Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Not Enough? Doerr on Green Tech

KPCB is a remarkable organization. They have been incredibly effective at identifying, investing in, and cultivating truly revolutionary ideas over the past 30 years. I have worked within the KPCB family, at a low enough level not to be noticed conspicuously, but at a high enough level to have some visibility into how Kleiner does things. Fundamentally, the ability of KPCB to marshal talent to create markets and solve problems through innovation in technologies and services has been impressive. And in the past few years, Kleiner's increasing attention on "green tech" and questions of long term environmental sustainability has been a positive development - even if a $200M net investment is, to steal John Doerr's reprise, "not enough." Not that I'm really knocking the investment and, heck yes, I'd love to be involved in another Kleiner company tackling green tech problems..

So I was very curious to hear what Mr. Doerr, the talisman of Kleiner's success in the last fifteen years, had to say about green technology and our looming environmental problems. Mostly, I'd suggest that you watch the video, as I think it speaks for itself - and the message is clear: while many actors, from Wal-mart in reducing its energy footprint to Brazil shifting to biofuels, have been able to successfully innovate to mitigate their environmental impact, the scale of change is simply not big enough yet. And I whole-heartedly agree with that basic analysis.

Beyond that, I do have some comments:

- Doerr identifies four agents of change ("four lessons") that can be influenced by entrepreneurs: Companies, Individuals (i.e., Consumers), Policies, and Radical Innovation. While I agree with his implicit commentary, that the efforts of any given influential individual (i.e., TED audience member) might be best targeted at a company, a government policy, or invested in innovation, and not targeted at changing consumer behavior, I think that Doerr, and most of the policy makers, innovators, technocrats, and academics give short shrift for the need to change the behaviors of individuals, and the need to address individuals directly through politics and cultural dialogue. I'll come back to this;

- Doerr frames the market opportunity of addressing the world's energy crisis as a $6 trillion dollar market. I agree. This market is huge. I also firmly believe that market forces, and disruptive innovation to meet market needs can radically change both the supply side economics of meeting a market need and the demand side behaviors in creating that need. What I do find curious, however, is framing the energy market as the market that needs to be satisfied to address the world's sustainability crisis (or put another way, isn't sustainability a much bigger question than a looming energy crisis)? Isn't energy always an input to other goods and services? Like transportation, primary industrial processes, commercial and residential electricity, etc. Don't we need to start thinking about how to fundamentally change the dynamics of those markets, not just focus on how to more efficiently solve the energy supply question?

- Selling a vision is a key part of what any entrepreneur must do, particularly entrepreneurs trying to market disruptive technologies. Do we have a coherent vision of what a sustainable future might look like? What kind of house will I live in? What kind of car will I drive? What will the place that I live in look like? I think some of the symbolic examples that are drawn forth in the current conversation on green tech are useful in selling this vision: electric vehicles, biofuels, carbon markets. But do we have a coherent vision of what a sustainable future might look like? And are we effectively communicating that vision?

- At the end of his speech, Doerr urges his audience with a few calls to actions, exhorting them to "really think outside the box." His suggestions are all good: make going green "your gig," get carbon neutral (and buy carbon credits), join other leaders in lobbying for cap-and-trade systems for greenhouse gases, use your personal power or rolodex to "go green."

But what about the potentially most seismic change: consume less?

Why is this meme never engaged by the business, political, and academic leaders who claim to be serious thinkers about the environment?

Personally, I don't think it is either a naive conversation to engage, nor one that necessarily a compromise in quality of life or achievement. There are abundant reasons to believe that a less materially-driven life and culture will not only improve our ability to change market dynamics and address the salvo of "not enough," but will actually improve our quality of life, as well. But if our business and political leaders refuse to engage in this conversation, then the core dynamic driving the demand side of our market equations, and the A in our good old IPAT formulation, that dynamic will never change.

Selling the Absurd, part 1 of Infinity

Advertising is on the march. Yes, if there is one thing that is on the march, it is advertising -- far out-pacing anything else that might be on the march. From the subway to the bus shelter to the elevator to your mailbox to your e-mail box to your Google search results to your blogs to my blog, there it is, another opportunity to sell. So no wonder we've run out of ideas, of how to sell, of what to sell, and advertising has, once again, embraced the absurd.

Unfortunately, I can't vouch for the artfulness of this go round with the absurd. I just wanted to mention two recent offenders that have caught my attention.

If you ride the subway in New York City, you cannot avoid Windorphins. Brightly colored signage adorning the insides of cars, in bus shelters, on billboards - showing happy-looking Pokemon-like characters and bearing slogans that mean absolutely nothing. Nauseating? Yes. Cynical? Absolutely. Effective? Totally. I don't know how many subway cars I've been in when some young New Yorker asks, in that ever-flattening accent that young New Yorkers are increasingly seeming to have, "What Are Windorphins?" to which his/her friend might respond "I think we learned about it in class," and a third says, "Let's look it up on the Internet when we get to so-and-so's apartment." So, winner for Ebay. And, of course, I did come home one night to look up exactly what it is. So cheers to whatever ad agency fucker came up with this annoying campaign.

Next, the more charming and less invasive What is woot? A website, that apparently sells only one product a day that popped up in the modest banner above my Gmails one day. Reluctantly, but unfailingly, I clicked on it. And, apparently, selling one product a day is an effective way of doing business. Per Woot's own site: is an online store and community that focuses on selling cool stuff cheap. It started as an employee-store slash market-testing type of place for an electronics distributor, but it's taken on a life of its own. We anticipate profitability by 2043 – by then we should be retired; someone smarter might take over and jack up the prices. Until then, we're still the lovable scamps we've always been. But don't take our word for it: see what the online community has to say at this Wikipedia article.
So, I guess the engine of innovation chugs on, fueled increasingly by banner ads and billboards. To badly appropriate a morbid Townes Van Zandt track, well, I guess its better than waitin' around to die...

No Child Left Behind: Measuring Progress

"As yesterday's positive report card shows, childrens do learn when standards are high and results are measured."— President Bush, New York, Sept. 26, 2007
Alright, so we'll start with a cheap shot. But, following that, a serious question. Yesterday's NYT published an article on the most recent round of national standardized test scores, which may or may not prove the success (or lack of success) of the No Child Left Behind act:
America’s public school students are doing significantly better in math since the federal No Child Left Behind law took effect in 2002, but gains in reading achievement have been marginal, with performance declining among eighth graders, according to results of nationwide reading and math tests released today.

The results also showed that the nation has made only incremental progress in narrowing the historic gaps in achievement between white and minority students, a fundamental goal of the federal law.

The tests, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and administered by the Department of Education, will be carefully scrutinized by lawmakers and educators debating whether to reauthorize the law this year, and if so, what changes to make.

They offer ammunition to both sides of the issue: the business leaders and other groups who support the law’s renewal, and the teachers’ unions and groups who say the law’s emphasis on standardized testing hurts schools.
So, given this ambiguous assessment of the impact of a public policy, and given the increasingly bizarre political environment surrounding education reform (no sane person can deny that we need it, but it's hard to figure who's got the right intentions in these battles...), can anyone point me in the direction of any meaningful evaluations of No Child Left Behind, or other efforts, national or local, at education reform? And more broadly, any interesting discussions on how the impact of educational policy (or techniques) can be effectively measured?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Silent Debate

Ah, Harry Shearer, whose commentary on the absurdities of American life embrace that very absurdity...

Monday, September 17, 2007

India: The Coming Malaise?

Victoria Station in Mumbai

Over dinner in Kolkata last January with my parents and a professor friend of theirs, a fact was casually dropped that was actually quite stunning: the size of India's middle class ranks 200+ million strong, and growing. To put it in context, that is about two-thirds the population of the United States and just less than half the size of the EU. And while this middle class may not be quite as rich as their Western counterparts, their parity in purchasing power is not quite as far a cry as it was even twenty years ago. To paint a picture, a middle class in India may not own a free-standing house, two cars, and a computer, but they are likely to have a scooter, a TV, and a cell phone.

In terms of access to media and connection with global cultural references, they are quickly and noisily arriving at the same status as their global peers. In terms of material possessions, they may be lagging, although given the population density of India (and since most of these middle class are urban-dwellers), their net impact, both positive on the economy, and negative on the environment, are within the realm of comparison to their peers, at a local scale (of course, in terms of global impact, nobody can touch us Americans...) And when you consider the potential for upward mobility, the sky is the limit.

Consider this framing paragraph from a recent article in Prospect magazine:
As the actual Mother India celebrates the 60th anniversary of her independence, there is—as in Jaya Mary's life—both surging optimism and crushing despair about her future. As the saying goes, everything and its opposite is true in India. The seven Indian Institutes of Technology rank near the top of global surveys, and job offers to graduates from the Indian Institutes of Management rival those to graduates of the famous US business schools; yet a third of the country is still illiterate. Three hundred million Indians live on less than $1 a day—a quarter of the world's utterly poor—yet since 1985, more than 400m (out of a total population of 1bn) have risen out of relative poverty—to $5 a day—and another 300m will follow over the next two decades if the economy continues to grow at over 7 per cent a year. Population growth, even at a slower pace, will mean that there will still be millions below the poverty line, but the fall in number will be steady. At the other end of the scale, India has the largest number of dollar billionaires outside the US and Russia.
While this is both a true and somewhat poetic discussion of the poles that characterize modern Indian society, the article is not interesting in its celebration of India's diversity, or in its praise of the rise of India's middle class. Rather, what draws my attention, and a thesis to which I subscribe through limited personal experience, is that as India's middle class grows richer, and just plain grows, it fails to become a politically conscious or engaged class. Rather than assume the mantle of leadership to tackle the nation's myriad ills, members of the middle class become concerned with consolidating their gains, exercising the benefits of their new status and wealth, and persevering forward on their personal and family journeys to wealth.

From the article:
Among the middle class, in much of the media, in the malls and airports, in houses (however small) with water and electricity, there is still a commitment to an India which plays a decisive role on the international stage—but now, instead of through "non-aligned" solidarity and ancient history, it is through software and finance. Ten years after the buzz caused by the nuclear tests, the middle classes take India's new status for granted; they simply assume it is India's due to be treated as the "equal" of the US and the rest, and move on to talk of economic opportunities. This commitment to their own idea of India and their central role in its economic rise makes the middle classes sure of themselves. But at the same time, their sense of citizenship is weak: they do not, on the whole, extend a sense of solidarity to the poor; they often do not acknowledge the role of the state in their own rise or its capacity to solve any of the country's problems; and they are, in general, politically apathetic.

What explains this introversion? Middle classes at all stages of development, whether in 19th-century Europe or now, distrust those who have not risen with them. Yet in more homogeneous societies, the better off are more likely to care for the worse off. Highly diverse societies, like India, find it more difficult to institutionalise such fellow feeling.

The key to the diversity of Indian society is the jati system—intermarrying among consanguineous groups with hereditary (if often notional) occupations. But these groups are also placed within the ancient hierarchy of the varna, or "caste," system—the fivefold division of society on the axis of ritual purity from priests to warriors to merchants to labourers to those beyond the possibility of purity and therefore untouchable. Over the centuries, there have been many efforts to extend a sense of common humanity across castes. The caste system has also allowed for unparalleled pluralism of belief and practice; according to the logic of purity, the Brahmin priest has no control over practices beyond his realm, making for a thrilling diversity of temples, festivals and deities. Nonetheless, the varna concept that people are intrinsically pure or impure has blighted the idea of citizenship on the subcontinent. And while the 1950 Indian constitution sought to end such division (which the British had exploited), caste sentiment still drives rural violence and the separation of privileged groups.

The social distance of caste is echoed in religious difference—above all in the existence of a large Muslim minority which makes India the largest Muslim country in the world after Indonesia. While some hostile Hindus still question the Indianness of Muslims, the middle class contains about the same percentage of Muslims as does the population as a whole: about 13 per cent. (Caste distinctions that combine older Hindu divisions with newer Islamic social stratification prevail in Indian Islam, and middle-class Muslims tend to come from the traditional ashraf or "noble" sections of Muslim society.) But despite—or because of—constitutional guarantees of special rights for Muslims, there is a perennial worry over Muslim economic progress.

Aside from some extreme Hindu nationalists, I have never met a middle-class Indian who did not acknowledge the political equality of all Indians. The pride that middle-class Indians take in their democracy requires them to have an inclusive sense of Indianness, but not of citizenship. Middle-class Indians who feel little obligation to the poor tend to believe that they have made their contribution simply by becoming middle class. They focus on their own needs because they have overcome a great deal to get where they are and still fear slipping back. Moreover, they say, why give to the state when the money will just be wasted by corrupt politicians?
I would suggest reading the rest of the Prospect article, as it is interesting, and while I don't agree with all of its assertions, I think the core thesis has merit. Moreover, I think that the evolution of the Indian middle class (and true of China, as well) will be among the most influential factors in shaping the world we live in twenty years from now. And, as a word of caution against reading too much into the Prospect article, it is worth noting how young the Indian middle class is, both in terms of the relative brevity of the recent Indian economic expansion, dating to the early 1990s, and the age of the constituents of the class itself. Hardly a generation has elapsed, and perhaps it will be the call of the next generation of Indian middle class, those born into relative ease, to be more civic-minded, as this article in the New York Times suggests.

NYC - Green Master Plan

I was not in New York this past Earth Day, so I guess I missed the detailed news about New York City's "Green Master Plan," as advocated by Mayor Bloomberg this past April. I have nothing but grudging respect for what Mr. Bloomberg has been able to accomplish in the city, and am intrigued by the scope of his plan, as well as some of the messaging being used to promote it (although I don't know how visible it actually is...)

I haven't read enough yet to have an opinion, but for more information, check out this official site.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Sustaining Junk

In college, I studied economics and environmental science and policy. The two disciplines are very rarely harmonized, and people who think seriously about sustainability from an ecological perspective have been able to challenge a lot of assumptions core to economic modeling. When we consider the global ecological system, we are forced to account for behaviors, constraints, and outcomes that are generally ruled out-of-bounds for the purpose of economic decision making - for example, performing cost-benefit calculations and making rational choices where the consequence must be spread over long time horizons, recognizing and valuing all externalities in a system, creating an accounting system for resources, like air and water, than aren't traditionally paid for with money, but which are fundamental to all economic transactions, understanding scarcity in situations like extinction, and so on.

For all the challenges that environmental thinking can pose to economics, a key vexing question that economics posed to ecological systems was the ability of the market, through demand, competitive advantage, and ultimately price, to foster technology innovations that would, at the right time and over time, allow us to address environmental problems through technological solutions. A key example of this has always been in energy, where one line of thinking projects that, as soon as the market conditions exist that make innovation in alternative energy feasible, that market need will be filled. And perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of such a set of innovations in green energy today.

A recent article got me thinking again about this issue:
In an act of macroeconomic karma, materials thrown out by Americans—broken-down auto bodies, old screws and nails, paper—accounted for $6.7 billion in exports to China in 2006, second only to aerospace products. Junkyards may conjure up images of Fred Sanford's ratty collection of castoffs. But these days, scrap dealers are part of a $65 billion industry that employs 50,000 people, who together constitute a significant arc of a virtuous circle. The demand of China's factory bosses for junk—which they recycle to make all the junk Americans buy from China—creates jobs, tamps down the growth of the trade deficit, and might help save the planet.
Is it possible that one nation's folly in managing resources can be another nation's opportunity, and that on a global scale, the market will be efficient in distributing resources (and managing the impact on those natural resources need to sustain economies and fuel innovation?) It seems folly to blindly say yes, although I believe many business decision makers believe this to be true, if not in this exact framing, then as evidenced by the way they behave.

Where this strikes me as folly is that it fails to create the right incentives, culture, or organization (switching from economics to business) to address more efficient use of resources. It puts us in the wishful position of hoping that the market will create conditions to clean up its mess, rather than avoiding the mess in the first place. Put another way, it puts the burden of sustainability on policy makers, influencing the outcomes of a business system, rather then as a design challenge, influencing the initial objectives and processes of the system.

It is as a design challenge that sustainability becomes a truly influential idea for business and the economy, and while I'd like to return in further detail to this topic, I will leave off by highly recommending you watch the Bill McDonough video hosted on the TED site, above, as well as reading a bit about McDonough's Cradle 2 Cradle design philosophy - which can be consumed as a very interesting book (in both the intellectual and physical sense, the book itself having been designed according to the Cradle 2 Cradle principles), as well as on many websites, including McDonough's own website.

Joe Biden Writes Me Every Day

Do I think Joe Biden is going to be elected President in 2008? Not really. Do I hope he has a major voice in the shaping of national policy, particularly foreign policy, our role in Iraq, and how we communicate American values to the world at large, from 2008 until he chooses to retire from public life? Absolutely.

I hope Biden's focus and investment in Iowa will pay dividends, and that he can stay a vital voice longer through the 2008 campaign cycle. I have been enamored with the directness, conviction, and clarity with which he has been able to address Iraq and other issues (notably, also Sudan) through the missives and videos that his campaign is producing. Will he prevail in Iowa? I certainly don't know politics well enough to predict.

But should he falter, in Iowa or later in the campaign cycle, I expect that he should play a major role in any Democratic administration - as a Secretary of State, Ambassador to the UN, or maybe even VP. Go Joe!

Sao Paolo: The Clean City

Ignore for a moment that the clip above is an advertisement for Sky Movies, and focus on the small distortions in the landscape present throughout - no billboard advertisements. Empty canvases throughout Sao Paolo. As described in Businessweek:
A city stripped of advertising. No Posters. No flyers. No ads on buses. No ads on trains. No Adshels, no 48-sheets, no nothing.

It sounds like an Adbusters editorial: an activist's dream. But in São Paulo, Brazil, the dream has become a reality.

In September last year, the city's populist right-wing mayor, Gilberto Kassab, passed the so-called Clean City laws. Fed up with the "visual pollution" caused by the city's 8,000 billboard sites, many of them erected illegally, Kassab proposed a law banning all outdoor advertising. The skyscraper-sized hoardings that lined the city's streets would be wiped away at a stroke. And it was not just billboards that attracted his wrath: all forms of outdoor advertising were to be prohibited, including ads on taxis, on buses—even shopfronts were to be restricted, their signs limited to 1.5 metres for every 10 metres of frontage. "It is hard in a city of 11 million people to find enough equipment and personnel to determine what is and isn't legal," reasoned Kassab, "so we have decided to go all the way."
Ah, Brazil. So what are the consequences? Still unclear, as far as I can tell, but a thoughtful post on an interesting blog (with links off, including photos), and another post in Adbusters, both worth a look.

Can we do this in the United States? Yeah, probably not.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Class Matters

I want to whole-heartedly recommend the collection of New York Times essays and reporting that has been published under the title Class Matters. Ranging from fairly data-driven studies of how people's perception and the economic reality of class has changed in America over decades, to closely studied features of a wide range of archetypes that populate the current understandings of class in America. The reporting and analysis is excellent, and paired with often moving personal accounts that give weight and texture to the more abstract data, make this collection very compelling. The Times has also made much of the reporting available online, here, a site which I have not yet explored in detail. I expect to address many of the specific themes raised by different articles in the collection on their own terms, when I am a little less side-tracked by work, but definitely recommend this book - perfect subway or airplane reading, and thought-provoking through and through.