Startup, stay in business.

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The biggest hurdle facing most startups is to stay in business long enough to be successful. If they accomplish this then they have the chance to turn into an ‘overnight success’ after many years of hard work.

The numbers are against most new businesses. Many new businesses fail within the first three to five years. Even inside well-resourced large companies the challenges of bringing new products to market see many fail to make it.

This means that every startup sets out on a journey with the odds stacked against it. Every new startup is a triumph of optimism over evidence of other startup failures.

The real challenge for each startup is to stay in business. And sometimes hard questions must be asked to help the business survive.

The important factors in small business survival are:

  1. Focus – ability to say no to interesting opportunities that do not support the strategy
  2. Revenue – realistic sales targets with concrete and realistic plans to achieve them
  3. Cost control – ability to resist non-focused expenditure
  4. Customer focus – understand the specific market or markets and deliver what they will pay for; be ruthless with products that they don’t want
  5. Competitor analysis – know what competitors are doing and how to respond (if at all)

Focus

As Mick Liubinskas is well-known for telling entrepreneurs, startups must “focus or fail“. It is easy for a new business to find many things that it could possibly do. Often it is more important to identify the things that the business will not do (or will not do now).

One of the most important things to know is what things the business will absolutely not do. Out of scope items are more critical than in scope items, since they determine the boundaries within which the business will operate.

Survival

Everyday that the business survives and makes money is a good day. Many startups have big dreams. But if the business cannot survive to realise them then those big dreams will be crushed.

Cashflow and sales are nourishment for the business. There is a temptation to say “more capital will solve our problems”. However, this is not always the best course of action. The more investors a business has, then the more obligations one has to deliver for the investors.

Substance over style

There is a temptation for many startups to focus on external impressions and public relations at the expense of doing the hard work. That is, the hard work of setting up proper business management systems and processes to support the enterprise. While marketing and public relations are important, if the substance of the business is not well formed, the business will likely struggle to scale (or even to survive).

Leadership and management

Typically people startup a new business due to passion, and very often they do not have previous experience in leadership and management.

Business leaders undertake serious roles with obligations to shareholders, investors, customers, and staff. The fiduciary duties associated with business leadership are often not common knowledge.

Some things to do…

  • Set up sound management and operational processes and systems to support the business
  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities within the business
  • Have a clearly documented business plan together with key performance indicators to track progress
  • Set up a business support or mentor network – get advice from people with experience (and be willing to act on that advice)
  • Read up on why other businesses failed and work out how to avoid the same pitfalls
  • If in doubt, seek professional advice, and be smart enough to take it

Some useful links from the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) about running a company:

Articles on business failures

 

 

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Inspiring millennials

Enactus UNSW Pitch Fest
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Millennials or Generation Y have been getting a hard time in the media for a while now. They are alleged to be entitled, they don’t buy cars (which will apparently destroy the economy), and they are said to be extraordinarily optimistic in spite of the economic circumstances into which the emerge as adults.

Enactus UNSW

But that is not my experience of millennials. It was inspiring to meet the young people at Enactus UNSW earlier in the week at their pitching competition.

There I found committed and engaged people who are working to make the world a better place. They were pitching projects to help with youth mental health issues, recycle computers and get them to community groups, provide business support to social enterprises.

The diversity of ideas was remarkable, the passion and enthusiasm encouraging. The university students who participate in these projects are getting valuable experience for their post university lives. And they are also gaining valuable experience in working to create sustainable business solutions. It is what I like to call a win-win.

More information about Enactus UNSW here

Enactus UNSW Australia

 Quiz

Why not try the Pew Institute’s How Millennial Are You quiz?

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Trade unions and the jobs free future

Image: Eight-hour day banner, Melbourne, 1856 (Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons).
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Background to the jobs free future and trade unions

Recently I wrote about the jobs free future, where the traditional model of a job for life is dead and industries that were familiar employers during the twentieth century are significantly reducing their need for labour. The jobs free future represents a major structural change to the global economy.

Venture capitalist, Steve Schlafman noted in a recent post that we are seeing the Uberification of the US Service Economy, and the same is likely to occur in Australia. Australian industry is being hollowed out now, with new job losses announced regularly. In recent times we’ve seen the car industry in Australia close down, Qantas reduce local jobs further, BP close their Brisbane refinery, and CSIRO announce job cuts.

And, while Ross Gittins assures that all of these job losses do not mean that we’re all doomed, it does demonstrate the future trajectory of traditional work in this country. The future of low skilled and manual work is not promising, and the new jobs will likely be in services, skilled, and digital work. Callam Pickering reported, in relation to Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens’ speech on Economic Conditions and Prospects, that:

“Our economy will lose some manufacturing jobs but we will gain jobs in mining and services, in health and professional services, and in industries that we do not currently understand or haven’t been invented yet.”

Source: Callam Pickering, Why she’ll be right in the long run

What is not made clear here is that the jobs of the future are not likely to be stable full time jobs. They are more likely to be portmanteau jobs, where lots of little jobs are undertaken. And life in the world of a task based worker is not an easy one, as recounted by Brad Stone in My Life as a Task Rabbit.

Nor can every worker from old industries be retrained and redeployed into the emerging industries, as Michael Bloomberg commented:

“You’re not going to teach a coal miner to code. Mark Zuckerberg says you teach them [people] to code and everything will be great. I don’t know how to break it to you . . . but no.”

Trade unions as businesses

In this context it is interesting to consider unions as a business. And, like most other businesses, unions face challenges from the jobs free future.

Trade unions have served their members (a.k.a. customers) well to date by providing collective bargaining in relation to workplace terms and conditions . During the past century or so Australian unions have lobbied to achieve key employment and workplace reforms, from which most Australians benefit today, including:

Basic WageAnnual LeaveAward wages
Penalty RatesMaternity leaveSuperannuation
Equal Pay for WomenHealth and Safety and Workers’ CompensationSick leave
Long service leaveRedundancy payMeal Breaks, rest breaks
Unfair Dismissal Protection[Source: Australian Unions]

The benefits of these reforms to workers are undeniable. However, they are predicated upon a world in which work is regular, predictable, and at least semi-permanent. The future of work is not like that; it is more likely to be disjointed, irregular, and impermanent for many workers. Further this model was predicated upon large employers of mass labour within an industry with which to bargain, and it was also reliant upon the notion that threats of labour withdrawal could force change. This is increasingly untrue, and employers have many options with which to respond to threats to withdraw labour.

The question is how unions will shift their business model to support customers who are not part of the regular routine world of work. What kind of collective model can support workers who move away from permanent or semi-permanent work within a single industry to task based and piece work across industry boundaries? And, what will this kind of shift mean for union funding models?

Further, how will unions manage in a world where the government is actively seeking to reduce union access to workplaces, remove the right to boycott, reduce or remove penalty rates and other conditions?

Core business

Historically, the funds held by unions are derived from a broad based union membership among the working population. However, the Australian unions have already experienced a substantial drop in membership over the past few decades, as noted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) late in 2013:

“The proportion of employees who were trade union members in their main job has been steady at 18 per cent for the last three years, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). There were 1.8 million people in August 2012 who were trade union members in their main job.”

It is worth bearing in mind that the number of employed persons in Australia as at February 2014 was approximately 11 million. The following ABS chart from 2011 shows the problematic position of unions even before one considers the digital revolution and the jobs free future. Source(s): Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership, Australia

Further, the Brotherhood of St Laurence reports that youth unemployment is reaching a crisis point, with Tony Nicholson noting:

“What it means for all these young people is that they’re at risk of never being able to get a foothold in the world of work,” he said. “And in our modern economy that means that they’re really being sentenced to a lifetime of poverty.”

With a declining membership, and consequent reduction in funding, the unions were already facing an uncertain future. Now we can add to their woes the disappearance of traditional industries and jobs. This also means that unions face increased funding constraints for future business growth strategies. The real question for unions is can they survive as the jobs they seek to protect disappear in increasing numbers?

Governance and management

In addition to the decline in membership, trade unions face other challenges. For example, the recent and ongoing scandals of the Health Services Union (HSU) with Craig Thomson and Michael Williamson; and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) bribes scandal that is now widening to other building unions.

The Abbott government recently announced a  Royal Commission into trade union governance and corruption and this is likely to further destabilise public faith in the union movement and it close associate the ALP. The stories emerging to date have indicated substantial organisational, management, governance, and cultural issues within the union movement.

Some trade unionists are starting to ponder the future of their business, such as Dustin Halse in 2012: Is there a place for trade unions?

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has released a number of papers exploring the future of unions in Australia, for example,  Urgency & Opportunity: union membership trends and observations 2012.

The chief response seems to be an ACTU campaign called Secure Jobs, Better Future, which fails to address the structural causes of job ‘insecurity’.

“Secure Jobs. Better Future is a national campaign to improve the rights and working lives of the 40% of the Australian workforce employed in insecure work.”

Source: Secure jobs, Better Future campaign – ACTU

However, there appear to be few concrete proposals for halting the decline in union membership. Nor does their appear to be any notion of how to approach the looming structural shift due to the jobs free future.

The future

Considering unions as businesses, the issues they face include a declining customer base, declining revenue, lack of customer focus, and problematic external conditions. The lack of customer focus is especially problematic. It is always fatal for a business to lose sight of the customer. Rarely can a business recover easily from a loss of customer focus – just look at Qantas and its current junk bond status. Further, the governance and management issues that have already come to light in some unions are likely to be reinforced by additional information from the Royal Commission.

Some unions are already seeking to address the skills gap in their management teams by accessing the National Workforce Development Fund to provide management training to their staff, for example Certificate IV in Frontline Management.  However, unions were only required to educate their personnel on union governance practices commencing in 2013:

“Changes to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Act 2012 on Financial Governance required all union officers with financial decision-making responsibilities (including elected officials, finance staff and members of management committee) to do FWC Approved training within six months of June 29th, 2013. In some circumstances, Unions now have until mid-2014 to comply. “

This means that the unions are now working to professionalise their management and governance practice in a hostile environment. They are doing so while fighting a rearguard action with the Abbott government about working conditions (for example attempts to roll back penalty rates and conditions), and while a Royal Commission is investigating the union movement.

If ever there was a time that workers needed organisations to represent their interests, that time is now. As Halse notes:

“In a political economy governed increasingly by the market-oriented doctrine of neo-liberalism, trade unions should not so easily be dismissed.”

However, it is hard to see how unions will survive the combined onslaught of poor management and governance, declining membership, and the decline of key industries that they have relied upon for the past century.

If the unions are not up to the challenge, then how will we protect rights and working conditions from deteriorating? How will we ensure that people participating in new forms of work are not exploited?

These are very real challenges that the union movement must ponder. They must step away from their internecine struggles within the unions and the ALP factions to focus on their real business and their real customers. Otherwise the union movement will continue to dwindle into irrelevance, and workers will lose their hard won collective bargaining capability.

Perhaps Alex White is right to think that the real future of unions is crowdfunded and crowdsourced:

“…decentralised, leaderless, temporary movements, empowered by online organising platforms like MoveOn, Change.org, Avaaz, Twitter and Facebook.”

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The future of business is the future of technology

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Recently Rebecca Nash from ABC’s The Business asked me to consider the future of business over the next decade. Here’s some thoughts from that conversation.

The future of business has always been driven by developments in technology, and the digital revolution is of equivalent substance to the previous industrial revolution. This has important implications for the future of business.

Manufacturing will not die but it will change

Manufacturing used to be about employing large numbers of people in relatively low skilled jobs. However, this has been declining for many years with the introduction of robotics and automated production lines.  Automation of production lines is already highly advanced, but now we will see new approaches to how things are constructed. This trend in manufacturing employment will continue with the introduction of technologies such as 3D printing.

One  of the possibilities arising from 3D printing is enabling mass customization. A good example of this is shoe production via 3D printing, Australian startup Shoes of Prey is already using this technology. Another compelling application of 3D printing is in medical solutions like this: 3D printer gives disabled girl “magic arms” exoskeleton. Although it is important to note that the technology can be used for other purposes too for example, the ability to create a weapon.

Changed competitive landscape

The digital revolution is also leveling the playing field between competitors, and being large is less advantageous than previously. Smaller competitors can form loose coalitions that provide similar scale to a larger organization without the need for capital intensive setup.

We are likely to see a reduction in the market power of big players. Some traditional businesses will fail to scan the environment and detect shifts in the consumer environment. A good example of this is the differences in adoption of new technology and business models and its impact on the performance of competitors Kogan and Harvey Norman.

New internet

Another game changer is the internet of things – things knowing information about themselves and talking to each other, and enabling us to interact with them.  Thus metadata becomes increasingly important and enables the continued development of augmented reality applications such as those made possible by technologies such as Google Glass.

The internet of things will be enabled by wirelessly connected sensor technology. An interesting example of this is DNA tags as used by ethical Australian timber company Simmonds Lumber to help stamp out illegal logging. Yet this technology will have important ramifications for our personal privacy too – we will be asked to trade-off convenience for privacy.

Cost shifting to lower cost regions will continue – but those regions may change as economic shifts happen in the developed world.  That is, due to economic shifts, developed countries may evolve as lower labour cost regions.

Changing customer landscape

Power relations between business and consumers are shifting, and the shift is toward empowerment of consumers. This requires new attitudes and responses from business, and this requires customer insight which is provided by good data. Data will increasingly drive decision making and the making of meaning within businesses.

New approaches – loose coupling

Innovation will be powered by loosely coupled technical components that are joined up with loosely coupled business components. Even large businesses will need to find ways of being nimble and agile, to develop the ability to pivot rapidly in response to environmental changes.

Change cycles will increase in rapidity so businesses will need to constantly scan the external environment to assess and adapt.

Organizations will need to develop skills in entrepreneurship as an internal capability to drive innovation. If access to credit or capital becomes constrained then organic growth capability will be critical for business. Further, the ability to partner effectively with other organizations will also be critical to growth.

Effective use of resources becomes critical

Sustainability will continue to grow in importance, not just to save the environment. Sustainability will be important from both a cost control and environmental perspective.

Access to natural resources that we take for granted – such as water or petrochemicals – will become increasingly competitive.  And access to other resources needed to grow a business are also likely to be problematic.  A good example is access to credit.

New ways of doing traditional things like eduction and work

Schools and universities will not need to look like they do now. The need for large places enormous investments in physical infrastructure are no longer necessary to perform the task of eduction.  Online education and collaboration technologies mean that we do not necessarily need to ‘go’ to school in the way we do now.

This has implications for society and business. We currently use schools as a holding bay for children while their parents are working at the office 9-5.  If young people no longer need to attend school in a physical sense then how will their parents manage, and what impact will this have on the traditional workplace?

Also the need for workers to be physically present at an office to do their work will reduce. Better communications and presence technology means that adults will also be able to work from other locations than the traditional office. Some good examples of the evolution of co-working in Australia are Hub Melbourne, or Vibewire and Fishburners in Sydney.

This will drive changes in the ways that organisations design and define their physical footprint. It also means significant changes for currently viable business models such as building and renting commercial real estate.

Yet human beings still need interaction with others. Our young people need to interact with each other physically to evolve as human beings. Adults need to connect with each other in the work context.  We have a strong social drive and these needs still need to be met.

It is likely that localised co-working spaces will continue to evolve as solutions to this need for human contact and affiliation.  No longer will we head, lemming-like, to a corporate office in the city, instead we will head to the local co-working space where we can connect virtually with our colleagues.

Rise of collaborative models – leisure, work, competition

This does not mean that competition will disappear, however it will change.  Due to increasingly scarce resources collaboration will become more important for business. Further, the question of why a business needs to do everything for itself will become important. With cloud and ubiquitous connections to the network partnering with best-of-breed service providers will be easier.

In the personal sphere collaboration is likely to increase too.  And the change will be driven by similar considerations to business.  For example, why own a car when you don’t need one all the time, especially if you can get access to one whenever you need it?

Shared resources – cars, tools, etc – will make increasing sense to people and shift the consumer culture from one of product acquisition to service adoption. Some good examples of existing collaborative consumption models include Open Shed and 99 Dresses.

The future is a distant country*

Some of my prognostications will be wrong in their particulars. But the technology trends are clear. The next decade will see the rise of new businesses fuelled by technologies that don’t exist yet.  The job I do for a living did not exist when I left school. The industry I work in did not exist at the start of my career. I can see no reason why those trends will change in future. We need to be open to the new opportunities and accept that things move faster now.
* with apologies to L.P. Hartley

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ANZAC 2012

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I don’t think that many romanticise war too much these days. And there is something very poignant and compelling about seeing the fruits of war.

In northern France and Belgium the unimaginable scale of loss wrought upon so many families in the great wars of the twentieth century is still visible at every step.

It was in north eastern France that I found some family graves. Here is the the resting place of young ANZAC Rupert Alexander, aged 31 years, along with his compatriots lost in France in 1917.

This poem by Gellert captures the melancholy of war:

Anzac Cove

There’s a lonely stretch of hillocks:
There’s a beach asleep and drear:
There’s a battered broken fort beside the sea.
There are sunken trampled graves:
And a little rotting pier:
And winding paths that wind unceasingly.
There’s a torn and silent valley:
There’s a tiny rivulet
With some blood upon the stones beside its mouth.
There are lines of buried bones:
There’s an unpaid waiting debt :
There’s a sound of gentle sobbing in the South.

By Leon Gellert

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them”
Lest we forget

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2012: Not the end of the world, but perhaps the end of the world as we know it

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As we come up to the year 2012 many prognosticators are predicting the end of the world. I suspect that this will not come to pass.

But I do think that we are seeing the end of the world as we’ve come to know it during the latter years of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first century. Many of the verities upon which we’ve relied will be falter or disappear.

Doomsayers talk about the Mayan calendar ending in 2012. However, The Guardian kindly reassures us that an “expert” says: Mayan tablet does not predict end of the world in 2012.

No matter what one thinks of these predictions of doom it is clear that we are moving into a new world next year on several fronts, mainly due to the global economic situation.

The economy

The global economy is not looking well – the British, European and US economies are mired in problems that seem insurmountable.  Austerity measures are starting to bite in the UK and Eurozone. We are starting to see the breakdown of normal social bonds. For example, in Greece, there are even stories of parents giving up their children to the state because they can’t feed them: Greek economic crisis turns tragic for children abandoned by their families.

The US is coming up to a Presidential election and the deadlocks between Republicans and Democrats are likely to continue thus blocking any possibility for change. The economic situation in the US does not seem to be improving, in spite of the ‘green shoots’ some speak of.  Instead the charts tell a sobering story (source: Financial Armageddon) for the US:

Australia has been sheltered from all of this by the strength of China, and it remains to be seen if this continues into the coming year.

What can we do?

It seems that there is not a lot we can do as individuals to address these larger global problems.  However, what we can do is adjust our own lifestyle and mindset to better suit these challenging times. Since we are moving into a different kind of world it seems prudent to prepare proactively rather than sit and wait.

We are moving into a world where the rule of law is shifting, where the rights we’ve assumed were ours are being stripped away, where the social contract between the government and the governed is dissolving.

In this kind of environment the only source of solace is individuals who join together to create positive change in the world. We must join together to create a new kind of polity that rejects control and inequity. We must join together to create tribes and communities that embrace peace and reject anger.

Here are some of my thoughts about how we can approach this challenge:

Mindset?

Kindness. Compassion. Love. Community. Dignity. Composure. Peace. Grace. Flow.

Lifestyle?

Find our tribes. Build communities.

Sustainability. Grow a garden.  Simplicity.

Walk with a friend. Slow down. Eat fresh food. Share a meal. Breathe.

Business?

New models. Innovation. Doing good. Creativity. Collaboration. Consensus.

Profit with honour. Nurture people and the environment.

And?

It is good to remember that there is strength in the people when they join together for the common good…

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Maximizing shareholder value should NOT be the only goal of the corporation

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It is interesting to think about this now that we see Occupy Wall Street spreading around the world (even to Occupy Sydney).

Back in 1976  Michael Jensen and William Meckling argued that the solution to the principal-agency problem — business leaders advance their own interests not those of shareowners — was to make the goal of the corporation the highest return to shareholders and to align shareholders and business leaders through granting stock options. Today this remains the prevalent model of organizing and motivating people within organizations in the western world.

I have long argued that this approach evokes extremely dangerous behaviours in companies – creating corporations that are run as if they are peopled by soulless automata.

The construction of reward systems that prioritize shareholder value as the sole objective of the corporation encourage risk taking, little focus on other concerns (such as social and environmental good), and poor treatment of human resources.

Dan Ariely has written about Better (and more) Social Bonuses – it is worth reading. Bonus scheme incentives encourage unhealthy competition and can drive unintended outcomes, such as ignoring due process (as in the various bank scandals such as the recent UBS rogue trader).

One characteristic of the shareholder value model in action is the objectification and monetization of things – people, environment, social good.  This attitude has inherent problems for all stakeholders in a business, even for the shareholders. Shareholders are people too, they live within a society and an environment.  Thus prioritizing shareholder value over social and environmental good is not necessarily good for shareholders.

As a senior manager in large corporations I often found myself referring to people as FTE (a.k.a. full time equivalents). This objectification of the people within the organization – treating them as if they are mere machines – is a characteristic of this shareholder primacy model.

Once the people who work in the business are successfully objectified it is much easier to treat them in ways that previously impossible. It is easier to implement inhumane or unsafe work practices. It is easier to fire people. It is easier to ask people to do things that are unethical.

The other part of this unhealthy equation is the large institutional shareholders in corporations.  Because they represent interested parties at second or third hand again we see objectification of the process.  They too seek only to maximize benefit for the shareholders that they represent.  But  because they represent those shareholders at arm’s length they do not understand the needs or wants of those shareholders.  Thus the real people who are shareholders are assumed to only seek maximum value no matter how that is achieved.

The common thread in all of this that real people with real desires to create a good world for themselves and their grandchildren do not have their interests adequately represented.  Instead we all suffer – people, planet, nature – because of this single-minded pursuit of maximal shareholder benefit.

 

 

 

 

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How do we create and share value in a jobless economy?

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Jeff Jarvis sparked my thinking on this recently with his post on The Jobless Future. As Jeff so bluntly stated:

“We’re not going to have a jobless recovery. We’re going to have a jobless future.

Holding out blind hope for the magical appearance of new jobs and the reappearance of growth in the economy is a fool’s faith.”

If that is the case in the US, and we have riots on the streets in the UK, Spain, Greece, north Africa and the middle east, then things are not looking good in large portions of the world. There will likely be flow on economic and social effects around the world, especially since Richard Florida is pondering if riots could come to Canada too.

Nouriel Roubini may be right in his assertion that “Karl Marx had it right. At some point, Capitalism can destroy itself.”

The inherent instability of markets in the US and Europe mean that jobs are going to be harder to come by, especially for the less educated and the less skilled.

All of this got me thinking about what skills are really useful in this new world that is developing before our eyes? What kinds of businesses and communities will be more resilient in the face of changing economic verities? How do we need to recast our expectations and aspirations for this new world that is unfolding?

That kind of thinking led me over to John Robb’s blog and one of his recent posts, Entrepreneurs and Open Source Hardware. Perhaps we are all about to become open source entrepreneurs?

The kind of economic environment that is emerging is one where sustainable and ethical business models can come into their own. Not large scale, top-down, industrial operations. Rather there is an opportunity to develop peer-to-peer and networked organisations. Social innovation, social enterprise and ideas like collaborative consumption become significant, and a return to older ways of organising businesses – like co-operatives and mutual associations – become critical.

We also need to find ways to create and exchange value in an environment where traditional mechanisms might no longer be available to us. This means creation of new means of value exchange, or even new kinds of currencies. Reverting to gold is not really feasible, after all it’s rather heavy to tote around. Thus virtual currencies might even come to replace some of the existing ones

If you consider it unbelievable that major currencies can fail then it’s time to go read some history. Just to put it in perspective there’s a great visual post by Jeff Clark over at The Daily Reckoning that illustrates the risk rather neatly: A Thousand Pictures Is Worth One Word.

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Google's interesting social innovation

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My buddy Anthony Baxter has been a Googler for a while and has worked on many fascinating projects. But what he’s working on now is not just interesting from a technology perspective, it is interesting from a social innovation perspective too.

He’s working on the Google Crisis Response Team, which is part of Google’s philanthropic activities, and he’ll be talking about this at the next Social Innovation Sydney Unconference on 13 August 2011.

The Crisis Response team is an excellent example of social innovation. Google set it up to focus on technology-driven philanthropy via Google.org.  It is a practical way of helping people who have experienced some kind of disaster or humanitarian crisis.  They work to make critical information more accessible during times of crisis.

As they explain it:

The types of activities we might initiate include:

  • Organizing emergency alerts, news updates and donation opportunities, and making this information visible through our web properties
  • Building engineering tools that enable better communication and collaboration among crisis responders and among victims such as Person Finder and Resource Finder
  • Providing updated satellite imagery and maps of affected areas to illustrate infrastructure damage and help relief organizations navigate disaster zones
  • Supporting the rebuilding of network infrastructure where it has been damaged to enable access to the Internet
  • Donating to charitable organizations that are providing direct relief on-the-ground

Read more about past efforts.

If you’re interested in this kind of thing then register now for Social Innovation Sydney Unconference 13 Aug 2011.

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Local Food or Less Meat?

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A while back I did a Live Local Challenge, attempting to consume only food produced within 100 kilometres of my home for a week. You can check out the results and learnings from the process in a series of blog posts from 2009.

Since that time I’ve been much more conscious of what I consume and where it comes from. Last week we screened Food Inc. at Social Innovation Sydney and that kick started me thinking about the issue again.

Then this article popped up in my RSS feed: Local Food or Less Meat? Data Tells The Real Story.

Andrew Winston summarises the research in a US context:

“Thankfully, a couple scientists took a harder look at the data and published an analysis in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology. The abstract for this article is a prime example of clear writing and good lifecycle analysis — which don’t usually go together — so check it out. But here’s the essence:

  • Food is transported a long way, going about 1,000 miles in delivery and over 4,000 miles across the supply chain.
  • But 83% of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food comes from growing and producing it. Transportation is only 11%.
  • Different foods have vastly different greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity, with meat requiring far more energy to produce, and red meat being particularly egregious, requiring 150% more energy than even chicken.

So the journal article adds this up to an obvious conclusion: if you want to reduce your food’s carbon footprint, eat less meat. In short, “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

As a numbers geek, I love this kind of analysis. Now for the caveats: none of this data should dissuade anyone from eating locally also. The footprint benefits are real, even if dwarfed by food choice. And the benefits to local economies and smaller farms are very important.

But let me repeat: just moving away from meat for one day a week is more effective than buying everything you eat locally. This number will be surprising to most people, but it’s partly why the global call for “Meatless Mondays” is gaining steam, with school systems and universities adopting the approach in cities around the world, from Baltimore to Tel Aviv.

Source: Andrew Winston, Local Food or Less Meat? Data Tells The Real Story

I suspect that the distances mentioned in the research hold for Australia too due to our large land mass and lack of local farming close to most cities. Thus it becomes clear that if you can’t decide to become vegetarian full time then there are substantial benefits to replacing a number of meals each week with vegetarian choices. That’s what we’re doing at my place.

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