xrematon

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.

1

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

2

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).

3

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.

January 12, 2020

The shortest day

A long endless tunnel of dark – curtains not ever needing to be drawn, a house blanketed from the inside all day, getting to work lit by the neon of artificial bulbs, waiting on a damp chill platform, staring in the darkness for the welcome fugginess of the train, arriving at work in the dawn but disappearing straightaway into a hermetically sealed modern building during the hours of natural daylight, so that, when released, the world is still not there but all is sealed in black with fake brightness to guide only but not to reveal.

1

Well, there is another way. On the actual shortest day of the year, I escaped the routine of work and spent a day out in Portsmouth, and thus was better able to appreciate, even savour, the fragile and vulnerable light of this time of year. The day began with a sunrise on the beach…

…and was then followed by a ‘full English’ with a suitable English entertainment: watching hardy middle-aged folk go for a swim in the foaming waves, a fair few with bare skin. Bracing and bold.

4

Next was distraction and diversion in the form of a visit to the Mary Rose museum. My top highlight were the boxes from the officers and gentleman on the ship – as ever – history is often easiest understood through the relics left from those wealthy enough to both afford to have their own possessions and be able to keep them relatively safe. These boxes contained the expected items of clothing and shoes, as well as more personal items reflecting that individual’s background and culture (a book, a icon from Italy, the latest gadgets, such as a candle snuffer, and more). The most entertaining item was the a pepper grinder complete with a supply of peppercorns – spices were a luxury then and therefore worth keeping as a secret stash! I can empathise with that gentleman from 500 years ago – I too have my secret stash of special chocolate.

5

Walking out in the daylight once more brought with it the opportunity to admire the shining white powers and pillars that form part of Portsmouth’s distinctive skyline (!).

The day was closed with a trip up the Spinnaker Tower. For such a fake construction, it was surprisingly entertaining thanks to the views across, down, and even inside (of watching people respond to the glass panel on the floor in the viewing area).

And, for once, an early sunset was perfect timing – to provide an atmospheric background to our afternoon tea.

12

The shortest day in fact turned out to be one of the ‘best’.

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?!

Image result for polish dumplings

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.

IMG_1134

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.

IMG_3344 - Copy

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
Tags: , ,

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.

IMG_4171

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!).

IMG_4233

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!

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.”

IMG_0667

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?

IMG_4159

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

IMG_3734

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
Tags: , ,

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.

1a1b

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

2

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

3456

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.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.