The Future of Work Rethought

I recently did two things I hadn’t done before. One was to cancel my membership at a co-working space. The other was to meet, face to face, my virtual assistant of seven years. I belatedly realised the two events were connected: the freelance world, once a parallel universe hidden from view, is fast switching places with the real one, and governments, companies and families should take note.

It’s tempting nowadays to think that technology is redefining work, and not in a good way. AI and robotics are stealing away work from top to bottom, from lawyers to assembly lines. Gig platforms like Uber and Deliveroo are slicing up jobs into ever smaller chunks, making robots of us before the jobs are actually handed over to robots. And technology outsources what can be outsourced.

But I realise this is just one side of things. Who are all these people to whom this work is outsourced? By 2020, the number of self-employed in the U.S. will triple, to 42 million people. Freelancers are the fastest growing labour group in the European Union. Behind these statistics is a story, not just of harried drivers and deliver guys, but of knowledge workers who have chosen their own lifestyle, who have defied the disintermediation of the so-called platform economy. They offer a counter-narrative to the usual technology story of innovative disruption.

Take co-working spaces. On the one hand such spaces have proliferated. I recall looking for a co-working in Singapore space back in 2009 and finding only one, on the campus of one of the universities, and when I turned up one morning there to find the curtains closed, bodies all over the floor and a distinct odour of unwashed students. Now, every other floor in the tower blocks of the business district are co-working spaces, though the business looks nothing like it was originally imagined to be. Just don’t expect to find many freelancers there.

Co-working sounded like a freelancer’s dream — a place for those working alone and from home to find space to work, to mix, to find work, to find comradeship. It may have started out like that, but you won’t find many freelancers in a co-working space nowadays. Respondents to a survey of 99designs freelancers, for example, showed only 4 percent of them used a co-working space.

I asked Patrick Llewelyn, CEO of 99designs, why this was. One reason, he said, was that most of the designers on his platform are primary care givers, looking after either their kids or a family member, and so tend to keep less formal hours. As co-working spaces have become substitute offices, they keep office hours which don’t suit most freelancers, most of whom want to get away from the 9-5 grind.

I also realised there was little that was appealing. I abandoned mine when I realised I didn’t enjoy going there. I had returned to working for myself a year or so ago and long admired co-working spaces as a vibrant, tasteful, colourful alternative to the dour, dusty and downbeat newsroom I worked in. But I realised that co-working spaces were too self-conscious, too brimming with hipness to be genuinely convivial. And expensive.

So freelancers choose their own path, and it doesn’t fall easily into any fancy new disruptive model.

And then there’s the other thing: my virtual assistant. She’s real, but based in a Philippines town far from the madding crowd. I had always imagined that one day I’d make the pilgrimage there to meet her, since when she started working for me, she didn’t have a passport. But by now she, husband and two kids in tow, was the peripatetic one, carving time for me in her hectic tour of Singapore.

This is the other thing that struck me about what Patrick told me. When I asked about how his freelancers find social fulfilment if they’re working from home, he said that’s the point. By staying home, often looking after family, they’re able to retain those physical connections that those working in an office tend to lose. And being able to support themselves gives them a sense of contribution as well as a creative outlet, which in turns give them confidence.

When Patrick recently went to Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia and one of 99designs’ biggest markets, he attended a meet-up of freelancers who clearly knew each other and felt a kinship and warmth you’d be hard pressed to find in a co-working space. Amarit Charoenphan, cofounder of Thailand’s first and largest co-working space Hubba, told me that in the rush to grab market share and protect themselves from competition, many co-working players had lost the human touch, of fostering a community among their members. He sees the future in algorithms, co-working 3.0, where spaces draw on technology to address the emotional benefits of being together.

Freelancers might argue they already have that, using apps to connect to friends and colleagues, while staying or moving to the places they love. My virtual assistant continues to work from her seaside home, bouncing her two-year-old daughter on her knee on conference calls with her main client, a friend of mine based in Texas. She worries about brownouts and the occasional typhoon, but with internet connectivity improving, she’s rarely offline for long.

She’s part of a massive, gradual shift in knowledge work, from the big city to the smaller towns and villages. This shows up in the data: Less than a quarter of the 99designs freelancers live in urban hubs of more than a million people — just as many live in towns or villages of less than 20,000. This is true more or less across the board: In the U.S. and Indonesia the number falls to be low 14% who live in a metropolis. Data from Upwork, a general freelancing site, shows that for a lot of specialised work even those based in remote towns in the developing world can command decent USD rates.

For sure, freelancing isn’t for everyone, and it’s not always easy to get your first client. And platforms that break down basic tasks like delivery and driving will always be a race to the bottom. But for those with skills, or those motivated to acquire them, the freelance economy has grown in the past decade to be a vast continent in the landscape of the future of work, mostly unnoticed by governments and immune to Silicon Valley’s eviscerations. Which reminds me; I have to go, my virtual assistant is reminding me we’re due a virtual brainstorming session.

Big, or Bigger: Southeast Asia’s Tech Economy in 2025

Google and Temasek have been taking a crack at estimating and predicting the size of Southeast Asia’s ecommerce economy for the past four years, starting in 2016 (yes, I know that’s three years but they’ve put out four reports, the latest this week, so there.) 

I’ve not had a close look at this report, there’s obviously some good stuff in there, and it’s easy to pick holes in this kind of thing, but it pays to be humble. I’ve done my own chart, below, taken the data from each report about their predictions for 2025, and how they’ve changed over time. The four left columns are more or less the years of the estimate (2016 assessed 2015 for some reason, while the others did the year the report was released in); the right four stacks are the estimates for 2025 in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively. You can see how much their view has changed. 

The first year there was no separate estimate for ride hailing; it clearly wasn’t considered to be a significant sector, or likely to be one. I think a smarter analysis would have seen that one coming. It was 2016 already, and Grab was already the region’s biggest unicorn. Then there’s the huge disparity in estimates between 2017 and 2018, the third- and second-to right columns, and then between last year and this. Overall, between 2016 and 2019 the report upped its project by 50%, from $200 billion to $300 billion. 

Of course, it pays for all those involved to cheerlead the region; no one is going to say things are going to get better, and it’s a good headline to say ‘we goofed up by underestimating how well things are going’. But these are big numbers, and big discrepancies. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that such estimates need to be taken with a big grain of salt. 

Google Temasek estimate of ecommerce market size in Southeast Asia 2016 2019

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.

Tweetwars: the social challenge in Twitter ‘capital’, Indonesia

My effort to take a closer look at Twitter’s capital. 

Tweetwars: the social challenge in Twitter ‘capital’, Indonesia | Reuters:

BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

TWITTER INDONESIA  1

Indonesia has long been the Twitter capital of the world, but rival apps and rancorous political debate are driving users away, illustrating the challenges the microblogging service faces even in markets once considered strongholds.

While Twitter doesn’t break down country figures, Global Web Index data shows Indonesia remains joint first with Mexico in active users among the 34 countries the UK-based metrics company monitors – and significantly ahead in terms of penetration, at 74 percent of all Internet users.

But that masks a deeper shift, analysts and users say, as changing tastes, culture and politics push Indonesians to rival services. The proportion of active Twitter users in Indonesia has dipped 10 percentage points in the past two years, to about one third of Internet users, the Global Web Index data show.

‘Unless Twitter makes changes or there’s some new exciting things on Twitter that can’t be found on other platforms then I don’t think people are coming back to Twitter,’ said Enda Nasution, a blogger and entrepreneur who has nearly 200,000 followers on his Twitter account.

A Twitter spokesman declined to comment on the data, saying he had not seen it, but said younger people in major markets like Indonesia and India were eager users. He said the company was expanding in Indonesia and working with airlines, banks and celebrities to add services and content.

He noted Indonesia was one of the top markets for Twitter’s recent acquisition Periscope, which allows users to stream live video.

Twitter on Wednesday reported its first quarter since going public with no growth in users, and announced changes to its global service.

Among younger users – active Twitter users in the 16-24 year age range – Indonesia lags Spain, Mexico and the UK. JakPat, an Indonesian survey company, found last month that teenagers were less likely to use Twitter regularly than those aged 26 and above, and were switching to other apps such as Facebook and its photosharing sibling Instagram.

But there’s also a push factor: Indonesians are leery of Twitter’s core appeal; its default public feed, where everything a user posts is visible to everyone on the network. What was once an attraction in Indonesia’s sociable culture became a liability in 2014’s fractious presidential election.

FISTICUFFS

As politicians saw the power of Twitter to mobilize support, the network was flooded by digital armies of volunteers and automated accounts, or bots, spawning what Shafiq Pontoh, chief strategic officer at Jakarta-based social media consultancy Provetic, described as a ‘tsunami’ of ‘black campaigns, hoaxes, prejudice, racism, spam, harassment, anonymous accounts and political action to frame topics, issues (and) spin doctoring.’

‘Twitter,’ he said, ‘became an uncomfortable place to be.’

This antagonism hit rock bottom when two Twitter users took a dispute over government car-making policies offline and slugged it out near a sports stadium. Cellphone footage of their fist-fight was broadcast on TV.

‘After that it felt like that if you don’t want to get into trouble, people would retreat and find a more comfortable space online,’ said Nasution, the entrepreneur.

Those online spaces include Facebook’s WhatsApp and Messenger apps, South Korean Kakao’s Path, Japan’s Naver Corp’s LINE and BlackBerry’s Messenger.

Nasution said students he has spoken to use WhatsApp to communicate with their lecturer, and LINE to chat with each other. Or Facebook and Path, says student Jeremiah Mandey, who joined Twitter in 2010. ‘I used Twitter to interact with friends, but now I use it to get news,’ he said.

MISSING A CULTURAL BEAT

Government departments, companies and even President Joko Widodo have embraced Twitter as a public announcement service. The Jakarta police traffic feed, alerting commuters to jams, accidents, potholes and protests, has over 5 million followers.

This provides a service, but is too passive for younger people, says Aulia Masna, an editor. ‘People are on social media to have fun and be entertained,’ he says. ‘Twitter in Indonesia is better known as the place for news, debate and politics. So it attracts the more serious, older crowd.’

The company spokesman said Twitter opened a Jakarta office last year and added staff, in part to expand its user base beyond the capital. The recruits included a government relations expert. It was also working with local bank BNI to allow customers to transact via Twitter.

‘We see great potential in Indonesia, it’s one of the top markets,’ he said, adding Widodo was due to visit Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco next week.

Simon Kemp, regional managing partner of social media marketing agency We Are Social, said Twitter should focus more on understanding how people in places like Indonesia use their service before tweaking things.

‘People are still looking at these things as a technology base,’ he said, ‘while it’s the cultural driver that determines what you use and when you use it.’

(Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff, with additional reporting by Cindy Silviana and Yuddy Cahya in Jakarta; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)”

Facebook can’t take Asian growth for granted

A piece I wrote ahead of Facebook’s IPO, casting a skeptical eye over assumptions that Asia would continue to be a source of major growth for the company.

Even as Facebook fever grips investors ahead of the social networking giant’s potential $100 billion-plus initial public offering, its breakneck growth in Asia may be slowing as it moves beyond desktop users to those who access the Internet largely or solely from a mobile phone.

In March, Facebook revised its own SEC filings to scale back its scope for further growth in India – its third-biggest user base and the largest population it currently has access to – China remains off-limits to Facebook. And independent data show that user numbers in Indonesia and the Philippines, its other largest Asia user bases, have actually fallen off slightly in the past three months.

“If you’ve been growing at such a huge amount it will definitely trail off,” said Ganesh Kumar Bangah, Kuala Lumpur-based CEO of online payment provider MOL Global. “You can’t expect it to keep growing.”

Read the rest: Analysis: Facebook can’t take Asian growth for granted

Blackberry’s Future [BBC]

In some ways our world all looks very similar. Prefab coffee and fast food chains, Cars that all look the same. Everyone on Facebook. But what we–and by we I include the people who actually produce and sell these goods and services–don’t do a good job of is understanding while the global products may be similar, how they’re actually used can be very different. 

In short: Just because your fancy product is doing well in country X, do you actually know why? 

This, it turns out, is kind of important. Because if you don’t understand that, chances are you won’t know how to keep the good thing going, let alone expand on it. 

Take, for example, Research in Motion, They’ve done extraordinarily well in some countries, but none more so than Indonesia. Everyone, it seems has a BlackBerry. A friend recently bought one for his six year old daughter so she wouldn’t be teased at school. 

This is music to the ears of RIM, because as you may have heard they’re not doing so well in other parts of the world. So it made sense for the company to try to sell its devices to another 7 million Indonesians, After all, the first 7 loved them. 

So they’ve launched a new phone. It has a radio in it, because that’s what they heard people in emerging markets like Indonesia want. It has a special button on the side which will take users to its BB messaging service, which is what group-oriented Indonesians love about the Blackberry. And it’s going to be cheaper. 

But RIM didn’t create its success in Indonesia,. That was organic–a lucky mix of Indonesians’ love of new things and their conservatism that keeps them wedded to products after others have moved on. Local telephone providers helped by keeping prices low. And out of it all came a lively ecosystem of program developers, street corner vendors selling accessories and fixing broken phones, and malls full of second hand dealers. 

Now RIM is trying to formalize this, But they may not completely understand the unique culture of adoption and usage that Indonesians have given to the BlackBerry, which is quite different to how a corporate drone in New York might use it. 

As globalization throws up more of these quirks companies are going to have to work harder, faster and better to understand why their products are popular. Because if they don’t they may not only find themselves unable to build on that success; they may find their efforts to expand actually make things worse. By trying to expand downmarket in Indonesia for example, RIM may run against one of the very things that makes the brand popular: its exclusivity, which makes a BB a status symbol.

That may sound odd to someone in Canada, Hong Kong or London for whom the BlackBerry is yesterday’s news. But that’s the point. Globalisation may look good on paper, but going local is the only way to make it a success strategy.  

In Asia, BlackBerry’s RIM sees a glimmer of hope

A piece I wrote from Jakarta on RIM’s efforts to expand in those emerging markets where it had already done well: 

(Reuters) – The launch in India of a new BlackBerry by Research In Motion Ltd is not just a nod to its lower-end users who love it less for its security, push email and seamless roaming than for its simplicity and its Messaging. It’s a strategy the Canadian company hopes will help fill both a hole in its balance sheet and a half-year wait for its next big thing — the BlackBerry 10 platform.

But will it work?

The handset itself won’t impress devotees: its main selling point is a dedicated side button that lets users chat over its BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and a built-in FM radio, which lower-end Nokia phones have had for a decade. It works only on the slower 2G networks, and the camera isn’t that great. But, RIM says, that’s the point.

Rest at Analysis: In Asia, BlackBerry’s RIM sees a glimmer of hope 

Facebook’s daunting Asian challenge

Here’s a piece I pulled together with the help of Reuters reporters Andjarsari Paramaditha, Camilo Mejia and Estelle Griepink in JAKARTA, Harichandan Arakali in BANGALORE, Lee Chyen Yee in HONG KONG, Kazunori Takada in SHANGHAI and Harry Suhartono in SINGAPORE.

Facebook aims to connect all two billion Internet users. So far it has captured 845 million of them. Of the rest, nearly 60 percent live in Asia and hooking them is going to be a daunting challenge.

A block on access in China, court cases in India and rivalry from other services elsewhere in the region stand between Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and more than 700 million users.

"The size of our user base and our users’ level of engagement are critical to our success," Facebook said in its SEC filing for an initial public offering. Quoting industry data that there were two billion Internet users globally, it said: "We aim to connect all of them."

Growth is held back in the rest of the world, either because of limited Internet penetration, or because those who want a Facebook account already have one.

Full text here.

The Real Revolution

This is also a podcast, from my weekly BBC piece. 

While folks at the annual tech show in Vegas are getting all excited about a glass-encased laptop, the world’s thinnest 55″ TV and a washing machine you can control from your phone, they may be forgiven for missing the quiet sound of a milestone being crossed: there are now more smartphones in the world than there are ordinary phones.

According to New York-based ABI Research, 3G and 4G handsets now account for more than half of the total mobile phone market. Those old ‘dumb phones’ and the so-called feature phones–poor relations to the computer-type iPhone or Android device can–are now officially in decline.

This is, in the words of ABI Research’s Jake Saunders, “an historic moment.” While IDC, another analyst company, noticed that this happened in Western Europe in the second quarter of last year, Saunders points out: “It means not just mobile phone users in Developed Markets but also Emerging Market end-users are purchasing 3G handsets.”

So why is this a big issue? Well, a few years back it would have been hard to convince someone in an emerging market to shell out several hundred bucks for a phone. A phone for these folks was good for talking and sending text messages. That was a lot. And enough for most people–especially when the handset cost $20 and the monthly bill was even less.

Now, with prices falling and connectivity improving in the developing world a cellphone is so much more: It’s a computer. It’s an Internet device. It’s a portable office and shop front. It’s a music player. A TV. A video player. A way to stay in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

And for the industry these people in emerging markets are a life saver. For example: The developed world is pretty much saturated with smartphones. People aren’t buying them in the numbers they used to.

But that’s not to say the feature phone is dead. In fact, for some companies it’s still an important part of their business. Visionmobile, a UK based mobile phone research company, says that Nokia–busy launching its new Windows Lumia phones in Vegas–is still the king of feature phones, accounting for more than a quarter of the market.

And they just bought a small company called, confusingly, Smarterphone, which makes a feature phone interface look more like a smartphone interface. So clearly at least one company sees a future in this non-smartphone world. In a place like Indonesia, where the BlackBerry leads the smartphone pack, nearly 90% of phones sold in the third quarter of last year were feature phones, according to IDC.

So companies see a big chance for growth in these parts of the world. But they also need the spectrum. If you’re a mobile operator your biggest problem now is that smartphone users do a lot of downloading. That means bandwidth. The problem is that one piece of spectrum is for that 3G smartphone, and another is for your old-style 2G phone. The sooner you can get all your customers to upgrade their handset to 3G, the sooner you can switch that part of the spectrum you own to 3G.

So this is a big moment. We’re seeing a tipping point in the world’s use of cellphone use, from a simple, dumb communication device to something vastly more useful, vastly more exciting, vastly more lucrative. All those people moving over to smartphones

ABI Research reckons there’ll be 1.67 billion handsets sold this year. That’s one in four people buying a new device. Forget fancy Vegas. The real revolution just started.

Southeast Asia’s Third Mobile Tier

The mobile revolution is moving from second tier countries in Southeast Asia to the third and final tier. Whereas previously Indonesia and the Philippines were seeing the biggest growth in mobile Internet traffic, now it’s Burma (Myanmar) and Cambodia which top the list in terms of user- and usage-growth, according to the Opera State of the Mobile Web report for July:

    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in terms of page-view growth (6415.0 % and 470.1 %, respectively).
    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in growth of unique users (1207.5 % and 179.1 %, respectively).
    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in growth of data transferred (3826.6 % and 353.2 %, respectively)

Of course these figures are from a low base, and the Opera data is not the easiest to trawl through. (The Opera mobile report is always interesting reading, so long as you take into account that the Opera browser is for many people a Symbian browser and so of declining popularity in some quarters. Also their data is never presented in quite the order one would like, so you have to dig. )

Looking at the figures in more detail, and throwing them into a spreadsheet of my own, it’s clear that Burma is definitely an outlier. Cambodia’s growth is impressive, but Burma’s is by far the greatest out of all 27 countries surveyed. Here’s how it looks:

2011-07 Page view growth SEA

So is the Burma usage real, or is this just a jump from nothing to slightly more than nothing? I suspect it may actually be a sizeable jump. Opera are coy about the actual number of users (so we may actually be dealing with a small dataset). But the figures suggest that this is a real spurt in usage: Burmese mobile users are transferring more data per page view than any other of the 27 countries surveyed, and the page views per user is on a par with the Philippines and Thailand.

I’d cautiously suggest that Burma, along with Cambodia and Laos, are beginning to show exhibit some of the signs of what one might pompously call “mobile societies”: using the mobile phone as an Internet device as a regular part of their activities. Take the page views per user, for example, which measures how much they’re using the mobile phone to view the Internet (Brunei seems to be in a league of its own; I don’t know what’s going on there, except that in terms of nightlife, I’d have to say not much):

2010-07 Page views per user SEA

It’s probably too much to conclude that mobile phones as Internet devices are now mainstream in this third tier of the region, but it’s a healthy sign, with lots of interesting implications.