Fear of the Robot Economy….

A couple of articles I came across recently made for quite depressing reading about the future of the economy. The first was an opinion piece by Greg Jericho for The Guardian on an IMF Report about the economic impact of robots. The second was the AFR’s annual Rich List. Read together, they don’t inspire me with confidence that we are really embracing the economic opportunity that innovation brings.

In the first article, the conclusion seemed to be predicated on the idea that robots will destroy more “jobs” (that archaic unit of economic output/activity against which we continue to measure all human, social and political achievement) than they will enable us to create in terms of our advancement. Ergo robots bad, jobs good.

While the second report painted a depressing picture of where most economic wealth continues to be created. Of the 200 Wealthiest People in Australia, around 25% made/make their money in property, with another 10% coming from retail. Add in resources and “investment” (a somewhat opaque category), and these sectors probably account for about two-thirds of the total. Agriculture, manufacturing, entertainment and financial services also feature. However, only the founders of Atlassian, and a few other entrepreneurs come from the technology sector. Which should make us wonder where the innovation is coming from that will propel our economy post-mining boom.

As I have commented before, the public debate on innovation (let alone public engagement) is not happening in any meaningful way. As one senior executive at a large financial services company told a while back, “any internal discussion around technology, automation and digital solutions gets shut down for fear of provoking the spectre of job losses”. All the while, large organisations like banks are hiring hundreds of consultants and change managers to help them innovate and restructure (i.e., de-layer their staff), rather than trying to innovate from within.

With my home State of Victoria heading for the polls later this year, and the growing sense that we are already in Federal election campaign mode for 2019 (or earlier…), we will see an even greater emphasis on public funding for traditional infrastructure rather than investing in new technologies or innovation.

Finally, at the risk of stirring up the ongoing corporate tax debate even further, I took part in a discussion last week with various members of the FinTech and Venture Capital community, to discuss Treasury policy on Blockchain, cryptocurrency and ICOs. There was an acknowledgement that while Australia could be a leader in this new technology sector, a lack of regulatory certainty and non-conducive tax treatment towards this new funding model means that there will be a brain drain as talent relocates overseas to more amenable jurisdictions.

Next week: The new productivity tools

Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

With its 3-year Federal parliamentary cycle and fixed 4-year terms in each State and Territory*, Australia is never too far away from an election. South Australia and Tasmania are both currently in full election mode. Victoria doesn’t go to the polls until later this year, but the informal campaigning (rather like a phony war?) is already underway. And although the next Federal election is not due until 2019, the stump speeches are already being wheeled out.

Fiction imitates (or even predicts) fact in ABC TV’s “Utopia” (hard hats obligatory)

With so much focus on “infrastructure”, it’s going to be a bumper year for hard hats, hi-viz vests and photo opportunities in front of big “stuff”. It’s just such a shame that even with the real life Utopia, Infrastructure Australia (and respective statutory and quasi-independent bodies in each State), so much of the decision-making is left to politicians. Because this “stuff” is far too important to be left to the short-term priorities, self-serving tactics and party preservation shenanigans that most of our elected representatives are forced to succumb to.

Hot infrastructure topics this time around are energy (especially in South Australia), water (Murray Darling Basin), resources (what do we do after the mining boom?), and the call for “jobs” linked to putting up or digging up “stuff”.

I understand that we need employment opportunities both sparked by, and as a driver for, economic stimulus. But there has to be more than simply creating short-term jobs on unsustainable projects (Adani, anyone?). Of course, one could argue that the powerful construction and mining unions (and their infrastructure owning superannuation funds) have a vested interest in maintaining this trajectory.

But if these projects need to take on long-term debt, with the 3 or 4 year election cycles, you can see how difficult it becomes to manage budget priorities. Worse, incoming governments may strive to cancel, overturn or curtail projects of their predecessors, which won’t endear them to the private sector companies (and their banks) who have successfully bid on the contracts.

Roads represent a large chunk of the infrastructure “stuff” in my own State of Victoria, and are already shaping up to be a key election issue (at least in the minds of the parties). For a major city that still doesn’t have a dedicated train service connecting the CBD to its ever-growing international airport, Melbourne probably needs fewer roads, and more planning (especially as we move to ride-sharing and self-driving vehicles). Besides, while we are in an urban and population growth cycle, given the rate at which some of the current new roads are being built, they will be under-capacity before they are even finished.

I would argue that there is just as much demand to upgrade and refurbish existing infrastructure, (which will probably generate just as many employment opportunities) rather than feeding the insatiable demand for shiny new toys. Or revisiting (and even restoring) some “old” ideas that might actually make sense again today, such as the orbital railway concept connecting Melbourne’s suburban hubs. Sure, we have the new Metro Tunnel project under the CBD, and this may lead to extensions to existing suburban services, and even the airport itself. But future projects have not been scoped, and are subject to prevailing party ideologies (not to mention the NIMBY brigades…) – rather than serving  the interests or greater good of the population (and environment) as a whole.

Finally, some sobering news came out of the UK recently, where London is actually experiencing a decline in passenger numbers on public transport. There have been a variety of explanations for this drop (the first in more than 20 years) – from the threat of terrorism, to new work patterns (more people working from home); from changing lifestyles (more Netflix, less Multiplex), to the “on-demand” economy (more Deliveroo, less dining out).  With fewer people likely to commute to the CBD (40% of the population will have self-directed careers), governments, their infrastructure boffins and their policy wonks will need to think about what this does actually mean for roads and rail…. and how much longer must I wait for the NBN in my suburb of Richmond (and will it already be obsolete by the time I have access)?

* For the breakdown see here.

Next week: Blockchain, or Schmockchain?

 

Digital Richmond

How significant is one suburb’s contribution to the startup ecosystem in Melbourne, if not Victoria or even Australia? Well, if the recent panel on Digital Richmond (plus the Victorian Minister for Small Business, Innovation & Trade) are to be believed, VIC 3121 is the epicentre of all things startup.

According to the event description, Richmond (and the adjoining area of Cremorne) is “the stomping ground of choice for Melbourne’s established tech companies and aspiring start-ups alike”.

Hosted in the offices of 99Designs (celebrating bringing their HQ back to Richmond), a panel representing some of the biggest names among Australia’s tech companies (and all local heroes) explored what makes “Digital Richmond” tick – but also identified some of the challenges of growing and sustaining scale-up ventures beyond the confines of a few co-working spaces in converted warehouses and textile factories….

Facilitated by Rachel Neumann former MD of Eventbrite Australia (whose Australian HQ is in Melbourne), and briefly head of 500 Melbourne, the panel comprised some key Richmond/Cremorne tenants: Patrick Llewellyn, CEO at 99designs; Jodie Auster, General Manager for UberEATS in Melbourne; Cameron McIntyre, CEO of Carsales; Nigel Dalton, Chief Inventor at REA Group; and Eloise Watson, Investment Manager at VC fund Rampersand.

To set the scene, mention was made of other established Australian tech-based companies also HQ’d in Melbourne (MYOB and SEEK, the latter of which is also relocating its offices to Richmond), recent local successes such as Rome2Rio and CultureAmp (both born in Richmond), and the steady stream of global tech brands that have come to call 3121 their regional/national home, such as Stripe, Slack, Square and Etsy.

It was evident that each of the panel have previous business connections with one or more of their fellow panelists – so maybe there is simply value in being in close proximity to each other. Success begets success, especially when people are more willing to share connections and introduce new contacts into their networks. (Although, what might this say about diversity? And does it reinforce the notion that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”?)

Despite the number of co-working spaces and tech companies based locally, there are very few substantial, modern office buildings in the area, and only one business park of note. Local startups that need more space will likely have to relocate elsewhere.

Property aside, the panel considered other local infrastructure is generally conducive to success – access to public transport (although Richmond and East Richmond stations are both in serious need of an upgrade), a solid talent base, great coffee shops and proximity to the CBD.

On the downside, there was criticism at the lack of NBN access in such a concentrated pocket of tech companies and startups (with the associated numbers of contractors, freelancers and other members of the gig economy who live in the area and work from home). Car parking was also an issue, although with Richmond being a major public transport hub, I was surprised that this came up. A lack of child care facilities was also mentioned.

Being an inner city suburb, with strict planning laws and designated “heritage overlay” regulations, there are limits to the amount of development that can take place, especially as Richmond and Cremorne are also established residential areas, with medium to high population density. Getting the balance right between economic growth, urban renewal, modernisation and local community preservation is tricky – pity that the organisers had not thought to invite anyone from the local council.

The panel also bemoaned the absence of any tertiary education facilities in the area (by implication, does that mean the Kangan Institute campus in Cremorne doesn’t meet local requirements?). But maybe there are other ways to connect with academia?

The panel discussion then moved on to topics that are beyond the control of the local council or even the State government, yet each has an impact on the startup economy: corporate tax rates; employment visas; the schooling system; vocational education and training; and the need for inter-disciplinary and inter-generational hiring. (They may as well have added industrial relations laws, the productivity debate and smart cities – oh, and the National Innovation and Science Agenda.)

I was also surprised at one of the reasons given for 99Designs bringing their global HQ back to Australia – the appeal of an ASX listing. I know that Australia has one of the largest pools of pension funds in the world, and nearly every person in Australia has direct or indirect investments in Australian equities within their superannuation portfolio. But despite being ranked 15th by market capitalisation, the ASX represents less than 2% of the global market, and even after 25 years without a recession, Australia’s capital markets risk being left behind. If we are to grow the local tech sector, there needs to be much more alignment between where (and what type of) capital is needed, and where the pension funds and other institutional investors like to put their money.

Finally, I always get worried when the likes of Carsales, REA Group, MYOB and SEEK are held up as poster children for the local tech and startup sectors – great businesses, sure, but all about to be totally disrupted by the next wave of startups, and not quite the high-tech sectors that the Victorian government wants to champion (FinTech, MedTech, BioTech, NanoTech, AgriTech, Cyber Security, Smart Manufacturing, EduTech….).

Next week: The NAB SME Hackathon

 

FinTech and the Regulators

What’s the collective noun for a group of financial services regulators? Given the current focus on FinTech sand box regulation and the cultivation of innovation, but also the somewhat ambiguous (and sometimes overlapping) roles between policy implementation, industry enforcement and startup monitoring, may I suggest it should be an “arbitrarium”?

Whatever, a panel of regulators (ASIC, RBA, APRA and AUSTRAC) came together at the recent FinTech Melbourne meetup to showcase what they have been working on.

First up, ASIC talked about their Innovation Hub and Sandbox, designed to accelerate the licensing process. Most of the FinTech startups engaging with the Innovation Hub are operating in marketplace lending, digital/robo advice, payment solutions and consumer credit services. Meanwhile, ASIC is seeing a growing number of enquiries from RegTech startups, and as a result, the regulator will be running a showcase event in Melbourne in the near future.

Next, the RBA gave an update on the new payments system (NPP), which will operate under the auspices of the Payments System Platform Mandate. A key aspect of this “pay anyone, anywhere, anytime” model is ISO 20022, the data standard that covers “simple addressing” as part of the payment interchange, clearing and settlement protocols. The system is due to go live later in 2017.

The biggest news came from APRA, in their role of licensing Authorised Depository Institutions (ADIs). According to APRA statistics, 26 new ADIs have been approved in the last 10 years. Most licenses come with significant conditions attached, so APRA is looking to simplify the process and encourage more competition. Similar to ASIC’s sandbox model, new entrants will be able to apply for “restricted ADI” status, under a 2-year license, with certain limitations on the size and volume of their book of business. Essentially, there will be a less onerous startup capital requirement, and the new regime is expected to be operational in the second half of 2018.

Finally, AUSTRAC gave an update on their responsibilities under the AML/CTF Act 2006. While AUSTRAC has selective oversight of FinTech startups, it has responsibility for 14,000 reporting entities, including businesses holding gambling permits. Acknowledging there is something of regulatory lag when compared to new business models and new technology, AUSTRAC pointed to the Fintel Alliance, launched earlier this year, and which may run its own pilot sandbox. Currently undertaking a legislative review and reform exercise, a key aspect of AUSTRAC’s work is undertaking product and sector risk assessment.

During the audience Q&A (including some interesting contributions from ASIC Chairman, Greg Medcraft) there was discussion of cryptocurrencies and blockchain solutions vis-a-vis the NPP, and how to address the potential conflict of laws, for example between KYC and privacy and data protection.

Next week: YBF FinTech pitch night