To be or NFT?

If there’s one consistent lesson to be learned from Blockchain and crypto is that the enabling technology often outpaces our understanding of the viable use case, commercial application or sustainable business model. For example, smart contracts have only recently proven their value with the rise of decentralized finance (DeFi). Even then, they are not perfect and if not well-coded can result in hacks, losses or other damage. Plus, until scaling (transaction throughput) and gas fees (transaction costs) are properly resolved, mass adoption is still some way off.

CryptoPunk #7523 (Image sourced from Reuters)

The latest crypto phenomenon is the market for NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Artworks in the form of digital files are being created, auctioned and traded for serious (or very silly?) amounts of money – just Google EtherRock, Beeple, CryptoPunk or Rare Pepe for recent examples.

NFTs are not just confined to digital art – animation, video, music and text are all being created in the form of NFTs. In addition, NFTs are being minted to represent ownership or other IP rights for physical artworks, real estate assets, collectibles and luxury goods.

Why would anyone pay the best part of US$12m for the original digital file of CryptoPunk #7523, a copy of which I have displayed above?

Perhaps we need to consider the following:

First, the image above is simply a low-res web image, easily reproduced via copy and paste – it’s not the “real” image as represented by the code or digital file embedded in the NFT. The original file is owned by the NFT buyer, and if it is an edition of one, then that is the only authentic version. Scarcity (as well as kudos) is a key market driver in NFTs – but only if someone else attaches financial value to the work (just as in any art market).

Second, owning the NFT does not necessarily mean you own the copyright or other rights associated with the art work. (I may own a Picasso painting, but I don’t own the image contained in the work.) So, apart from holding an NFT in your digital wallet or displaying it in a virtual art gallery, the only right you have is to re-sell the work. This means you can’t commercialise the image for t-shirts, on-line redistribution or reproduction (unless the owner has agreed to grant such rights within the NFT). (My use of the image here would be covered by the “fair use” principle, for the purposes of illustration and/or critical analysis.)

Third, unless you are able to export the NFT from the marketplace or platform that sold it, the NFT may “vanish” if the platform goes offline for any reason. (Doubtless, platforms need to enable token transfers to other market places and to users’ own digital wallets, otherwise there could be a lot of stranded and/or worthless NFTs in years to come.)

Fourth, the creator of the original work may be entitled to a % of the resale value of the NFT. This is obviously an important consideration for artists and other content creators, and I see this as a positive development. By extension, musicians, authors, film-makers and designers can more easily track and control the downstream revenue generated by the use and licensing of their works by third-party marketplaces, streaming platforms or 3D printing and fabrication services.

Fifth, NFTs support improved authentication, provenance and chain of ownership, as well as bringing more transparency to the world of art auctions – valuations, bidding and prices could all be hashed on the Blockchains that track the NFTs.

Finally, if NFTs are seen as a form of bearer bond (linking ownership to whomever controls the token), they could also be used to package up a portfolio of different crypto or digital assets, and auctioned as a single lot. The buyer could then unlock the disparate assets, and combine them into subsequent bundles – bringing a new dimension to block trades and the transfer of large bundles of stocks.

Next week: I got nothing

 

From R&D to P&L

Last week, the leader of the Federal Opposition announced a $15bn reconstruction fund aimed at job creation if Labor wins government, saying Australia must be a country “that makes things”. With a specific focus on cars, trains and ships, this policy pledge sounded like a clarion call to the metal-bashing industries of old (and recalls either an 80s movie or a 60s pop song…). This followed the launch by the Victorian government of the $2bn “Breakthrough Fund”, aimed at enhancing the State’s R&D capabilities.

While this type of government largesse and targeted economic stimulus sounds welcome, I can’t help feeling the money could be better spent on covering some basic building blocks in the search for innovation and economic development – upgrading the primary, secondary and tertiary education for the 21st century (e.g, an integrated STEAM curriculum); funding budding entrepreneurs (e.g., job maker for the newly self-employed, especially those under 25); enhancing the SME loan market (e.g., making it easier to access working capital without first having to own real estate); and overhauling the procurement and “panel” regimes in the public and private sectors (e.g., giving more equitable access to start-ups and scale-ups).

The “reconstruction fund” talks about making equity stakes, and co-investing with the private sector and superannuation funds. This sounds great, but is it the role of government to pick winners? Surely it should be in the business of enabling innovation and facilitating the growth of SMEs (which is where much new employment is created, rather than in legacy industries and/or declining sectors). Also, because of the way their mandates are written (as well as their ROC models and fiduciary duties), traditionally, superannuation funds and other institutional investors find it very difficult to write cheques for less than, say, $200m. Such a figure is generally far beyond what most start-ups or scale-ups are seeking – so these institutional funds are often placed with external managers who can slice them up into smaller allocations, which adds to the overall investment costs.

The role model for the $15bn fund is the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which returned a cumulative 4.75% as at June 30, 2020. Certainly a higher return than the cash rate, but hardly competitive with other asset classes or investment returns, if that is a key measure of success. The CEFC performance is currently running below its own benchmark, and while the efforts of the CEFC have no doubt led to more jobs in the renewables and sustainability sectors, hard data is not easy to come by. In its favour, the CEFC has made a large number of small scale investments, which may well provide a template for Labor’s manufacturing fund (although it’s not evident what form those investments have taken).

In speaking to a range of people over the past few weeks (civil servants, start-up founders, VCs, CEOs of listed companies, etc.), the following mixed messages emerged:

  1. Well-meaning government officials tell you that they are “here to help” founders, start-ups, entrepreneurs, SMEs etc. Problem is, these bureaucrats can’t effect necessary systemic change in the way innovation is funded – they can only operate at a transactional level. Also, many entrepreneurs would politely suggest that the government could do more by getting out of the way…
  2. One VC took issue with my suggestion that Australia needs a better manufacturing supply chain that produces more local components that are interoperable/interchangeable, and which also encourages more user-serviceable (and therefore more sustainable) devices and appliances – he was advocating in favour of sealed units and thus a continued dependance on the manufacturer/distributor service model; whereas I think self-sufficiency in manufacturing also means more consumer choice in post-sales support.
  3. An innovative Australian fintech chose to list overseas because the local capital markets did not “get” its business model, while another locally-listed fintech faced similar obstacles with its own listing.
  4. A start-up founder looking for a modest amount of money for an R&D project (in the sustainability sector) had already secured an equal amount of funding “in kind” from a government agency – but was finding it somewhat difficult to match it with the equivalent private capital.
  5. Neighbours building a passive house have had to import energy-efficient triple-glazed window units – because they are not easily available locally, and the only supplier they could find would have cost at least 50% more.

Finally, the new Labor policy (especially if it aims to support the EV sector) will need to demonstrate it has learned the lessons of Australia’s subsidised car industry, and that the proposed fund is part and parcel of an integrated approach to public transport infrastructure, encompassing high-speed inter-city trains, smart cities with self-drive vehicles, better orbital routes connecting suburbs, and regional hubs that aren’t reliant on cars.

Next week: Synchronicity

Business as Unusual

At the time of writing, the Victorian Government has decided to defer the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, in the wake of a sudden spike in community transmissions. There was always a risk that opening up too much, too soon, would result in a second wave of coronavirus infections, as people returned to work, as shops, restaurants and bars started to re-open, and as people began socializing on a larger scale. There is even talk of more drastic local restrictions in so-called hot-spot areas.

Meanwhile, the deferment (and the extended State of Emergency) is creating further uncertainty for businesses in an already fragile economy. In recent weeks, I have been attending a number of on-line seminars on the broad theme of business in the post-pandemic era. Variously described as the “new normal”, the “new new normal”, and even the “next normal”, things are unlikely ever to be the same, and not many punters are willing to bet on the resumption of business as usual.

Here are some of the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead:

Future of Work

As employees head back to the workplace, employers will need to balance the need for productivity and business continuity with the obligation to provide a safe working environment. Some staff can’t wait to get back to the office, some will prefer to continue working from home (if they can), while a large number would probably welcome a mix between the two. This has prompted debate on introducing a 4-day working week, the introduction of team rostering (e.g., alternating one week in, one week out), and possibly the end of hot-desking.

Overall, new work practices will necessitate a re-think on office space, workplace location and employee facilities. Some commentators have predicted that companies will need to extend their current premises (to allow for adequate space per employee); while others suggest CBD workplaces may need to decentralize towards more suburban or regional hubs (to reduce commuting times, to relieve congestion on public transport and to allow people to work closer to home). The latter may also stimulate local economies as people reallocate their commuting costs and daily expenses into local shops, cafes and services.

Innovation

Change and uncertainty should drive companies to innovate – in fact, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently spoke about innovation in light of the pandemic. His view is that current technological trends will only accelerate, and industries facing disruption will be displaced even faster. So no time for complacency, and no point waiting for normal service to resume.

Necessity has driven many retail and restaurant businesses towards more online engagement with their customers, and those that have been shown to be creative, resilient and agile appear to have found a way through the lock-down. Equally, many businesses used to delivering their services in person have had to find ways to embrace digital solutions – no doubt enhancing their digital transformation in the process.

Self-sufficiency

We’ve heard about the need for food and fuel security – especially when supply chains are disrupted, and when countries pursue “domestic first” policies in relation to essential goods and commodities.

While Australia is a net food exporter, we still have to import many daily staples. Primary producers have come to rely on lucrative export markets, so in the light of trade wars and import bans, local farmers and consumers alike will need to adjust their expectations – on choice, price, seasonal availability and market volumes.

Australia is also in the enviable position of being potentially self-sufficient in energy – but although we are rich in renewables, we are still reliant on fossil fuels, and recent events revealed our vulnerability to volatility in the oil markets. It suggests the current environmental and economic debates around weaning ourselves off coal, oil and gas are only going to become more critical.

There has also been a call for a larger domestic manufacturing base – not only to enhance workforce skills and productivity, but also to ward off supply chain disruption. Some have called for a return to domestic car production. Even if that were desirable, let alone a realistic option, I don’t imagine that anyone would welcome the bad old days of churning out Australian-made gas guzzlers that nobody wants to buy. We would need to advocate for smarter cars, energy efficient and non-fossil fuel vehicles, environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing process, and possibly different car ownership models (in line with the trend for ride share businesses and smart city solutions) and more creative financial incentives to the industry than wholesale subsidies.

Other manufacturing sectors that are getting attention include medicines and medical supplies (surely there must be a market for domestically-produced PPE made from bio-degradable materials?), clothing (again, an opportunity for environmentally sustainable materials and manufacturing processes), processed goods (after all, we already have much of the raw material), domestic appliances and technology.

One area where Australia has also proven vulnerable is in recycling. China and the Indian Sub-continent are pushing back at taking and processing our exported waste. So we have to get smarter at recycling household waste (paper, plastic, glass and metal) especially if in a post-pandemic world we see a return to single-use items and additional sterile and protective packaging for foodstuffs and personal products. We also need to look at e-waste, and find ways to extract more recycling value from obsolete devices.

The lock-down during the pandemic has also highlighted an opportunity to re-connect with the “make do and mend” mentality of our parents and grandparents. Again, if supply chains are disrupted, buying a replacement item might not be an option. But often, nor is it possible to buy replacement parts – either they rely on the same supply chains, or there are no user-serviceable parts available. What if manufacturers and distributors had more of an obligation to take back and recycle their products, or to include more interchangeable parts in their designs, and enable consumers to become more self-sufficient in repairing and maintaining their electronic and electrical goods?

Federal, state and local governments have a huge role to play here – from mandating the use of more recycled and recyclable materials, to incentivizing recycling schemes, from supporting local repair workshops and “maker” projects, to creating more common and open standards around components and replaceable parts.

Finance and Digital Money

At a time when many people are on reduced income and/or or relying on government welfare, the pandemic has also demonstrated a need to rethink our relationship with money in general, and cash in particular.

The latest round of QE by governments and central banks to offset the financial impact of the pandemic has highlighted once again the fragility of current monetary policies, including fractional reserves and treasury buy-backs. The decision to print money on demand will only increase public appetite for crypto currencies as a legitimate store of value – including stable coins and (ironically) central bank digital currencies – and paradoxically, accelerate the removal of physical cash from the economy.

In times of crisis, digital currencies can also transfer money to remote recipients faster and cheaper than traditional means (i.e., incumbent remittance businesses, bank transfers, payment gateways), and actually increase transparency and traceability.

The lock-down also revealed that many people did not have a sufficient financial buffer to withstand job losses, especially in the casual workforce and the so-called gig economy. This suggests a new approach is required for how people are remunerated for their labour and services, taxed on their income, and incentivized to save for the future. Current systems cannot address these issues because they are over complex, far too rigid, and totally dis-empowering of the people they are designed to serve and support.

Digital currencies (along with the benefits of Blockchain technology, and the new economic models represented by digital assets and tokenization) will enhance trends such as decentralization, peer-to-peer networks, trust-less systems, fractional ownership and more sophisticated barter structures.

Bitcoin was created in response to the GFC, it has now come of age in the post-COVID-19 era.

Next week: Antler Demo Day – Rewired

 

 

 

 

 

Craft vs Creativity

In a recent blog on Auckland, I mentioned seeing some Maori artifacts or Taonga during a gallery tour. The curator had mentioned that these objects raise questions of whether they are art, or craft. Does the distinction matter? Not necessarily, but I think it’s important to understand the difference between craft (largely skills-based) and art (largely aesthetically-driven). Often these concepts overlap, and are sometimes misconstrued, which in turn influences how we attach value, appreciation, importance and significance to particular objects.

Anton Gerner, A Cabinet With No Front Or Back 2019, Fiddleback Blackwood, Celery Top Pine. (Image sourced from Craft Victoria)

What often gets viewed as “pure” art is more a result of design, technique and skill – attributes which are more usually associated with craft (or “applied” art). Indeed, it is noticeable how viewers seem to appreciate “effort” over “creativity”. A great number of exhibitions I see in contemporary art galleries are more about illustration, decoration and process – and it’s as if the time taken to create the work or the complexity of the object is more important than the actual aesthetic outcome.

On the other hand, a lot of work that is assigned to the category of “craft” is capable of sitting alongside sculptures and 3-D work in an art gallery. Equally, a lot of work (especially in the fields of ceramics, textiles and jewellery) has neither the aesthetic form to be considered as art, nor the functional form to be regarded as craft.

For me, craft involves considered decisions about the choice of material, the design and production process, plus the intended function (even if the latter is only for decorative purposes). Whereas art is usually undertaken for the purpose of arriving at an intended creative outcome, with the choice of materials etc., often being secondary to the final aesthetic result.

Both art and craft can be seen in cultural, social and even political terms. They are also informed by context and narrative. But successful art should convey more creativity than applied craft or technique. And craft is often diminished if it fails to conveys some practical element of function – what’s the point of a beautiful jug if it cannot pour water?

Two recent exhibitions underline how the distinction between “art” and “craft” is often blurred: the Victorian Craft Awards, and MasterMakers at RMIT Gallery. In the Craft Victoria display, most of the pieces had no real practical purpose (other than decoration); yet, in terms of achieving an aesthetic goal, it felt like this was subservient to the materials and the process. While in the RMIT exhibition, there was an emphasis on the materials, plus an acknowledgement that even very technical processes can also result in objects that offer aesthetic pleasure – where form and function truly combine, and are inherently equal in the work. (The Anton Gerner furniture at Craft Victoria also manages to achieve that combination.)

We still don’t really know why the first cave paintings were made – were they an early form of graffiti? do they tell a story or capture events for posterity? were they the result of experimenting with pigments or dyeing techniques? or were they the result of some existential desire to give rise to a form of human expression? or simply to have something nice to look at? But we know we can appreciate them for their aesthetic level as well as their technique – in addition to their historical significance.

Next week: Notes from Phuket