Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the CommonsI think I first heard about the tragedy of the commons in economics class, the term dates back to the writings of William Forster Lloyd in 1833 and the commons he was referring to was the shared grazing land that might be associated with a village and could be used by all villagers or commoners to graze animals.

Shared grazing land works as long as each commoner shares fairly, as soon as one grazer adds more livestock than his/her share the resource becomes over-used and unsustainable. In an ancient village it worked through two pressures; the finite resource was enough for each commoner, and the commoners knew each other so social pressure would act to keep any greed in check.

In the modern world, and in the absence of any regulatory check, both of these pressures are absent. In this scenario individuals has a tendency to use as much of the resource, the commons, to their own advantage. The result is that the commons becomes depleted and ruined.  Each individual is incentivised to use as much of the resource as possible, meanwhile the costs are spread amongst all users.

In 1963 Harbin extended the concept to include environmental issues, positing that a finite planet can only support a finite population, and since then the term has been applied in discussion on the environmental and sustainability.

US and the Paris Agreement

It’s come up again this week in reaction to the US President’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris agreement.

Most sane people are horrified by this decision because science.  Most of the world’s scientists agree that climate change is real, and caused by human activity.

The real debate is how fast the change is happening and what we can do about it. In 2016 most of the world’s countries signed the Paris Agreement – 197 in total, with 148 ratifying it thereafter. Only two countries did not sign; Syria and Nicaragua. Syria because its leaders are under sanctions and cannot enter Europe. Nicaragua did not sign because, in their view, the agreement didn’t do enough. So although many articles are grouping Syria, Nicaragua and US into one group it’s unfair: only Trump’s America is rejecting the agreement out of a belief that they don’t need to do anything. †

The planet has become  “the commons” and we’re looking at fair exploitation of a finite resource. The Paris Agreement was an attempt to address that “fairness”. It is an agreement where states set their own targets, but since there is no supra governmental body to monitor countries’ performance they can be considered non-binding. The Paris Agreement is flawed, but not as flawed as the President of the US has claimed; his statements have been extensively checked by the Washington Post.

The Discussion on Climate Change

I’ve spent some time in discussion with online commentators, and those supporting the President’s decision do so for one of three reasons

Reason 1: God will fix it:
This screenshot is from a conversation on Instagram, the sender contacted me by DM after I asked her a question on a public post. (The sender went on to call me a stalker, if they read this no doubt they’ll find a worse epithet.)

To which Michelle Wolf had the perfect response:

Reason 2: The US is being treated unfairly, because China produces more greenhouse gas than we do.

There is some truth in this statement, on an absolute numbers bases China produces more greenhouse gases than the US. However it also has 4 times the population. In addition historically the US has produced more greenhouse gases than any other nation. Here’s a map showing the per capita use around the world from the EAA

The US has been exceeding its fair use of non-renewable energy for decades. If the Paris agreement seems unfair perhaps try thinking of it as redressing the balance.

Reason 3: The US is already a leader in sustainable energy

No, the US isn’t. There seems to be an weird belief that the US is the best at whatever is under discussion amongst some commentators.  China outstrips the US on building wind power capacity, by a factor of 3 (2015 figures).  If you think a per capita comparison is fairer, I took the data for 2016 total installed wind power capacity, divided it by the population and then the US has 205 MW per million people compared to 84 MW per million people in China. But before you exalt, 10 countries outperform the US including Uruguay.

I’m using wind power installation as a rough proxy for sustainable energy, it’s true there are other forms; Hydroelectricity where China also leads on capacity, and Solar Power, no prizes for guessing that China also leads there.

The US is not a leader in this.

Climate Change Impact

Climate change is already having an impact around the world.

Tuvalu has seen a rise in sea level of 20 cm., and with other low lying small nations has seen an increase in the number of serious storms they experience.  Mauritius has been facing this since 2013. Many African countries are vulnerable as temperatures rise and they may lack the resources to address changes. That refugee crisis we have now will be dwarfed if nations become unable to feed themselves.

But Americans don’t need to look overseas for examples, Louisiana is losing about a football field of land every hour. There several factors contributing to this but one is rising sea levels.

Alternative Explanation

Whenever big outrageous news is announced I look behind it for what else is going on. Hiding unwelcome news behind something attention-grabbing is a useful communication strategy. So what else has been going on in US politics?

The Other US Reaction

About 70% of Americans believe climate change is real, but have a harder time seeing that it will impact them. It’s the sort of risk question humans are terrible at answering,  one that has a big impact somewhere in the future.

Some extraordinary Americans have stepped up, from individuals to business leaders to civic leaders.

Michael Bloomberg, a long time activist on climate change has promised to find a way to support the operations of the the branch of the UN that coordinates the activities on the Paris Agreement.

The Governors of Washington, New York and California, which is about 20% of the US population have begun an alliance of states committed to the Paris Agreement.

Companies such as Apple, Ford, Exxon Moblie, Tesla, Disney, Microsoft, GE, IBM, Salesforce, Amazon, Intel, HP, Goldman Sachs, Google, Shell, Virgin have all stated their commitment to continue reducing greenhouse gas production.

There is also a certain amount of peer pressure in play, US companies may need to meet the regulation of their export markets. Consumer pressure also has an impact both in the US and around the world.

While we teeter on on the brink of another “tragedy of the commons” it seems that the single most powerful person in the commons has much less power than the combination of other commoners.

It turns out the president doesn’t have as much power as he thought. How about that.


† When he’s not being President of the country but merely chairman of a company that owns a golf course in Ireland that’s threatened by rising sea levels Mr Trump believes in climate change bigly.

Image:  Beef Research  |  CANFR  |  CC BY-NC 2.

Unpack That For Me

“Can you unpack that a little for me?”

I gave a blank stare the first time I heard the term. It brought up a mental picture of suitcases and dirty laundry. But this term has a non-literal meaning that has crept into regular language and appears on fora, in books and even in the transcripts of UK parliamentary committees. It seems that it’s not, strictly speaking, new, as it’s been used in computing and in academic discourse for a long time. But it’s jumped the fence into every day conversation.

When I heard the question I understood from the context I understood that I needed to explain in more detail, but I may have been naive.  According to Andrew Friedman, a student at Brown;

Unpacking, as defined by my peers, basically means deconstructing a loaded statement into its constituent parts, putting the statement in context so that it may be better understood.

Yikes, so it’s something you’re asked when you’ve said something controversial or loaded. He gives a couple of examples, in one case he learnt something and changed his view, in the other he was irritated by the question.

You might have guessed I’m not a fan of this term, I still get the suitcase image in my head and have to translate it. I’d prefer any of these alternative expressions;

  • Could you explain that?
  • Help me understand what you mean…
  • Give me a little more background to your decision
  • What do you mean by that?
  • Could you give an example?
  • Huh?

Image: Suitcases  |  Natasha Mileshina  |  CC BY-NC 2.0

Organic Growth

organic growth seedling

This is an old term that’s garnered a new twist in the era of social media.

Organic Growth in Business

Organic growth for a business dates back to at least the 1950s and refers to the growth in a business that relates to improvements from its normal operations, here’s how Scottish craft brewery company BrewDog has increased their growth -organically – over the years.

  • increased output
    In 2012 BrewDog moved to a state-of-the-art brewery, their output in 2013 was double the output of 2011. With developments to the brewery production was more than doubled by 2015.
  • increase in customer numbers
    BrewDog is UK-based gained new customers in 2008 by expanding exports to Sweden, Japan and America.
    They have also grown by opening their own bars, and now have a total of 44.
  • a new product release
    BrewDog began with one beer, Punk IPA, and has added dozens of others,  including the punny Jack Hammer, seasonals such as Hop Fiction, and the alcohol free Nanny State.

BrewDog are famous for their self-promotion and stunts, but their double digit growth figures tell of effective organic growth.

Organic Growth in Social Media

Organic growth in social media usually applies to growth in number of followers that comes from what you provide on your account, rather than paid promotion or paid advertising. It’s a baseline growth in your account figures before you look at the impact of campaigns.

  • effective content
    Philips worked on creating an instagram account filled with wonderful content around the theme of #LightIsLife, and increased their follower number by 50% in six months (engagement figures also went up)
  • Word of Mouth or Great PR
    When the JoeBama memes caught the imagination of a nation during a fraught election campaign they were featured in all sorts of standard publications, earning the originators thousands of followers.
  • Crisis
    Less happily when your company is in the news for negative reasons the number of followers might increase, along with the number of comments and negative reactions.

Although it’s getting harder and harder to grow an audience based on organic growth alone, it’s increasingly a case of “pay to play”, it’s worth monitoring your organic growth. Unless you’re in a crisis it does tell you something about the appeal of your content.

It’s a useful term and one that’s easy to understand in social media terms if you know the general business use.

Image:  Seedling  |  US Dept of Agriculture  |  CC BY 2.0

Uncanny Valley

We’re increasingly interacting with machines that masquerade as humans, either as an online chatbot, voice activated tools (Siri, Alexa and friends), and just occasionally as robots. As long as the machine is obviously a machine we’re comfortable interacting with it, and we’ll make allowances for its robot brain.

As our ability to use high levels of artificial intelligence delivers more human-like machines it will become harder to determine whether a machine is a machine based on the interaction.  When the machine starts to imitate a human well we’ll interact as long as we see the human.

The “Uncanny Valley” describes the feeling of being disturbed by interacting  and having the realisation that the machine isn’t as human as we’d thought. Or, conversely, knowing that we’re interacting with a robot but finding the speech, look and movements terribly life-like. It’s that moment when you think “oh, creepy”.  The term was created more than forty years ago by Robotics Professor Masahiro Mori.

As the robots become more human like this effect will, in theory, disappear. After all if we can’t distinguish the machine as a machine then we won’t have the discomfort. We still have some way to go but robotics engineers and AI programmers are getting us closer. Take a look at SAYA, the reception robot created by the Koboyashi Laboratory at Tokyo University of Science. Note this is from 2009, so I’m sure there have been advance in design and interaction since then, in the meantime SAYA seems uncanny to me.

Image:  Templum Ex Obscurum  |  Narshe Talbot |  CC BY2.0

In My Wheelhouse

wheelhouse2

“OK,  we’ve found your wheelhouse”

I had never heard this before, despite growing up sailing and having a professional mariner for a father. I would say bridge on a ship or cockpit on a yacht.

It seems to have come into the language via baseball for reasons only known to Americans, although the person I was speaking to is Australian.

It just means your area of expertise and it’s rather literal, think of a ship’s captain and the area where they command the ship – it’s the wheelhouse. So if something is in my wheelhouse it’s in my area of competency and expertise.

It’s a cute idiom, and relatively easy to get from the context. For once it’s one I like, wonder what other nautical terms I can borrow; skeg, gudgeon and walty have potential.

Images: Wheelhouse of the S.S. Eureka, San Francisco, California | Scott Johnson  |  CC BY NC-ND 2.0

Powerpoint Bunny

Sept2016Powerpointbunny

A while back the head of the department came to me with an urgent request at a particularly busy time; he needed a powerpoint presentation “rescued”,  he knew my team was busy but was there any way someone could help. I said everyone in the team was busy as well, but I was pretty good with powerpoint – if he could show me what he wanted perhaps I could do it.

Long story short I volunteered to do the work for him on the condition that he didn’t tell anyone else because I did not want to be the person who always fixes powerpoint.  There’s now a term for that person – POWERPOINT BUNNY.

The Office Life gives the definition as;

Someone who is dedicated to the art of putting other people’s hard work into cheesy, over-animated slideshows.

For my the presentation for my boss I didn’t add animations or cheese graphics, I’d like to think I improved the slides. I spent some time last week working on someone else’s presentation.  In this case I did put transitions in (the presentation needed to loop), but no animations, and I may have added one or two cheesy images – in my defence the text demanded it.

But I do find myself itching to “fix” presentations of colleagues or sometimes at conferences. Particularly slides that have dull images, too much text, don’t support the speaker’s story, or so much content that I stop listening to the speaker. Here’s a video of all that can go wrong with powerpoint.

I’m willing to be a Powerpoint Bunny from time to time, life is too short for bad powerpoint.

Image: Keep Me Safe  |  Kevin O’Mara  

 

Game Changer

GameChanger

I’m going to talk about sport. Since I know so little about sport this may be the riskiest thing I’ve done all week.

The dictionary gives the definition as;

  1.  Sports. an athlete, play, etc., that suddenly changes the outcome of game or contest.

2.  a person or thing that dramatically changes the course, strategy,character, etc., of something:

Link To Sports

I tried to think of examples of things from sports that were genuine game changers. I was thinking of the sport itself not an individual game.

Swim Start;

Once upon a time swimmers simply dived in and swam, breaking the surface almost immediately. Now athletes swim dolphin style underwater – which is faster. The rules limit this to 15m in competitive swimming to ensure the athlete’s safety. But records were broken as soon as this technique change came in.

Tennis;

When I first played tennis as a kid, it was with a racket made of wood. Nowadays they’re graphite or graphite blends, with larger heads and synthetic strings. This means the racquet delivers more power and the shock as the ball strikes is dampened by the racquet. It’s an equipment change and a game changer.

The Fosbury Flop;

in 1968 Dick Fosbury won the high jump gold with the technique now used universally in high jump, the trick is that the jumper’s centre of gravity remains below the bar. In an interview he states that he increased his jump height by half a foot (15cm) in a day. As a comparison here’s what the jumps used to look like, with the athletes landing on their feet on the other side. Fosbury’s Flop was only possible once large foam mats were used for athletes to land on.

Applies to Business

The game changers in sports can be a technique change, an equipment change or a combination of both. Business analogies might be a new business model, inventing a new technology, or exploiting a new technology.

New Business Model

Do you remember the early days of the internet when you used the book mark function of your browser because you’d never find a site again? Search engines were starting to appear, and suddenly in the late 90s Google appeared with a brand new way of searching and an effective revenue model – advertising. Without the business model none of the other search engines could ever have won the internet.

New Technology

If my grandfather could see the power of what I carry around in my mobile phone he’d think it was science fiction. Even my parents are occasionally astonished, they grew up with phones that you called the exchange and requested a number then the operator connected the call. The first mobile phones didn’t do much more than call, but along comes the smartphone and everyone wants one (almost everyone). The inventors of the of both sorts of new phones transformed personal communications. Many businesses were built on their inventions.

mobile phone timeline
(Nostalgia moment; that Motorola on the far left was the first mobile phone I ever used).

Exploiting New Technology

Netflix killed Blockbuster and Videoland by streaming videos – we no longer were forced to leave the house to choose a video. But it couldn’t have existed without the ubiquity of televisions, computers and broadband internet. The transformed the home entertainment industry by licencing and streaming high demand content. They’re in the middle of transforming the content development industry by developing award winning shows of their own such as the House of Cards.

The term “game changer” can be fairly applied to all these examples. In each case the industry was transformed or a new industry was created, the change was big, and the impact was broad. Making the change was complex and there were spin off changes that new companies could exploit – particularly for the mobile phones example.

However when I hear “game changer” used in general conversation it’s usually applied to an improvement. As one article put it “Maybe cloud computing is, in fact, a game changer. Your new HR handbook is not”. Instead we can talk about improvement, change, update, advance, upgrade, progress, revision or development.

Lets save the phrase “game changer” for those inventions, developments and improvements that really do change the game.

Images: Jenga  | Antony Mayfield  |  CC BY 2.0

Mobile Phone Timeline | Khedera | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Socialise This

SocialiseThisIf someone suggests socialising I think of convivial chat, with chardonnay and canapés. It’s pretty close the dictionary definition. But there’s another possible use, or rather two uses.

One I heard from a colleague who works in Internal Communications. For them “socialise this” means to gather feedback on a proposal or draft from a representative group, and to do so informally, either one-on-one or small groups.  I can understand this use, I think referring to it as “socialising” is an attempt to emphasis a low-key, informal approach.

Another use is to publish to social media. Particularly as many of the companies I’ve been talking to are now putting their social media management under communications and out of digital teams. In many instances social media is becoming another marketing/advertising channel rather than a community. So we already have a perfectly good word for the action of placing a piece of content online; publish.

 

Image: MSc in Air Transport Event Networking  |  Cranfield University  |  CC BY-ND 2.0

Circle Back

Circle Back

I must have looked puzzled, my colleague stopped trying to explain to me and said; “Let’s circle back on this”.

Circle back. It’s not a new term, I can find references to it online from 2009. But this was the first time I’d heard it in the wild.

He could have as easily said “let’s talk about this next week”, with the same meaning. But not quite the same feel or tone.

The Urban Dictionary gives the definition of “circle back” as

Middle-management buzzword for the need to discuss an issue at a later time.

 CNBC’s definition is a little more pejorative and includes a quote

It usually means we just had a meeting where nothing was accomplished, and we need to ‘circle back’ to have another pointless meeting,

I doubt my colleague was trying to make such a strong point, the sense I had was more “we can’t answer this now, let’s agree to do the research and see if we can answer it when we meet next week”.

Image: Light Circle  |  Louise McGregor  |  CC BY 2.0

Unicorn

Unicorn Buzzword

The unicorns of my childhood were mythical, rare and wonderful beasts. Today’s unicorns are young companies that have a valuation of 1 billion USD. That might sound like something rare and wonderful, but Venture Beat magazine lists hundreds of them, with Uber leading the list in terms of valuation. Most of the companies rely on digital technology in their business model, without it their business could not scale.

So where did the term come from?

A Techcrunch article in 2013 reported on 39 companies that had been founded in the previous ten years and were valued at more than 1 billion USD. Unicorns were rare, representing 0.07% of internet related companies funded per year.

Aileen Lee, the woman behind the Techcrunch article and who is credited with coining the term, sees that the rise in unicorns may have peaked for this wave of technologies.

But what do the companies make that is so wonderful? Most exploit the possibilities of “platform economics“, rather than make something, these companies connect supply with demand. Think of airbnb which is in the lodging services business without owning a single bedroom. Rather than building hotels and then selling those rooms to guests, airbnb offers a platform for the supply side (people with spare rooms) to offer accommodation directly to the demand (visitors to the city). These platforms are often said, in approving tones, to be “disruptive”, meaning that they change an existing industry. In many cases regulators have stepped in to limit that change, for example Amsterdam City Council limits the time allowable for rent to two months per year.

We look set to have continued disruption, and while a few experts are predicting dead unicorns on the horizon it seems we’ll see a growing number of unicorns, decacorn (companies valued at more than 10 billion) and hectacorns (companies valued at over 100 billion) for a while yet. Perhaps we are, as Fortune magazine suggest finally in the age of the unicorns.

Image: Unicorn  |  Yosuke Muroya  |  CC BY-NC 2.0