Bad ideas

A known fact about startups is that most of the really successful ones looked like bad ideas at the beginning. This statement shouldn’t surprise and it is indeed a truism if we agree with another common knowledge in investing: to achieve superior returns you need to be right where everybody else thinks you are wrong.

The acceptance of this fact has generated a funny phenomenon, driven by an evident logical fallacy. If most great ideas looked like very bad ideas then every very bad idea could hide a great one.

It is obviously the investor’s job (and even before that, the founder’s) to distinguish “real” bad ideas from good ideas that just look like bad ideas. But it is not an easy feat. In doubt, most people tend to shy away from calling out a “real” bad idea when they see it. The internet has a long memory, and you don’t want to look like these guys .

There is a sort of collective hallucination. Founders are pushed to come up with the craziest idea possible, anything short the Elon would make you “unambitious”, observers that in lack of courage calls them “bold”, lots of puzzled faces looking hesitantly at each others. A modern version of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Who will play the child?

Longing for good jobs: the deliveroo strike and the future of work

Photo by Russell Davies on Flickr

In this post, I start from the recent strike performed by riders of the UK delivery startup Deliveroo to look at alternative scenarios concerning the creation of “good jobs”. I claim that “good jobs” are not about the relationship between jobs and technology but rather a product of the total value created by it. Attempts to enforce the creation of good jobs through redistribution are bound to fail in the absence of sufficient value to be shared. On the other hand, protecting “poor jobs” by out-of-market subsidies like tax credits and basic income will result in a lose-lose situation where neither innovation nor fairness are achieved. Understanding the unintended consequences of alternative actions should lead us to a different approach: less interventionist and more evolutionary.

What is a good job? And, how can we protect the one we have while creating more of them?

The recent successful strike conducted by riders of the UK delivery startup Deliveroo offers a good chance to look at these questions in a practical case, outside generic and buzzword-laden discussions about the future of work.

Machine jobs, human jobs and “good” jobs

A typical mistake we make when talking about the future of work is to think of jobs created by new technology as involving, by default, sophisticated skills, new knowledge, or both. In short, an advancement on what we used to do before. While this is true for some people, it is not a general rule.

A more realistic approach is to look at jobs that humans can do because we are better at them than machines, where better doesn’t stand for “more intelligent”, but rather “diversely intelligent”. Historically, technology has relentlessly taken over tasks that were a good fit for it, humans have kept everything else (which, to be fair, includes a whole amount of new jobs being created). A cynical way of putting it would be to say that humans occupy the space left over by the machines [1].

The gig economy, and in particular food delivery, is no different in this sense. It is a product of information technology. On the buyer side, twenty years of e-commerce and now almost ten of smartphones have created the very basis for the on-demand movement, liberating latent desires to get everything we want, when we want it. On the the supply side, the same tech allows people to find work (and to be found by it) anywhere, anytime. All glued together by beautifully designed digital platforms. Discovery, recommending, searching, matching: all machine tasks. Delivering, especially if done by bike in a busy city: human task [2].

Seen in this light, there is nothing intrinsically bad about gig economy jobs. They are an updated manifestation of a machine-enabled division of labour started in the industrial age [3]. Pushing the argument a bit further, the emergence of the gig economy demonstrates what technology optimists keep saying: new tech creates new jobs, possibly more than those it deletes.

What makes then people so worried, and workers so upset? What makes these jobs worse, in the public eye, than “good old” industrial economy manufacturing (or clerical) jobs? Or, looking from the other side, what made these better? They didn’t need special skills, they didn’t need high education, and they could count on plenty of supply. The answer, as a survey of recent researches performed by the magazine fivethirtyeight shows, might come as a surprise:

“…this much is clear: For all of the glow that surrounds manufacturing jobs in political rhetoric, there is nothing inherently special about them. Some pay well; others don’t. They are not immune from the forces that have led to slow wage growth in other sectors of the economy. When politicians pledge to protect manufacturing jobs, they really mean a certain kind of job: well-paid, long-lasting, with opportunities for advancement. Those aren’t qualities associated with working on a factory floor; they’re qualities associated with being a member of a union.”

Which takes us back from where we started: the Deliveroo strike.

Bringing unions back to the gig economy

DonkeyHotey on Flickr

It would seem, therefore, that what gig economy jobs have lacked so far in order to improve their status is collective bargaining power. The same that led to the painfully achieved social contract of the post war years and turned industrial jobs into “good jobs” even when, as it proved later, this was a distortion of free market dynamics. I will get back to this point shortly.

To confirm this impression, it is sufficient to look at the reactions the Deliveroo strike generated among sympathetic observers. Like the New Economic Foundation (NEF), a “think tank promoting social, economic and environmental justice”, which in a recent comment to the events wrote:

“Insecure, badly paid work is bad news for the economy overall. A weak voice for employees’ rights leads to a lopsided share of national income going to company profits and sitting in banks, rather than into wages and spending in the real economy.”

“The divide and conquer approach of splitting up this workforce into thousands of ‘self-employed’ contractors, managed via an app, may seem appealingly efficient to an employer. But the power imbalance created is counterproductive if we look at the bigger economic picture.”

“This victory, however small, is symbolically very significant. The strike is an example of collective bargaining navigating a new frontier of app-enabled work — and the new power imbalances that come with it.”

According to the people at NEF, we are facing essentially a question of redistribution, where “collective bargaining” will prove key to navigate the “power imbalances” that come with “app-enabled work”.

What these commentaries miss is the reason, along with the possibilities created by technology, why gig economy jobs exist in the first place. They have not only suffered from power imbalances, they own their very existence to these imbalances. To put it more clearly: these jobs have emerged in the last years thanks to a regulatory loophole (the independent worker vs employee status) which has allowed the achievement of a lower-than-normally-permitted equilibrium between demand and supply (a “clearing price” if we want). But while this low clearing price has provided the fuel to kick start innovation in the on-demand segment, its days may be numbered. At least in the view of union leader Mags Dewhurst:

“..this kind of tech has been designed to isolate individuals and atomise work, deskilling the industry and driving down wages…”

“…the difficulty we faced had been accessing them. How do you reach thousands of people when they are spread around London? I was literally chasing them down the street if I saw a blue jacket.”


“The biggest problem people face is getting in contact with each other. Once they are in contact and they have decided to work with one voice, they have effectively unionised and the company is screwed.”

“This [the Deliveroo strike] is just a taste of what could happen when low-paid workers campaign together”

The recent strike may well put an end to the low clearing price of the gig economy (at least part of it). But is the overall economics of the model sufficient now to redistribute the pie? Or..

Can gig economy jobs be “good jobs”?

The answer to this question is likely to be negative. Looking at why this is the case can help us understand some of the characteristics that make a good job sustainable.

Let’s start by looking at the redistribution-through-unionisation option.

Gig economy jobs (delivery in particular) carrie an intrinsic weakness that practically makes it impossible for them to become good jobs just based on a redistribution of power between the parties. The short version is that they create too little additional value between the restaurant and the customer for both the platform and the worker to benefit from it [4]. Ultimately, delivery companies simply cannot afford to offer better conditions to their riders.

Workers are faced therefore by a real “squeeze”. In the short term, the acceptance of their requests (and thereby the removal of the low clearing price) has good chances to put their employers out of business. In the long term, increasing the cost of delivery might create a sufficient incentive to push for automation [5]. No matter how we see it, a better bargaining power from the workers side will likely destroy the long term prospect of delivery jobs to become sustainable [6].

An alternative option is what liberal thinkers in my twitter feed have been advocating: redistribution after market equilibrium.

This position is clear. Improved bargaining power (which is what will achieve minimum wage for Deliveroo riders) might be good in the short term, but it has an overall negative effect for the economy as it stiffens innovation and limits employment opportunities [7]. This is basically an argument to maintain the low clearing price mentioned above, without putting the burden entirely on the workers’ shoulders. The alternative is for someone else to take fill the gap, and that someone is the “public”. An example of this redistribution outside of labor market equilibrium is tax credits, advocated in the US by prominent business leaders like Warren Buffet as a measure to be preferred over the distorting effects of minimum wages.

But it is not so simple. On one hand, maintaining an artificially low cost of labour puts a (publicly subsidised) break on innovation, as the incentive for these companies to automate will be lower. On the other, it risks satisfying only partially the request of the riders, in particular their intangible, but equally important, sense of fairness. Their economic needs might be taken care of, but they will probably still feel “exploited” as competition for work coupled with a strong system of tax incentives pushes the salary per hour towards zero. Profit will be accumulated at the corporate level (in few hands) while society will foot the bill [8].

To recap:

Unionisation satisfies better our sense of fairness but ultimately has low chances of achieving the objective of turning bad jobs into sustainably good ones. Outside-of-market corrections seem to have a better chance of saving the jobs (assuming this is really what we want) but to do so require a privatisation of benefit and a socialisation of costs (both in terms of innovation and financially).

An interesting dilemma:

Fair but bad for jobs vs. Good for jobs but unfair

Other possibilities

Basic income:

A discussion about the future of work would not be complete these days without talking about basic income. Leaving for another time the different nuances of the concept, in this specific instance I see its effects in many ways similar to those of tax credits. The main difference between the two is that tax credits require the beneficiary to have a job, basic income doesn’t. This will likely generate less competition for delivery jobs and less downward pressure on wages, but I don’t expect basic come to simply make supply disappear (and therefore push for more automation). People on basic income will keep looking for jobs driven by the desire to increase their disposable income (even in the most ambitious proposals still quite low by general standards) while having less incentive to “fight” for a minimum wage compared to a situation without neither basic income nor a system of tax credits.

Modern cooperatives:

Another option is to maintain the low clearing price by eliminating platform profits. Riders owned cooperative could keep the price of delivery low enough to be acceptable for customers but high enough to be sustainable for riders. Automation would be the only real long term challenge, as companies that want to reintroduce profits into the picture would do it by substituting the cooperatives with robots as soon as that option becomes economically sustainable.

Voluntary pay:

A true market change would come if customers themselves shift their willingness to pay for human deliveries. This would immediately increase the size of the pie and, depending on how much more they would like to pay, make room for a redistributive scenario. The consumer dilemma between “cheaper” and “more sustainable” is well known (watch “The High Cost on Low Price”, documentary about Walmart) and a change of heartdoesn’t seem to be anywhere near. On the other hand, the organic food movement proves that for some principles people are ready to pay more, but this requires an entire discussion on its own which I leave for another time.

What have we learned?

Time to draw some conclusions.

Good jobs require stronger fundamentals. This might be obvious but it is worth repeating.

  • Wealth creation comes from true innovation (technological or in business models) where additional value is released in the economy. If innovation limits itself to the exploitation of a temporary arbitrage it wont survive the inevitable pressure for redistribution that is bound to emerge no matter what.
  • Focusing on the machine vs. human dichotomy is good for headlines but it distracts us from identifying tasks where humans have a sustainable role to play. This is more dependant on economic factors than pure technical feasibility of a given automation.

There is really no easy way out. No amount of external intervention, being it pre- or post-market equilibrium can guarantee the creation, and maintenance, of good jobs.

  • Going back to old protections have a normal element of fairness (and I am myself tempted to wish for it when i read the stories in the newspaper) but is no long term solution.
  • Deep market corrections (although more innovative and pro-market like tax credits and even basic income) have nonetheless a distorting effort. Paradoxically, they will postpone innovation and keep human in low skills job (for those that think this is a problem).

What do I think about all this?

I started writing this post as a way to understand what was going on and to look tangibly at different scenarios and their implications. As it often happens, the more you try to genuinely understand a topic the more you realise that there is no simple answer. That would be too easy. But since it is wrong to just sit and comment without proposing something I’ll indicate my preferred choice.

Faced by competing choices with no apparent (at least not to me) solution that achieves both innovation, job stability and fairness, I consider non-intervention to be preferred. So, no intervention to settle the dispute by imposing a min wage, and no helping hand (at least not explicit) to the company by appeasing workers through other public transfers.

This position is not motivated by a blind acceptance of the “invisible-hand” but rather by the acknowledgment that each choice opens up for a range of “unintended consequences” that risk overshadowing even the best original intentions. In situation of high uncertainty, policymaking should refrain from the temptation to impose a specific solution and adopt instead a “stewardship” approach as advocated by Eric Beinhocker and the “complexity economics” school

“…rather than engineering specific outcomes, government’s role as system stewards is to create the conditions in which interacting agents in the system will adapt towards socially desirable outcomes”

In our case, this means levelling the playing field between riders and platforms, removing information advantages (for example with better access and export right for riders’ data) and allowing therefore a more natural rebalancing of power, also through collective action.

In a way, my suggestion is about embracing the historical process by which a job first starts outside of the controlled labour market, then gets rebalanced , and if it is not able to survive, disappears or gets automated. It is not the end of the world, it’s evolution.

[1] I subscribe in full here to Venkatesh Rao’s definition of machine work as “algorithmically-scalable work” and human-work as “work that is not worth automating. This is a combination of work being hard to automate and low returns to the automation due to limited algorithmic scaling potential (a good example is tax software for parts of the tax code that change very frequently).”

[2] Yes, I am perfectly aware that self-driving cars are coming and that people are working on projects like . Even so, delivering small parcels and food in highly dense urban areas (including walking up staircases at times) is a costly endeavour for machines and not a place to look for high “algorithmic scaling potential” (see above)

[3] Gig economy jobs receive a lot of criticisms for being “bad jobs”. For the purpose of this discussion I have decided to leave out the “servitude” argument, criticising these jobs for not exploiting the full “human” potential and for being the manifestation of a widespread inequality in society (rich of money poor of time on one side, rich of time poor of money on the other).

“The Servitude Bubble is condemning people who might be doing amazing, wondrous, and miraculous things to be butlers, maids, dog-walkers, net-servants — or, perhaps worse, code-monkey enforcers who, chasing their own little payday, make people into net-servants.”

[4] Here, a distinction between Uber and the majority of other gig jobs needs to be made. Uber innovates more deeply into the structure of its industry. By streamlining operations (eliminating a large part of the overhead in traditional taxi dispatching business) and by liberating latent demand for a business with low variable costs, it allows, in principle, enough room for both platform and drivers to benefit. Food delivery, on the other hand, operates in a business where variable costs (food) are high and where it is much more difficult to find optimisation elsewhere. With little operational efficiencies to be achieved on the production side (the restaurant) and a ceiling on the price side imposed by the consumers’ willingness to pay and constant fear of new investor-subsidised entrants, there is simply not enough room for both. An extensive coverage of this point can be found here.

[5] Even where a certain job is not obviously a “machine job”, sufficient economic incentive might change the picture.

[6] This is also easily demonstrated by the fact that these jobs don’t exist in settings where the clearing price was simply not allowed to go lower enough .

[7] Low clearing price jobs (and people that take them) prove that there is latent demand for jobs even below what people normally think is fair.

“However, the fact that online platforms can attract workers in large numbers despite relatively unappealing conditions is an indictment of the labour market in many of the countries where they operate. In France, many Uber drivers come from the deprived banlieues and say that discrimination prevents them finding mainstream employment. In the US, a study by JPMorgan found that people used online platforms mainly to help them weather a dip in their regular earnings — as an alternative to cutting spending or running up debts.”–20da–11e6–9d4d-c11776a5124d

[8] Somebody still believes in “trickle down effects” and in the possibility to effectively tax corporate profits. I don’t.

Pension vs earnability (appended)

This excerpt from Philip Auerswald's contribution to the Kaufmann's "New entrepreneurial growth agenda" adds an interesting angle to my earlier "Pension vs. earnability". It's worth a read. 

Redefinition: From “Permanent Income” to “Dynamic Purpose”

The primary value of the foregoing analysis is to establish the context for a redefinition of the problem posed in The Great Man-Machine Debate. How do we get there?

Consider the following: In the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis in 2008, economists devoted a great deal of attention to the shortcomings of macroeconomic and financial models that, at best, failed to predict the breakdown, and, at worst, may have helped to bring it about. Hyman Minsky’s “financial instability hypothesis,” to which few previously had paid much attention, was newly celebrated; Eugene Fama’s “efficient-market hypothesis” was newly questioned. Yet, as events have unfolded, the profession has begun to take more seriously the structural factors that are shaping the twenty-first-century economy and driving economic outcomes that go beyond the business cycle. From the standpoint of the reconsideration of theory, this means shifting attention from macroeconomics to microeconomics and rethinking fundamental models of both consumption and production.

High on the list of models ripe for reconsideration is the “permanent income hypothesis,” introduced into the field of economics by Milton Friedman in 1957 in a book titled, A Theory of the Consumption Function. The idea, as we all know, is simple: Early in life, we as consumers optimize our lifetime earnings by going into debt to invest in education; education delivers the skills that form the foundation for a career. Early in our working lives, consumers stop investing in education and start to save. We keep saving increasing fractions of our income until, all at once, we retire. At that point, we spend down our savings, timing the depletion of savings to coincide perfectly with the depletion of … well, our lives.

The model Friedman developed of the arc of a human life is as technically sound today as it was in 1957. Furthermore—somewhat like the efficient markets hypothesis, which was also developed at the University of Chicago at about the same time—the permanent income hypothesis has become encoded in the operating system of the economy in such fundamental ways that we barely notice its influence. From the Pell Grants to the 401(k), the experience of consumers from youth to death remains framed by the notion that institutions are sufficiently slowly changing and we are sufficiently short-lived that we can invest (one time only) in education at the front of our lives to reap a reward that we ultimately enjoy at the end of life. Predictable and familiar policy prescriptions follow:

    • Too much student debt and too few quality jobs for recent graduates? . . . Need more and better education.
    • Too much unemployment and too little stability in the labor market? . . . Need to spend more on worker protections.
    • Too many retired people and too little saving? . . . Need more and better health insurance.

In a recent column for The New York Times, Robert Shiller wrote: “Most people complete the majority of their formal education by their early 20s and expect to draw on it for the better part of a century. But a computer can learn in seconds most of the factual information that people will get in high school and college, and there will be a great many generations of new computers and robots, improving at an exponential rate, before one long human lifetime has passed.” Colleges and universities have yet to respond adequately to these changes, Shiller concluded. “We will have to adapt as information technology advances . . . . We must continually re-evaluate what is inherently different between human and computer learning.”

Shiller is right: We need to update our thinking about the function of higher education. We also need to update our thinking about workforce training, retirement, and aging to fit the realities of the twenty-first century.

The VR/AR escalator

Two weeks ago I finally tried VR for the first time. I have been hooked since then. While I can feel the incredible potential of the tool, it is however too early, for me, to truly understand its implications.

Imagination of re-imagination is always limited at the beginning. The first ideas one gets are usually the obvious ones. In VR this means: better, more immersive, games, real-presence movies and documentaries, “live” apartment viewing. The difficult part is getting to the point where truly native experiences can be thought and developed.

Simon Lajboschitz, who runs Khora VR here in Copenhagen, helped me with two useful keys to frame expectations:

  1. Internet:Information = VR/AR:experience

If the internet, especially in its first phase, is the democracy of information (wikipedia being its poster child), VR and AR will be the democracy of experiences. As an extension, we can plot a likely path into the future of VR and AR by taking existing information and “translating” them into experiences. For example, if today the internet allows us to learn about something by reading about it, tomorrow VR will allow us to learn about the same topic by experiencing it.

  1. AR and VR as an escalator

Rather than being two different experiences, AR and VR are two directions of the same “escalator”. With VR, it is us going into the internet. With AR, it is the internet coming to us.

Both points share a critical element: the blurring of a clear demarcation between the “real” world and the web. I look forward to this change. In the last twenty years the internet has increasingly taken over our life. Yet the tool we use to access it are limited by a two dimensional form factor that feels like a straightjacket.

Our office environments are a clear example of this. Everyday we walk to a physical space and spend a large share (for most the majority) of our time facing a screen. With the exception of a few specific functions (coding, maybe, and design, at times) all other tasks don’t have an intrinsic need to be performed sitting at a desk, staring at a flat surface. Our working days have become way more stationary than they need to be, mostly due to the stationary nature of the web, trapped into our desktop computers and phones.

While for some VR can seem a further step in that direction, I expect it to be the opposite. Initially, wearing a mask (or a helmet) might feel like an additional step away from the “real” (debatable, naturally). Over time, it will liberate us from the constrains of the flat screen and bring back true freedom of movement (and interaction) to the workplace.

The age of VR and AR is starting. I feel excited.

Politics strikes back (appended)

In "Politics strikes back" I reported the feeling of a political renaissance among entrepreneurs. Two weeks later, I stumbled on this passage from an old essay by Albert Hirschman

Hirschman's words put my feelings into a framework. Consciously or not, there is today a broader understanding of the limits of economic and entrepreneurial activity as an agent of change. Their "marginal productivity" has reached a peak and further, meaningful, change will require getting our hands dirty with politics.

Now, what "politics" actually means remains an open question. Tobia De Angelis challenged me recently to broaden my own definition of politics. People are indeed doing politics to a much larger degree that we are normally ready to recognise. It just doesn't show itself in a traditional, party-led, way. 

I see that, and I have promised myself to pay more attention to politics by other means. I remain afraid that this might not be sufficient until the grip of conventional politics is totally severed (will it ever be?). In the meantime, I am happy my sentiment has found its explanation (more on that soon). 

Breaking non writing

In the last two years I have written somehow regularly on this blog. Writing is a masochist act. I want to do it, I love having it done, I find doing it extremely painful. But the most surprising aspect of writing is how quickly it can dry up. Every once in a while there are days when I simply cannot do it. Days of non-writing.

Cat chasing its tail. I get caught up in many other, mostly practical, tasks, the flow of ideas and reflections slows down, the blinking cursor on the empty screen gets intimidating. Stop.

I know what a good friend would say. This is not about inspiration, just sit down and write about something. Well, isn’t it what I am doing now?

I woke up early with the best intentions. I have a list of topics I’d like to know what I think about. That’s why I write. They are all difficult. I have no answer ready made. I am not here to teach something, to share an experience. I am here to figure it out.

Long awaiting topics:

  • Technology at the periphery
  • Experience, sentiment, explanation
  • Longing for adventures, and if adventures are commodities is no-adventure and adventure?
  • Tradition and modernity

New idea:

  • Doing tough stuff (see below)

And then there is that project: the Italian constitution, the value of work. I will get to that too. One foot in front of the other.

How many words now? 238. No, 240. I could actually go on like this and reach 500. Isn’t it 500 the magic number? 257. 258. Progress, how wonderful. 261.

I cheated. Got a message, answered, moved to another site, found something interesting, bookmarked, got even an idea for a new post: “doing tough stuff”. No, it wasn’t this. It sounded better before. Anyway, I’ll get to that one as well. I can add it above, done. I invented a time machine, and a circular reference. Maybe.

7.54, time to go. Must accelerate. I have a doubt now: that “anyways” above, I am not sure it’s right. ’s’ or no ’s’? Probably not. But if I look it up I’ll lose another 5 minutes, guaranteed. I hate grammar, I mean I hate doing it wrong. That’s probably not even grammar, it’s spelling. No, both words exist so it’s not spelling, it must be syntax. That’s for sure wrong, syntax is: “the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences”. Not that. Yes, I looked it up: no ’s’. Something about the correct way and the slang way. I don’t buy that, but I buy this: “Furthermore, since “anyway” is an adverb and it is impossible for adverbs to be plural”. That’s it, it’s IMPOSSIBLE. Point. I could change it now, then this paragraph would make no sense. Done. Now I am smiling, this was fun. I have to do it again.

New, to-write, post:

  • stream of consciousness to break non writing

Academic title, too academic maybe? Is there another way to say it? Also, that has been done before. If you do something that was done before but it is not done so much because it was done already before does it get new again? Like, doing something “the old way” when everybody is doing “the new way” is actually doing something even newer. Need to include this in “tradition and modernity”. When I get to it. 570 571. Amazing, even strikethrough counts.

Politics strikes back

Last week, I participated in the Anthemis hacking finance retreat. It was my third time and I was happy to see a lot of old friends and get to know a lot of new people.

As usual, there were a lot of great discussions during the three days. One thing was clear though: Politics has made a clear come back. In the past we have discussed politics more as “regulation” or, at most, as a laggard in a fast-changing society. But this time the mood was clearly different.

It “helped” that in the few days we were there the attacks of Nice and the (still very unclear) attempted coup in Turkey happened. It also “helped” that we were right after the Brexit vote and before the republic convention will make the Trump joke into a not so funny one. The mood was generally pessimistic, trending towards dystopian. Somebody made the appropriate comment that we reminded the French second estate summoned at Versailles: politely discussing about the events unfolding outside the doors of our palace, while (possibly) misunderstanding them. The lack of one single Brexit or Trump supporter did smell of croissant.

Politics then. Because we are getting out of a period where economic and technologic developments have been assumed to be sufficient to bring the world forward and heal all problems. A cold sweat awakening for people in this group: of the possible dystopian scenarios, a politically led one (democratically, no doubt) is still the most plausible one.

But for another reason as well. Because it is clear to the most now that solving these same challenges will require more than return-seeking free enterprise. Because there are challenges where the numbers simply don’t add up and where the bottomline can turn black only after accounting for positive externalities.

In this spirit, I was happy to come across a couple of promising initiatives. The first is Code for America, an initiative to bring tech talent to tackle hard (and not investment worthy) public challenges. The second is this profile of the United States Digital Services. Again, these are only american examples (filter bubble anyone) but I am sure there is plenty of similar initiatives and thoughts in other countries.

This is the positive side we need to cling on, and push more. That more talented people will join the ranks of these initiatives and put their brains and hands to work for goals that can only be political in nature.

We might have been awaken to politics by the wrong reason. Let’s turn this into an opportunity to fix things.

Elite who?

I am annoyed by the constant references to “elites” in the Brexit debate. As if city-dwelling, bachelor-holding, remain-supporting people were all part of some privileged class watching with contempt everybody else [1]. 

I see nothing “elite” about the millions Erasmus students living abroad, nothing elite about the waiters and chefs and startup employees populating London and Berlin and Barcelona and many other European cities. 

The vast majority of these people (and I put myself in this group) come from the same provinces, small cities and rural areas that in England have voted massively for Brexit and where anti-EU parties get most of their support in other countries. Their parents are factory workers, civil servants, shop owners, small entrepreneurs. They went to (free) public schools and travelled around thanks to EU supported programs like Erasmus, where they learned to speak a new language and maybe fell in love with a boy or girl from another country. 

The promise of Europe has nothing to do with privilege. And the majority of its supporter are the product of the inclusiveness, equality of opportunity, social and economical mobility that are the very heart of the European post WW2 identity. This is the exact opposite of elite. 

What is true, however, it that we are failing at this promise. Keeping it alive is the only way we can stop this reckless ride. The alternative is hard cold wall. 


[1] Some stats are here 

Beyond the pyramid principle

In my consulting days, Barbara Minto’s (in)famous Pyramid Principle had the status of a gospel. 

Consulting boils down to two essential things: persuasion and data. And given that data often can tell multiple stories at once (or that you can simply pick the data you want), persuasion is possibly the most important skill of a consultant. 

The Pyramid Principle is all about that. Clear, structured communication, with the only goal of delivering a recommendation, proving a thesis, obtaining a (favourable) decision. 

One of the main points in the “principle” is clearly structuring your thoughts before starting to write. The reason: once you have written something you are inevitably committed to it. Improving it after the ink has hit the paper becomes almost impossible. Even if no ink, and no paper, are involved.

Compare this approach with the open ended, exploratory nature of the “essay”, a style started by Montaigne and popularised in the tech circles by Paul Graham[1]. In this type of writing, not knowing (precisely) what you are going to write about is a deliberate decision, more than a simple stylistic choice. Writing in this form “doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them”, or in other words “ [the] writer writes to see what happens”. 

The comparison can be stretched beyond the realm of literary forms. In a way, the two styles reflect opposite views of society. The pyramid principle, like the profession it has helped creating, is an offspring of the industrial economy. Its fundaments are clear facts (content) and clear planning (structure). It is Taylorism applied to writing. The open essay, on the other hand, is attuned with the fluid nature of today’s organisations. With a creative process that values action just as much as speculation. A process rooted on the idea that creation itself generates your thoughts. That you cannot tell where you are going before you start walking. 

Barbara Minto is right, however, when warning against the risks of getting stuck in that unplanned first version. This is even more important in the explorative writing form. Using action to generate ideas assumes the ability to throw away dead ends, to completely re-write entire sections, to let the flow dictate the topic. Explorative writing is a metaphor of our “trial and error” society, a society that forces us to embrace uncertainty and where failure is the natural flip side of innovation. Learning how to destroy our creations becomes therefore a necessary skill, a resistance to pain that we all need to cultivate [3].

And so we are back to this post. I had started off writing about small stores based on a thought I had during the weekend as I was going out to buy some shorts. As I started, the post took a completely different turn, forcing me to think again about my initial idea and broadening it up to investigate whether people would pay a premium to preserve human jobs (it not only generates ideas, but also research topics). The post is still there and will take longer to finish. But it made me think about the value of writing, and the fundamental difference between this approach and writing simply to prove a point. Without starting on the small stores I wouldn’t have thought about the Pyramid Principle and this post would not exist. 

It is a beautiful metaphor of life in the age of uncertainty, a life we all need to learn how to embrace. So, write, even if you don’t know about what. 

[1] Paul Graham: Writing, briefly

[2] William A. Covino: The Art of Wondering

[3] A great example of this is Amazon, “The best place in the world to fail”, as stated recently by Jeff Bezos. Not surprisingly, Amazon is one of the most successful company of our times.

Ideology for the future

A new society can be brought about only if a profound change occurs in the human heart.

These words from Eric Fromm’s “To have to to be?” encapsulate what I have been thinking for a while.

The more I look into the future, how we will overcome the challenges of this revolution, the more I go back to a single thought: rationality alone will not save us.

By “rationality” I mean the belief that everything can be explained through facts, through laws of supply and demand, through statistics and economic incentives.

As we debate the rise of ideological movements shaking the foundations of our society, it appears clearly that we lack an alternative ideology. We have taken for granted that material progress was everything we needed. It only takes a sputtering engine to throw us off balance.

I am not talking about nostalgia. Leave all illusions about resetting the clock. We need an ideology for the future.

P.S. Two book I recommend about this:

- E.F. Schumacher, A guide for the perplexed

- E. Fromm, To have or to be?