Monthly Archives: December 2019

Why the idea that the world is in terminal decline is so dangerous

By Jeremy Adelman – From all sides, the message is coming in: the world as we know it is on the verge of something really bad. From the Right, we hear that ‘West’ and ‘Judeo-Christian Civilization’ are in the pincers of foreign infidels and native, hooded extremists. Left-wing declinism buzzes about coups, surveillance regimes, and the inevitable – if elusive – collapse of capitalism.

In fact, the idea of decline is one thing the extremes of Left and Right agree upon. Rome’s decline looms large as the precedent. So, world historians have played their part as doomsayers.

It is almost part of the modern condition to expect the party to be over sooner rather than later. What varies is how the end will come. Will it be a Biblical cataclysm, a great leveler? Or will it be more gradual, like Malthusian hunger or a moralist slump?

Our declinist age is noteworthy in one important way. It’s not just the Westerns who are in trouble; thanks to globalization, it’s the Resterners too. In fact, we are all, as a species, in this mess; our world supply chains and climate change have ensured that we are poised before a sixth mass extinction together. We should worry less about our lifestyle and more about life itself.

One dissenting voice in the 1970s was Albert O Hirschman’s. He worried about the lure of doomsaying. Dire predictions, he warned, can blind big-picture observers to countervailing forces, positive stories and glimmers of solutions. There is a reason why: declinists confuse the growing pains of change with signs of the end of entire systems. Declinism misses the possibility that behind the downsizing old ways there might be new ones poking through. more>

Updates from McKinsey

How to develop soft skills
As today’s skill shift accelerates, it is essential that organizations enhance and expand development initiatives for business longevity.
By Julie Avrane-Chopard, Jaime Potter, and David Muhlmann – As automation and artificial intelligence dramatically change the nature of work, employees must fine tune the social and emotional abilities machines cannot master. To encourage this behavior, employers must adjust the ways they assess, educate, train and reward their workforce on soft skills such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking.

Soft skills, which are commonly defined as non-technical skills that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with others, are vital to organizations and can impact culture, mindsets, leadership, attitudes and behaviors. These skills fall into the following categories:

  1. Advanced communication and negotiation skills
  2. Interpersonal skills and empathy
  3. Leadership and management skills
  4. Entrepreneurship and initiative-taking
  5. Adaptability and continuous learning skills
  6. Teaching and training skills

A key difference among today’s large-scale skill shift and those in the past—including the transformative transition from agriculture to manufacturing—is the urgency for workers who exhibit these capabilities.

Developing required soft skills and ensuring employees, and in turn organizations, are set up for success isn’t as simple as popping in a training video. Instead, companies must change their employees’ processes and behaviors—a much harder task.

Assessment is an important first step. Sizing the soft skill gap proves particularly challenging, since they typically lack systematic evaluation and certification mechanisms. HR departments must be equipped with a framework that codifies soft skills and defines their respective evaluation criteria.

For example, several European firms are employing “stepping stone” initiatives to build a digital platform to help workers evaluate their soft skills, know their strengths and development needs, gain access to specific trainings, and get certified.

Effective reskilling requires blended learning journeys that mix traditional learning, including training, digital courses and job aids, with nontraditional methods, such as peer coaching. One retail giant has distributed over 17,000 virtual reality headsets that immerse employees in unfamiliar situations, such as their first Black Friday sales day, and is training them in new tech, soft skills and compliance.

People naturally operate based on incentives—they do what is rewarded. To encourage people to not only begin their soft skill learning journey but to continue with it, rewards and incentives are critical. more>

Updates from Georgia Tech

Tiny Magnetic Particles Enable New Material to Bend, Twist, and Grab
By Josh Brown – A team of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and The Ohio State University has developed a soft polymer material, called magnetic shape memory polymer, that uses magnetic fields to transform into a variety of shapes. The material could enable a range of new applications from antennas that change frequencies on the fly to gripper arms for delicate or heavy objects.

The material is a mixture of three different ingredients, all with unique characteristics: two types of magnetic particles, one for inductive heat and one with strong magnetic attraction, and shape-memory polymers to help lock various shape changes into place.

“This is the first material that combines the strengths of all of these individual components into a single system capable of rapid and reprogrammable shape changes that are lockable and reversible,” said Jerry Qi, a professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech. more>

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Updates from ITU

Futurecasters’ Summit – bringing the voice of youth to the global technology debate
By Doreen Bogdan-Martin – Involving young people is particularly important to the work of ITU, the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies.

Youth are natural adopters of technology. They are the ones who will inherit the world that technology is now shaping.

It is vital that we listen to their voices and to what they want from technology. It is vital that they become part of the solution to the challenges the world is facing.

The Futurecasters Global Young Visionaries Summit is hosted and co-organized by ITU and the Model UN program of Ferney-Voltaire, France.

The event is a program of youth-oriented consultations aimed at bringing the voices of young people to all major ITU development discussions and activities.

The Summit is built around the global success of the FerMUN Model UN led by the Lycée International Ferney Voltaire.

One of the very first bilingual Model UN programs in the world, FerMUN now regularly welcomes students and teachers from over 25 countries worldwide. more>

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Productivity Does Not Explain Wages

As long as we believe the neoclassical farce, we will know nothing about what causes prices.
By Blair Fix – Let’s start with the evidence trumpeted as proof that productivity explains wages. Looking across firms, we find that sales per worker correlates with average wages. Figure 1 shows this correlation for about 50,000 US firms over the years 1950 to 2015.

Mainstream economists take this correlation as evidence that productivity explains wages. Sales, they say, measure firms’ output. So sales per worker indicates firms’ labor productivity. Thus the evidence in Figure 1 indicates that productivity explains (much of) workers’ income. Case closed.

Yes, sales per worker correlates with average wages. No one disputes this fact. What I dispute is that this correlation says anything about productivity. The problem is simple. Sales per worker doesn’t measure productivity.

To understand the problem, let’s do some basic accounting. A firm’s sales equal the unit price of the firm’s product times the quantity of this product:

Sales = Unit Price × Unit Quantity

Dividing both sides by the number of workers gives:

Sales per Worker = Unit Price × Unit Quantity per Worker

Let’s unpack this equation. The ‘unit quantity per worker’ measures labor productivity. It tells us the firm’s output per worker. For instance, a farm might grow 10 tons of potatoes per worker. If another farm grows 15 tons of potatoes per worker, it unambiguously produces more potatoes per worker (assuming the potatoes are the same).

The problem with using sales to measure productivity is that prices get in the way. Imagine that two farms, Old McDonald’s and Spuds-R-Us, both produce 10 tons of potatoes per worker. Next, imagine that Old McDonald’s sells their potatoes for $100 per ton. Spuds-R-Us, however, sells their potatoes for $200 per ton. The result is that Spuds-R-Us has double the sales per worker as Old McDonald’s. When we equate sales with productivity, it appears that workers at Spuds-R-Us are twice as productive as workers at Old McDonald’s. But they’re not. We’ve been fooled by prices.

The solution to this problem seems simple. Rather than use sales to measure output, we should measure a firm’s output directly. Count up what the firm produces, and that’s its output. Problem solved.

So why don’t economists measure output directly? Because the restrictions needed to do so are severe. In fact, they’re so severe that they’re almost never met in the real world. more>

Updates from McKinsey

Building new businesses: How incumbents use their advantages to accelerate growth
By Matt Banholzer, Markus Berger-de Leon, Ralf Dreischmeier, Ari Libarikian, and Erik Roth – For large companies, building new businesses is essential for growth and reinvention. The key to success? Combining the strengths of an incumbent with the agility of a start-up.

With each passing day, established companies encounter valuable opportunities to grow and innovate—along with intense competition, which has made it harder than ever to stay on top. The companies listed on the S&P 500 index have an average age of 22 years, down from 61 years in 1958. One factor that sets winners apart is their ability to build successful new businesses repeatedly. According to our research, six of the world’s ten largest companies might be called serial business builders, having launched at least five new businesses during the past 20 years, and two more of the ten have built sizable new businesses.

This isn’t a coincidence. Established companies possess talent, funds, market insights, intellectual property, data, and other assets that can give their new businesses a decisive edge over stand-alone start-ups. Providing access to an existing customer base, for example, can lower the cost of acquiring customers and speed their uptake, thereby putting the new business on a faster growth trajectory. When established companies develop the ability to integrate their assets with tech-enabled business models, they can continually generate new businesses.

Doing so well requires four elements: strong CEO sponsorship, carefully structured relationships between the parent company and its ventures, the discipline to fund new businesses as they test and validate their ideas, and a skillful business-building team.

Business building is no longer a choice: it is an essential discipline that lets incumbents counter disruptive challengers and sustain organic growth. New businesses can also serve as proving grounds for agile and design thinking, so an incumbent’s executives can gain exposure to these practices before introducing them to core businesses. more>

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Updates from Siemens

The Changing Face of Simulation
By Joy LePree – Simulation software and its capabilities have come a long way in recent years. The latest versions include easier-to-use and more advanced features, increased computing speeds and simplified integration with other simulation programs, as well as data analytics and Industry 4.0 technologies. These modern features allow today’s simulation tools to be employed in a variety of applications throughout the lifecycle of a plant.

As a result, chemical processors are using simulation not only for design and optimization tasks, but also for other challenges, such as increasing safety and avoiding operational risk, achieving sustainability goals and training employees.

While simulation has become the de facto method for designing and optimizing processes in the chemical process industries (CPI), for many years, users didn’t apply the technology to other types of analysis, such as overall profitability, safety issues or smaller engineering problems, because it took too long to get an answer or because the simulators were too difficult to set up and use. As a result, some software providers have built solutions with lower-fidelity models that are easier to build and use. Meanwhile, other providers have taken steps to increase speed of calculations and simplify the use of rigorous process simulators.

Another change Chemstations has made is to increase the computing speed of its rigorous process simulator by taking advantage of parallel processing, which uses all available computing cores. “This means that instead of using just one core of the user’s computer, we can spread the workload across as many cores as are available, which will speed the process considerably,” explains Brown. While the initial intent of the improved calculation time was to allow faster execution of large optimization projects, the increased speed opens the door for simulation of smaller-scale projects and “what-if” studies. more>

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Updates from Adobe

December 2019 Giveaways
Adobe – Experiencing good design, illustration, photography, motion graphics, and video is like a gift—and it’s a gift that you, the creative community, give us at Adobe every day. So in return, we’re giving you gifts.

They range from Photoshop actions to lettering sets to texture packs and more. They’re all high quality, free, and copyright-free, and you can use them in any project, personal or commercial.

All we ask is that you don’t re-distribute them. more>

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The Greatest Balancing Act

Nature and the global economy
By David Attenborough and Christine Lagarde – In nature, everything is connected. This is equally true of a healthy environment and a healthy economy. We cannot hope to sustain life without taking care of nature. And we need healthy economies to lift people out of poverty and achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

In our current model these goals sometimes seem to collide, and our economic pursuits encroach too closely on nature. But nature—a stable climate, reliable freshwater, forests, and other natural resources—is what makes industry possible. It is not one or the other. We cannot have long-term human development without a steady climate and a healthy natural world.

The bottom line is that when we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves. The impact of our growing economic footprint threatens our own future directly. By some estimates, more than 50 percent of the world’s population is now urbanized, increasing the likelihood of people losing touch with nature.

With the projected rise in ocean levels and increase in the average temperature of the planet, large swaths of land, even whole countries, will become uninhabitable, triggering mass climate-induced migration. Never has it been more important to understand how the natural world works and what we must do to preserve it.

A necessary first step is to recognize that waste is the enemy. Wasting food, energy, or materials flies in the face of sustainability. Producing plastics fated to end up as litter is a waste, especially when these plastics pollute our oceans. If we could live by the simple injunction to “do no harm,” both individually and as businesses and economies, we could all make a difference. Overconsumption and unsustainable production have put the planet in peril.

Since the natural and economic worlds are linked, similar principles apply to both.

In the financial world, for example, we would not eat into capital to the point of depletion because that would bring about financial ruin. Yet in the natural world, we have done this repeatedly with fish stocks and forests, among many other resources—in some cases to the point of decimation. We must treat the natural world as we would the economic world—protecting natural capital so that it can continue to provide benefits well into the future. more>

Updates from McKinsey

How purpose-led missions can help Europe innovate at scale
By Ilan Rozenkopf, Pal Erik Sjatil, and Sebastian Stern – Europe is at an important economic inflection point. The continent has the required assets for future prosperity, including leading economically in worldwide sectors such as automotive and pharmaceuticals, and is making progress in important innovations that will help it compete. Nonetheless, European business faces a challenge that is eroding its economic position relative to other global powers: building new leading clusters or companies that can innovate at scale. Addressing this challenge is vital to the continent’s economic future.

We suggest building on Europe’s economic strengths and social capital to tackle the challenge. European business leaders should raise their sights and set new ambitions, both for their own organizations and for collaboration across private and public sectors on fundamentally important projects for the future. Building on a concept originally proposed by Professor Mariana Mazzucato, we call these “missions”—bold and inspirational initiatives to collaborate at scale on socially and economically important topics capable of attracting public support.

This approach can help Europe address its innovation challenge in its own distinctive way, marshalling resources and harnessing ideas and diverse cultures in a set of common ambitions. It could also compensate for structural disadvantages relative to China and the United States, such as a comparatively fragmented domestic market and a less cohesive system of government action.

In sum, missions offer a significant opportunity for European business leaders to take an even stronger lead for more innovation at scale in Europe. Fostering ambition-led collaboration enables scaling of disruptive innovation and proven ideas in a way that leverages Europe’s strength in diversity and, thus, the harmony underpinning its social market economy. more>

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