Memia 2020 wrapup: Top 10 themes from a year of tumultuous change🌊💥🤯
Technology changes the world. Trying to keep up.
As 2020 hurtles towards its overdue conclusion, here’s a wrapup of the highlights and overarching themes from 46 ⚗️emoji-filled🌏 Memia newsletter posts this year.
An underlying thesis?
Writing the weekly Memia newsletter is mostly an exercise in continuous discovery, drinking from a firehose of change trying to figure out what’s actually going on…and what might happen next. If an underlying thesis has emerged for Memia’s writing over the course of 2020, it goes something like this:
Technology changes the world: Rapidly advancing technology is among the main drivers of modern global change - on individual, societal, political and economic levels.
Try to keep up: technology is moving so fast you need to run just to stay still.
New frameworks needed: Legacy conceptual frameworks of society, politics and economics struggle to accommodate the potential of new technologies to transform, or provide a working model of how technology effects change.
Techno-optimism warranted*: In many cases new technology itself provides opportunities to address myriad challenges facing humanity - but, for whatever reasons, most commentary generally lacks imagination as to what is possible…and instead tends to focus on negative outcomes/preserving the status quo.
(*…Yes obviously all new technology comes with risks and dangers…but these get enough airtime already *IMO*…so Memia’s “regular weekly scan of emerging tech and the unfolding future” mostly takes an optimistic spin, imagining the positive possible.)
2020: Top ten themes from a year of tumultuous change
That said, most of the top ten themes from 2020 don’t revolve around technology. Go figure. 🤔
Below my roundup of the year:
🦠The pandemic and a new age of scientific enlightenment
🌊Climate change: the next tsunami
💸Financial system externalities finally visible
🗳️Fragile but resilient democracy
📦Clogged globalisation driving localised resilience
👓Work from (virtually) anywhere
💡Scientific discovery and technological innovation
🌌Humanity’s place in the cosmos
🌏Aotearoa’s changing place in the world
💎Hidden gems everywhere
The pandemic and a new age of scientific enlightenment🦠
The Covid-19 pandemic has had many ripple effects across society and the economy - researchers from Griffith University, Brisbane developed this Causal Loop diagram for understanding the wicked complexity of the Covid-19 pandemic which is worth studying in depth:
While most of the world continues to reel from the relentless tumult of the pandemic, at the end of 2020, Aotearoa New Zealand finds itself in a strong position. From a public health perspective, not only have Covid-19 outbreaks been eliminated *twice* inside the border, but stricter hygiene and social distancing during 2020 have reduced the number of Kiwis with the flu by 99.8 per cent compared with the previous year! (equivalent to >1500 deaths).
Looking at the economy, despite the evaporation of international tourism due to closed borders, the government’s “go hard and go early” elimination strategy turned out to be good for health AND good for the economy, at least relative to the international carnage elsewhere. Back in April I localised BCG’s analysis of the shape of the economic recovery, which has turned out to be pretty much on point:
Also back in April, mid-lockdown I worked up a number of Post-Covid-19 "axes of uncertainty" scenarios for New Zealand Inc. - turns out we’re tracking pretty near the best case, which is amazing when you think about things could have turned out.
One of the many wonders of the year is the incredible story of how new vaccines have been developed at breakneck speed. This, combined with the clear evidence of the effectiveness of science-led government policy perhaps makes 2020 the first year of a new age of scientific enlightenment? Here’s hoping.
Climate change: the next tsunami🌊
The pandemic has diverted attention from Climate Change, the next tsunami:
2020 will also be remembered for apocalyptic Scenes from the Anthropocene with Australia and the US experiencing devastating forest fires as the Earth recorded what is likely to be the warmest year on record.
Atmospheric CO2 levels (as measured by the Keeling Curve below) continued to increase:
It’s unclear whether a solution for climate change will actually come from politics, economics and/or a series of technological breakthroughs. However this year Memia has explored four high level strategies:
Accurate carbon pricing
New financial instruments to hedge the Keeling curve
A new “Carbon coin”:
“…a digital currency, disbursed on proof of carbon sequestration to provide carrot as well as stick, thus enticing loose global capital into virtuous actions on carbon burn reduction.”
- From Kim Stanley Robinson’s inspiring book Ministry for the Future.
Accelerating fossil fuel replacement to Net Zero carbon emissions:
With all of the doom out there, there are still reasons to be cautiously optimistic that a number of political, economic and technological solutions can be found and implemented.
Financial system externalities finally visible💸
Perhaps the strangest development this year has been how the global financial system has responded to the global pandemic.
It remains to be seen whether the international banking system will continue to hold together in 2021 after 2020’s sustained real-world stress test. Unprecedented levels of Quantitative Easing (QE) and government borrowing to try to keep national economies from failing continue, (…inadvertently…?) causing huge stockmarket, property and cryptocurrency asset inflation. Meanwhile income, wealth and housing inequality keeps on increasing in many countries, not least here in Aotearoa. It’s a conundrum which generates much political commentary but not much action so far - although many potential levers could be pulled:
Something else has happened this year: the previously relentless and domineering logic of global capitalism has, at least temporarily, yielded to a more clear-eyed view of the emergent externalities of the global monetary system: which works pretty well at a micro level (exchanges of goods and services, stores of value) but incurs increasingly unsustainable environmental, health and human costs at a planetary scale.
One book I read this year in particular helped me to understand more clearly exactly how capitalism functions: The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality by Katharina Pistor explains how:
“capital is created behind closed doors in the offices of private attorneys, and why this little-known fact is one of the biggest reasons for the widening wealth gap between the holders of capital and everybody else.”
An absolutely fascinating history and detailed exposition of how the enclosure of the commons is an ongoing process which continues today in an age of intangible assets. Highly recommended.
A new Post-Covid Digital Bretton Woods agreement has been called for to update the international financial governance framework for the post-pandemic world: “rethinking global financial institutions for an age of intangibles”.
Such an upgraded digital financial framework will need to anticipate a dynamic landscape where money itself is being rapidly re-engineered: not just soaring cryptocurrencies but sovereign Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) in China and other countries, potentially disintermediating traditional banks themselves. Also keep an eye out for early 2021 momentum from the newly rebranded Diem consortium (previously Libra) in Western economies, likely to emerge as a USD-pegged stablecoin as soon as it is licensed by Swiss financial regulators.
Fragile but resilient democracy🗳️
2020 was also a tumultuous year politically, with high profile national elections in Taiwan, the US, New Zealand, Belarus, Myanmar and many other countries worldwide, all held in the long shadow of Covid-19.
Taiwan is an increasingly pivotal geostrategic hotspot, with neighbour China flexing its muscles all across Asia Pacific this year. In January, incumbent Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the election comfortably - rewarded for her government’s pushback on Beijing pressure to accede to unification, amid a backdrop of Hong Kong anti-extradition protests.
A significant democratic innovation in Taiwan is its success using the online civic engagement tool Polis to provide an online debating space for citizens - that politicians listen to and take into account when casting their votes:
“If you gamify consensus, you expose points of unity that were previously hidden.”
- Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang
Aotearoa New Zealand’s delayed election in October was a relatively muted affair…which felt like it went on forever…effectively a referendum on our highly competent and popular Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, her Labour party won an outright majority (the first time since the MMP system was introduced in 1996 when a single elected party has had enough votes to govern alone).
Other than being a result driven by the exceptional leadership and communication of Ardern, this felt like a pivotal moment which brought previously obscured demographic, diversity and urban/rural shifts finally into view. New Zealand’s population of nearly 5.1 million now has a parliament which more closely resembles the median age of 37 years (and lowering), 30% non-European ethnicity, over 27% of the population born overseas and over 87% living in urban areas.
US: Despite widespread concern beforehand, after a relentless four-year stress test the US’s democratic institutions appear to have come through (barely) intact. Palpable relief around much of the world of a Biden-Harris win and an end to the chaotic and divisive Trump presidency. But bizarrely we are still in a slow-motion endgame and it doesn’t officially finish until January 21… (In most other national elections, losing governments get turfed out the day after the results are declared. But US Presidential transitions used to take even longer than they do today - the very first inauguration of George Washington, in 1789, did not take place until April 30 due to the length of time it took Congressmen to travel from across the US!)
Twitter has been a fertile source of election relief the whole way through both the AoNZ and US elections… in particular AoNZ 2020 Election Twitter Highlights and (still chuckling over a month later) Four Seasons Total Landscaping in the US:
Clogged globalisation driving localised resilience📦
Early in 2020, the Chinese government enforced total lockdowns in major cities and the skies cleared:
This caused an initial global supply shock which ran international inventories down but this was soon resolved as China’s capacity rebounded strongly mid-year. The problem actually moved progressively downstream: global shipping and logistics are now all clogged up, experiencing unprecedented port congestion which is pushing up shipping container prices >3X from a year ago.
In response, governments such as Japan are aggressively funding re-shoring of manufacturing capacity - and businesses have learned to implement China Plus One sourcing strategies to be able to ride another China supply shock.
But even with basic supply diversity, cost-driven supply chains have proven too fragile - resilience is THE mandatory feature now. Expect ongoing significant investment in intelligent routing and “edge” manufacturing in 2021.
Also expect ramped investment in logistics automation: warehouse robots don’t get sick from viruses (or injured by forklifts).
Looking further ahead, 3D printing enables multiple scenarios for supply chain resilience. However, still a long way to go for international standardisation and investment.
Work from (virtually) anywhere👓
For millions of people worldwide this year, working from home has offered a glimpse of how things could be different over the long term.
For information workers at least, there’s a new in-person/remote work balance currently being negotiated between the old and the new way of doing things.
The enforced acceleration of “digital transformation” has created some interesting emerging trend lines:
Earlier in the year there were predictions that WFH policies could reduce commercial real estate requirements by up to 30-50 percent in AoNZ. However, since the end of the lockdowns however, it appears that many businesses have just returned to BAU - perhaps with a more agile style of working and with some staff working remotely some days, but not changing fundamentally.
Zoom towns: But in the US tech sector particularly, Silicon Valley is experiencing an exodus as the Covid-19 outbreak forced companies to adopt long term WFH policies: Facebook is targeting 50% remote workers by 2030, Google workers won’t need to return to the office until mid-2021 and Twitter announced that staff will be able to work from home permanently, even once offices begin to reopen:
"We want employees to be able to work where they feel most creative and productive" - Jack Dorsey
Elsewhere, battle lines are being drawn for when “things return to normal”: back in August the UK government was pushing to get staff back to offices amid warnings of UK 'ghost towns'. Last month, Deutsche Bank even proposed a work-from-home tax.
But physical office working patterns are now - more than ever - brittle points of failure for 21st century organisations. “Remote working” should probably be renamed Resilient Working… (where is it “remote” from, actually?)
My revelation this year has been the time savings from WFH - no flights, no commuting, no driving from meeting to meeting, no cafe queues even). The complete lack of travel inconvenience (who misses airport lounges and Uber really?), real estate cost savings and reduced carbon emissions of working virtually are provably compelling when everyone does it. There’s a network effect to be observed.
Many companies worldwide reported being more productive with staff working remotely. (…While at the same time some workers reported impacts to their mental and physical health - it’s definitely not all rose tinted). Definitive research on the net benefits/ drawbacks of WFH is yet to arrive.
Underlying some of the tensions are changes to established power dynamics at work - research has found that remote work flips the leadership power relationship - "classic" leadership characteristics, such as extroversion and intelligence, are valued by team members in face-to-face gatherings - but in virtual settings, those qualities take a backseat to facilitation and action. Clearly horses for courses.
Perhaps the bigger long term trend to watch: the imminent (3-5yrs?) arrival of mainstream mixed reality (XR) for productivity. XR leaders Oculus and Varjo have recently launched convincing demos of new enhanced virtual working environments promising an order of magnitude higher productivity than in-person collaboration:
Yes, some people may still want to come into the office to exchange handshakes and pheromones over the water cooler, but for the rest of the knowledge workforce it will be *headset on*, from anywhere.
Scientific discovery and technological innovation💡
This year Memia has chronicled hundreds of what I’ve termed [Weak] signals: mostly technological innovations today that might shape the world we inhabit in the future. A few of my picks from this year:
How many examples of Modern Alchemy can you think of?
Deepfakes waging a mounting offensive on the truth…
…while the concept of how it’s even possible to tell “The Truth” becomes more elusive: Memia 2020.17, Truth and the Underlay:
What can’t you do with AI?
Two amazing videos of what you can do with GPT-3 in Google Sheets🤯:
Solace of Quantum: Chinese researchers claiming Quantum Supremacy with photons at room temperature. The quantum computing industry is investing big and commercially viable hybrid quantum-classical computers could arrive within the decade…
I remain cautiously optimistic about climatetech, particularly artificial photosynthesis:
A Scanner Darkly is nearing reality - the Snap camera anime lens for VC calls:
Future of food (1): Indoor vertical farming at scale:
Future of food (2): I can’t believe it’s not chicken
Real…Unreal: Epic Games preview of UE5:
And finally the incredible adventures of SpaceX and local cousin Rocketlab in 2020, making reusable rockets and commercial manned spaceflight look easy. Mars here we come?
Humanity’s place in the cosmos🌌
While interplanetary (if not interstellar) space travel gets closer, our understanding of the Universe expands in parallel:
Frontier physics continues to tax the mind: physicists have finally found evidence that anyons exist: particle-like objects which only arise in realms confined to two dimensions...while other physics experiments are building a fourth (synthetic) dimension of space.
Pure speculation, but the mysterious accelerating Oumuamua object continues to fascinate:
Even more speculative was the launch of the Wolfram Physics Project, (covered in Memia 2020.11) an open source collection of software tools and documentation which aims to explain how the observable “laws” of physics can be arrived at from the (“zillions of times”) application of tiny, structureless, logical rules. In this theory space, time, gravity and [hints of] quantum mechanics are all derivable from this basic principle.
Wolfram describes the result of repeated applications of a simple rule to a series of “abstract relations between abstract elements” - a hypergraph. This can yield a menagerie of possible forms for different rules after ~1000 applications:
The contention is that if we were to run rules like these long enough (10⁵⁰⁰ times?), they would end up making something that reproduces our physical universe.
*If* this approach turns out to be verifiable then it truly changes the underlying paradigm for physics to “universe as computation”. (Which has always seemed rather intuitive to me). And if not, it is still a beautiful logical and mathematical thought experiment.
Aotearoa’s changing place in the world🌏
So all of the themes above span the globe (/universe) in scale. However, this year’s newsletters have frequently been written from a viewpoint of living here in a dynamically changing Aotearoa New Zealand (AoNZ).
(In May’s Memia 2020.14 I suggested that Microsoft call their newest Azure data centre region “AoNZ North” (they didn’t) - and have been using the abbreviation AoNZ since then. I’ve seen a few folks repeating this around the Twittersphere, mostly fellow migrants, interestingly…it may catch on yet. (“New Zealand” is an increasingly absurd name for this stunning mountainous South Pacific country!)
One observation is that Aotearoa’s self-identity has passed a fundamental turning point this year with indigenous Māori culture and language far more prominent in daily life and mainstream media than ever before and a process of imagining decolonisation gathering unstoppable momentum.
(As a honky British migrant GenXer who moved to *pale* Ōtautahi-Christchurch in 2004, I’ve got a very long way to go to understand Te Ao Māori. But like many Pākehā NZers I’m finally on the journey: I’m much more aware of the sorry historical colonial context than before, I’m learning and using a few Te Reo phrases as I go - and I’m particularly enjoying discovering Māori place names…all roadsigns should be bilingual from now on, eh?)
But…I’m also hyperaware of tokenism: using “Kia ora / Ngā Mihi” still feels inauthentic but I’m getting used to using it (…as does “Hi / Regards” when you think of it).
BUT…I much prefer a 20-minute Zoom call to a formal in-person hui any day. (Likewise any kind of formal Western ceremonials/deference). And personally I’m uncomfortable with the pepeha format: I just don’t identify with a mountain, a river or even a tribe/people. (Is it OK to say “it’s not really important to me where I come from, I’m more interested in the future?”) As I said, a journey, glad to be taking the early steps but a long way to go.
Also I thought the recent appointment of Nanaia Mahuta as Aotearoa’s first indigenous foreign minister was a stroke of inspiration - to much of the rest of the world, my sense is that New Zealanders are still perceived as friendlier Australians who play better rugby🏉. As Aotearoa discovers and inhabits its evolving 21st century identity rooted in Māori culture, it’s deeply important that this messaging is articulated to the rest of the world as well as just amongst ourselves.
So… what is Aotearoa’s place in the world in 2020?
The nationwide pandemic response and the high profile of the Prime Minister have been instrumental in raising Aotearoa’s international presence during 2020. Progressive leaders in other countries have absorbed much of Ardern’s playbook and in many ways AoNZ is seen as a thought leader for a progressive agenda emphasising climate action, reduced economic inequality and a pluralistic, multilateral “rules based” international order”.
APEC Re-imagined in Memia 2020.43
Ah… but that “rules based order” is receding under considerable pressure. Even if a Biden presidency is able to repair 4 years of Trumpian damage, China’s *assertiveness* as the primary regional power places Aotearoa in the most challenging foreign policy landscape ever. Current China-Australia trade tensions are bringing into sharp focus the delicate balance between relying on US for strategic defence and China for export revenues.
Aotearoa and China are moving forward with further regional economic integration as part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) signed last month, but I expect trade policy to consciously focus on diversifying AoNZ’s export markets to include post-Brexit Britain and the other large developing regional economies (Indonesia, Malaysia) - aiming to reduce (but not choose “either/or”) the % of exports dependent on China.
(For a counterpoint to the “China as global oppressor” narrative which we are frequently fed, Asia Foundation NZ CEO Simon Draper wrote recently in Stuff):
“…we are missing a fuller picture of the bilateral relationship, and of the country [China] itself. Contemporary China is a country full of fast-evolving social trends and innovation that we rarely hear about in New Zealand, and that have growing influence globally. And the idea that 1.4 billion people are essentially ‘the same’ is ludicrous.”
Aotearoa’s export economy is changing structurally as well. Although agricultural exports are still the mainstay, the export technology sector is healthier than ever - actually boosted competitively by international Covid-19 travel restrictions. By some estimates, the tech sector is on track to become the country’s biggest export earner, worth $16 billion by 2030. Anecdotally this is fuelling an ongoing increase in venture capital seeking a home here - although AoNZ VC investment totalled only NZ$112.2m in 2019 - it will be interesting to see if the numbers for 2020 are significantly higher.
In summary: Aotearoa finds itself in a privileged global position at the end of 2020: free from the coronavirus, a cohesive democratic mandate for a progressive political agenda, diversifying trade links and with a burgeoning technology industry fuelled by *just enough* capital to get to market and scale. Reasons to be thankful and optimistic.
And finally, a highlight of each newsletter is always the random hidden gems which catch in my weekly trawling net ready to be shared. Hard to pick the top 5 from this year but here goes:
Flock of starlings:
Indie Heeland coos:
A handy COVID Risk Matrix from XKCD (Do NOT skateboard into a moshpit on a cruiseship!)🤣
And finally this video from musician Lawrence Mason is sublime: so convincing it had me Googling to see if The Stranglers covered Dave Brubeck with their song Golden Brown (they didn’t). A beautiful tribute to both bands:
Thank you for subscribing to Memia in 2020 and I’m looking forward to another year of weekly newsletters in 2021, together with some new community development initiatives (more on this in the New Year).
For now, have a fantastic summer break and I’ll be back in touch in January!