Category Archives: creativity

Taking Care of Business as Titans Clash

In the titanic trade clash between China and the United States, Tyler Johnson’s is a calm, sane voice. But then he is a businessman, and businessmen get things done. Johnson spent the go-go years between 2005 and 2015 growing Dell’s Asia-Pacific business. He saw the blossoming of Chimerica and now, on the cusp of what is starting to look like a nasty separation, reminds us there is an art to conducting business with another culture.

What he learned is the subject of a new book, The Way of the Laowai, a testimonial to taking a global perspective. (Laowai means outsider or alien in Mandarin.)

Take note, America: The self-selected attendees at Johnson’s “World Spins” talk were almost all Chinese. As one explained, “I want to learn how you think American companies should compete in China, from your perspective.

It’s complicated

The scale of the trade clash is enormous, and the stakes are high.

China is the world’s most populous country. Its breakneck development over recent decades has added hundreds of millions of consumers to the global marketplace while supplying a vast assemblage of low-cost goods… It is the source of roughly one-third of the world’s economic growth.

Peter S. Goodman, The New York Times

Separating business from policy is a sticky wicket, especially when two radically-different cultures have bound themselves so tightly together economically. As Li Yuan, the New York Times New New World correspondent wrote :

The two sides have plenty of reasons to distrust each other. The United States blames China for heavy job losses, theft of corporate secrets and cheating at the rules of global trade. China credits the hard work and sacrifices of its people for its success and sees the trade war as driven by American fears of a prosperous Chinese nation. (Photo/Doug Mills, The New York Times)

Li Yuan, The New York Times

But in the end, business is business, and sometimes getting things done requires a “whatever it takes” approach.

In China, government initiatives drive almost everything. It’s important to understand those initiatives and analyze how they figure into your business model. The more you understand what the government wants, the more likely you’ll be aligned …

Tyler Johnson

A laboratory for future innovation

Over the past 25 years, China has become what Oppenheimer Funds calls a “laboratory for future innovation” for U.S. companies. Big Tech-funded R&D centers place scientists from both countries side-by-side to crack breakthroughs in pivotal data-intensive areas including artificial intelligence and cloud computing. Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) funds basic research in AI. Google opened an AI lab in Beijing and has a research alliance with Tencent on cloud services. Jeff Ding, a graduate student at Oxford and the force behind the China AI newsletter, is well worth following for a deeper understanding of cooperation between the two countries in R&D and technology (AI) commercialization.

But there are concerns. M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston recently severed ties with three scientists over their ties to China and policy violations with research grants from the National Institute of Health. Writing in The New York Times, Mihir Zaveri noted that a report commissioned by the N.I.H. also mentioned that 39 percent of the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine won by Americans have gone to foreign-born scientists.

Data, ethics and national security

Research spawns innovation and ethical (cultural) concerns. The facial recognition technology that San Francisco banned out of fear it would be abused by the city’s police, is being used in some form by companies in China to save pigs from the devastating spread of untreatable African swine fever — and allegedly to suppress minority populations.

Today’s battles are all about data, how you get it, who has access to it, and who you can share it … With 1.4 billion people (and limited enforcement of privacy laws), there is plenty of data in China.

Tyler Johnson

Then there’s national security. At an intelligence forum sponsored by the University of Texas earlier this year, Sue Gordon, the principal deputy director of National Intelligence, acknowledged the reality of concerns over “dirty networks.”

We have to figure out a world with diverse technology we can’t control.”

Sue Gordon, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence

Photo/Aly Song, Reuters

Huawei, the subject of Gordon’s reference to “dirty networks,” is a stunning case study in whether a Chinese company, genetically bound to its government, can thrive as a global technology company. Huawei has made it a point to develop an entrepreneurial culture based on best-of-breed Western business processes.

“Only by learning from them with all our humility can we defeat them one day.”

Ren Zhengfei, founder, Huawei, The Huawei Story

But its blacklisting by the Trump administration is having a trickle-down impact. Just yesterday, Reuters announced Google restrictions on Huawei customers’ purchases of its proprietary offerings, a move analysts expect will hit Huawei’s European business hard.

A big world full of opportunity for those who respect and learn

At the eye of this hurricane, The Way of the Laowai is a reminder that opportunity is a matter of perspective.

There are roughly 196 countries in the world and close to 800 billion people. That’s a lot to wrap your brain around. Each of these countries is complex in its own way … In every location you want to do business in, you need a grasp of these particulars. In each place, business needs to be conducted differently… The world is big and full of opportunities if you can keep your perceptions in place.

Tyler Johnson

As proof, Johnson proudly brought along his smart, confident 13-year old, Mandarin-speaking daughter Reese, a living demonstration of all there is to be gained from learning the ways of another country. Indeed, she corrected him several times.

What will it take to make us safe?

We expect our government to keep us safe. The Constitution cites “providing for the common defense” as part of the reason to even have a government. In the best of times, protecting a country as proudly technology-driven as ours is a tough job. And these are not the best of times.

Ranking members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence were in town recently to talk about the challenges of overseeing national security in a cyber world. Below, from left, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and Moderator Stephen Slick.

Photo courtesy of the Texas National Security Review

“Technology is a wonderful thing. It helps us communicate, but it can also be meddled with,” said Burr. “We need to change the entire architecture of government to recognize we’re not in the 20th century. We’re in the 21st century, and that’s not just government (alone), it’s how we integrate that into the private sector.”

We can thank the Russians and Facebook for jump starting a public conversation about technology, sharing, business models and national security. Consider the complexities. Our finance, hospitality (Airbnb), mobility (Uber and Lyft), communications (Apple, Facebook and AT&T), oil & gas (pipelines), as well as many power, water and utility networks, are privately owned, managed and vulnerable.

A broken partnership and the spectre of 9/11

Technology has historically been a collaborative effort between the public and private sectors. Nuclear technology came out of World War II. The networking technology behind the Internet came out of the Defense Dept. via DARPA and the PARC research facility. But these days, the companies with the research and development muscle to push the boundaries of technology are global, rich and fast-moving. Thanks to Edward Snowden, intellectual property concerns, employee activism and a large customer base outside of U.S. borders, they don’t necessarily trust government to lead them down the right path. Google’s withdrawal from Project Maven, the Army’s first implementation of artificial intelligence is a case in point.

“We don’t want to stop innovation,” Cornyn explained. “But we need the private sector to be responsive to the needs of government.” He made a cautionary reference to the government’s failure to predict the incomprehensible horror of the Sept. 11 attacks:

Photo courtesy of Stan Honda


“The most important failure was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat … No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not happen again. But the American people are entitled to expect that officials will have realistic objectives, clear guidance and effective organization.”


Excerpted from The 9/11 Commission Report

There are striking similarities between Big Tech and Washington. Both profess transparency but value secrecy. Both think globally and maintain strong international allegiances. Both know results matter. Both value the rights, freedoms and security our nation represents. Best case scenario, each provides a check and balance on the other.

Guardrails for the application of new technologies

Big Tech recognizes emerging technologies like AI are potentially dangerous. In June, Google published a set of internal principles that were accompanies by a cautionary memo from its chief executive, Sundar Pichai, “We recognize that such powerful technology raises equally powerful questions about its use.”

“This is why we’ve tried hard to articulate a set of AI principles. We may not have gotten everything right, but we thought it was important to start a conversation.”

Sundar Puchai, chief executive officer, Google

But Google’s AI principles don’t work for everyone. America’s fiercest competitor, China, requires companies to give up their source code, both figuratively and literally, for government applications. It has made artificial intelligence the cornerstone of its long-term strategy for technology leadership and a way to automate social control. Witness a recent issue of Jeff Ding’s excellent China AI newsletter for a translation of a white paper by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) for an outline of “how Beijing aims to use AI to automate censorship, control of public opinion, and improved public security.” 

“If America gives up its leadership ability to set a a framework, it’s not going to happen,” warned Senator Byrd. Vice Chairman Mark Warner, both a founder of and an investor in technology companies, was more blunt. “We need guardrails…. We constantly reach out and beg them (the private sector) to work with us in a meaningful way.”

An inflection point in American history

Senator Ben Saase (R-NE) also spoke, describing the long-term race with China as “an inflection point in 230 years of American history,” an opportunity to “organize the American people around long-term competition with China.”

Senator Burr suggested that a public-private partnership located perhaps in North Carolina or Austin could develop the “architecture of cooperation” between the government and private sector.

Certainly, the Army took a calculated risk with its newly-formed Army Futures Command. Based here in Austin, AFS is an entire brigade charged with drawing talent from the start up community to develop the weapons of the future. It’s a big cooperative initiative with a challenging scope.

Never waste a good crisis

Austin has a solid track record of public-private partnerships, most successfully with SEMATECH, formed in the late 1980’s when the semiconductor industry was fighting a losing battle with the Japanese. But P3s are no silver bullet. They are highly collaborative. Competitive issues can be a barrier. They require the participation of top talent. Crises come and go, and their goals and structures must adapt:.

  • A crisis is helpful to attract support, but there must be an overarching vision to give it the flexibility to adapt as things change. Political, social, economic, and technological conditions are fluid and a P3’s structure, mission and goals needs to reflect those changes.
  • Collaboration is key, modeled from the top and rewarded at all levels of the organization. Beware of making intellectual property a barrier in this integral process.
  • Large companies have the resources – talent and support – to collaborate. Smaller companies quickly become overextended. Set realistic expectations with leadership.
  • Define ROI in terms of the organization’s goals. Establish incremental ROI benchmarks to demonstrate early successes. People will be watching.

A closing note on intellectual property

Intellectual property is a concern in any collaboration, but restrictive IP requirements can torpedo possibilities. I found this article by Charles Duhigg a fascinating case study of the Silicon Valley mindset. It describes tech’s proprietary focus on IP and the lengths Google took to retain the knowledge inside a top engineer’s head, the intriguingly perverse Anthony Levandowski. The piece closes with this quote from Levandowski, who as of this writing is working with Chinese investors to fund his self-driving truck start up:

“The only thing that matters is the future… I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess — the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that History to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.”

Anthony Levandowski, serial entrepreneur and former top Google engineer

If you’re interested, Here is a link to the presentations from the Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum, “The Return of Great Power Competition” and the inspiration for this entry.

In closing, please enjoy the holiday and its determination to focus our attention on peace and goodwill to all.

Thanks to Facebook and the Russians, we can have a public conversation about technology and national security. Cartoon by Sara Lautman, courtesy of The New Yorker

Blockchain’s Promise: Trust

Pete Harris stopped by a session of the World Spins to share his take on blockchain, the software technology generally overshadowed by its trendier spawn, bitcoin and the Bitcoin network. Harris, who bears a striking resemblance to Bilbo Baggins, has a relationship to hype similar to mine with spreadsheets. That is, he is clear and takes  sticks to the facts as he sees them. Even so, it doesn’t take long to recognize blockchain’s promise. If it’s possible to transact business based on a series of permanent (i.e. they can’t be changed), transparent interactions, then our trust-starved world may have a chance of recovering its footing.

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The blockchain network: can it build trust?  Photo courtesy by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, courtesy of Forbes

 

“We’ll have to wait and see” 

Harris’ blockchain CV dates from his Wall Street consulting days over a decade ago. These days, having sworn off airplanes, he spends much of his time with the Austin startup community where over 70 young cryptocompanies are  tackling data integrity issues where they find them — finance, healthcare, contracts.

I watched a handful present at Harris’ Monday night meetup. They ranged from Po.et, copyright/intellectual property protection, to GovernanceChain, an accounting network and CityShare, a digital shopping/hospitality network for member cities. Among the more visible is Wanchain, a Chinese nonprofit that’s figuring out to securely connect separate smart contracts, each with its own blockchain, a pivotal step in supporting a currency-agnostic global financial network. Interestingly, Wanchain’s technology is developed in China; the company’s U.S. headquarters is in Austin.

One of the best parts of these presentations is listening to company execs say, “I don’t know,” and “We’ll have to wait and see” — something I hear very often.  But I suppose that’s the beauty of a working with a nascent technology.

Privacy is implicit in the design

Speaking of wait-and-see, someone asked about blockchain’s impact on GDPR, the  European Union’s toughened privacy requirements known as the General Data Protection Rules. With the compliance deadline looming next month, that too is a wait-and-see. But since transactions are permanent, transparent and traceable, the blockchain ledger eliminates the need for centralized control. The integrity of the information is inherent in the software design.

A peek at a mobile citizenry in a digital world 

Today, 10% of the world’s GDP is in block chain. But it’s not all business. In the public sector, tiny Estonia has fashioned itself what the New Yorker magazine labelled a digital republic. Its citizens are free to live and work wherever they please while continuing to  vote, maintain their health, pay taxes using digital IDs.

Curious? Here in Austin, check out the:

World Spins Series Spotlights Thought Leaders on the Cusp of Disruption

I wanted to let you know about a project I’m working on with the World Affairs Council.  Its best described as a salon series showcasing some of the forces re-shaping the world we think we know — climate change, blockchain technology, the shift of global power from military to technological supremacy.  Our new series “The World Spins,”  will bring  people at the forefront of issues that are re-shaping the world we live in:  climate change, national security, blockchain technology, China and innovation. I’m thrilled to have these brilliant people — thought leaders, participants – not observers — share their time with us.  If you’re in Austin, please join us!

NATIONAL SECURITY & CLIMATE CHANGE, Dr. Joshua Busby, an associate professor,

Dr. Joshua Busby, associate professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin

Military leaders accept climate change as a major risk to our national security. Do we have a policy? Internationally recognized expert Dr. Josh Busby dives into a thorny issue.

the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, has been deeply involved in climate change policy since 2008. He participated in the discussions around Paris Accord, as well as their follow-on sessions, the next scheduled to take place in Poland later this year, as well as managing multi-million dollar grants for the Dept. of Defense. Quick update:  President Trump announced the United States’ intention to withdraw last December.  Former National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster recognized the relationship between the weather and security. He’s out, and former ambassador and Fox News analyst John Bolton is in.  What’s next?   April 12 at 6:30

 

BLOCKCHAIN, Pete Harris, founder of Lighthouse Partners, works with companies who are integrating blockchain technology into their business strategy. Talk about disruption, blockchain promises to dramatically reshape our financial, supply chain and trade relationships.  Think Walmart tracking the safety of sliced papaya from Central America to a store in Iowa. Pete, who consults internationally, is part of the axis of the blockchain

Pete Harris, Lighthouse Partners

Pete Harris, founder and president of Lighthouse Partner, has been talking blockchain and innovation since it was piloted on Wall Street.

community in Austin, Texas, where there are over 70 start ups involved in commercializing this nascent technology into our financial, health care, food safety and transportation ecosystems. A nascent technology, the growing use of blockchain is overshadowed by its trendy subset, bitcoin.  But companies like IBM and Oracle are integrating it into the way their customers do business. Pete founded the hub of Austin’s blockchain innovation, the  Austin Blockchain Collective and chairs a monthly Blockchain for Business Meetup at the Capitol Factory which is free and open to all.   March 29 at 6:30

 

CHINA AND INNOVATION, David Firestein, is the founding director of the new China

David Firestein, Founding Executive Director, China Public Policy Center; Clinical Professor of Public Affairs

David Firestein is shaping how a world-class university uses the resources and relationships of the (other) major world power.

Public Policy Center at the LBJ School.  From his bio: Throughout his career, Firestein has played an active role advancing U.S.-China and U.S.-Asia trade. He has also produced path-breaking thought leadership, scholarship and Capitol Hill testimony on a range of topics, including U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, U.S.-China infrastructure investment cooperation, and the role of national exceptionalism as a driver of major international conflict today. Firestein is native Austinite who speaks Mandarin at near-native level (hard to imagine in a Texan) and has published a book on what else – country music and diplomacy. May 22 at 6:30

 

 

 

If you’re in town, please join us!  All sessions are held at the historic Neill-Cochran House  where you can park right behind the building for free — speaking of a changing world.

Can Tech Companies Protect Privacy — and Still Make Money?

Did you know Google Feud’s #1 response to the phrase, “My friend is addicted to ____” is  “phone.” But as technology continues to permeate our lives, a lot of tech companies would plug in “collecting your personal information” instead.

A few weeks ago a friend mentioned that she’s closeted her Alexa after getting a call from a vendor offering her a great price on tickets to a concert featuring country music superstar Brad Paisley.  This following a conversation among family members the day before about that very concert. They happened to be standing next to a kitchen counter where Alexa sat. Was she listening?  Who knows.

Alexa

Good deeds? Amazon’s Alexa will even donate to your favorite charity.

Unlike the Europeans who’ve been quick to cry foul, we Americans remain confused and oddly offended when we discover (if we discover) our information has been sold and used without our permission. There is no constitutional right to privacy.  In the 1970’s, the Federal Trade Commission was charged with protecting and regulating privacy rights, but the FTC has hesitated to move decisively.

Succeeding and staying ahead is a struggle for any company, particularly small tech companies.  Long ago, I took a job on the frontier of the New Economy when a venture-funded start-up hired me to roll out their personalization offering, a service that would help large brick-and-mortar retailers boost their online  loyalty (and sales) by tailoring web views to shoppers’ traits — gender, geography and shopping habits. It was a great customer service idea, one that has evolved to the point that the Zappos we admire  haunt us for days to come.

 

At the time, we jumped into the thick of it. It was an opportunistic, defensive strategy. We formed a privacy advisory council, met with Congressional representatives,  influencers and media. In 2000, we joined and participated in the FTC’s Advisory Committee on Online Access and Security.  The offering would ask people to opt in, rather than automatically including them in invisible information gathering.  But we were never able to sell a product, and the company folded 18 months later.  We were small, but if you’re big and want (or need) to feed investors and stakeholders, the temptation to step over the line to get ahead is going to be even greater. It gets hard to even see the line when you’re in the rush of generating and executing great ideas.

We did all the right things in those early days, but we ultimately failed because customers expect companies to deliver value — innovation — first.  Privacy is generally an afterthought. Amazon, Facebook and Google knew this from the get-go.

Postscript:  The Washington Post reports that the FTC has asked Facebook, whose entire business model seems to be built on selling users’ data,  to appear and an expanding Congressional probe is including Google and Twitter. Should be interesting.

Revisiting “Be Nice”: #BeNice2.0

In late July of 2017, I pushed my way into un-air conditioned warehouse-turned performance space to see an eccentric program called “Sixty by 60,” a series of 60 spoken, danced, mimed, sung one-minute performances produced by our much-loved, no-longer-local, disruptive arts nonprofit, Fusebox.

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Two performers wait to perform at “Sixty by 60.”  Sixty artistic souls expressed themselves for 60 seconds — without air conditioning.

The piece I remember most vividly featured a young African-American woman wearing a white t-shirt that read in bold, black letters, “Be Nice.”  A small woman, standing in the middle of the stage, she invited the 200 of sweating her sweating audience to pick up the white t-shirts she’d placed on their chairs and wave them over head, joining her in shouting “Be Nice!” to loud music.

Her minute landed lightly with her worn-out audience, as we shouted and laughed and clapped, and as the year passed, I realize how profound her message was, how many notes she struck.

I’m assuming the artist — why didn’t I get her name? — knew the allusion to the iconic New Orleans R&B queen Irma Thomas’ waving her white handkerchief as a sign to her audience to put their backfields in motion and acknowledge black woman power. 2017 was the year that even the most delusional among us had to recognize that all bets are off in terms of social, business and political discourse. This was not news to black women.  On more than one occasion, when the fearlessly talented Thomas invited her to  wave a white handkerchief, they also waved Confederate flags.

But 2017 brought us a new president, Travis Kalanick, Harvey Weinstein, shootings by and of policemen, fake news, children gunned down in churches, and more.  There is a lot of material to work with during 2018.

Though if it were up to me, a woman raised with the same words, I would make it BeNice2.0 to make it clear they no longer mean, “Don’t ruffle feathers, don’t offend, don’t speak up.”  We’re done with that, having discovered that it yields its flip side: anger, resentment, alienation, hurt feelings, etc.  We don’t need enemies. We need collaborators, supporters, friends, critics who are willing to listen.

The other thing I like about BeNice2.0 is that it takes us beyond “be kind,” unquestionably a necessary and admirable life rule.  To me, BeNice2.0, suggests a more active, engaging stance. Ask for what you need, point out unfair behavior, propose better approaches. Be active; #BeNice2.0