Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Low Carbon Business Innovation Forum in Beijing

WWF China together with China Entrepreneur Club hosted a Low Carbon Business Innovation Forum (Draft agenda here). I presented some of the major trends on the international scene and participated in a very interesting panel with Huang Ming, CEO of Himin Group and Li Yue, Vice President of China Mobile that was moderated by Zeng Zimo, Hostess from Phoenix TV.

It if fantastic to see how the WWF China team, and in this case particularly Ping Zheng (on the picture), are taking a leading role to support the emergence of a new generation of solution based companies. Before and after I spent time working with a team from Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications – Service Science Research Institute, Marco Buttazzoni and Suzanne Pahlman to calculate savings from low carbon IT solutions. Some really interesting numbers are coming up and I really look forward to the final results.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Daemon by Daniel Suarez

Everyone who interested in information technology and its relation to society should pick up a copy of the Daemon by Daniel Suarez. There are so many aspects in the book that it is impossible to mention all of them all.

Depending on your ideology it could be seen as:
1. A call to arms for the 21st century working class, the computer/network expert and gamer, if we look through the eyes of Karl Marx.
2. Or we can see these a new emerging “religion” applying a new ethics with the help of Max Weber.
3. A challenge to a new generation to develop an ideology/theory that can make sense of the world that is emerging in front of our eyes. A ideology/theory that can guide us through the convulsions when our old industrial society leave way for something new.

The pages are filled with reflections about every thing from gaming culture, virus/parasite analogies, the role of major corporations, globalisation to the impact of technology and asymmetric warfare, etc. It is hard not to smile as you reed as it is obvious that Daniel enjoyed writing this book.

The three only really week spots that I had difficulties with (and I feel almost bad writing about them as the book itself covers dozens more themes that are written in a way that is both entertaining and thought provoking. But when something is close to perfect the small imperfections become all the more obvious.

1. My first complain is that too much of the technology parts are written like a ”Data communication for dummies”. Having someone talking about hacking in a way that feels as if they have opened up their laptop for the first time just don’t feel right. The old trick of keeping the “education” for conversations between someone who knows and someone who does not know might have helped, but I would have preferred it to be written in a style where some knowledge could be taken for granted…
2. The technology used is not very interesting (except the sixth sense). I don’t understand why the technology is so boring. It is almost as if it is written with the idea of product placement in a future movie. The boring product placement of Nokia phones in some Bond movies springs to mind. The next book can hopefully bring out some exciting IT, biotech and nanotechnology from the labs.
3. The worst for me however is that the book compromises and too often turns into an old fashion action/agent plot with car chase and traditional murders. I’m sure that Daniel could have written a book that really used the Daemons power over the virtual world as the plot. With the connectivity today almost all of the traditional physical actions could have been avoided. I’m not sure if it is Daniel, the editor or someone that think that a future movie would require some traditional action scenes. Without these physical elements the book would have been amazing (and I think it would been a much more interesting movie as well).

Still the book is really well written and I also like the references at the end of the book to books about themes discussed in the book. I would like to see that in more books.
A theme that I think is particularly interesting and not discussed often enough is the role of democracy in a high-tech society. Our current nation state based democracy model is not well equipped to deal with the rapid changes/challenges that rapid technology result in, especially when this technology is linking the world in a way that make national boarders less important.

When we talk about the limits of democracy we should put things in perspective. Peter Jones (“Vote for Caesar: How the Ancient Greeks and Romans Solved the Problems of Today)
 has reminded us that we have an elective oligarchy, not a democracy. Others would say that we are living in a spectacle. Regardless the role of technology in shaping society, not just on the margin, is something that should be discussed more.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Coalitions that can deliver: meeting at Centro Mario Molina in Mexico City

During two intensive days in Mexico City I had a number of interesting meetings. One of the most inspiring was with Mario Molina and Carlos Mena from Centro Mario Molina together with colleagues from WWF. If things move the right way 2009 will see Mexico emerge as one of the most important countries on the international climate scene. With the Mexican government already getting both a domestic (e.g. the special plan for climate change) and international agenda (e.g. the Green Fund) in place a framework already exists. With businessmen such as Carlos Slim, now a climate advisor to Ban Ki-moon, and independent research/policy institutions such as the Centro Mario Molina collaborating with organizations like WWF we could see some really interesting initiatives in the near future. The team at WWF Mexico with people like Omar Vidal, Jorge Rickards and Liliana Davila is amazing and is already playing a key role in the network that move things forward in Mexico. I have drafted some ideas and keep my fingers crossed that we will see progress soon.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The life you can save by Peter Singer

The life you can save by Peter Singer is interesting because it is so boring and feels like it was written 20 years ago.

This is a person that has helped move the animal rights agenda into mainstream. He did that using ethical arguments and demonstrating that we are not acting in a coherent or ethical way in relation to (other) animals. So he has been a thought leader that challenges systems even though it looks impossible.

When it comes to how we should look at the poor people of our own species he adopt a much more narrow perspective and by trying to be “pragmatic” he ends up writing a book that probably is meant to get him and others invited to rich people that want to provide philanthropic contributions to poverty.

Parts of the book are downright counterproductive. One example is his discussion about our unfair trade and agricultural system. These areas he rightfully describe as much more influential than aid, but then goes on saying that it is not likely that these system will change so we should focus on increased philanthropic aid. First of all we must do both, and a discussion about the balance would be interesting. Second, with this approach we would still have slavery, women would not be able to vote, etc. These where things that most people saw as given, but people kept on fighting and managed to change the system. A fair trade regime and a more sensible agricultural policy seems a lot easier to achieve than earlier breakthroughs.
Personally I also feel that the whole philanthropic approach feels a bit outdated. It is nice with philanthropy, but the big question today is how we can get business people using their core skills and delivering solutions that helps the poor. Even if not everyone can be Muhammad Yunus all companies should look how they can assess their contribution to poverty reduction (I wrote an article in China Daily about this two weeks ago).

For the next book it would be good if he spend more time with the philosophy. The arguments in this book are very sloppy and there are references to "human nature" and what's "natural" (e.g caring about family and friends) that feels more like a 19th Century conservative politician than a philosopher.

There are obviously also a number of positive things in the book, but anyone interesting in Peter Singer is better off reading his earlier books and for poverty and ethics there are many books that can be read. An end to poverty by Gareth Stedman-Jones and Kicking away the ladder by Ha-Joon Chang are two books that I hope that Peter Singer will read is he will continue engaging in the poverty debate.

If nothing else this can hopefully inspire a new generation of philosopher as we this year will have more than a billion hungry people on the planet for the first time in human history and we need innovation also in the field of philosophy [see earlier blog].

A World Without Bees by Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum

This is a book I can really recommend [and it has a blog]. The book captures so many different aspects. More than anything else the book is an example of what happens if you are driven by passion. Two people with an interest in bees discover the world through their passion. The way it is written is something I don’t think we see enough of. They are not journalists that focus on language, sound bites and a simple story, they are two people that want to tell us something they feel is important.

The story in the book is a scary, but important, illustration of how vulnerable our ecosystem is and how we must rethink our approach to nature (it is not a machine). They way they look for different explanations to why bees are dying is told as if you had a great dinner conversation.

How the authors are describing the mystery that bees are dyeing is also something that should be seen as an example for people writing books about the state of the world. They don’t push one idea and try to make things simple by pointing at one aspect the way media and many policy makers tend to approach big challenges. Instead they look that the mix of many different drivers such as short term perspective from chemical companies pushing out toxic substances, increased use of GM crops, increased demand for profit, monocultures, increased resistance towards chemicals from the varroa mite parasite, etc.

The one small issue where I think we need to be careful is not to only look at resilience, but broader at sustainable development with cultural and ethical aspects. Resilience has become very popular lately and can provide some guidance, but it is dangerously close to payment for environmental services and other concepts that try to move nature towards the kind of economic system that we have seen destroying the planet. Rather than resilience we could look at some of the many Chinese concepts that capture the need for balance e.g. 无以人灭天 /Do not let the artificial to obliterate the natural.