Innovative Complacency or the Wisdom of the Deceived?

 

This is where I see a real problem for developed Asia: a complacency and disinterest in the role of technology and innovation. Or is it the clarity of vision from too much innovation?

Screenshot 2016 08 26 05 09 48
Source: Avaya, THE PROMISE OF DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION (DX) IN ASIA PACIFIC’S LEADING INSTITUTIONS

In a survey conducted by IDC on behalf of Avaya (no link available, you need to sign up to get a copy), key IT decision makers from developed Asian countries (leaving aside Australia for now) were much more likely to downplay the role of innovation in driving business. Singapore came lowest with 14% of respondents believing the statement “innovation is extremely important to drive business.” Compare that to around 40% in India, Thailand and the Philippines.

(Avaya, in case you’re wondering, “is a leading provider of solutions that enable customer and team engagement across multiple channels and devices for better customer experience, increased productivity and enhanced financial performance.” That could probably be simplified.)

In short (excluding Taiwan for which there is no World Bank data, and Australia, for now) the Asian economies with the highest GDP per capita — Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong – are those that value innovation the least. South Korea is only slightly behind there in terms of valuing innovation.

The same holds true when measured by Internet penetration: the more internet there is, the less valued is innovation.

Screenshot 2016 08 27 14 29 10
Source: Avaya survey (col 1), World Bank (cols 2-3)

 

At the other end, it’s also generally true. The lower the GDP, the more likely a country is to value innovation.

The sad truism is that once you reach a certain level of development — and you don’t experience serious recession or other economic upheaval — you tend to see innovation as an unwelcome disruption. In other words, you identify with the established industries, the established way of doing things, probably because that’s where you work and get your living from.

Looking at it the other way, the less developed a country is, the more people — and we’re talking ‘key IT decision makers’ here, not the rank and file folk — see innovation as a way of improving things.

Of course, there’s another possibility too: that those ‘key IT decision makers’ have seen innovation and they realise it isn’t as great as everyone makes it out to be. Indeed, I have some sympathy with that view. The more ‘disruptive’ a technology is, the more disruption it causes — meaning not just that big slow behemoths are put to the sword, but the people who work for them, the companies that supply to them, or make a little here and there in the supply chain.

A truly disruptive business/technology will not only chop off the head of an industry, it will cut off the entrails and lay to waste the body. That can be painful, and not necessarily good for consumers, or anyone standing in the way.

The other question raised in the survey was whether traditional traditional companies in the Asia Pacific would be able to take control against ‘Uber-like’ competitors. Nearly half said it was difficult to compete against such disruptors, and only 3% said they planned to be disruptors themselves. And while 43% felt they were on a par with their peers in terms of being able to fight back, only 6% felt they were “best in class”. Asian modesty, or a serious crisis of confidence?

Australia and China are worth a separate look here. Australia scored highest on the innovation/importance question, with more than 46% of respondents reckoning it was important. That’s good, but it’s probably part cultural. Why would you not at least pay lip service to the Innovation God?

And China skewed the other way. You would kind of expect China to be up there given what is going on in technology. But it’s low — 21/5% — less than South Korea, suggesting that either they were asking the wrong folk, or, maybe the disruption in China is already giving ‘key IT decision makers’ pause. China is by far the furthest down the track in terms of disruption in Asia, so maybe there is some truth in the alternative explanation of this (admittedly scant) data: As economies become more disrupted, so the key ‘IT decision makers’ in them become more pessimistic about how useful innovation is to the economy.

Marooned at 30,000 Feet

Don’t be fooled: Business class doesn’t have anything to do with business.

Aboard the new Cathay Pacific business class seats, which feel like a cross between a throwback to the cubicles of boarding school and cow pens. Still, they’re fitted out with power sockets — real square ones, which don’t require fancy plugs, so I eagerly rolled up my sleeves for another working blitz. This time around I didn’t even bother to bring my back up battery because on the outgoing flight, despite it being an older aircraft, they carried power adapters for most brands of laptop.

So I was only marginally alarmed when no power came through to my laptop. I pinged the attendant, who looked apologetic and said “There’s a Memo on this actually,” she said, as if that made it all alright. “This flight is HKU which means there’s no power.” She kind of looked as if this was good news; that I’d be somehow delighted by the news and slam my laptop lid shut and order caviar. Instead I spluttered into my champagne. “No power?” I gasped. “This is business class, right?”

She went away to talk to her colleague, who came back with the actual Memo itself. Turns out this flight really does have no power. Well, presumably, it has some to fly the plane, as by now we’re halfway through the first round of drinks and have reached 30,000 feet. But there’s no power to replace my fast dwindling battery, and no one looks like they’re about to thread a cable through from the cockpit or something. So, I’ve got about 20 minutes of battery left, half of which I’m taking up writing this rant.

This is where I have some issues with the whole class system. Surely “business class” means just that? It means that the class is designed for road warriors like me who want to keep working, indeed plan our schedule around it. Instead, we’ve got in-flight entertainment up the wazoo, but no way to actually turn this time into something productive. (And don’t get me started on the lack of free WiFi at the business class lounge at Heathrow. It’s like going back to the 90s.)

Disappointing stuff. I don’t often get the chance to fly business class, but if this is how airlines assign their priorities — loungers, booze and Big Entertainment why don’t they at least change the name to something more apt: Leisure Class, Lazy Class, Lots of Cash and Nothing To Do But Watch Movies and Eat Oysters Class?

Next time I’m going cattle class and bringing six batteries. And if I ever do fly Business Class on Cathay again I’ll ask to see the Memo before I book.

Traffic Rules Part I

Traffic1The difference between a developed metropolis and a developing one isn’t transportation — it’s the rules and discipline about how that transportation is used. A city like Hong Kong flows because everyone follows the rules. A city like Jakarta doesn’t because people don’t. It’s not about building more roads, or more subways, or more bus lanes, but about developing rules that ensure existing transportation is used as it should be. Cars, people, trains and buses flow because they each agree to a set of rules that ensure that flow. In effect it’s like one big sliding puzzle. The bits move around because there’s space for them to move around.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s just people stopping at red lights, or people allowing passengers to alight before they try to embark. The rules can be sophisticated or basic, but they only work if they’re followed: In Hong Kong a taxi driver won’t cross a thick white line even if there’s no traffic around; in Jakarta there are several red lights around the city that cars don’t bother to even stop at. In one city nothing is negotiable; in another everything is. A new buslane in Jakarta that’s officially off limits to all vehicles except buses and emergency vehicles is already awash with ordinary traffic.

Somehow in Hong Kong the rules have become the norm, and no one needs to be around to enforce them. Everyone keeps everyone else in line. In Jakarta, the rules are seen as an obstacle, something to be overcome. It’s not as if drivers in Hong Kong are somehow collaborating in a fit of consideration, but there is a tacit recognition that by following the rules, everyone will benefit. Even in pedestrian overpasses, somehow a rule establishes itself — everyone walks on the left, say, and the two-way flow is optimized. It doesn’t seem hard and fast; the next day everyone seems to be walking on the right. But it works. A self-organizing system.

Jakarta is not. It’s a free-for-all. Or actually, it’s has its own rules. It’s just they’re not optimized for the situation. The bigger the vehicle, for example, the more it will take precedence over other vehicles. And a car in Hong Kong won’t pull into traffic if by doing so it will slow down that traffic. This is what the Stop/Give way/Yield sign is for. A car in Jakarta will do the opposite: It will pull out slowly, inching into the road until the traffic is forced to slow down to accommodate it. In fact the dominance of unwritten traffic rules in a city like Jakarta ensure that traffic will never work efficiently.

Until those rules are replaced with rules that work and the discipline to ensure they’re followed, developing cities will never become developed ones. It’s not about the infrastructure. It’s about the way it’s used.

BitTorrent’s First Victim

Hong Kong man jailed in landmark world web piracy case – INQ7.net:

HONG KONG– (UPDATE) A Hong Kong man believed to be the first person to be prosecuted for sharing movie files over the popular online Bit Torrent network was jailed for three months in Hong Kong Monday.

The jailing of 38-year-old Chan Nai-ming marks an international landmark in the fight against illegal online sharing of intellectual property, which movie, music and software makers claim is losing them billions of dollars annually.

Unemployed Chan, who called himself “Big Crook,” was found guilty two weeks ago of illegally distributing three Hollywood movies on the popular peer-to-peer Bit Torrent (BT) system.

Cellphone Bubbles And The Virtual Tribe

Looking for something else on the Net I stumbled upon this five-year-old piece from Jonathan Rowe in Washington Monthly, Reach Out And Annoy Someone. Some good stuff in there, but I particularly liked some stuff he wrote about Hong Kong, about the ‘lonely bubble’ of the cellphone user in public:

And what does that suggest about where this “communications revolution” is taking us? When I was in Hong Kong a year and a half ago, it was becoming a cell-phone hell. The official statistics said there was one phone for every two people, but it often felt like two for one. They were everywhere; the table scenes in the splendid food courts in the high rise malls were San Francisco to the second or third power. At a table with four people, two or three might be talking on the phone. You’d see a couple on a date, and one was talking on the phone.

In a way I could understand the fixation. Hong Kong is crowded almost beyond belief. It makes parts of Manhattan feel like Kansas, and I suspect that a cell phone offers an escape, a kind of crack in space. It is an entrance to a realm in which you are the center of attention, the star. Access becomes a status symbol in itself. A lawyer friend of mine there described the new ritual at the start of business meetings. Everyone puts their cell phone on the conference table, next to their legal pad, almost like a gun. My power call against yours, gweilo (Chinese for foreigner; literally “ghost”). The smallest ones are the most expensive, and therefore have the most status.

Some things are different now: the coolest cellphones are not small, they’re flat. And in a way not talking on the cellphone is cooler than talking on it. (Everyone now has a phone, so the actual talking-to-show-you-have-a-phone thing is superfluous. Silence is cool again.)

And the ‘cellphone bubble’ is not so much about status as about being part of a ‘virtual tribe’: Wherever you are, you have an ally you can count on to talk to, yanking you out of the fear of being alone, or of having to communicate to those around you, of having to participate.

It’s turned society on its head. No longer do we congregate to define ourselves. We do so via ‘virtual tribes’ that exist in a kind of telephonic continuum, via voice and SMS, as we wander around, largely isolated from the physical world around us.

Conspiracy Theories And The Weird Variable In History

I’m quite prepared to believe in conspiracies. Hell, anyone who reads history would be a fool to ignore their importance. Think Pearl Harbor. Think Rudolph Hess (yes, Churchill et al knew there was a plane coming and yes, they were hoodwinking the Germans, the French and the Americans to save the Empire). Think Cuban Missile Crisis. Think Tonkin Gulf. Think Supersemar (OK, not many of you will know that one, but trust me: It was a set-up). Pretty much every significant event of the past century has a conspiracy in it somewhere that tarnishes the folk we thought were heroes. I’m quite prepared to believe some of the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, just because the law of averages must mean some of them are right. But what about the Weird Variable View of History?

Yesterday I pointed to Natalia Dmytruk and her subversive interpretation of the news on Ukrainian TV. As I was taking the tram past what was China’s defacto embassy in Hong Kong, the Xinhua News Agency (NCNA) building in Causeway Bay (now a hotel, the Cosmopolitan, for those of you who hadn’t heard), I was reminded of a tale going back 15 years which illustrates another Weird Variable. Here’s how Xinhua reported the event at the time (June 1990):

Foreign Ministry makes representations to British Embassy over Hong Kong shooting incident.
Beijing, June 8 (Xinhua) – The Chinese Foreign Ministry has made serious representations to the British Embassy in China over an incident in which a shot was fired at the new office building of the Hong Kong branch of the Xinhua News Agency early this month. The incident occurred at sometime between June 3 and 4 during a demonstration staged by the “Hong Kong alliance in support of the patriotic democratic movement in China”, which has held in the vicinity of the building. The demonstration had the approval of the Hong Kong British authorities. A hole about three to four inches in diameter was found in a window on the 11th floor of the building. After the incident, local police arrived and found a powerful bullet inside the building. The branch also made representations to the Hong Kong British authorities soon after the attack. The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed deep regret over the incident in its representations to the British Embassy. The Ministry pointed out that the Hong Kong British authorities bear responsibility for the incident and demanded that they make a thorough investigation into the matter. The Hong Kong British authorities were also urged to take effective steps to ensure the safety of the personnel and property of Xinhua’s Hong Kong branch and other mainland agencies in Hong Kong. The Chinese government is closely following developments, the Foreign Ministry stated.

This was at a difficult time in British-China relations, with the handover seven years away, and tensions in the colony were high. The Chinese clearly thought the Brits were to blame, either through some sort of subtle provocation, or by not containing the Hong Kong Alliance, a constant thorn in the flesh of the Chinese. Demonstrations were a daily occurrence outside the Xinhua building, but this was an important occasion; the year before Tiananmen Square had galvanised Hong Kong like never before. I happened to be in the colony at the time and followed the march as it filled the streets and gathered outside the Xinhua building. The Chinese were nervous and clearly assumed the bullet was an attempt to provoke.

Here’s a story I wrote more than two years later (I’m claiming no credit here; I seem to recall the meat of the story was already published in local papers. I just tried to give it a bit of context):

Gun freak jailed for mystery bullet-hole.
HONG KONG, Sept 18, Reuter – Chan Yu-tat’s obsession with guns upset the neighbours, caused an international incident and baffled Hong Kong detectives. But now he’s in jail and one of the British colony’s odder mysteries is finally solved.
On June 3, 1990, Chan was test-firing his Dan Wesson pistol on the rooftop of his apartment block when one bullet went astray, whistling over half a mile (one km) before smashing through a window of the New China News Agency (NCNA). It was a bad time and a bad target. Outside the building, which serves as Beijing’s de facto embassy in Hong Kong, tens of thousands of demonstrators were marking the first anniversary of China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests. When a cleaner discovered the bullet-hole the next morning, China, fearing political motives behind the incident, called it “very serious” and demanded an investigation.
Hong Kong obliged, launching harried detectives on a house-to-house search, ballistic experiments and fingerprint tests but drew a blank. Streets away one old man who had complained six months earlier of a bullet flying through his window on Christmas Eve while he was in bed with his wife was bemused to find the police suddenly taking an interest in his case. There were at least three claims of responsibility for the NCNA shooting, including one Chinese stowaway to Seattle who demanded political asylum on the strength of it. Chan, 26, a delivery man for a pharmaceutical firm who lived with his mother, read in the newspapers about the commotion his stray bullet had caused. But police only discovered the truth of the incident when he mailed some ammunition to a friend in Canada last year. Tipped off by their Canadian counterparts, police questioned Chan, who revealed a cache of firearms and admitted to the officers that he was behind the mystery bullet-holes. The High Court on Thursday jailed him for 7-1/2 years, the minimum sentence allowable under tough anti-gun laws introduced after a spate of armed robberies last year. “The Crown accepts that the fact the bullet happened to strike the building of the NCNA was an accident and not a political motive. It was purely by chance,” counsel Gary Alderdace told the court.

I don’t know what happened after that. I suspect the whole thing was forgotten. By then Chris Patten, Britain’s last governor, was in Hong Kong stirring things up. But I suspect — I have no proof of this — that single bullet nearly caused a serious rupture in the handover process.

Historians and conspiracy theorists ignore the Weird Variable at their peril.

Hong Kong’s Unseen Icon

Hong Kong is a very practical city — you’ve got to be, with everyone living on top of each other — but sometimes I wonder whether it’s also an overly conservative one. For example, the other day I was very impressed at how one restaurant, which only accepts cash, brings the change in anticipation of what bill you’ll pay with. Put a HK$500 down on the bill wallet, and with a flourish worthy of a magician, the wallet is opened at another page with the change already there. Charming, and practical, saving time, and footleather.

But that’s the only restaurant I’ve seen this at. Maybe there are more, but you would think an innovation like this would quickly catch on elsewhere. So far, it seems, it hasn’t.

Jak0310(41)To me the biggest area that is ripe for some innovation like that is the Hong Kong cart/trolley. It’s ubiquitous, and as long as I’ve been visiting Hong Kong it’s been here. For those of you haven’t seen one, it’s a very simple design: four small wheels, larger than a baby-buggy, but smaller than a child’s bicycle, overlaid with a metal frame and sometimes a wooden board. The handle is a simple iron rod bent at the top. That’s pretty much it.

Now, these things are everywhere. Out to grab a coffee this morning I spotted about 30. They’re so commonplace they’re invisible, which is tricky in a place where pedestrians or cars cover every inch of spare sidewalk or road. Somehow, the folk that use these things manage to navigate their way through the throng without any ankles removed, people upended or worse.

And they are used to carry everything. I started snapping a few, but quickly ran out of space on my cellphone before I could capture the full range:

Jak0310(40)

‘A yellow-booted guy transporting live fish’

Jak0310(37)

‘Dude Unloading Boxes’

Copy 2 of Jak0310(34)

‘Guy Shovelling Sand Into Baskets’

Jak0310

‘Man (Or Woman) Pushing Chair Backs Down Lee Garden Road’

Jak0310(19)

‘Gas Cannisters Locked To A Tree’

Copy 2 of Jak0310(31)

‘Guy Pushing Water Containers With Reading Matter in Hip Pocket’

Jak0310(01)

‘Woman Pushing Pile of Crap Down Lee Garden Road’

and the rather poignant ‘Elderly Woman With Empty Trolley Heading Off to Times Square’:

Jak0310(43)

OK, you get the idea. They’re multifunctional. They’re used by a wide swathe of age-groups and users. They’re also good for parking on Hong Kong’s many inclines:

Jak0310(03)

Indeed, you can park them more or less anywhere, secure in the knowledge that no one looks at them twice:

Copy 2 of Jak0310(32)

Clearly these trolleys are useful. But to me they’re still badly designed. You can see as much from the various customizations that their users have introduced. In the picture above, for example, you can see the classic ‘One Rope Across the Handle Bar’ hack which helps stuff not fall off the back. Variants on these include the ‘Multi Rope Web’ which does a better job, basically by tying as much rope or string across the back of the handle as possible. Those without rope can try the ‘Piece Of Cardboard Across The Handle Kept In Place By Tape Hack’:

Jak0310(30)

All of these look aesthetically awful, but have endured as long as I’ve been coming to Hong Kong, which is 16 years. Then there’s the problem of the handle itself. Not much you can do with it, except try the “Bag Hanging Hack” which is illustrated thus:

Jak0310(21)

Or the street-cleaners (yes they use them too) “Bag Hanging Hack + Bamboo Pole with Warning Red Flag On”:

Copy 2 of Jak0310(35)

But to me all these hacks cry out for a better design. There must be a better way of transporting stuff around in Hong Kong. Of course, there are other methods, from the old delivery bicycle:

Jak0310(18)

(I love the Chinese handwriting and telephone number painted on.) There’s also the smaller two-wheeled trolley concept:

Copy 1 of Jak0310(36)

But the four-wheeled trolley is by far the most popular. To me it’s an icon of Hong Kong and a testament to the grit and attitude of its people that they are still as common as they were a decade or so ago. I imagine that without these trolleys, Hong Kong would grind to a standstill:

Jak0310(39)

Still, I’m no designer, but I would have thought that these trolleys could be better designed, or some of the common hacks one sees on existing models could be built into future models? Or would that ruin the Unseen Icon of Hong Kong?

Hong Kongers Flock Online

The folks at Nielsen//NetRatings have released their latest Global NetView Analysis (PDF only) which shows, as they put it, that ‘the majority of usage growth has come from increased frequency of access or user session growth. Australia, France, Hong Kong and Italy saw double-digit growth in the number of monthly user sessions (see Table 2). In comparison, the U.S. experienced no growth, second to last in the rankings.’

To me, though, the most interesting part is how much time Hong Kongers spent online last month Nielsen time online hours compared to anyone else (22 hours), including Japanese (15 hours) and Americans (14 hours).

This is new: It represents significant (25%) growth over last year Nielsen time online yoyg and, as Nielsen//NetRatings points out, compares strikingly with the U.S., where people actually spent less time online than they did in the same month last year.

I have no idea why so many Hong Kongers spent nearly every waking moment online last month. Perhaps it was the weather. I’ll be up there later this month. I’ll ask around.

Fax Over Internet: Still Around

This is a bit old, but I hadn’t noticed, so perhaps some of Loose Wire’s Asia-based readers hadn’t either: j2Global Communications, provider of the eFax Internet fax service, have this year started offering local toll-free numbers in Asia — well at least in Manila and Singapore. It says it’s planning to add numbers in Malaysia soon.

This means you offer customers, bosses, spouses, friends, colleagues or whoever local numbers in those countries to cut down on fax and voicemail costs. The press release says the company has a regional footprint now encompassing Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines and Singapore, although I can’t see anything on their sign-up page that suggests offering Hong Kong yet. (Australia offers three cities, New Zealand one and Japan two. J2 says they’re continuing to pursue our vision of providing customers with local fax and/or voicemail numbers in as many cities as possible around the world.

The service costs $15 a month, with a $15 set-up fee. Incoming faxes are free, outgoing cost 10 cents a page, wherever they go. There is a free version available, where you can recieve faxes only: The only numbers available for that service, I believe, are in the U.S. I have not been overly impressed with the eFax service in the past, but it’s good to see local Asian numbers appearing in a service like this.