Why utilities need to be back in public hands

After 30 years of infrastructure privatisation in Australia, it’s time we put critical utilities (Energy, Water, Telecoms, Rail, et al) back in the hands of the public. While this may sound somewhat draconian and even semi-communist, right now it is the most capitalist move we could make, and our future depends on it. I spoke about it today on radio – you can listen here.

An Infrastructure Reset – Show me a rich country, and I’ll show you rich infrastructure. It’s what modern economies are built on and always will be. We are currently moving through a 200 year shift which involves an entire reset of the physical world around us. In telecoms we are rapidly moving to optic fibre and 5G. Energy is shifting away from coal to renewables (primarily solar) and we need to build out an ‘energy internet’ to replace our ageing grid. All cars will be electric in 8 years time and we’ll require highly distributed charging facilities where ever a car parks.  Every economy in the world, that wants to compete globally, must now build out, connected, post industrial infrastructure.

Natural Monopolies – There are certain things which are what economists call Natural Monopolies. These are industries where the most efficient way to serve a market is with a single operator or system. This is most often the case with large national based infrastructure. For example, it doesn’t make any sense economically to have 2 competing sets of national railways alongside each other, to have 2 sets or power lines, or wireless competitive 5g towers serving the same geography. This idea isn’t new, and goes way to back to Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations. And while it would be dangerous to have infrastructure businesses that are privately owned not to having any competition, if they’re publicly owned, and regulated we can remove problems associated with monopoly operators.

Competing interests & political instability – When things like ‘energy‘ are owned by private firms, their imperative is maximise profits and serve their shareholders, not their customers. At a time when we should be shifting to new forms of infrastructure, privately owned utilities create misaligned incentives in the market place. This will be to our long term detriment in the Australian economy. The NBN is a classic example. At a time when NBN is being rolled out (public), it has to compete with the 5G networks of Telstra (private). If we had a single telecoms infrastructure provider, we’d have a chance to build out a singular, worlds best network. Instead, what we have is a piecemeal financial basket case. We, the tax payers, are the losers.

I  truly believe the leadership crisis we are currently facing in Australia (today and over the past decade), is partially because of the problems of vested interests trying to influence the public policy. We have a population that want to move towards renewable energy, yet factions within political parties are influenced by the coal lobby and short term financial interests. The net result is that leaders can’t make the decisions they need to for a future proof economy and we end up with a dysfunctional government.

The benefits of publicly owned utilities – Crucially, this idea isn’t something which sounds fanciful, but just isn’t possible financially. The investment markets have already priced in the truth of what I’m talking about here – that is, the cost of many infrastructure assets are at all time lows. Telstra has a yield of 7% and new coal fired power plants are literally un-investable. Hence, these infrastructure assets could be taken back into public hands at, or below the cost of capital to acquire them. If we did this, the Government would have the ability to build out what the people actually want, and what the future needs. These renewed Government owned enterprises could serve as future employment training grounds in critical skills arenas and we could re-engage our long lost technical apprenticeship model of employment. And let’s not forget that having infrastructure which is world class would facilitate startups to compete globally. This would benefit both the tax base (remember the Gov has a 30% Joint Venture with every business via tax) and open up export potential. What we learn building this out, could then be built in other countries. (software & hardware)

This program might be something we just need to do for 20 years before going private again. But what is clear that our telecoms are a mess, our energy system is a mess and we need new infrastructure quickly if we want to remain wealthy and relevant.

Just this week I was in Sri Lanka and they already have 5G well underway. Emerging economies are building out tomorrow, while wealthy countries like Australia mess around with yesterday’s technology to keep the rich and influential happy. It’s the great squander of our times. One of the reasons the government won’t serve us in Australia, is that we don’t own the assets the decisions are being made around. Maybe if we took the assets back, they’d have to make sure they run these industries properly or they wont get voted back in.

Radical times, require radical action.

How to invest in technology

One of the most common questions I get asked is, ‘What technology or companies should I invest in? You study technology everyday and spend time large companies, so you must have an opinion’. And you guessed it – I sure do. While I’m not an investment advisor, there are some interesting things which we can be sure of when it comes to investing and technology.

The hot technology of the day will always be overpriced. We can expect that hot tech stocks, and even raw materials that go into technology will attract attention and demand that push their prices up. While this may be justified based on future expectations, it often reduces the potential return on investment. We often see this in P/E ratios. For example, the P/E ratio of the S&P500 is currently 24.37 compared to a long term average of 15, due to the big tech stocks currently making up such a big portion of it. In fact, six stocks (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix and Apple) make up 30% of the S&P500. Sure, some stocks continue to rise like these have – but how many of them did you pick to be as big as they are now back in 2005? When it comes to stocks, I take the Warren Buffett approach and invest in Indexed Funds – that way I get all the winners and none of the cost. You can listen to a podcast I did on this topic that explains it succinctly.

Focus on the beneficiaries of the technology. The way to do this is to scrutinise social and economic structures will change due to new technology. Structures which live a layer or two outside of the technology itself, yet stand to benefit significantly from it. One particular area which is both underpriced and about to benefit from a large technology shift is certain forms of real estate. Transport historically has had an big impact on how and where we live. As we enter an era of autonomous transport, it will be easier to live further afield from major cities, and commute either virtually or in your ‘rolling lounge room’ one or two days a week to the office. While Henry Ford facilitated the birth of suburbs through affordable cars, autonomous vehicles and the work from home revolution will invent exurbs – places of great beauty within two hours of a major city. Via technology, these places will have all the benefits of a major city, but the advantage of a tranquil and desirable natural landscape. It’s possible to buy large land tracts in Geelong (1 hour from Melbourne) for a little over the median house price in the suburbs.

Right now this opportunity is wide open a few years out from when new forms of transport will change everything. It’s this type of technology investing few people ever think about.

Steve.

What data doesn’t understand

It’s true data, and our new found ability to sift through large volumes of it, has come with many benefits: fraud detection, genomics, natural language processing to name a few. But, data doesn’t get humanity. It’s just a reflector, not the director. As a tool it has certain biasses built into it. One of which is its ability to take the wide, and make it narrow. It’s also great at finding correlation between the disparate. You know data what it isn’t good at? Detecting boredom.

We humans are weird beings and right at the point when data might tell us something is heading a certain way, we about face, and go in the exact opposite direction, often quicker than anyone expects. Probably because we love variety, nuance and something a little different.

It turns out that computers don’t actually understand – they calculate. The word computer itself used to be a job title of people who literally added things up. The large majority of algorithms we employ calculate the probability of something. That probability calculation will be based on the stack of code it feeds from. And the larger that stack, the deeper and more hidden the bias will be inside it. What this means for us, is that when we change our mind, on a whim, ‘the system’ won’t see it coming.

The stimulus we get as humans comes from the real and messy world we we live in. So much of which still sits outside of the data economy, even with all the tracking we do these days. So what does this mean for us? It means that unexpected change is inevitable, and the data wont tells us it’s coming. We need to look for it ourselves and measure it from personal human experience. Variety is one of the great human desires, and just when something is peaking in popularity, we decide to leave the building for no real reason other than the fact we are human.

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How to predict the future

Predicting the future seems like an impossible task, but there is a trick to it. It’s less about guessing what’s next, and more about piecing together what’s already here. A veritable mash up of tools, behaviour and incentives.  Sure, there will always be unexpected turns in events – economic externalities, social backlash and political events which we’ll never predict. But, the vast majority of the time, what is about to occur in business or an industry is there to be seen, and acted upon a long time before it happens at scale. The way I do it is by observing three things in particular.

Anthropology: This is what doesn’t change. Or that which changes very slowly – human behaviour. We are running a very old piece of software as humans – a 400,000 year old code, otherwise known as our DNA. By studying our human proclivities we can observe patterns which demonstrate what we value and how we’re likely to behave in a given set of circumstances. We need to study behaviour, everywhere we go. Paying attention pays dividends.

Technology: This is what does change. The tools we use to get things done, and they are in a constant state of flux. If the barriers to entry are lower enough to switch to a better, more efficient and enjoyable method of getting anything done – we will. The trick, is that very often the tool is available a long time before it is widely distributed. It first must be affordable and available geographically before we can embrace it. When we study what’s next in technology it’s easy to see where shifts are likely to occur because most emerging technologies follow price/ performance ratios which are very predictable. This happens both at the industrial and consumer level. Importantly, the eventual adoption of a new technology can’t be based on utility alone, it must also be socially acceptable to our species. Google Glass comes to mind as an example of something we simply didn’t like. Likewise, large corporations often find it difficult to embrace new technology for weirdly social reasons. Because new technology ignores both the financial and emotional investment a company may have made in now outdated infrastructure. Legacy firms often get disrupted because they fall in love with their tools and systems, instead of the problem they are meant to be solving for people. Read here – successful humans don’t like change.

Economics: This is what ties to the above two elements together. A simple way to define economics is the study of incentives. Wider incentives are what shapes our behaviour, and in turn influences the way money flows around people and the systems we live inside. The question we need to ask here, is will this technology facilitate the way people behave and provide a big enough incentive for them (Corporations and Consumers) to move to this new way of getting things done. If so, how will it change the way money, things and people move around.

So, when it comes to thinking about tomorrow, start by thinking about what’s already here today.

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What is TATE? A mega growth industry

After a keynote speech, I was asked again today what will happen to all the people who will lose their jobs due to Automation and Artificial Intelligence. The example cited was people who drive for a living. While I’ve written about this before, as well as the shift off farms to the cities in the industrial dawn, this time I thought it might valuable to propose an entirely new economy – The Autonomous Transport Economy or TATE.

TATE will allow a set of entirely new business models, consumer products and employment created by the advent of driverless vehicles and drones. Before we do that, let’s explore the last time something like this happened, something we all experience daily: The Night Time Economy.

A little over a hundred years ago there was no night time economy. Artificial light used to be inordinately expensive, unobtainable to many, smelly and dangerous. Candles, kerosine lamps, open fires and gas lanterns that did provide light weren’t nearly as convenient as the electric light we now take for granted. When wood was the main source of light, it took 60 hours of work to generate the equivalent lumens of a modern light bulb shining for a measly 54 minutes. ‘Light’, which was once too expensive to use, is now too cheap to notice. The significance of cheap electricity is profound. Electricity invented the 24 hour economy. Before that our productive life, and economy, was mostly restricted to daylight hours. Think of everything you now do at night, and you’ll get a perspective of what the ‘night time economy’ has generated – cinemas, bars, nightclubs, night markets, restaurants and 24 hour production. In the home, we have television, radio, entertainment, gaming, white goods and pretty much everything that happens when the lights go down. And yes, it would’ve been difficult to predict the industries and jobs that inevitably arrived to support this entirely new economy. As it is difficult now to predict The Autonomous Transport Economy (TATE).

The possibility for economic change, and therefore growth driven by TATE, is bigger than everyone imagines. A few simple ideas for stimulus display how much opportunity lies before us to create tomorrow’s jobs. The best way to predict the future by asking a few simple questions:

What will happen to Carparks? How will we reconfigure the real estate of high rise and underground carparks. What will we use these concrete caves for? Day time popup shops and night time charging stations? Places for Autonomous cars to sleep and get cleaned?

What will happen to the ground space in cities allocated to car parking – where our cars have a little rest? This averages 30% in large cities. Will we green them, make pedestrian friendly or build on them?

We can expect real estate prices and populations in Exurbs (places of great beauty within 2 hours of a major city) to increase as people decide to live further afield, work remotely and travel to the city autonomously for their meetings or 2 office days per week.

Offices will shrink, as large companies realise costs for running a Corporate Taj Mahal in a city can be reduced re-assessing the need for expensive real estate and the impact on a lengthy commute for staff. As they realise team members only need to be in the same room a few days a week and not five, the corporate office will fragment into smaller distributed work places. A large corporate might have satellite offices or share co-working spaces around the state, knowing of course that the autonomous vehicles will zip workers to the city at 200km per hour when meetings are needed.

These new driverless vehicles will be reconfigured very differently to current day cars. Some will be fitted out as fully connected rolling offices, and they’ll look more like a business class cabin on a plane than seats do today (which are really just stage coaches with a motor instead of a horse!).

We can expect cars to be redesigned and new versions of cars to be invented. Just like we invented buses and pick up trucks, we’ll invent Sleeper Vehicles. These will be designed for longer trips (Overnighters), or for those requiring a bit of luxury while in transit. People will own them, some will order on demand. They’ll look more like a bedroom or lounge room than a transport device.

E-commerce arrived with the web, and now we can expect R-commerce or Rolling Commerce. It’s an entirely new type of buying we’ll do which is time- and geographically-specific, based on where we are and where we are going. It will claim some of the time we used to allocate to drving.

As a result, industries will pop up to support R-commerce, including RX designers (Rolling Experience) and build strategies around the money which is expended in vehicles. It will become a commercial measure among retail, ecommerce and other documented economic indicators.

Shopping centres will become distribution hubs, where the giant carparks we currently have are converted into autonomous retail pick up up bays by day and electric recharging stations and cleaning zones by night.

Why just sit and relaxing in the car on the way? Why not order an a GymCar with built in exercise machines and do some rowing or weight lifting on the way to the city?

With the worry of crashing your gone, we’ll still need Hacking Insurance. While it will be rare, it’s already proven to be possible and hacking will generally become a major pivot for the insurance industry in many product arenas. The fear of cars being hacked will recruit and educate consumers to insure every digital product they own against hacking.

We can expect cars to be tracked thorough using blockchain technology. One owner who only drove it on Sunday? We’ll know everywhere the car has been, done and had done to it. Even our payments for utilising cloud cars will be built on this tech sooner than we think.

Of course, cars will use more data than houses. If we choose to own one, there’s a good chance we’ll send it out to work when we are not using it. It’ll need data for entertainment, commerce, deliveries, and of course driving itself. Expect data packages to become a major selling point with cars. Cars sold in regional areas might just come with satellite data access. (Powered by SpaceX? Maybe they’ll provide the cloud that powers transport data?)

Roads will need to be redesigned to cope with autonomous transport. Concrete, steal and meta-strcuture will need to be built by hand and machine creating significant employment. We’ll first see signs on the road which say “You are now entering an autonomous vehicle zone.” Eventually, human driving will be outlawed as new laws redefine how we move.

All this excites me – I see new industries, employment and opportunities to create a greener, safer more fluid world – most of which we are yet to imagine.  All we really need is the willingness to move towards our inevitable future.

Go build it – Steve. 

Why machines can never replace humans

The internet is terrific at serving up things we didn’t know we needed, enjoy and very often love. That’s why there are currently 72 million cat videos of youtube. I happened upon one such youtube channel recently – Dude Perfect. For the uninitiated, it’s a channel which shows a bunch of people doing ‘trick shots’ – like getting a basketball through a hoop from a bounce off a 10 story building – I’m betting they’ve done this, thought I haven’t checked.

Their latest version shows a Super Bowl champion Drew Brees doing amazing trick shots with a football. You can watch it here. It is mind blowing.

There are machines that can already do many of the shots they do with a 99.9% success rate. In a few short years some soft robots will be able to beat these guys at every shot they take. But here’s the thing – we’ll still watch their channel. And for one simple reason – it’s amazing because a human is doing it.

The future of what we get paid for in many realms wont be because it is the most efficient way it can be done, but because people are doing it. As a society we are interested in what we can achieve, even if a car can go faster than a human, we all still know who Usain Bolt is. There’s a good chance a lot of things robots will be able to do, the highest paid versions of it will be those with human imperfections as part of the reason we buy. Humanity is where the future of work and money lives. Who knows, maybe intelligent robots will pay to watch humans play sport one day?

Artificial Intelligence isn’t about replacing us, but outsourcing the things we’d rather not do. Once artificial intelligence takes away the mundane, the inhumane and repetitive, we can get on with the creative, the interactive and the enjoyable.

Come and hang with me on June 20th – I’ll be giving you the human live version of my new book – I’ll be wearing my heart on my sleeve in all I say, some of which will include truths my publisher wouldn’t put in print or the screen…

Book your seat here – see you there.

Stay rad, Steve.

This year the internet arrives in Australia

We don’t really have the internet in Australia. I mean, sure we are connected to it, but we aren’t even in the top 50 countries for internet speeds. That’s a total travesty for our economic future. Some of the countries with faster internet include Kenya, Lithuania, Slovenia, Moldova and many developing economies. This is the modern day equivalent of having unpaved roads, no electricity or running water. Outside of the three S’s – Search, Social & Streaming, we barely have web services which can turn industries upside down. But some of that is about to change.

Later this year Amazon arrive in Australia and with their cheap capital (free shareholder money they don’t pay dividends on) and serious intent to dominate this new market. We will finally get, at least one part of the internet, other markets have had for years. If you think you’ve seen disruption to industry in Australia, buckle your seat belt, because we are about to see what they other half of the world already have.  We’ll get to know not only what same day delivery feels like, but 2 hour delivery. We’ll get to know how great it feels for that delivery to be free and we’ll get to pay prices which will make our local retailers seem like robber barrens. It will change our consumer and business landscape because it will be an example of possibility.

I was a guest of the award winning podcast Future Sandwich episode aptly titled, Surviving Amazon. Have a listen here, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Also be sure to check my media page for weekly interviews I’m doing on Tv & radio on all things future.

Don’t forget to join me for to celebrate my new book launch The Lessons School Forgot, on June 20th. Free tickets here, see you there! Steve.