xrematon

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?

Advertisements

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.

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.

Image result for v&A future exhibition

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.

dubai city

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.

IMG_2374

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.

IMG_20190208_104415

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

IMG_20190208_104523Finally, the whole temple room was properly illuminated.

IMG_20190208_105220

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.

IMG_20190208_114206

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.

img_20181228_100605

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.

img_20181230_071304

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.

IMG_20181222_100612

November 20, 2018

Get real!

Though almost one pound in every six is spent online in the UK and despite the fact I have already written a post lauding the internet, I think that engaging in consumer activity with real human interaction, face to face or on the phone, still has a lot going for it. Let me justify my perspective with three bits of evidence / recently experienced examples.

Firstly, the boring but perhaps surprising nugget of evidence. With the shift to the virtual world, many have proclaimed the end of all things physical. Whilst this may be happening with many forms of media, books are challenging these lazy assumptions. Sales of physical books are expected to grow modestly, by about 1 percent annually, every year. And it seems that ebooks, in whatever form, just aren’t so exciting any more. According to the American Association of Publishers, e-book sales in 2017 fell for the third consecutive year, off 4.7 percent from 2016, to $1.1 billion from $1.16 billion.

Second, let me tell you about my beloved oven, which recently broke down beyond repair. I did the necessary research online in order to get a sense of the different options out there and what kind of deals and promotions were available. Before I made the purchase, I did a quick call to the online retailer, ao, I had selected. Having worked through my various questions with the person at the end of the phone, instead of making the purchase online, I was identified as a repeat customer (my washing machine broke several months ago – not sure I can cope with any more domestic disaster), and without asking or prompting, I was offered a £15 discount. This unexpected bonus would not have been granted if I had gone online only.

My third example comes from a trip to the great extravaganza that is Bird Fair. As hinted in a previous post, I live in a household of keen birders and Bird Fair is the place to go for individuals of this inclination. Though there is obviously lots of activity online in the world of birding, including the indispensable Rare Bird Alert app to keep track of unexpected species appearing somewhere in the British Isles, as well as Whatsapp groups to keep communities of interest in the loop, going to the Fair brought particular advantages. It allowed us to visit stands and ask people the type of questions you ask when you are face to face – more informal, less structured, with immediate follow-up, more effective often than a time-symmetric drawn-out drip-flow of an email thread. You could look people in the eye to see if you trust them with lots of money for a Big Birding Trip. We managed to get binoculars repaired for free, something that would have been very unlikely to happen otherwise. And I haven’t even mentioned the lectures and talks on a whole variety of diverse topics, ranging from ‘Why birdwatching isn’t just a man’s world’ to ‘An introduction to the avian riches of North West Ecuador’ and ‘Why you should never ever write a field guide’ (surprisingly gripping).

Here’s an entertaining bonus photo: of all the different recycling bins at the Fair! But there still were some I felt to be lacking, namely for food. We’ll have to go back next year to see if that is addressed – amongst other pleasures.

IMG_20180817_094903

October 18, 2018

Bots-tastic!

Filed under: Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 9:46 am
Tags: , ,

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to experience the delights of safari activity in Botswana. This is one of those posts where I’ll the photos talk for themselves.

The awe-inspiring delta

IMG_0532

Bee eaters – never fail to charm

IMG_0544

The obligatory breath-taking sunset view

IMG_0561

Comic animal picture

IMG_0669

The show-off ‘look how close I got’ photo

IMG_1513

A gem only spotted by those who spent many hours looking into the scrubby brushes

IMG_1767

And the mystery arty shot to finish.

IMG_1517

September 19, 2018

Change in the financial sector – three observations

Over the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to dabble in numerous projects for FMCG clients. Recently, however, this pattern has shifted and I have worked on several projects in the financial services sector, giving me a chance to engage with the challenges and dynamics impacting this sector.

Across all areas of commercial activity, there is increasing focus on innovation. In mature markets, growth is slow and it seems that the best opportunities to deliver against revenue targets come from not simply tweaking the existing but taking a fresh approach. When it comes to the financial sector, innovation is undeniably taking place, but a lot of this is driven by the external context, rather than established players deciding for themselves to do things differently. How money is managed is changing rapidly – thanks to changes in technology and the accompanying shifts in consumer expectations and habits. What is most interesting of all is the way that this new of ‘doing things’ is most apparent in emerging and developing markets, with mature markets lagging often behind.

Think about mobile money – this initially got going in Kenya. And now look at where the most sophisticated mobile payment ecosystems exist – there are in China. In mature markets, we are hobbled by our legacy systems which make switching to quicker and more convenient processes hard. Moving to contactless payment didn’t require waiting for the technology to be invented (that was around a long while ago); the delay came from having enough retailers who had installed the pay points that could accept this payment method. In emerging markets, it has been possible to build the infrastructure from scratch, using only the latest and best, which can work seamlessly across all types of digital processes and systems.

Mature markets are not only behind the curve in innovation. Some might argue there is a backlash as well as momentum to maintain the status quo. In an article earlier this year, Victoria Cleland, the Bank of England’s chief cashier, mentioned that she does not use contactless payment cards for personal spending – in part because she is yet to trust the technology completely. In Sweden, though the country is making rapid progress towards becoming the world’s first completely cashless society, there are growing concerns it is causing problems for the elderly and other vulnerable groups, as well as recognition that phasing out coins and notes could put the entire country at risk should Sweden encounter a serious crisis or war.

My final observation relates to how our relationship with money, and those organisations whom we talk to about money, is changing in the core fundamentals. In the UK, being able to buy a house is not a realistic aspiration for those in early adulthood. First-time buyers now wait longer – on average, they are seven years older than in 1960, and likely to be in their late thirties. In the face of this situation, some decide they will simply rent. Likewise, buying a car no longer seems such a critical entry milestone to adult life. Instead, there is great aspirational appeal in not being tied down, and instead taking the opportunity to experience life and work in a more flexible manner. I paint an extreme picture but only to bring out what challenges this presents for financial organisations.

If people are no longer buying houses or cars, gone is their opportunity to establish a long-term relationship with customers by providing them a mortgage or loan; if people are not slotting into standard regular jobs, gone is the opportunity to have salaries deposited in a nice and steady manner to build up bank capital; and with a desire to travel and focus on experiences, gone is the need for credit cards and other vehicles to facilitate spending.

It is a world for the brave, with the greatest innovation found not quite where and how you might expect it.

IMG_0469

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.