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

Corporate purpose, disruption and empathy

There’s been a renewed debate recently, about corporate purpose: why do companies and organisations exist?

Partly this existential angst comes from a sense of feeling redundant – sunset industries, declining and non-existent markets, outmoded technology, irrelevant products and services. The whole evolutionary model, survival of the fittest, etc.

Partly it comes from a shift in the balance of power – from access to resources, markets and technology, to the future of work offering people more choices in the ways they can generate their living.

Whether companies face disruption or decay, their purpose has to change and adapt accordingly – look at how Kodak is backing a project to issue cryptographic tokens to help professional photographers track the use of their IP.

Equally, employees are more invested in working on interesting ideas, and more interested in working for businesses that align with their values, rather than buying into a corporate purpose. So it’s as much about the “how” of an organisation as much as the “what” and the “why”.

I sometimes find it hard to feel much empathy for companies or industries that become outmoded – although I can feel some empathy for the people who lose their jobs as a result. However, if the political and economic response to declining industries is to focus on job losses (or job subsidies), it tends to overlook where the new opportunities are actually coming from – even though this growth does not always offer traditional jobs or work/career options. Equally, individuals need to adapt to the changing work environment – no-one can be sure of a “job for life” anymore, no matter how much some of our political leaders would like to think otherwise.

If we look at the traditional function (not the same as purpose) of many companies, it was to harness certain resources in the pursuit of creating assets or wealth. So, companies were once really good at sourcing and managing financial capital, human capital, and intellectual capital. They were even “better” at this if they had monopolistic access to, or operated within, highly controlled and tightly regulated markets.

Now, of course, thanks to disruption and other forces, companies no longer have a monopoly on these resources, as many markets have become outsourced, open source, disintermediated or decentralised. Rather than being formed by shareholders and other stakeholders for long-term ventures, “companies” can just as easily be a collective of self-forming, self-governing and self-aware resources that combine for a specific objective, for as long or short a time as the objective or enterprise requires. And technologies like Blockchain, digital assets and smart contracts will determine how, and for what reason, and for how long such entities will exist, and the resources they will require.

Next week: More musings on ICOs and cryptocurrencies  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What should we expect from our banks?

As I have written elsewhere, bank bashing is a favourite Australian pastime. In recent months, this has struck a new crescendo. There have been various allegations, legal cases and regulatory investigations surrounding such misconduct as mis-selling of products, rate fixing, over-charging and money laundering, all culminating in a hastily announced Financial Services Royal Commission.

Cartoon by David Rowe, sourced from the AFR, published November 30, 2017

The banks had tried to get on the front foot, by abolishing ATM fees, reigning in some of their lending practices, and appointing a former Labor politician to help them navigate the growing calls for a Royal Commission (largely coming from her former colleagues in the Labor party). But the (Coalition) government clearly decided enough was a enough, and sprung their own inquiry into the industry.

For the benefit of overseas readers, Australia has a highly concentrated banking sector, which is also highly regulated, highly profitable, and in some ways, a highly protected market oligopoly. There are only four major banks (also know as the four pillars, as they cannot acquire one another, nor can they be acquired by foreign banks), and a few regional banks. There is a smattering of non-bank financial institutions, but by their very nature, they don’t offer the full range of banking products and services. As an example of this market concentration, the big four banks traditionally account for something like 80% or more of all home loans.

Aside from the Royal Commission, there are a number of policy developments in play which will inevitably change the banking landscape, and the dynamic between market participants. In addition to the growth of FinTech startups aiming to disrupt through digital innovation, there are four key areas of policy that will impact traditional banking:

  1. Open Banking – giving customers greater access to and control over their own banking data
  2. Comprehensive Credit Reportingmandating the hitherto voluntary regime among the big four banks
  3. The New Payments Platform – designed to allow real-time payment and settlement between customers, even without using bank account details
  4. Restricted ADI Regime – to encourage more competition in the banking sector

The major banks have tried to laugh off, rebuff or diminish the threat of FinTech disruption. They believe they have deeper pockets than startups and just as good, if not better, technology processes. Moreover, customers are traditionally so sticky that there is an inherent inertia to switch providers.

But with banks having to set aside more risk-weighted capital to cover their loans, they may be vulnerable to startups focusing on very specific products, rather than trying to be a full service provider. Banks no longer have the technology edge, partly because of the legacy core banking systems they have to maintain, partly because they lack the know-how or incentive to innovate. And changing demographics will influence the way new customers interact with their banks: “mobile first”, “end-to-end digital”, and “banking for the gig economy” are just some of the challenges/opportunities facing the sector.

So what should we expect from our banks? I would say that at a minimum, a bank should provide: trust (but with Blockchain, DLT and trustless, zero-knowledge proof solutions, banks are no longer the sole arbiter of trust); security (linked to trust, but again, with biometrics, digital ID solutions and layered encryption, banks do not have a monopoly on these solutions); capital protection (although no bank can fully guarantee your deposits); reasonable fees (still a way to go on account keeping fees and some point of sale transaction fees – while disruptive technology will continue to challenge legacy costs); and an expectation that it will not bet against the direct interests of their customers (like, shorting the housing market, for example). The latter is particularly tricky, when banks are mainly designed to deliver shareholder value – although of course, most Australian bank customers also own shares in the banks, either directly, or indirectly through their superannuation.

In recent months, and based on personal experience, I think a bank should also know its customers. Not just KYC (for regulatory purposes), but really understand a customer as more than just a collection of separate products, which is how most banking CRM systems seem to work. Given how much banks spend on consumer research and behavioral data, and how much they talk about using big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning to anticipate customer needs, it’s a constant frustration that my bank does not really know me – whenever I contact them, for any reason, I always feel like it’s a process of “product first, customer second”.

Moreover, I can’t think of a single new product that my bank has launched in the past 15 years of being a customer. Sure, they have rolled out mobile apps and online banking, and they may have even launched some new accounts and credit cards – but these are simply the same products (accounts, loans, cards) with different prices and a few new features. Even the so-called “special offers” I get for being a “loyal” customer bear no relation to my interests, or even my spending patterns (despite all the data they claim to have about me). And because banks are product or transaction-driven, rather than relationship-driven, their internal processes fuel silo behaviors, to the extent that the left hand very often does not know what the right hand is doing.

Finally, with more and more of the working population becoming self-directed (self-employed, freelance, portfolio career, contracting, gig-economy, etc.) banks will have to innovate to meet the financial services needs of this new workforce. Bring on the disruption, I say.

Next week: Box Set Culture 

 

 

 

 

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