by Josephine Tey).

Instead, the enterprising, thoughtful and rather dapper detective (Inspector Alan Grant) was able to get hold of many little elements of data, all of which provided valuable clues. This was possible because he was operating in the smaller scale, slow, pre-globalised and pre-AI world where people still wrote things down by hand and carried out many transactions in person.

Here are some examples to bring life what I mean:

Critical to uncovering to the identity of the murder victim was his tie. As things still got made in the UK at this time, the Inspector and his team went off to the tie manufacturer for some insights. The manufacturer checked their books and found out to which shop this tie with a more unusual design had been sent off. The next stop for the team was the identified department store on Nottingham. The Inspector spoke to the young man who worked on the tie counter, who was able to recall what the gentleman who had bought the tie looked like. There was no need to spool through hours of CCTV footage, hoping to find the right moment, which would have no doubt been caught only in limited grainy detail and at an odd angle. People remember people and, more importantly, are able to describe a person not just in terms of appearance but what ‘they were like’, giving valuable clues as to their character and state of mind.

In the 1930’s there was no digital social media but instead real-life community networks. And this turned out to be very useful for finding out where the suspect might have gone off to hide holed up by their family or friends. One of the Inspector’s team pretended to be a struggling soldier looking for some odd jobs to do in the neighbourhood and deliberately targeted the vicar. It was a smart choice as the vicar’s household knew all about their congregation and their backgrounds – a little flattery to some gossiping servants went a long way. No misleading fake posts here.

Another important point to note is that the analogue world still ‘did’ data but in different forms. Fingers prints abound, used left right and centre, whilst more ingenious and interesting, was making use of the serial numbers on bank notes. The suspect left a significant wedge of cash in their room and the Inspector took these notes to the bank. The bank tellers were able to look back at their ledgers and check who had actually withdrawn this money. This turned out not to be the suspect, thus providing another valuable clue.

But you know what – at the end of the day, none of this data was actually useful and more of a distraction or red herring! The guilty party turned out to be someone not caught up in this trail of records, files, community chat and so forth – but that kind of surprise twist is what you expect from a detective novel. Some things don’t change.

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