Tuesday, August 25, 2020

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

 For those of you who were listening to radio and, yes, buying compact discs back in the 1990s, you may recognize the headline of this post as the title to an R.E.M song.  It also depicts what innovators and entrepreneurs should be thinking in the middle of this COVID epidemic.

Don't get me wrong - we cannot celebrate as thousands of people are dying and perhaps millions are contracting the diseases associated with the Corona virus.  But at the same time we should recognize that virtually every industry will be changed, some for a short time and some forever.  And in those impacts and changes live innovation opportunities.  For some businesses and organizations, this could quite literally be the end of the world.  But, as Schumpeter said, there is little new creation without requisite destruction.  Just in this case what is getting destroyed is outdated business models.

It's the end of...

Well, I could make a list, but lets look at a few examples.

Residential College

COVID is drawing attention to the high cost of residential college.  If you have to pay the same price to live at home and watch your professors (or in many cases adjuncts) teach classes as you would if you were on campus and in person, then what's campus life for?  And, more importantly, since some online universities like University of Phoenix and Southern New Hampshire University, and, yes, Liberty University, know how to educate people online, isn't a really credible four year online degree that costs less than say $20,000 a reality?  At a time when even state universities are seeing rising costs and questionable returns on residential campus programs, COVID has exposed the fact that there are a lot of overhead costs and inflation in the system that aren't adding value.  

Physical retail

Already under great strain before COVID, most retailers are facing a really difficult time because no one wants to go into stores, everyone can compare products and prices online and can often get a better price online.  Plus, free shipping.  The future of retailing will focus on very narrow niches, luxury items and goods that require a lot of in-person choice.  The larger and more diverse the retailer - with perhaps the exception of Wal-Mart or Target - will come under tremendous pressure.  Thanks to Amazon, you may be a bit late to this opportunity, but contrary to what many believe, Amazon still controls less than 5% of retail sales.  There is an opportunity in online retailing still.

Fashion

Where will fashion go, when we can all work from home in our pajamas?  Of course we won't all stay at home forever, but as many fashion trends go, I think that many people will question why they spend so much on clothes, whether they go to work or stay home.  Just as fashion trends evolved - for example, men wore hats quite frequently in the 30s, 40s and 50s, only to move to a more hatless approach in the 60s and 70s - we will see new fashion trends and opportunities emerge.  One I am waiting for is the integration of the face mask into our fashion.  Just as the cravat and necktie have evolved over time, I think we'll see some morphing of the mask into a component or regular aspect of a garment.  Not to mention that gloves for both men and women may come back into fashion, for health reasons if not for appearance.

Fancy dining rooms and large entrance ways

If we are going to be spending more time at home, we will be spending more time on the house and more specifically the outfitting of the home.  More homes now need more office like equipment, more places of solitude for people packed in at home, and less formality and more usability.  We'll do more cooking at home, we'll consume even more content at home, and we may even bring back an idea from the 1960s and 70s - the wet bar - so we can mix our own drinks at home and pretend we are visiting the location establishment.  We already know that alcohol consumption is up during the pandemic, so many people may be developing man caves or locations in the house more conducive to making, mixing and drinking all that alcohol.

There's a huge opportunity for ...

Disease prevention

I saw a photo of students walking on campus at UNC in a medieval getup, dressed like plague doctors with long robes and a mask that included a beak.  While we may not go this far, I think there will be many products and services that address how to prevent the transmission of the disease. One idea in particular is a box at home, just outside the front door, to receive packages.  You may be thinking to prevent theft - which it could do, but I was thinking of a box equipped with UV light or some other means of disinfecting the box before it comes in the house, or wrapping shipping boxes in some sterile wrap or fabric to neutralize anything on the surface.

I think there may be a demand for products and services that help us transition from "outside" the house - whether that's people or equipment or purchases - to inside the house, much like astronauts returning to Earth.  

There will be an opportunity for more interactions to go "touchless" - for example, why can't I speak to my ATM rather than have to touch all the buttons that thousands of other people have touched?  Our aversion to touching surfaces in restaurants, ATMs, restrooms and so on will be far more profound than it is today, and there will be a lot of opportunities to address this.  Already we have touchless faucets and towel dispensers in restrooms.  Can touchless ATMs and gas pumps be far behind?

Medical services and information delivered beyond the doctor

In just a few years, you'll spend far more time at the pharmacy than you will at the doctor's office.  First, that's because going to a doctor is difficult and expensive, and increasingly many tests and simple procedures (flu shots) are available in the pharmacy.  As more and more tests become commoditized, WalGreens, CVS and others will be your first stop in the healthcare system.  And, since they have all the food, vitamins and health supplies right there in the store, you will often save a trip.  Insurance companies will encourage this because the services will be delivered in a low cost way, drug stores and pharmacies will see this as a loss leader to get you in to offer you products at higher margins.

In the midst of uncertainty is opportunity

I've just touched on a few ideas, but with the right incentive and good problem spotting, I think we'll see a wealth of new product, service and business model ideas emerging in the fall.  Some will solve the problems that are current, and some will identify trends and solve for shifts in consumer behavior and sentiment.  For example, when I received a "phone washer" as a gift a few years ago, I chuckled.  A nice gimmick but I rarely used it.  Since COVID, my wife and I use it every day.

What's even more interesting is that there is a fair amount of money out there looking to invest in good ideas.  The time is right for innovation, and innovators who can spot ideas and bring good solutions to market will have a good opportunity.  Strange as it may seem, this is a great time for innovation, however, I think only entrepreneurs and smaller organizations will be able to take advantage of the window.  Larger firms are simply trying to understand what's happening and cut costs to stay in business.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:55 PM 0 comments

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Innovation is a harsh mistress

I'm a big fan of science fiction.  There's really nothing more interesting to me than to think about how the future will unfold, and science fiction is a great way to project what may happen with society and technology in many different future settings.  I guess this is also why I always advocate for trend spotting and scenario planning.  If we can begin to understand how the future will unfold, then we can spot new needs and create new products before markets and consumers are even aware - skating to the place where the puck will be, as Gretzky would say.

All of which is a long introduction to my post for today.  One of my favorite authors is Robert Heinlein, who wrote a number of good Sci-Fi books, each of which had technical but more importantly societal considerations.  One of my favorites by Heinlein is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, from which I've obviously borrowed much of my post title.  The book revolves around the idea that the Moon was populated as a prison colony, and over time an entire society grows up to the point where the Moon is somewhat autonomous and gaining power, and Earth isn't happy with the outcome, so Earth flexes its muscles and the Moon fights back the only way it can - by launching rocks into space that fall on the Earth.  Read the book - it's also one of the first places where "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch" or TANSTAAFL, was popularized.

What we learn about the inhabitants of the Moon is just how treacherous their lives are.  The Moon is a harsh mistress because it is an exceptionally difficult place to live.  One small mistake can kill you, and hundreds of other people.  Air is at a premium, water initially imported and then mined as ice.  Atmospheric pressure is maintained by pressure walls.  Unlike on Earth, where a simple mistake may cause a small injury, on the Moon a pierced suit or a gap in a pressure wall could cause catastrophic death.

OK, interesting, but what's this got to do with innovation?

Innovation work is a lot like living on the moon

Ok, so we aren't astronauts.  We don't require pressurized suits to do innovation work, but in many ways innovation faces the same amount of risk and uncertainty that life on the moon creates.  Let me explain some of the similarities.

1. Getting into orbit.  On Earth we live in a gravity well.  The physics are clear - you either give the rocket enough energy to clear the well and get into orbit, or it crashes.  There are no other options.  Anything less than enough energy to get into orbit is fatal.  The same is true when starting an innovation project.  There is a specific amount of energy and support necessary from senior management and the innovation team.  Anything less than that amount of support and energy will end in an innovation failure.

2.  Living in space or on the Moon.  While we take for granted our access to free air, available water, and an electromagnetic barrier that keeps harmful rays from hitting the Earth, none of those factors exists in space, or on the Moon.  The only way to sustain life on the Moon is to carry much of your provisions with you, and burrow under the surface to avoid harmful rays and terrible cold.  In an innovation project, this is also true.  You are undertaking an exercise into the corporate unknown, where decision making, policies, corporate culture and investments are scarce.  You'll need to pack it all in with you.  What's more, on the Moon and in an innovation activity, even a small, innocuous problem can kill.

3.  There's no quick fix.  On the Moon, if you run out of a key resource, there's no quick fix.  It takes time and costs money to send more supplies.  Think of the astronauts on Apollo 13 who needed to make an air filter from random parts just to survive.  And they weren't short of oxygen - just had too much carbon dioxide.  The same is true with innovation.  Due to the way we plan and staff innovation work, you'll get less people and funds than you need, and money and additional resources can be hard to acquire.  If something goes wrong with corporate innovation, the quick fix is to kill the project or reduce the scope.

4.  It's difficult to "return".  Astronauts who leave the Earth routinely describe the re-entry to the atmosphere as one of the most harrowing events.  A miss of just a few tenths of a degree means that the capsule will burn up on re-entry or bounce off of the Earth's atmosphere and continue on into space.  New ideas have the same challenge.  Even really good new ideas must run a gauntlet of timing, project priorities, favorite products, successful existing products and other issues simply to get accepted, much less implemented.  New ideas have a difficult time entering the existing product development process.

For those of you who have experience in corporate innovation, I think most of you will nod at my description of innovation work and its similarity to a trip to the Moon and back.  Anything other than a simple incremental change to existing products presents challenges and difficulties that make innovation difficult - but not unrewarding.

What's required for success is a strong Mission Control - a group of supporters who are convinced in the success of the mission, and who provide the right resources, governance and support necessary.  What's also required is a group of innovators who are dynamic and flexible, who can adjust to swift changes and shortages, who can adapt to circumstances while keeping the goals in mind.

I think innovation can be a harsh mistress, one we approach with care and planning, with the full support of a management team that understands the costs and risks.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:06 AM 0 comments

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The important gap between capability and need

 I'll be writing occasionally for my friends at the Collective - a group focused on autonomy, mobility and the use of drones.  I think this group has an excellent opportunity to create new solutions and influence new products.  I've learned a lot this summer, especially about drones, because I bought one and started flying it, and my son interned with a drone company.

What we learned flying drones and viewing the imagery was the range of opportunities and solutions that could be created.  From being able to hover in place in very tight windows, looking down at (for instance) a roof mounted HVAC, or flying along a pipeline and inspecting for damage, drones promise a significant opportunity in many industries.

In my family, we discovered a new use for drones when we found that a contract logger, who was supposed to cut timber on an old family farm, had logged land that was "out of bounds" and damaged a creek bed as well.  Using a drone, we were able to record where the logger had illegally cut timber and share that with the Forestry Service and eventually use the video in a case against the logger.

But with all of this promise, there is still a big question.  The drone technology, its ability to fly almost anywhere, and increasingly fly autonomously, to carry items or record video, promises almost unlimited capabilities.  Which are important to customers, and which are customers willing to pay for?

The difference between a capability and a need

This is a classic issue in marketing and innovation.  Companies create new technologies that have a lot of capabilities.  A new product outstrips a previous product or service in key features.  A drone can fly down a pipeline at far less cost than a manned airplane or a driver in a vehicle.  These are "capabilities" that may drive benefits for the user.

What the drones haven't yet proven is if the markets actually need a better solution, and if drones are the "best" solution for needs that are currently met, or emerging unmet needs.  Here we start to address the ideas of the "jobs to be done" model of Clayton Christensen.  What "jobs" do loggers, pipeline companies, HVAC maintenance teams, mapping agencies and others need done?  When we combine the jobs and their "whole product" solutions in these specific industry needs, we can begin to ask - what can the drone do, what other capabilities are necessary for a whole product solution, and most importantly, is the drone solution and its whole product requirements as efficacious, as safe and less expensive than what people do today to solve these issues.

Note that even if the drone can do everything that existing solutions can do, there will still be the friction of change.  People who are used to a specific solution and have been using a solution for years are often slow to change, no matter how technologically superior a new solution is.  And, frankly, the drones offer a lot of promise, but much of their capabilities are still in the future.  In Raleigh, at WakeMed, there's been a program to examine using drones to fly drugs and possibly organs between hospitals.  While it has been a measured success, the drones are still limited in the distance they can fly and the weight they can safely carry, not to mention concerns of people on the ground who may fear items falling on them.  Regulations and human behavior often form a significant barrier to new technologies.

Innovators must cross the chasm

Drones and mobility have significant promise, but they must cross the chasm from early adopters in the market who are willing to accept limitations and service gaps.  The early majority on the other side of the chasm - the chasm between the 15% or so of the market that will adopt new technologies and the 80% or so that want whole products - are watching and waiting for whole product solutions, which will be tailored to industries and specific needs.  Capabilities are great, and will continue to evolve.  What's needed now are solutions that address very specific needs, and ready and willing regulatory and legislative bodies willing to take risks to advance new ideas.

The Collective will be part of the group that helps shift drones from early adopters to the early majority, based on standards, testing, whole product development and work with regulators and legislators.  I look forward to watching what they can do to develop the capabilities of drones into real solutions.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 2:55 PM 0 comments

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Predictions for a post-COVID world: US economy through 2025

If you've been following these posts, you'll know by now that I am extracting insights and predictions from a post-COVID scenario I drafted.  You can find the entire scenario writeup here (Tip:  hover over the bottom right of the pop-up window and click on the expand box, and you'll see a full screen view where you can also download the document).

I've written a number of blog posts teasing out some of the implications of the scenario and making predictions about the future.  In my last post I wrote about the potential fracturing of Europe into three regions - Northern, Southern and Eastern - and why France is the loser in this scenario, along with a weakening Euro and long standing trade and defense relationships.

I've written a few other blog posts that examine the rise of the Millennials, the likely focus on supply chain resiliency and manufacturing repatriation and other topics.

Today, I want to focus on the US economy through 2025, and what could happen.

The US economy 2020 - 2025

As we stand now, in the middle of 2020, and in the (hopefully) middle of the COVID outbreak, the economic news is grim.  Over 16M people are at least temporarily out of work due to closures and lower consumer demand.  The economy shrunk in the first quarter and is in an official recession.  The big debate now is between types of recovery - V (everyone hopes for), U (a bit worse but we can handle) or an L (not so good).

There are a number of factors that will dictate the health and resiliency of the economy:

  • Consumer spending.  Since consumer spending comprises about 70% of GDP, the money households spend on required and discretionary spending matters a lot.  In a locked down economy, much of our discretionary spending (entertainment, travel, dining out, etc) cannot happen.  This means there will be less spending and with less spending there is less demand.  Fewer goods and services are required, leading to less aggregate demand.
  • Services vs manufacturing - much of the economy is now based on services rather than manufacturing.  Something like 80% of employment in the US is based on services rather than manufacturing, so weak demand for tangible goods impacts a smaller portion of the economy, but weak or no demand for movies, restaurants, tourism, travel and so forth impacts a significant number of jobs
  • Compensation and safety nets in services.  Many of those services jobs are held by people with little savings or safety net.  They need to work to pay bills, and without their services jobs or the gig economy, they cannot afford to pay for even essentials like housing, food, clothing and taxes.  The impact on the economy is profound when lower and middle income families in the services sector struggle to find work.
  • Easy money can't last forever.  While the Fed is promising easy money now, it cannot do so forever without the risk of inflation.  The dollar is already strong relative to other currencies, so our exports are more expensive (leading to less demand for our products overseas) and cheaper imports. Again, more pressure on local jobs and local growth
  • Debt service.  The government now has over $25 Trillion in debt, and that balance is growing rapidly.  We are approaching the point where our debt is larger than our GDP, typically a warning sign for most economies.  At some point, the government will have to start paying a significant amount of its tax intake on debt service, crowding out other spending on important items like Defense and infrastructure.
  • Real Estate sector difficulties. As noted in a previous post, the real estate sector is likely to be hit hard in the aftermath of COVID for at least two reasons.  First, many small retail shops and restaurants will close because of the prolonged impact of the virus, and few entrepreneurs will want to take those spaces until conditions improve, leading to a glut of retail real estate.  Second, if companies are serious about sending people to work from home, there will be a significant amount of corporate real estate coming available in 2021 and 2022, and less demand from corporations.
  • Job creation and destruction. Jobs will return post-COVID, but the type and nature of jobs will change and we may face a capabilities gap.  More and more jobs are being replaced by robotics and automation, but we don't have enough engineers and technicians to do the work to implement and maintain these solutions.  Plus, more data will be available for analysis, yet we lack enough people with data science skills.  Meanwhile, many of the people who held manufacturing and services jobs may see those jobs disappear, and they may lack the skills to take on new roles.  Many college graduates simply don't have the skills to take on new digitally transformed jobs and companies won't be willing to train new employees at the rate they have in the past, when margins are slimmer. 
  • Household savings.  Americans are becoming savers, finally.  Historically, we saved very little but in the face of the economic slow down and COVID, our individual saving patterns have changed.  Now, we are saving more than ever, but this saving works against consumer spending.
Three Drivers of spending

There are three significant drivers of spending - consumers, businesses and the government.  As noted above, most consumers are rapidly becoming savers, and many will not have much discretionary money to spend.  This means 70% of the economy will remain stagnant for some time.  If the dollar grows stronger, businesses will suffer from weak local demand and products will be considered expensive in the export market, meaning many companies will struggle to drive sales in the US or abroad.  The government will act as a spender of last resort but cannot continue to inject trillions of dollars into the economy.  Spending may occur under a new administration, but even in that scenario it will take new legislation for infrastructure or major project spending, and time to roll out the programs.  This means it's unlikely the government can increase spending on roads, bridges and other infrastructure before at least summer 2021.

Winners and losers

The winners in this new economy are the asset-light and asset-less companies that have reasonable scale, low costs and few employees, and create a valuable service, especially those supported by ad sales.  Facebook, Instagram, Google and others are already digital, already relatively profitable and will weather the storm.  Amazon will take even more of the retail market for may of the same reasons.  Companies in the communications and information technology sector, especially those in networking and transmission or digital communications should do well.

Most consumers are likely to become much more value and price conscious, so low cost stores (Walmart as an example) are much more likely to weather the storm than higher end boutique stores.

Basically, the further along any business is in its digital transformation, the better positioned it will be for success in the near future.

Companies that face headwinds in this new world are those that are reliant on exports, since it is likely the dollar will be strong and other countries will experience even slower growth than we do.  Other companies that will struggle are those companies that rely on discretionary spending - travel and entertainment - because we can anticipate that there will be fewer dollars available.

Health and Education as concerns 

Unless we have significant new legislation, I think the health of the average citizen may suffer, because health care costs have increased dramatically and people are likely to postpone healthcare or forego surgeries or medications if money is tight.  For many people who are unemployed and may have lost their healthcare coverage, or those who are in the health insurance markets and finding prices unaffordable, these and others may risk consuming less health care service and may find their health impacted negatively.

People in their late teens and early twenties are likely to see a real impact on their educational and job opportunities as the economy slows.  A college education - already expensive - may seem out of reach if funds are tight.  Those graduating from college may find it difficult to find a job and have to settle for employment that is compensated at far less than their education or anticipation.

Colleges and universities are in for a real shock, I think.  Years of unrivaled cost inflation have placed many colleges out of reach without substantial loan debt.  For many schools, tuition does not cover the cost of attendance.  So we have programs with rapidly escalating prices which don't adequately cover costs, at a time when fewer and fewer people can afford to go to college and the college degree does not convey value as it used to.  Plus, state legislatures are going to take a hard look at the money they spend on colleges and universities.  The next few years will be a real reckoning for small and mid sized colleges, and all colleges and universities will face significant financial challenges.


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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:47 AM 0 comments

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Post-COVID predictions: Directional Europe

Over the last month I've been posting some of my thinking and predictions based on a post-COVID scenario I wrote and published in May.  You can find the entire document here (tip:  open to full screen by clicking on the icon in the lower right and then you can download as a PDF if you are interested).  In previous posts, I've highlighted some of the predictions that come out of the scenario, including the rise of the Millennials as a leadership cohort in government and business, a restructuring of supply chains to build resiliency, the potential for repatriation of "Critical" companies and component manufacturing, and more.  You can find those previous posts here, here and here.

Today I am interested in writing about another factor I think we'll see coming out of COVID, or perhaps simply exacerbated by COVID:  the division of Europe. 

The "new" world order

As I wrote in my last post, the world is no longer bi-polar, which was a fairly consistent phenomenon through the late 1990s.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, we had a brief period where the EU could have been the second pole - balancing the power of the US, but the EU has proven less powerful and effective than previously thought.  Now, China is striving to become the leading global power, seeking to eclipse the US in global reach and economic might.

While China may grow economically stronger, the relationships other countries will have with China will always be transactional or under duress.  China does not want interference in its internal policies and for that reason does not seek to extend its political thinking or power beyond its economic necessities.  Whether the US and Europe were right to try to spread capitalism, the rule of law and human rights more broadly remains to be seen, but for years these values were important if not always evenly practiced.

In a post-COVID world all bets are off.  Past alliances and relationships seem arcane, or are called into question.  The EU has proven less than effective and is actively disliked in many quarters.  The Trump administration has extracted the US from the WHO and made disparaging remarks about previously unquestioned commitments like NATO.  These global alliances, while important, have not proven effective and the governments that support them have not fully committed to their success.  This calls into question existing and future trading programs and platforms, programs to advance human health and human rights and many other good goals, at a time when many nations will become more nationalistic and less likely to work effectively with their neighbors. Populism and nationalism could rise in response to COVID, and populism was already on the rise in a range of countries, from Brazil (Bolsinaro) to Hungary (Orban) to Russia (Putin) to the US (Trump).

Geographies and Regions

Further, even geographies or regions that have worked together in the past may face a rethinking or restructuring.  In my last post I wrote about the possibility of a mid-east war, brought on by countries for the most part that have existed for less than a century, drawn up by the UK and France at the end of World War I with little regard to people or facts on the ground.

Even "stable" Europe exists only at the recognition of the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which stipulated that countries recognized the existence of other countries. This didn't stop Napoleon, Hitler and others from trying to remake the structure of Europe, or from disparate German states forming a powerhouse of a country in Europe.  The point is that Europe, like the Middle East, is not a permanent structure but has evolved before and will again.  COVID may create the conditions to restructure Europe into three parts:  Northern, Eastern and Southern.

The directional Europe

Europe is, to some extent, already aligned this way.  Northern Europe is more capitalist in nature, more productive, more efficient and has more stable governments.  Northern Europe contains the most powerful European economies - Germany and the UK, with strong but smaller economies in the Netherlands and Scandinavia.  Northern Europe is more secular and has a more defensible borders.  It has less memory of domination by others.

Southern Europe struggles with good governance.  Italy has averaged more than one government per year since the end of the Second World War.  Greece had to be rescued by the rest of the EU.  When you include Spain and southern France in the Southern Europe camp, you have a less efficient, less well governed, less capitalist population more dependent on tourism and agriculture.

Eastern Europe, while perhaps less well governed in some aspects than Western Europe, has more vitality and more optimism and energy than Southern Europe.  Eastern Europe is relatively new - many countries emerging or gaining strength out of the end of the Soviet Union.  The Poles and the Czechs especially are thriving, and looking to the West for inspiration.  They tend to reject the domination of the Northern Europeans in Europe and look with concern on Russia as an adversary.

Three important countries remain poorly defined in this analysis - all sitting in the middle:  France, Switzerland and Austria.  Each of these have different reasons for their positioning.

France wants to be part of the Northern Europe collection, but its economic policies and spending priorities align more with Southern Europe. Plus, France and Germany have both desired to lead Europe and France does not want to be in Germany's shadow.  France has a larger agricultural industry and is less industrialized than the North, and shares many attributes with its Southern neighbors.

Switzerland belongs with the Northern collection but likes its independence.  It's position in the middle of Europe provides it with the ability to be a broker between all of the European factions and a banker to all of them.  Plus, Switzerland likes its independence and is reasonably well governed and wealthy when compared to its neighbors.

Austria is an interesting case - a middle Europe country, bounded by energetic new Eastern countries but an older country never under Russian domination.  It contains both a magnificent city - Vienna - home to many institutions, but is mostly rural and conservative, making it more like a Southern European country.  I'm not quite sure where Austria will end up, but it may find partnering with Eastern Europe is in its favor.

OK, so what?

So far, a possibly interesting analysis of the facts of Europe, but what does all of this mean?

In the near future, we may see a real shift in Europe, not a full divide but subtle shifts based on interests and regions.  Eastern Europe does not trust Russia and wants guarantees from the international community about Russian interference.  These countries - and let's not leave out the Baltic states among them, are young, energetic and active, in a growth spurt and trying to carve out their role in Europe and on the global stage.  They are interested in more international agreements, especially on trade, and concerned about Russia, now, and in the near future as Russia starts to degrade.  These countries - the Baltics, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, even Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary - could from a vital bloc of countries that are more dynamic than Southern Europe and want more trade and security than Northern Europe is able to offer.  They are likely to resist efforts by Russia and China for closer ties.  They may not want to be tied to the issues that Southern Europe is facing, and may look more to the West for leadership.

Northern Europe will tire of supporting Southern Europe.  Increasingly we are already seeing a bias for bonds and even euros printed in Northern Europe, even though all euros, regardless of where they are printed, are supposed to have the same value.  Northern Europe is less militaristic, more willing to work with Russia and tolerate China.  These countries want to get along, and for the most part be left alone.  Their investment in their military continues to decline, as social programs and other policies grow.  These countries won't intentionally sever relations with the East or South, but will continue to place economic goals and plans on the EU that put stress on the Southern European economies.

The South looks back to a mostly agricultural past, with economic benefits from tourism.  There is not enough vitality and growth in this region and young people will start to migrate away from this region to the North, where immigration is tolerated, or to the US or other countries.  As emigration continues, vitality and renewal become difficult and the countries could become older and more conservative.  It will be increasingly difficult to provide the services necessary to support an older population with very slow economic growth. Neither Southern Europe or Eastern Europe wants immigrants which could offset the native born emigration, and both felt a bit overwhelmed by the refugee crisis brought on by the Syrian war.  Neither the South nor the East want to repeat that experience.

Impact

If these predictions unfold, Europe will be even less of a monolith than it has been.  Through Brexit the UK has already demonstrated that it's possible for countries to secede.  We'll soon see the results of this experiment.  If the UK is reasonably successful, the EU will find fewer countries desiring to join, and more planning to leave.  The Euro will grow weaker as the countries bicker, consider other alternatives, and their economies struggle.

While I've painted these three regions with a large brush, there are pockets of "northern" sentiment in Southern Europe (for example, northern Italy is far more like Northern Europe than southern Italy) and we may see regions in countries clamoring for vastly different policies.  Italy as we recognize it today formed in the late 1850s, so it too is a relatively recent formation, and could face stress to offer regional autonomy to sectors within the country.

As certain regions seek or gain autonomy, what does that mean to regions with some autonomy today - for example, the Catalan region in Spain?  The area around Barcelona has a different history and dialect than much of the rest of Spain and is more industrialized, and has some autonomy.  If these trends continue, could we see a fragmenting of Spain, Belgium, Northern Italy and other regions where the local population differs from the rest?

If Europe does divide up or break up, it will become less efficient, more bound by trade rules, overburdened with agreements between countries and may need to introduce new currencies.  None of these concepts promote improved business or economic growth, but they may give many what they've wished for for years - more local control and autonomy.

Winners and Losers

The winners as this division of Europe occurs are Germany and the Netherlands, because their economies are already vital.  These countries, the Scandinavian countries and the Baltics could form new trading blocks with the UK.

Switzerland will be a winner either way - it's geographic position and financial services capability position it exceptionally well for almost any scenario short of war.

In this analysis, France is likely to be a loser, because while France has punched above its weight for quite a while, a division in Europe will expose the French economy and spending policies to global challenges.  The same is true for Italy, although Italy and its governance have already been exposed.

None of the Eastern European countries is large enough to stand on its own.  These countries - the Baltics, Poland, Czech Republic and more - need to band together, either as an Eastern European bloc or part of the larger EU, in order to have strength.  We can see this in that most of these countries are more enthusiastic members of NATO than Northern and Southern Europe.




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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:38 PM 0 comments

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Post-Covid Predictions: Mid-East unrest, digital transformation and lack of leadership

About a month ago I published a long look at the world post-COVID, a scenario I built from extending a number of trends, as well as examining some features and outcomes of past pandemics.  You can download and read the entire scenario and the top predictions.  In the following few weeks I am calling out a couple of the predictions or implications, to extract some insight and to help make sense of what is happening and what is going to happen.

Two weeks ago I wrote about three predictions:  the rise of Millennials in leadership, a coming real estate bust and a potential crime wave.  Last week I wrote about the impact of the pandemic on supply chains, the demand to repatriate manufacturing and the impact of COVID on currency.

Today, I am going to examine three other likely outcomes in the near future:
  • The opportunity for war in the Middle East and the likely apathy about the unrest outside the Middle East
  • Where digital transformation will occur, and why it may slow somewhat in the next few years
  • The leadership vacuum on the global stage, leading to a multi-polar world

What if they gave a war and no one came

There are few places on earth that are more rife with tension that the Middle East, but over the past century, since the fall of the Ottoman empire, there have been "great powers" active there.  France and the UK partitioned the Middle East into spheres of influence after the first World War, and were active in governance and oversight until the second World War.  Upon discovery of oil, the US took an active interest in the region, and has been the leader in the Middle East for years.

Of course, to call it the Middle East is simplifying matters.  From Egypt in the West to Iran in the East, Syria and Turkey in the North, the Middle East is a mixing bowl of interests, tensions, languages and even different sects of Islam.  Egypt has long seen itself as a power broker in the Middle East, but has seen its power and influence dwindle.  Syria, combined with Egypt, attacked Israel to attempt to wipe it out in the Six Day war in the 1960s, and Syria has gone to war with Israel several times.  Iraq was dominated by a dictator, Saddam Hussein, until he was deposed by the US in the second Gulf War.  Despite the hopes of the US Administrations, we've left behind a nascent Shia state rather than a democracy.  Iran simmers under economic blockade imposed by the US over Trump's rejection of a nuclear treaty.  Iran has traditionally seen itself as a major power broker as well, looking back to the Persian empire.

The Saudis, Qataris and Emirates have fairly prospered over the last 50 years.  Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi are thriving economic centers that rival the largest cities in the world, yet they are built on very fragile economics.  And, of course, sitting in the middle of all this is Israel.

There are any number of sparks that could incite another major war in the Middle East.  Iran is constantly testing its neighbors and wants to break out of the economic blockade.  Iran and Saudi Arabia are contesting for leadership in the region, and both are backing and fighting proxy wars.  Syria is attempting to recover from years of civil war against its own people and against the remnants of ISIS, but Assad will want to take more of a leadership role in the region as soon as possible, egged on by his new benefactor, Vladimir Putin.  Hezbollah, backed by Iran, will continue to seek opportunities to attack Israel.  The Israelis will do themselves no favors by continuing to annex land in the West Bank, creating a reason for other Islamic neighbors to protest.

But it will all be different this time.  Europe does not have the energy or military might to intervene once a war starts.  The EU and other European organizations will make motions in the UN and plead with the participants of a war, but to little avail.  The US, exhausted after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, will not want to make a significant contribution to a war in the Middle East, and increasingly is less and less reliant on oil from the region.  When and if a war starts, it could escalate quickly and there are few opportunities or regional actors to slow the outbreak.

War could begin between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or between factions loyal to Iran and Israel.  These could be wars of religion, between the Shia population in Iran and potentially Iraq and the Sunni population elsewhere.  As Israel annexes the West Bank, the Palestinians could become a rallying point for other countries, in support of the Islamic brothers.  Turkey, in a fit of overreach, could attempt to arbitrate or enter into a war in the region while trying to assume a power broker status in the region.

There are far too many reasons for war, and far too many actors with far too many rationales and grievances.  It will only take a spark to start a larger war.

Why this matters

This matters politically because there is not longer a significant power broker in the Middle East.  The most likely players, the EU, the UN and the US, all have limited influence or a lack of interest.  Russia is not trusted in most of the region, and China traditionally has not been interested in engaging in the internal affairs of other countries or regions.  If a war starts, it may continue for quite some time, pulling in countries on the periphery who have no desire to fight.

While the US is no longer dependent on oil from the region, Japan, China, the EU and other countries and regions are, so any fighting will dramatically increase the price of oil and is likely to decrease the supply of oil.  In a weakened economy, such an economic shock could have long term implications.  Moreover, as we've witnessed with Syria, war will create mass migration.  The Middle East sits in close proximity to the EU, and we could imagine millions more refugees and migrants attempting to reach Italy, Greece and the Balkans.  Migration could destabilize Turkey, radically change the Emirates and Qatar.

If the war extends and draws in enough countries and combatants, it could extend further afield, to North Africa or Pakistan.  Several of the countries in the region are announced (Pakistan) or suspected but unannounced (Israel, Saudi through the US) nuclear powers.  A long war or one that threatens to escalate will draw in other global powers, if only for negotiation, but tensions and grievances are such that war in this region will escalate quickly, with devastating results for the region and for the global economy.

Digital Transformation, slow and fast

Everyone talks about digital transformation, but few define it thoroughly.  It can mean the transition from seat of the pants planning to decisions driven by data, or it can mean the transition of traditionally manual activities to automated activities, or it can mean putting machines and smart systems to work more effectively, or it can mean all of these things.

All companies will become digital companies, with fully automated business processes using data to drive better decisions.  However, the digital revolution may hit a speed bump.  In an era of massive unemployment, digital transformation that leads to fewer jobs, or worse the reduction of existing jobs, may be untenable from a political perspective for a few years.

Digital transformation will continue to accelerate where it leads to lower costs or better decisions.  We'll see this especially where data integration across silos leads to better decision making.  However, in an era of high unemployment it will be difficult for companies to implement some aspects of digital transformation that lead to the replacement of workers.  Robotics, for example, has long held promise to reduce costs, increase productivity and improve consistency over human workers, but the political price a company may pay in the short run for implementing robots over people may be more than the company can tolerate.  Even though digital transformation and the supporting tools, such as robotics, machine learning and IoT create jobs, these technologies create job displacement in many tasks and create far fewer new jobs than the jobs they create.

Digital transformation will continue through the pandemic and afterwards, but will happen at different rates.  Where it merely improves existing processes or improves data visibility and interpretation, it will accelerate.  Where it reduces human employment or shifts toward automation and causes a loss of jobs, it may be slowed due to societal and economic pressure.

Why this matters

Every business wants to transform into a truly digital business, where data drives decisions, automation and robotics drive mundane tasks and better data drives machines and actions.  However, there will be pressure in the next 2-3 years to slow the advance of digital transformation when it has a significant impact on human jobs.  With unemployment high and jobs scarce, many businesses may be concerned about the optics of improving efficiency and cutting costs by automating processes.  This matters because the companies that do proceed will gain a significant advantage in the marketplace, while drawing short term anger, and those like Amazon that are already well on their way will simply improve efficiencies and cut costs even more.

Companies that are early in their digital transformation will be caught out - the digital transformation requires a full commitment - no half measures.  Either fully commit to a digital transformation and risk the ire of your workers and customers, or risk falling behind your competitors in terms of efficiency, pricing and better insights.

The utter lack of global leadership

In my scenario, I described several future outcomes, and here I am basically lumping several predictions into one - the lack of global leadership.  For almost 80 years, the world has had leadership from a number of multi-national organizations like the UN, and had leadership or at least organizing principles from several fronts, including the US and at one time the Soviet Union.  For many years the US-Soviet standoff created a bi-polar world, and eventually a third "non-aligned" movement was created.  This lasted until the fall of the Soviet Bloc. Since then, the US has been the major player in global affairs, with support from the G-7 when the G-7 agreed with US positions.  China is a rising player from an economic point of view, but not from a political perspective.

As the US retreats from global leadership, the EU experiences a loss of membership and internal squabbles, large countries or regions are backing away from any claim to global leadership.  Further, many global institutions have been called into question.  The World Health Organization is under scrutiny after the COVID pandemic.  The UN seems ineffectual and toothless.  Even multi-national trading programs and agreements - like the joint program between Europe, the US and Iran - seem to wither and die.  Whether it's the UN, the global climate change accords, trading pacts, the JCPOA, NATO or other international organizations, all of these agreements and the benefits they bring with them are at risk.  COVID did not start the unwinding - Trump actively questioned the value of NATO and pulled the US out of potential trading partnerships long before COVID, and the UN was increasingly becoming a sideshow before COVID. COVID will only exacerbate trends that were already underway.

This lack of clear leadership leads to a dissolution and a lack of trust between countries.  At the same time there is a wave of populism in Europe due in part to mass migrations from the Middle East and Syria, and in South American, especially Brazil, and of course in India.  These countries and regions seem to be taking matters into their own hands, trusting less in global structures and standards and focusing more on their country, borders and interests.

While many countries bridled under the bi-polar world dominated by the US and the Soviet Union, and did not like the US dominance thereafter, at least there were countries or institutions that established some norms and set out a vision for what should happen.  Without strong international leadership and key organizations that countries and leaders trust and support, every country will work to its own advantage. While this approach is logical in the local setting it creates tension and barriers between countries and regions, and could lead to many unnecessary disagreements, fractures between trading partners and distrust.

Why this matters

International agreements, rules of law, and a common vision promote commerce, trade, immigration, human rights and other critical political and economic standards.  Without cooperation, without leadership backed by either political power or even military power, the natural state is entropy.  Governments and polities like the environment will move toward entropy - less organization rather than more organization.  As that happens, everything becomes more difficult, less efficient and less transparent.  Doing business between countries will become more difficult.  Working to create peaceful outcomes in conflicts between countries and regions will become more challenging.  Fewer countries will want to work on global issues like climate change, instead focusing only on what's best for their citizens.

Conclusions

 These factors - a lack of global leadership, a haphazard digital transformation and growing unrest in the Middle East, combined with previous predictions around real estate bubbles and potential crime waves, or repatriation of significant manufacturing, lead us to consider a future that is much different than the present we live in today.

Many people talk about the new normal, as if there will be a "normal" when COVID ends.  There are so many converging factors and trends that it is probably safer to talk about the new volatile, rather than the new normal. 

Companies and governments that carefully consider these future trends and what they indicate for life, the economy, politics and society in the near future will be able to predict outcomes and build new programs and new offerings.  Those that don't will be culled from the herd or will be in a difficult position, trying to catch up to the leaders.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:45 AM 0 comments

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Post-COVID predictions - Resiliency/Repatriation/Rethinking cash

I've written and published a post-COVID scenario, which you can find on my LinkedIn page.  (Small hint - if you click on the document in my "Featured" section, then click on the "expand" icon in the lower right, the document is easier to read and you can also download from there).

Following the scenario, I am writing a series of blog posts about some of the implications of the scenario and various predictions I've made coming out of the scenario.  In my first blog post of predictions, I wrote about the Rise of the Millennials and what that will mean for political and business governance.  I also wrote about the coming real estate bust - fueled by failing retail businesses and less demand for corporate buildings as employees work from home, as well as a possible crime wave.

In this blog post, I am examining a few more trends and likely outcomes, and their implications, including:
  • Creating more robust supply chains - becoming "anti-fragile" and resilient
  • Repatriation of critical businesses or industries
  • A potential decline in the use of cash / growth of digital currency
Supply chain Resiliency - becoming Anti-Fragile

In a timely article - well, timely for my predictions and blog post - the New York Times ran a story on May 22, entitled What happened to the great American logistics machine? The answer to that question is that the same thing happened to logistics and supply chains that happens to many activities and processes:  as more people became dependent on the processes and supply chains, more efficiency was demanded, and consumers demanded lower costs.  The result:  very efficient and low cost supply chains stretching around the world, delivering goods and services at high speed and low cost.  However, COVID and our reaction to the virus exposed the other side of all that efficiency.  Those supply chains were exceptionally brittle, fragile, with dozens of failure points that could cause the supply chain to collapse.  A virus brought all those years of optimization tumbling down.

The toilet paper fiasco is a good example.  There is plenty of toilet paper in the US, but at least half of the production is for corporate use.  The problem with the businesses that produce for corporate or office use is that their supply chains are different, their packaging is different, their pricing is different, than the supply chain for consumer toilet paper.  You can't just start shipping commercial grade toilet paper to Wal-Mart and have them stock it and sell it. The supply chains are so optimized and so aligned to business needs that it will take time to shift, if it makes sense to shift at all.

When you add in the amount of international exposure that many supply chains possess, in high technology, in food, in clothing, in pharmaceuticals, and then understand the impact that closing the borders or concerns over transmission of a virus from China to the US through the supply chain has, you can see that our supply chains, while optimized for cost and efficiency, are exceptionally vulnerable to any number of disruptions.  For too long, we've taken too much for granted - ignored or wished away issues that are now surfacing that snap elongated, brittle and fragile supply chains.

What this means

After experiencing this level of disruption in their supply chains, many companies are likely to rethink these highly optimized but inflexible supply chains, and seek more vendors who can provide more option if another major disruption occurs.  This may create more complexity and introduce more paths and more vendors in a supply chain than in the highly optimized models, and require more validation of vendors and pathways, but this investment will reduce the likelihood of catastrophic failure in the retail channel.  What it will do is drive up safety stock and inventory throughout the supply chain, and most likely add cost that either the retailer or supply chain bears (becoming less profitable) or that the consumer bears (driving up prices).

Repatriation

Oh, but you might think we should lump these two ideas together - supply chain resilience and repatriation, and while they are related they are very different concepts in execution.  Politicians in the US were horrified to discover how reliant the US is for personal protective gear and many pharmaceuticals on China and other countries.  The COVID pandemic merely illustrated what has been true for a while - in a global economy, we are reliant on the good will and business practices of countries that may not be transparent and may actually be competitors.

There are a couple of ideas at play here. What we can expect first is that politicians will demand that some companies or industries repatriate manufacturing for the national interest.  When Trump did this in the steel industry, he did it to score political points, because steel is a global commodity and is available from many sources.  However, when only a few countries that may be more adversarial to the US are the only sources for specific goods, it's likely that a national policy will emerge directing some manufacturing capacity in the US for critical goods.  The US Defense Department has funded programs like this in the past.

In case you think this is a political issue in the US alone, know that Japan is aggressively pushing its industries to repatriate manufacturing from China, and in many cases helping to fund the migration back to Japan.  The US will not be the only country to consider repatriating some manufacturing, for supply chain reasons as described above, but also to avoid having its economy held hostage by foreign governments over critical supplies.

Beyond the political reasons for repatriation, many businesses will want to diversify risk and demonstrate that where possible they are creating and sustaining jobs in the United States.  As automation and robotics improve, it will in many cases prove simpler to set up new, smaller production facilities in the US, reduce shipping costs and time afloat from China to the US, than to manufacture products in China.  This isn't true for every industry or every product, but we can expect some repatriation based on improvements in automation and robotics.

Finally, repatriation may simply mean bringing the work closer to home.  Mexico was the original "low cost" manufacturing location, and it is not separated from the US by an ocean, so logistics are simpler.  Some repatriation may become finding manufacturing capacity closer to home, in friendlier countries.

What this means

Politicians will want to be seen "doing something" after the COVID outbreak, and will want to seem to punish China for whatever role it played in covering up the COVID outbreak.  Plus, China will be a convenient whipping boy for people who want to focus on the lack of goods and the cost of goods, and more importantly the loss of jobs in the US during the prolonged economic doldrums post COVID.  While politicians may demand repatriation, there won't be a lot of money in the federal budget to assist, other than tax breaks for corporations, but there will be a combination of political pressure, risk diversification and improvements in automation to move jobs to the US or at a minimum away from China.

These moves will come with several costs - to our relationship with China, to our "go it alone" strategy globally and to the prices we pay for goods in the US.  An already difficult relationship with China will simply get worse if it appears the US is actively encouraging manufacturers to leave China, and if businesses do leave China that could dramatically impact the already weak Chinese economy.  Many other countries that might be willing to open their doors for our manufacturing may wonder if this is a temporary move, which might be reversed over time.  All of these activities increase uncertainty and increase consumer costs in the short run but may reduce political, reputational and logistics risk.

Filthy Lucre - the end of cash?

One other trend that could be accelerated out of the COVID pandemic is the radical reduction of currency as a form of payment.  Coins and paper currency are already of questionable value, given the state of digital payment platforms like ATM cards, debit and credit cards, gift cards and a host of other digital payment platforms.  Several smaller European countries are moving to a mostly cash-less operation, and it will pay to watch how those experiments unfold.

Paper currency and coins are potential COVID vectors, passing from hand to hand in transactions, and paper currency remains somewhat easy to counterfeit.  Since a dollar is not very valuable today, fractions of a dollar - in terms of coins - are even less valuable.  When it takes four or five quarters to buy a soft drink in a vending machine, increasingly we should ask - what is the value of coinage?  Why aren't all vending machines wired to accept credit cards or other electronic payment mechanisms?

I think we'll see a gradual shift in the US toward more digital currency and less paper currency in circulation.  This creates some really interesting challenges, but for very different reasons.  In the US it will require an acceleration of digital transformation, to ensure that in every situation, payments can be exchanged electronically without cash.  That may seem simple, but we are still far from a ubiquitous payment platform in the US.  The second consideration is in international markets, where the dollar is a trusted reserve currency.  Will other countries, governments and businesses have any concerns if the currency moves to a digital platform?  Finally, what about other countries where the US dollar - in paper form - serves as a secondary currency?  Does the US dollar lose some value, or do these countries and their economies shift to another paper currency, or do they rapidly shift to even more electronic or digital currency?

What this means

A shift toward a more digital currency, and digital forms of payment, will accelerate a lot of digital transformation in the many business sectors.  It will increase the power of banks and financial services companies that deal with payments, and could damage black market or illegal activities in the US if the amount or value of hard currency falls.

This shift could have real implications in other countries, where the US dollar is a secondary (and often more trusted) form of currency.  In places where US currency has been relatively ubiquitous, it could become a constraint on smaller economies where the US dollar is trusted, and could impact economies, especially in Central America where the US dollar is a trusted currency and digital currencies and payment mechanisms aren't well evolved.

Conclusion

These are just three of the predictions I am making about the future that will unfold after COVID, yet even in these three predictions you can see a significant amount of change that could impact the US economy and by implication the global economy.  When we add in other predictions, such as the three I identified in the first post (Rise of the Millennials, real estate bust and potential crime wave), we can begin to see real, potential change in the way we work, govern and live.

Keep an eye here for more predictions, and please feel free to let me know your thoughts or to ask questions.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:03 AM 0 comments