Category Archives: Nature

Democracy’s biggest challenge is information integrity

By Laura Thornton – As the world watches the United States’ elections unfold, the intensity of our polarization is on display. This election was not marked by apathy. On the contrary – citizens turned out in record numbers, some standing in lines all day, to exercise their franchise with powerful determination and the conviction of their choice.

What is notable is how diametrically opposed those choices are, the divergence is not only voters’ visions for America but perceptions of the reality of America. It has long been said that Americans, like citizens elsewhere, increasingly live in parallel universes. Why is this? I believe quite simply it boils down to information.

While there are ample exceptions and complexities, in one universe, people consume a smattering of different news sources, perhaps one or two newspapers, some journals, television and radio broadcasts and podcasts. Many of the sources are considered left-leaning. These Americans tend to hold university degrees and vote for Democrats.

The other universe includes those who primarily get their news from one or two sources, like Fox News, and rely on Facebook and perhaps their community, friends, and family for information.  They lean Republican, and many are not university educated — the so-called “education gap” in American politics. The majority of Republicans, in fact, cite Fox for their primary source of news, and those who watch Fox News are overwhelmingly supportive of Republicans and Trump.  Both universes gravitate toward echo chambers of like-minded compatriots, rarely open or empathetic to the views and experiences of others.

There are obvious exceptions and variations. The New York Times-reading, educated Republican holding his nose but counting on a tax break. Or the low-information voter who votes Democratic with her community.

In the two big general universes, sadly the divide is not just about opinions or policy approaches.  They operate with different facts.  As Kellyanne Conway, former Trump advisor, famously put it, “alternative facts.” more>

Keep science irrational

By Michael Strevens – Modern science has a whole lot going for it that Ancient Greek or Chinese science did not: advanced technologies for observation and measurement, fast and efficient communication, and well-funded and dedicated institutions for research. It also has, many thinkers have supposed, a superior (if not always flawlessly implemented) ideology, manifested in a concern for objectivity, openness to criticism, and a preference for regimented techniques for discovery, such as randomized, controlled experimentation. I want to add one more item to that list, the innovation that made modern science truly scientific: a certain, highly strategic irrationality.

‘Experiment is the sole judge of scientific “truth”,’ declared the physicist Richard Feynman in 1963. ‘All I’m concerned with is that the theory should predict the results of measurements,’ said Stephen Hawking in 1994. And dipping back a little further in time, we find the 19th-century polymath John Herschel expressing the same thought: ‘To experience we refer, as the only ground of all physical enquiry.’ These are not just personal opinions or propaganda; the principle that only empirical evidence carries weight in scientific argument is widely enforced across the scientific disciplines by scholarly journals, the principal organs of scientific communication. Indeed, it is widely agreed, both in thought and in practice, that science’s exclusive focus on empirical evidence is its greatest strength.

et there is more than a whiff of dogmatism about this exclusivity. Feynman, Hawking, Herschel all insist on it: ‘the sole judge’; ‘all I’m concerned with’; ‘the only ground’. Are they, perhaps, protesting too much? What about other considerations widely considered relevant to assessing scientific hypotheses: theoretical elegance, unity, or even philosophical coherence? Except insofar as such qualities make themselves useful in the prediction and explanation of observable phenomena, they are ruled out of scientific debate, declared unpublishable. It is that unpublishability, that censorship, that makes scientific argument unreasonably narrow. It is what constitutes the irrationality of modern science – and yet also what accounts for its unprecedented success. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

There will be more innovation post-COVID. Here’s why.
By Harry L. Davis – Since the COVID-19 pandemic threw our lives into disarray, we’ve had to change how we do anything involving other people. Rather than counting on bumping into colleagues in the hall, we now have to schedule Zoom calls around the competing demands (childcare, a broken water heater) that everyone is dealing with. There isn’t time for the kind of small talk that often, unpredictably, leads to big ideas.

There are unquestionably benefits to handling some tasks over video conference. Last spring, I taught a class in which groups of students take on consulting projects with the guidance of Chicago-based Kearney. Consultants spend countless hours on airplanes to make face-to-face meetings with their clients possible, and it’s a big part of their culture. In past years, regular in-person meetings and schmoozing were built into the syllabus.

Of course, none of that was possible this year. Our students were thrust into a new world where even senior executives were caught off-guard and without webcams. Whiteboard brainstorming sessions became Zoom calls.

Curious about their experiences, we surveyed the students about the impact of remote work throughout the quarter. While pessimistic at first, by the end of the nine-week course, they later felt that their remote situation was actually helping them be more efficient and helped them do do a better job responding to their clients’ needs. I had a similar experience with teaching remotely—although daunted at first, I found that I was able to deliver my classes effectively, even if I was tethered to my desk chair.

Once the pandemic is behind us, we’ll have to choose what to return to and what to keep from our remote way of working. I think Zoom and its ilk will continue to have an important place for those situations where teams are geographically dispersed or there’s some urgent decision that needs to be made. But the type of work that delivers innovation—creative work—will still best be done in person. more>

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Here’s how Biden could undo Trump’s deregulation agenda

Biden could use Trump’s playbook to reverse his regulatory moves on pollution, worker safety, health care, and more.
By Sarah Kleiner – Cutting workplace safety inspections. Allowing subpar health insurance plans to be sold to Americans. Permitting tractor-trailer drivers to blow past previous driver-fatigue limits. Waging war on birth control.

These deregulatory actions and others taken by President Donald Trump’s administration have adversely impacted the health and safety of Americans, as revealed in reporting for System Failure, an investigative series produced by the Center for Public Integrity and Vox.

Trump’s actions may not stick. Now that President-elect Joe Biden is set to take office in January, he has a few tools at his disposal to undo some of Trump’s regulatory maneuvers. Some could be more difficult to quickly put to use with a split Congress, however.

If Democrats take control of both houses of Congress, they’ll be able to quickly wipe out regulations pushed through in the last 60 legislative days of Trump’s term, because of the Congressional Review Act, part of the Contract With America that Newt Gingrich and House Republicans campaigned on in 1994.

But, while Democrats maintained control of the House, it’s still unclear which party will hold the majority in the Senate. All eyes will be on Georgia’s runoff for two Senate seats, which will happen in early January. Neither of the Republican incumbents, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, garnered a majority of the votes in last week’s election, forcing a runoff with Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively.

If Ossoff and Warnock ultimately prevail, it won’t be clear until January when the Congressional Review Act’s 60-day period began — because it all depends on how many days Congress meets between now and January 3, when its current term ends — but experts predict it started sometime during the summer. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

Would you trust a machine to pick a vaccine?
Machine learning is being tasked with an increasing number of important decisions. But the answers it generates involve a degree of uncertainty.
By Emily Lambert – Back before COVID-19, Chicago Booth’s Sanjog Misra was on vacation in Italy with his son, who has a severe nut allergy. They were at a restaurant and couldn’t read the menu, so Misra opened an app that translates Italian to English, and pointed his phone at the menu to find out if one of the dishes was peanut free. The app said it was.

But as he prepared to order, Misra had a thought: Since the app was powered by machine learning, how much could he trust its response? The app didn’t indicate if the conclusion was 99 percent certain to be correct, or 80 percent certain, or just 51 percent. If the app was wrong, the consequences could be dire for his son.

Machine learning is increasingly ubiquitous. It’s inside your Amazon Alexa. It directs self-driving cars. It makes medical decisions and diagnoses. In the past few years, machine-learning methods have come to dominate data analysis in academia and industry. Some teachers are using ML to read students’ assignments and grade homework. There is evidence that machine learning outperforms dermatologists at diagnosing skin cancer. Researchers have used ML to mine research papers for information that could help speed the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

They’re also using ML to predict the shapes of proteins, an important factor in drug development. “All of our work begins in a computer, where we run hundreds of millions of simulations. That’s where machine learning helps us find things quickly,” says Ian Haydon, the scientific communications manager for the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington. Some scientists there are developing vaccines, and others are trying to develop a drug compound that would stop the novel coronavirus from replicating. more>

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Updates from McKinsey

Optimizing water treatment with online sensing and advanced analytics
Overlaying real-time advanced analytics on data from online sensing can help to stabilize operations and increase capacity in water-treatment facilities.
By Jay Agarwal, Lapo Mori, Fritz Nauck, Johnathan Oswalt, Dickon Pinner, Robert Samek, and Pasley Weeks – Metals and mining companies are adapting to an operating environment in which water is highly regulated, experiences unforeseen supply shocks, and carries substantial social value. By 2024, water-operating expenses for these businesses are estimated to increase by a 1 to 4 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR), with a 4 to 7 percent CAGR expected for water-capital spending. Consequently, these metals and mining companies have made significant investments—an estimated $15 billion in 2019 alone—to reduce water withdrawal and increase water efficiency in operations, as well as mitigate reputational risk.

Digital tools can optimize water-management operations—offering stability, reduced costs, and deferred expenditures for new capacity. This article describes the application of such tools in water treatment (see, “The five domains of water management”).

Central to sustainable operations is water reuse, wherein water is reclaimed after processing and treatment (to remove metals, reagents, or suspended solids). Reuse obviates the need for additional fresh water; it significantly reduces water-operating expenses and is critical to addressing low water availability in stressed areas. Anglo-American, for instance, has pledged to adopt techniques that will allow for more than 80 percent water reuse at their mining facilities, saving an estimated $15 million per year. more>

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Updates from McKinsey

Reimagining the auto industry’s future: It’s now or never
Disruptions in the auto industry will result in billions lost, with recovery years away. Yet companies that reimagine their operations will perform best in the next normal.
By Thomas Hofstätter, Melanie Krawina, Bernhard Mühlreiter, Stefan Pöhler, and Andreas Tschiesner – Electric mobility, driverless cars, automated factories, and ridesharing—these are just a few of the major disruptions the auto industry faced even before the COVID-19 crisis. Now with travel deeply curtailed by the pandemic, and in the midst of worldwide factory closures, slumping car sales, and massive layoffs, it’s natural to wonder what the “next normal” for the auto sector will look like. Over the past few months, we’ve seen the first indicators of this automotive future becoming visible, with the biggest industry changes yet to come.

Many of the recent developments raise concern. For instance, the COVID-19 crisis has compelled about 95 percent of all German automotive-related companies to put their workforces on short-term work during the shutdown, a scheme whereby employees are temporarily laid off and receive a substantial amount of their pay through the government. Globally, the repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis are immense and unprecedented. In fact, many auto-retail stores have remained closed for a month or more. We estimate that the top 20 OEMs in the global auto sector will see profits decline by approximately $100 billion in 2020, a roughly six-percentage-point decrease from just two years ago. It might take years to recover from this plunge in profitability.

At the operational level, the pandemic has accelerated developments in the automotive industry that began several years ago. Many of these changes are largely positive, such as the growth of online traffic and the greater willingness of OEMs to cooperate with partners—automotive and otherwise—to address challenges. Others, however, can have negative effects, such as the tendency to focus on core activities, rather than exploring new areas. While OEMs may now be concentrating on the core to keep the lights on, the failure to investigate other opportunities could hurt them long term.

As they navigate this crisis, automotive leaders may gain an advantage by reimagining their organizational structures and operations. Five moves can help them during this process: radically focusing on digital channels, shifting to recurring revenue streams, optimizing asset deployment, embracing zero-based budgeting, and building a resilient supply chain. One guiding principle—the need to establish a strong decision-making cadence—will also help. We believe that the window of opportunity for making these changes will permanently close in a few months—and that means the time to act is now or never. more>

Updates from McKinsey

Global emergence of electrified small-format mobility
Electric two- and three-wheel vehicles are gaining in popularity. What does the future hold for the market?
By Patrick Hertzke, Jitesh Khanna, Bhavesh Mittal, and Felix Richter – Inventors patented the first electric bikes back in the 1890s, but their innovations never garnered the same attention as other early-transportation milestones, including the first subways and the Model T Ford. Today, however, several trends have converged to bring e-bikes out of obscurity. Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) are increasing as governments crack down on emissions. Meanwhile, innovators have introduced new technologies and business models that are breathing life into the market for small-format EVs (those with two or three wheels). Improbable as it may seem, e-bikes could finally be having their day.

To gain more insight into the burgeoning market, we examined worldwide trends for small-format EVs, looking at both geographic growth patterns and the forces shaping the industry. Our analysis shed some light on strategies that can help OEMs and other players succeed as small-format EVs gain traction.

The sales figures for small-format EVs may initially seem modest. The market for two-wheel EVs (E2Ws) and three-wheel EVs (E3Ws) was valued at around $97 billion, or 4 percent of global auto sales. The sector has momentum, however, and global sales of E2Ws and E3Ws are increasing by more than 14 percent annually. (That figure excludes sales in China, which was an early adopter of small-format EVs and is thus experiencing slower growth.) By 2022, global sales of E2Ws and E3Ws could reach $150 billion.

It’s impossible to generalize about global sales trends, since transportation patterns and preferences vary widely by location, but some country-specific developments are striking. Take China: the country now accounts for around 30 percent of the global market for small-format EVs. What’s more, more than 80 percent of 2Ws in China are electrified, making it the dominant market by far in that category. The story may soon change, however, since growth of E2Ws is plateauing in China and surging in the European Union, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, and Southeast Asia.

India sells the largest number of E3Ws by far, and they now account for about half of all rickshaws in the country. By 2026, around 80 percent of 3Ws in India will be electric. One caveat: if more light commercial vehicles become electrified, they could become the default option for cargo transport, provided that their performance and economics improve.

Globally, we expect electrification to accelerate most quickly in the scooter and light-motorcycle segments. Electrification of heavy motorcycles will follow, but it won’t reach the levels seen with smaller vehicles. more>

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Updates from Chicago Booth

When giving feedback, focus on the future
By Sarah Kuta -When managers give performance-improvement feedback to employees, they presumably want the conversations to result in positive changes—not to inspire defensiveness, excuses for poor performance, or skepticism of the managers’ point of view.

Offering forward-looking feedback can help keep such conversations productive, suggests research by Humanly Possible’s Jackie Gnepp, Chicago Booth’s Joshua Klayman, Victoria University of Wellington’s Ian O. Williamson, and University of Chicago’s Sema Barlas.

Performance-improvement feedback often fails when managers spend too much time diagnosing or analyzing what went wrong in the past, according to the researchers. When managers and employees talk about possible next steps and solutions, however, employees tend to be more receptive to the feedback and more likely to intend to act on it, the researchers find.

Recipients respond just as well to predominately negative feedback as they do to positive feedback, so long as the conversation focuses primarily on how the recipient can best move forward, the research suggests. more>

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Updates from McKinsey

Many investments in digital farming have not fulfilled their full potential. What can companies do to improve returns?
Creating value in digital-farming solutions
By Shane Bryan, David Fiocco, Mena Issler, RS Mallya Perdur, and Michael Taksyak – Over the past 20 years, agriculture has undergone a digital revolution. It started quietly with original-equipment manufacturers that began to sell harvesters with guidance systems and auto steering, then roared to life in 2013 with Monsanto’s nearly $1 billion acquisition of the digital-agriculture company Climate Corporation. Since then, there has been an arms race within the industry, with billions of dollars invested and hundreds of millions of acres affected by digital farming.

The rapid pace of investment and broad adoption of digital technologies on the farm are a testament to the power of digital to reduce costs, boost yields, and put more money in the pockets of growers. However, despite the promise of digital-farming solutions, our research suggests that such investments have not lived up to expectations of the companies that made them. To explore why this might be the case and what could be done to improve outcomes, we conducted a survey of more than 100 industry executives from across the agriculture value chain.

For the purpose of this article, we define “digital farming” as any platform or application that processes input data to provide growers or crop advisers with agronomic decision-making support. These include proven digital offerings (such as variable-rate application) and ones that are more novel (such as in-season sensing). We excluded automation equipment, drones, and services that are not linked to agronomic decisions (for example, fleet-management software).

The survey found that most agriculture companies have invested in digital-farming solutions, but less than 40 percent of respondents (representing a broad swath of the industry) self-reported positive returns. To understand why, we tested a number of success factors, several of which dramatically increase perceived success. These standout factors include:

  • high attention from CEO and top team
  • clear strategy and business case linked to value creation
  • at-scale investment

About two-thirds of survey respondents indicated they had just one of these success factors in place; this suggests that the disappointing returns from digital-farming investments may be due to lack of adequate preparation. more>