A Post Crisis, Economic Recovery and Crisis Mitigation Proposal

In my last post, I argued that Supply Chains increased the spread of the COVID-19 Pandemic. I proposed the idea of regional centers for manufacturing to minimize sprawling supply chains and to encourage local innovation to meet different needs based on those regions. I think I need to take this to the next step. Localizing ability to respond to crises. Obviously there are huge benefits to scaling manufacturing capability during times of stability and crisis alike. The cost of making a single N95 mask is much lower whenever you know you’re going to crank out another 100,000 masks over the next few weeks. Because the cost of all that capital equipment is spread across all the masks.

However, because of the centralization of these manufacturing centers, in many cases in China or South East Asia, this creates a supply issue if the entire world needs the exact same thing. This requires a strong central buyer to compete on the market to buy additional supplies. In the US that should be the Federal Government. Sadly, this hasn’t happened and in fact, the President is playing favorites with states and providing medical supplies. This is hugely problematic. However, there’s an opportunity here to protect states in the future from an outbreak and to rebuild the economy.

I propose that states, let’s go with Oregon, cause I live there, creates regional innovation and manufacturing centers (OIMC – Oregon Innovation and Manufacturing Center). These OIMC should be positioned at least one per country, but carefully to ensure that if there’s a critical event, such as a Cascade Subduction Event, the region will have an OIMC on each side of the event. In the Portland Metro Area we’d want one in Easter Portland and one in Beaverton or Hillsboro. Furthermore, these should be located in such a way that if a tsunami hits the coast, an OIMC can double as a shelter and emergency production center.

The goal of the OIMC at the surface would be to manufacture critical items during a crisis. For example an OIMC would have the inventory to build ventilators, N95 masks, disease test kits, materials to stop flooding, fight fires, or whatever major crisis emergency items that might impact that specific region. For example, Roseburg might have more items to fight forest fires than the Portland region, because of the types of crises that impact that region. The list of items should be defined by a combination of FEMA and that state’s emergency and health agency.

However, we can’t just have an OIMC doing this sort of work. There aren’t enough crises (thankfully), to warrant establishing a dozen or more of these locations. That’s why these aren’t just Crisis Manufacturing Centers, these are innovation centers. They become a low cost rental space for businesses to start. For example, you want to open a welding shop but can’t afford the cost of equipment, hiring people, managing books, and the cost of a place to rent? No problem, the OIMC will offer business loans and services to manage HR, your books, sales, and provide a no cost then low cost rental location. You have trouble hiring people with the right skills? No problem the OIMC will offer year round training sessions on a variety of tools. It will have to because it will need to have all the skills to make those critical items.

Wait a minute, won’t the OIMC be competing with other companies? Yes. However, whenever we are not in crisis the OIMC can become flex capacity that companies can rent out until they have the capital they need to expand their business. So, during normal time the State of Oregon is not competing with medical suppliers. They are place that offers services instead. This will allow the OIMC to essentially pay for itself.

Furthermore, these centers offer an opportunity for the region to develop and build technologies they need to support themselves. Given the cost of some farming equipment, the OIMC could elect to manufacture some lower cost farming equipment in really hard hit regions. There are some blueprints at Open Source Ecology which can provide an idea of what we could build, if we need these OIMC to provide a lot of capability during a short time.

Holistically, I think this approach can provide flexible manufacturing capability during a major crisis that will allow states and counties to meet their need when the entire country is stressed at once. It will provide regional support during times of emergencies, which seem to occur more and more frequently, and it can provide an opportunity to rebuild communities by offering skills and spaces to start new businesses. Everyone is going to be hit hard by this pandemic. We need a serious plan for addressing this.

Companies forget that they pay wages; don’t understand complexity of economy

Apparently 68 out of the top 100 retailers are concerned about flat or falling wages. Huffington Post did some poking around their 10-K forms and aggregated the top risks for the top 100 retailers. Huffpo found that low spending, unemployment, and falling or flat wages were the top 3 items. To me this is really interesting. Apple was recently identified as part of a wage fixing scheme that looks like it could have cost employees something on the order of $3.2 Billion, Wal-Mart has cut hours of their employees as to prevent themselves from paying for ObamaCare for those employees, which means that those employees have to pay for their insurance out of pocket, as they have to insurance now.

All of these things together impact the web of our economy. What we’re seeing is local optimization which leads to sub-optimization of the entire system. Companies that are cutting wages or benefits to maximize their profits are likely taking a cut out of their own revenue stream. It’s likely that many Wal-Mart employees shop there because it’s the lowest priced place in most areas for most goods. The fact that WinCo is Wal-Mart’s largest threat now, is pretty indicative that wages are falling.

When Henry Ford raised the wages of his employees to a real living wage, it wasn’t out of kindness or some perceived social good. It was so that his employees could buy his car. If a large mass of people are unable to buy a good you produce because of your own wage policies you’re creating a problem for yourself. Furthermore, economies are networks, they interact with each other. Each and everyone of those employees would then become representatives for the Ford brand and be able to show off the good they were manufacturing. With every new employee hired, Ford knew that there would eventually be one more sale.

Companies today have clearly forgotten this. Retail is one of the largest segment of our economy, with a huge number of employees. If this entire swath of our population cannot afford to buy consumer goods, then it’s likely that we’re going to be continually be at risk for another recession. People buying stuff is what keeps our economy going. If the companies that staff the most people do not pay them well enough to keep buying stuff beyond food, then we’re at a great risk.

Wages are a very difficult thing. There’s a Socialist party in Seattle that’s trying to get minimum wage up to $15, but offered a job starting at $13/hour. Employees have gone on strike to get higher wages. I’ve written about it several times, however, whenever companies are indicating that low wages are a risk to their business, it’s time for them to start looking in the mirror. There are large retail industry groups, these groups should start to investigate the root cause of these risks and propose recommendations to address these concerns.

Should the Fed look to take action to protect the companies from themselves in order to protect the economy? Should the minimum wage be increased to address the problem? Should the government take action at all, it’s the businesses fault if they fail because they didn’t pay their employees enough. What do you think?

China, Technology and creativity

Sorry I’ve been away for so long. I’ve been hanging out with my Awesome wife! She gave a talk in Ireland, which I went to for most of a week. It was a good time. She then came here to Eindhoven for a week and had an interview. So that’s why I haven’t been updating. Sorry faithful readers.

At a party on Saturday, I got into a fairly active discussion with 4 PhDs and myself. They are all engineering PhDs, so they understand research and how technology works rather well. We got into a discussion on if China was going to actually really over take the US in scientific research. I said I think it’s likely, but there were many arguments against that likelihood. I didn’t really get to finish my argument on why it’s possible. So, I’m going to do that now.

Basically, some of the core arguments against China being able to overtake is us lack of creativity. China is a country of followers, not a country of creative leaders. Another argument was the lack of high quality education and research centers in China. I’ll address the second argument first and then discuss the first argument.

Americans know that we educated a lot of foreigners at our universities, 2008 was an all time high for the number of international students. In fact my roommate at one point explained to me that one of the groups at the University of Texas was comprised entirely of Chinese students. They conduct their meetings and research all in Chinese and, in fact, leave the US speaking worse English than when they arrived. But why are they leaving? The link above notes that there simply aren’t enough H1B Visas or green cards for them all to stay. Effectively we’re throwing out the people we educate. Over time enough good scientists and engineers will be sent back and will start teaching in China. China has big ambitions and has been creating universities as fast as it can. Using an evolutionary perspective, we can see that it’s likely they will continue to create variation and students will be selecting the best universities. One of them is likely to start producing more science and better science than another. This will lead to the best students and best researchers going to that school. One or two could become the Chinese version of MIT, Berkeley or Harvard. I think it’s clear that education won’t hold them back. Eventually, they will have several universities in the top 200 list according to the Times Higher Education ranking.

The second argument is a little tricker to argue against. The Chinese aren’t creative enough to create radical innovations. First, I’m sure that the Chinese I know would object to this blanket statement. However, let’s assume for the moment that’s it’s some what correct. There’s a culture that doesn’t reward creativity and rewards conformity. I can think of two countries that have similar types of culture that have been creative and are excellent centers of research and innovation, Japan and South Korea. Now are they as good as the US at innovation or research, No. However, they have had some great innovations and do great research.

When it comes to patent research there’s something called a Triadic patent. It’s a patent that is filed in the US, Europe and Japan. Europe and Japan have higher standards for patents than the US and are more difficult to acquire. Why does this matter? Well effectively Japan is the only country in Asia that would fit better with the European countries in terms of GDP per capita, protection of IP and research.

Both South Korea and Japan have a few companies that are on the leading edge of their respective fields. Samsung is in a huge number of different areas and is the world leader in many of them. Japan has Nikon, Sony, Toyota and a few other big companies that are on the cutting edge in research, design and innovation. So, I don’t accept the argument that the Chinese couldn’t be creative.

Another point I was trying to make, is that over time as a country becomes the center of manufacturing and incremental innovation on a product, it’s likely that they are going to be able to create the next radical innovation in that field. There are two things that support this. First, in a book by Andrew Liveris, the British CEO of Dow Chemical, there is anecdotal evidence to support bringing manufacturing back to the US along with the R&D that goes with it. The other argument is based on the research of Cesar Hidalgo of MIT that shows through network theory, that to become a leader in technology you have to build your way through a series of other technologies. It helps explain why it’s so hard for countries to pick up creating semiconductors. However, as a country develops the technological capability to work within a type of technology they are likely to create innovation and changes in that technology.

China has effectively been given the ability to manufacture just about everything through outsourcing. They have the technological capabilities to build and design new technologies. China also has the resources devoted to it. They created a five year plan where they are going to invest $1.5 trillion in 7 science sectors. Because of these factors I believe that China is a real threat to US and European leadership in research and technology. For any one to dismiss China because of cultural reasons or technological capabilities is making a mistake and is likely to be surprised in 20 -30 years when China becomes a leader in at least one field, likely more than one.

Ubiquitous free high speed wireless: Society

This is the last post I discussed the impact on the computing industry of ubiquitous high speed free wireless internet. In this post I’ll discuss some of the societal changes. In some ways the societal changes may be smaller, at first, than we’d anticipate.

First, we’ve seen how much people have jumped on playing with their phones in public spaces. I fully expect this trend to continue and in fact to increase. Simple to play games like Angry Birds will become more advanced and will likely look better. People will do more work on their phones and will likely begin using video calls in public. Which will be annoying, but it’s going to happen.

There may be a wave of apps that will try to increase the amount of social interaction of players. This doesn’t mean that we’ll have an increase of in person social interaction, but will likely be an increase of virtual social interaction. Which for some people is significantly better than what would happen otherwise.

I think that the ubiquitous internet will have a mixed impact on the ability to do work. As it is a lot of people already spend a great deal of time working from home off the clock. This will likely increase, but I think there will be a trade off. As people will, hopefully, be able to work while commuting more easily on trains and buses. People will begin to work in more places like cafes compared to the amount that currently do.

There will be other changes as new devices and applications are created to take advantage of the high speed internet. Many of these changes will happen as these devices are developed.

I would like to be completely optimistic that the greater the amount of internet will lead to a larger amount of user created content. That the increase of wireless internet will increase personal engagement in political and social activities, but I don’t think it will. I think that there will be a small increase because there will be a larger number of people that weren’t able to do it before are able to do it.

I think that a high percentage of engagement in social networks, content creation and other types of engagement will take some time to occur. I think it’s because of a mind set. A lot of people have no desire to become involved in these types of things. I would like to imagine that these changes will happen over night. However they will not. People will need time to understand how to exploit this infrastructure. It will take time for unique social experiments to develop using the network. Some people will understand immediately how to create new tools for the new environment, but it will take many established firms time to fully exploit it.

It will also take people time to adapt to the change. It’s not obvious in what ways the average user will exploit this technology. In many ways it will just increase the amount of general web browsing going on, in other ways video viewing will increase as well.

In this series I’ve looked at how our government, business, computer and social environments will change based on ubiquitous free wireless internet. It will have immediate changes and longer term changes that currently fall into the realm of science fiction. Device makers and app developers will have a new world to exploit because of increases in computing power locally and remotely. Creating novel methods of using this power is what will drive the next phase in our economy.

Technological Adjacency

Two days ago I talked about Technological convergences, yesterday I discussed how firms can enable technological convergences. Today I’m going to talk about technological adjacencies. First though, why do we care about these? There’s a couple reasons. One at the micro level, specifically you, understanding how technological adjacencies work can help you determine different industries that your skill set applies. Does understanding ceramics only help in making durable dishwares or can they be used in the semiconductor industry too? It turns out they can be. Ceramics are great insulators and are used on many different types of tools for manufacturing semiconductors. A step above, at the firm level, being able to produce ceramics can allow a company that used to only make dishware to move into creating other types of technologies, like for semiconductors. This shift can eventually open up an entire new market to allow for continued growth. However, as I mentioned yesterday, this doesn’t always work and can leave a company weaker than it was before the shift into the new industry. Finally, technological adjacencies can help spur regional and national growth.

Companies aren’t the only thing that can be viewed to have specific capabilities. Regions and countries typically have specialties Pittsburgh used to be the major hub in the world for steel. However, steel collapsed in the 70’s and 80’s there. Now Pittsburgh has turned itself into a medical and biomedical hub. Because of the steel industry Pittsburgh already had two world class universities and a number of great universities. After the crash of steel these became the main drivers of the economy. The firms that were created helped to rebuild the area.

As I mentioned above technological adjacencies are fairly simple to find after the fact. They are difficult to see ahead of time. It’s difficult to know what is a good bet and what is not a good bet for a company. This is why it’s important to have an R&D branch that is allowed to explore the adjacent technology spaces around your major technologies. If you don’t do this then there could be some great markets your missing out on.