Life During Lock-down

As I write, Victoria is witnessing record numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the so-called second wave of the pandemic. Even as the State Government maintains the Stage 3 lock-down in Greater Melbourne (and most recently mandated the wearing of masks), some members of the public are trying to challenge these restrictions, while others have to keep being reminded to comply with the pandemic measures. Frankly, the way I have been feeling about the latest events, I don’t know whether to laugh, scream or cry.

The Village of Eyam – Image sourced from National Geographic

Laugh, because I can’t believe how crass or stupid some of these refuseniks are. Scream, because I am so angry at the State Government’s failure to properly manage the hotel quarantine programme (which has led to the widespread community transmission), and the delayed decision to require masks in public. Cry, because the whole situation is incredibly sad, given all the people who have lost loved ones to the virus, and the many more who are experiencing financial hardship.

The Premier keeps saying that now is not the time to debate the whys and wherefores of who is responsible for the failure in hotel security arrangements, what caused the community transmission, or why so many people continued with their normal routines despite being symptomatic or while waiting for coronavirus test results. OK, fair enough – the Government’s main focus is on protecting public health (and shoring up the local economy), but hopefully there will be plenty of time for analysis and debate once the virus is under control (and hopefully well before the next State election, due in 2022…).

Meanwhile, I don’t know why politicians and health administrators are so surprised when members of the public fail to “exercise common sense”. Maybe the public kept hearing the Government was doing a such a great job (hey, remember Lock-down Pt. I?). Perhaps they over-compensated after a few weeks’ social distancing, became complacent and let down their guard. Or maybe they took their lead from public messages about “returning to normal” – and going to the footy and getting on the beers again….. Perhaps there is a sizeable portion of the community who can’t be trusted “to do the right thing” (or maybe they just don’t trust politicians, public servants, health experts or mainstream media).

As for why those people carried on as usual (despite being symptomatic or awaiting test results): there may be economic factors at play (to be discussed another day, but if that doesn’t include a debate on a Universal Basic Income, it will be a lost opportunity). It could be a lack of information and awareness. It could simply be human nature. But for a culture that celebrates “chucking a sickie” (indeed, one former Prime Minister even suggested it would be a point of national pride to do so following Australia’s success in the Americas Cup), something has gone wrong somewhere if people don’t feel any responsibility or obligation towards the health of their fellow citizens.

In my more existentialist moments (and I seem to have so much more time for that these days…), I can’t help thinking the pandemic is a three-fold challenge to the future of the human race: 1) the virus is nature’s way of inoculating itself against homo sapiens; 2) it will prove Darwin’s theory of evolution (survival of the fittest) by exploiting our weakness as social creatures – it’s figured out how to get us to spread the virus on its behalf; 3) the reduced levels of human activity and pollution will give the earth some time to heal (at least for a while).

At other times, I think about Talking Heads’ song “Life During Wartime”* – especially the line “I got some groceries, some peanut butter to last a couple of days”. With the need to limit shopping trips, the various shortages, and the focus on being prepared for a total lock-down, is it any wonder we may feel some anxiety? Of course, we could be in a far worse situation than what we are currently experiencing in Melbourne, both in terms of the number of cases and the breakdown in social order we see elsewhere. Yet that just underscores how inconsiderate and selfish those people are who can’t bring themselves to wear masks, or observe Stage 3 restrictions. Yes, the restrictions are inconvenient, and at times tedious, but they are hardly onerous compared to a full scale health crisis. And if anyone wants to discuss public sacrifice in the face of a virulent disease, I suggest they do some research on the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England.

For myself, I know I have been very fortunate so far (probably thanks to some “compound privilege”). I have been able to work from home since March (although as an independent contractor, my monthly income has been reduced), but I have not seen any friends or family face-to-face either, and I won’t be traveling overseas next month for a family wedding, or to visit elderly parents. I am able to walk each day in the nearby park, but apart from food shops and the post office, I’ve not been inside any other retail premises. I haven’t been to pubs or restaurants, but I try to support the local hospitality sector by ordering prepare-at-home meals about once a week. I can’t get to see live music, but this has forced me to revisit my own music-making. And I don’t have to do any home-schooling, but I have friends and relatives who work in the health and education sectors.

My biggest concern, apart from the pandemic itself, is that we miss the opportunity to re-think the large areas of the economy that need restructuring. Politicians keep talking about “jobs, jobs, jobs”, as if the archaic labour structures inherent in the traditional master and servant relationship is the be-all and end-all of social economics. But where are these jobs coming from? COVID19 shows we can consume less, make do with less stuff, and so it can’t just be a demand-led stimulus. Nor should it just be a construction-led recovery (more “Big Build”), unless it is combined with innovation, sustainability, hi-tech, smart cities, etc. There is definitely a need to think about national self-sufficiency, and figure out what to do about supply chains, manufacturing and renewable energy.

Somehow, we have to turn this uncertainty and these challenges into positive outcomes.

Next week: The Limits of Technology

* The whole album, “Fear of Music” is the perfect soundtrack for the nervous paranoia and unease of the pandemic…..

Counting the cost of Covid19

Here in Melbourne, we are nearly two weeks into Covid19 Lock-down Pt II, and as we know sequels are rarely as good as the original. The State Government of Victoria has also decreed that anyone under the Stage 3 restrictions has to wear a mask whenever they are outside their home. The irony is that relative to other parts of Australia, Victoria went harder and earlier under Lock-down Pt I, and was later and slower in opening up – in fact, we hadn’t got that far before the second Lock-down was announced.

Some of the details about mask wearing are still a bit vague (what about when I’m driving my car, or playing golf, or in a self-contained space where there is no-one else?), so good luck with the enforcement process. And what significant information do we know now that we didn’t know back in March under the first Lock-down, that somehow made it OK to NOT advocate or require wearing masks four months ago? Could we have made even better progress in suppressing and/or eradicating the virus if we had all covered our faces from the start?

Of course, the major failings by the State Government are evidenced by the apparent human errors associated with the lapses in the hotel quarantine programme, the failure to fully understand the nature (and extent) of key clusters (cruise ships, abattoirs, schools, aged care facilities, fast-food restaurants, logistics centres, public housing towers, and even health care staff), and the inadequacy of community consultation early in the pandemic.

There is also a suggestion that the public became complacent, due in part to the way the politicians and civil servants were telling us how good a job they were doing. No doubt the initial measures were successful in containing the numbers and flattening the curve. So some people over-compensated when Lock-down Pt I ended, and not only disregarded social distancing measures, they started gravitating back to social gatherings, pubs, restaurants and shopping malls. Plus, the undue focus on getting professional sport back on TV helped to suggest things were back to “normal” (even though no games are being held within Victoria).

Some Government spokespeople implied that certain Covid19 conspiracy theories had taken hold in the community, resulting in people not taking the virus seriously. This commentary (that the virus is a hoax, that it is all a plot to curtail individual freedom, and that the “experts” were pushing an authoritarian agenda) has also been linked to anti-vaxers, anti-5Gers and regular members of the tin foil hat brigade. In particular, some conspiracy theories suggest that the pandemic is an attempt to distract us from other issues.

There is a huge human and economic cost to the virus (the number of cases and fatalities, the restrictions on daily life, job losses, business closures and trillions of dollars of government and corporate debt). It will cost a lot more before the pandemic is over and/or we have a viable vaccine. But there has also been a huge cost in terms of public debate and intellectual rigour. Language has become a weapon, science has been politicised (i.e., it shouldn’t get in the way of a political agenda…) and experts have been undermined. Possibly not since Galileo and heliocentrism has science been so poorly debated, irrationally challenged, arrogantly dismissed and badly defended by our leaders – even as some of these same leaders and those around them caught the disease. (OK, the political debate on climate change is another case in point…) If trust in politicians was already at a low, the pandemic is taking a further toll on our democratic institutions. Which suits autocrats, populists, demagogues, fundamentalists and radicals alike in their hatred and contempt for liberal, pluralistic and secular societies.

Choosing to not wear a face mask has apparently become an expression of individual freedom and civil liberty. Whereas I thought wearing a mask during a pandemic caused by a respiratory disease was both common sense and a courtesy to other people.

Next week: Life During Lock-down

 

 

Open Banking and the Consumer Data Right

While most of Australia has been preoccupied by things such as Covid-19 lock-downs, border closures, which contestant got eliminated from Big Brother/Masterchef, and which federal politician went to an NRL game (and depending on which State you live in), the ACCC has implemented the first phase of the Consumer Data Right regime (aka Open Banking).

The TLDR on this new regulation, which has been several years in the making, can be distilled as follows:

Banks can no longer deny customers the right to share their own customer data with third parties.

So, in essence, if I am a customer of Bank A, and I want to transfer my business to Bank B, I have the right to request Bank A to share relevant information about my account to Bank B – Bank A can no longer hold on to or refuse to share that information.

Why does this matter? Well, a major obstacle to competition, customer choice and product innovation has been the past refusal by banks to allow customers to share their own account information with third party providers – i.e., it has been an impediment to  customer switching (and therefore anti-competitive), and a barrier to entry for new market entrants (and therefore a drag on innovation).

Of course, there are some caveats. Data can only be shared with an accredited data recipient, as a means to protect banking security and preserve data privacy. And at first, the CDR will only apply to debit and credit cards, transaction accounts and deposit accounts. But personal loans and mortgages will follow in a few months. (And the CDR is due to be extended to utilities, telcos and insurance in coming years – going further than even the similar UK Open Banking scheme.)

Although I welcome this new provision, it still feels very limited in application and scope. Even one of the Four Pillar banks couldn’t really articulate what it will actually mean for consumers. They also revealed something of a self-serving and defensive tone in a recent opinion piece:

“Based on experience in other markets, initial take up by consumers is likely to be low due to limited awareness and broader sensitivities around data use.”

Despite our fondness for bank-bashing (and the revelations from the recent Royal Commission), Australians are generally seen as being reluctant to switch providers. Either because it’s too hard (something that the CDR is designed to address), or customers are lazy/complacent. In fact, recent evidence suggests existing customers of the big four banks are even more likely to recommend them.

For FinTechs and challenger brands, the costs of complying with some aspects of the CDR are seen as too onerous, and as such, act as another impediment to competition and innovation. Therefore, we will likely see a number of “trusted” intermediaries who will receive customer data on behalf of third party providers – which will no doubt incur other (hidden?) costs for the consumer.

Full competition will come when consumers can simply instruct their existing bank to plug their data into a product or price comparison service, to identify the best offers out there for similar products. (Better still, why not mandate incumbents to notify their existing customers when they have a better or cheaper product available? A number of times I have queried the rate on an existing product, only to be offered a better deal when I suggested I might take my business elsewhere.)

Recently, my bank unilaterally decided to change the brand of my credit card. Instead of showing initiative by offering to transfer my existing subscriptions and direct debits to the new card, the bank simply told me to notify vendors and service providers myself. If I didn’t request the change of card, why am I being put to the inconvenience of updating all my standing orders?

For real innovation, we need banks and other providers to maintain a unified and single view of customer (not a profile organised by individual products or accounts). Moreover, we need a fully self-sovereign digital ID solution, that truly puts the customer in charge and in control of their own data – by enabling customers to decide who, what, when, why and for how long they share data with third parties. For example, why do I still need 100 points of identity with Bank B if I’m already a client of Bank A?

Finally, rather than simply trying to make money from managing our financial assets, banks and others have an opportunity to ensure we are managing our financial data in a more efficient and customer-centric way.

Next week: Counting the cost of Covid19

 

 

 

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