There’s a continuum (and a conundrum) between the social distancing mandated by the coronavirus pandemic and the vitality of our communities. Ancient Athens and a Nazi concentration camp remind us how much we need each other.
Surrounded by my four walls, I’ve been thinking about ancient Athens, which for a single generation, from 454 to 430 B.C., erupted in pure genius. In a perfect storm of creative class-like action, its citizens founded the Western world. Our systems of government, science, philosophy, law, the arts and education are outgrowths of those 24 years.
Athenians valued civic life above all else. Rich and poor lived in similar kinds of housing and ate the same plain fare. People congregated: the rich mixed with the poor, foreigners were welcomed, eccentrics praised, and differences tolerated. The author Eric Weiner writes the condemned Socrates chose death over exile from his beloved Athens.
In time, what Weiner describes as a “creeping vanity” set in. The global city grew insular. The rich built big, showy houses. The streets became wider, the differences between the haves and the have nots, more glaring. Foreigners were shunned. Political divisions erupted. Athens went to war with Sparta. Farmland was destroyed. Tolerance dwindled.
In 430 B.C., a plague killed nearly two-thirds of this dense city’s population. One of its victims was the great Pericles, who had been censured in the city’s political upheaval. A series of despots and tyrants rose to power. After a brief period of peace, war resumed, and Athens was absorbed into Sparta. Some historians have postulated the plague was caused by the Ebola virus, a coronavirus.
The density conundrum
Years ago I visited the concentration camp Terezin outside of Prague. More than 150,000 Jews were sent to the camp; some 17,000 survived. I remember a guide commenting that the very act of crowding the Jews together so densely gave them the power of community. Artists, philosophers, musicians and scientists suffered alongside their fellows. There were no differences among them.
In 1944, the composer and conductor Rafael Schächter conducted a chorus of 150 prisoners singing Verdi’s massive “Requiem.” The performance was part of a Nazi propaganda initiative for a Red Cross inspection, and as chilling as the story is, I can’t help but wonder how much strength that beautiful project gave Schächter, his singers and their imprisoned audience.
The other thing I remember about visiting Terezin was a compulsion to leave as quickly as possible and never return, so vivid is the stamp imprinted by the place.
The need for foundations centered around people
We are not victims. We’ve ignored the Cassandras and their warning signals. We’ve pushed the natural world to a state of dry tinder and its inhabitants to homelessness, starvation and flea markets. There is a natural cycle to things, a cause and effect.
Will technology to save us? It will certainly help those who have the time and tools to use it, hopefully including both children and adults in need of a good education. It will continue to enrich those who create and dominate it. But, without guard rails, it will also drive us down the same path we’ve been on.
Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, a former surgeon general of the United States, has championed the role of happiness in health, including maintaining a vital social safety net. Quoted in a recent column on social distancing, he says:
“If we want to be a stronger, more resilient society, we have to focus on rebuilding foundations centered around people.”
Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, author and former surgeon general of the United States
If we learn anything from history, it’s that nothing lasts forever, and everything has its price. Oh, and leadership matters.
Everyone is talking about how things will be. How will they be? I have no idea. What I do know is that people are afraid, which makes them very hungry. Some also feel the need to explain why they’re not following the usual courtesies. Some observations made today, Day 7 of the pandemic:
A man scanning the empty aisles of our largest neighborhood grocery store, “I guess I better come early in the morning. They clear the shelves by afternoon.” Indeed, all the raisins are gone. Ditto the Goya beans, my favorite. Ah! I snag a box of golden raisins, pushed to the back of the bottom shelf. Who are “they,” I wonder, and where are “they” putting all of this food?
Pet food, fully stocked. Should I worry about the cats and dogs? My staple Earl Grey tea, all brands. Gone. And I thought I was surrounded by coffee drinkers.
The checker at the same grocery store. He’s about 18. I try to make him laugh by asking where all the groceries were going. I get a smile as he shakes his head. “I don’t know. Don’t they know things go bad?” Together we wonder when we’ll all settle down, perhaps to a very large shared meal with lots of beans and raisins.
A woman opening the door of the UPS Store with her elbow as I approach sheltered behind a 36-in by 36-in box (the lamp my sister has rejected which I couldn’t return to the store which had closed overnight from the day I called to see if they were open): “I’d open the door for you except for this coronavirus thing.” The door closes just as I reach it. I’m impressed that she explains her actions to me.
Is it time to shop online? Should I worry about the environmental implications of paying Amazon Prime $13/month to bring me tea and raisins instantaneously? What about all those young delivery people who have no health insurance? Perhaps a victory garden in the flower pots on my balcony would work.
Like Scarlet O’Hara, I vow to think about it, not tomorrow, but next week when I run out of greens.
Take care. Be safe, and yes, if at all possible, stay home.
Six takeaways from the U.S. response to the Covid-19 pandemic
In a crisis, nothing is more important — aside from saving lives — than clear, consistent communication. Our present crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic — offers some vivid lessons in Crisis Communications 101.
(1) Take responsibility. Have a plan. Trust is everything.
Leadership, leadership, leadership. At the helm of crisis management is a trusted, credible leader supported by a project team with a designated spokesperson and a group of experts germane to addressing situation, each with a clearly-defined role. This team is the source — through multiple channels — of clear, consistent messaging and regular updates.
(2) Deliver the facts clearly, accurately, and on a regular schedule. (Do not lie, obfuscate or bluster.)
A crisis is not the time to wing it. Don’t lie or offer false reassurance. I understand the pressure to deny the reality of a bad situation. But in the end all is revealed, and it’s just not worth it.
We’ve been blessed in Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Health Institute’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has the credentials (2008 Presidential of Freedom for his work with HIV/AIDS) and credibility to steer a rational response and call a spade a spade.
Brene Brown reminds us that we are at our worst when we’re in fear. Address the why/who/what/when to lessen isolation. Help communities figure out how to care for those who don’t have the money, mobility or transportation to prepare. Consider how to give people opportunities to help, despite social distancing. Despite an uptick in first-time gun sales, you probably don’t need an AR-15.
A dedicated website. If Google is developing it, that’s great, because a central repository of accurate information is pivotal.
(3) Stay out of the forecasting business.
Fact: No one knows the future. Set realistic expectations based on the information on hand and leave prognostication to soothsayers. They have disclaimers.
No vaccine or treatment exists for Covid-19. It takes 18-24 months to develop a vaccine for an unknown virus such as the one that causes the disease. The timeline is mandated by federal law which regulates the licensing of vaccines which require a series of clinical trials, animal and human. Here’s an interesting take from Dr. Jason McLellan, a scientist at the University of Texas who has been studying coronaviruses for years, and is working on a Covid-19 vaccine.
Given our proven lack of forecasting abilities, setting a deadline for the end of a crisis, particularly as it unfolds, opens the door to panic and blame.
(4) Use clearly-defined terms.
Hats off to Wired for a clear explanation of the pandemic’s terminology. Coronavirus refers to a family of viruses; SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the germ that causes the disease, and Covid-19 is the disease itself. Coronaviruses are so-called because the germs that cause the disease latch onto cells in a circular formation, like a crown or corona (see the image, above).
(5) Set clear guidelines and explain why.
At heart, we’re all children. We need rules. So give us clear guidelines, tell us why, and enforce them. That way, we know how to respond. The guardrails are in place.
Covid-19 differs from other coronaviruses in that its more contagious. With no vaccine in place, curtailing the virus’ spread is step one. If this means curfews, tell us and make it a national rule. We’ll adapt. Voluntary compliance is rarely effective. If you doubt this, check your neighbor’s (or maybe your) recycling bin. You’ll find the definition of “clean glass, paper and a very limited range of plastics” is far broader than you could have imagined.
(6) Remind people what’s most important.
Our culture is built on community. That’s how we earn a living, worship and create family and community bonds. And therein lies the biggest hurdle (and lesson) of Covid-19. I have no doubt that how we respond will define us for the foreseeable future. There are some really interesting things happening virtually which I’m exploring and will write about in a future blog.
Let’s learn our lessons well. My take: Give us accurate information. Deliver it consistently, through sources that we can trust. That way, we can follow the rules, take care of our neighbors and the vulnerable. And remember to take care of the environment because ultimately, that’s what we depend on.
Are you getting the most out of the time you’re spending in meetings? Try Liberating Structures, a set of tools that cultivates a focused purpose and broad participation.
I thrive on early mornings but shun early-morning meetings. For me, morning is thinking time. Even summoning the power of speech before 9 am takes an effort. Nevertheless on Valentine’s Day, I led a group from the Women Communicators of Austin in dismantling their usual way of doing things to try a different approach.
Juggling bowls of oatmeal and cinnamon rolls, we took the bull by the horns and experimented with Liberating Structures, a set of collaborative tools that focuses shared participation on an articulated purpose. In this experiment, the purpose of the meeting was the answer to a question: “What is keeping you from doing what you want to do?”
Harnessing the collective problem solver
Most people approach meetings the way they do weddings and funerals: This is how we do it, making the results predictable. According to the Harvard Business Review, 90% of the people at your last meeting are daydreaming. Seventy-three percent are doing other work. If you care about your time and productivity, it’s a problem.
But we are social creatures; shared ideas and approaches are our secret sauce, the can of spinach Popeye pops open to defeat his arch-nemesis, Brutus. When we harness the meeting format, those shared ideas are transformed into what the New York Times columnist David Brooks recently described as “gatherings” where:
“…traits (like): open-mindedness, flexibility, listening skills, team-building skills and basic human warmth. In this saga, leaders are measured by their ability to expand relationships, not wall them off.”
Too blue sky? Maybe not.
Too much control or too little structure?
The answer to the meeting conundrum lies somewhere between fluidity and control, neither so tightly orchestrated the meeting’s structure sucks the spontaneity out of the discussion, nor so loose it degenerates into interminable chaos. Liberating Structures uses simple exercises based on 10 basic principles:
Never start without a clear purpose
Practice deep respect for people and local solutions
Include and unleash everyone (each person is given equal time)
Build trust as you go
Learn by failing forward
Practice self-discovery within a group
Amplify freedom and responsibility
Emphasize possibilities: believe before you see
Invite creative destruction to make space for innovation
Engage in seriously playful curiosity
What we did: an early-morning example, with oatmeal:
The session began by establishing its purpose, why each of use was there. Because we were a diverse group with different roles and backgrounds, I made it a personal challenge, the answer to my question, “What is keeping you from doing what you want to do?
What followed was a series of linked exercises, each prompted by a question related to their challenge. Participants moved randomly around the room, sharing their challenge with others, deepening their understanding of its nature and sharing commonalities.
To rediscover forgotten resources and insights, each person worked alone, then sequentially with one and then three others, to share a personal success. Finally, we explored, individually and in small groups, what actions can be now to address the challenge. To respect everyone’s time, each exercise was timed.
Monique Carreon, the meeting coordinator, a marketing manager at EOS, a tech startup that uses Agile methodology. Agile is terrific for software development, but it doesn’t solve the problem is giving each participant the opportunity to engage. Monique was completely engaged from our first conversation. We debriefed afterwards here’s what we’ll do differently next time:
Arrange the space for movement and flexibility: This was my biggest oversight. Open space encourages engagement. Finding the room already set up with a single long table, I opted against dismantling it. More space would have made it easier to reconfigure the groups and maximize networking. As a result, although the small groups were active, there was minimal overall group contribution.
Engage everyone equally: I timed the small groups, but I did not time individual contributions. Had I done so, it would have equalized each person’s talk time and more fully encouraged listeners to talk.
Clarify and reinforce the meeting’s purpose: To be valuable, the discussion must tie back to the reason for the meeting. I didn’t brief latecomers and as a result, they were unable to participate fully.
Nothing Ventured …
As WCA member, mentor and attention management expert Maura Nevel Thomas advises, “If you’re a leader, I encourage you to collaborate with other managers to take a fresh look at how you handle meetings.”
Liberating Structures is a living online collaborative. Over 30 structures are posted on the website, ready for application. If you have a virtual team, try using it with Zoom! for team meetings. Questions? There is a dedicated Slack channel. LS is used by the Gates Foundation, the World Bank, the U.S. Army, IBM, many nonprofits, and just maybe — you. Meetups and collaboratives are alive worldwide, so check it out:
The eagle is America’s canary in a coal mine: As global warming accelerates, the agencies in charge of managing its impacts on our health will no longer issue clear-cut guidelines to protect Americans from life-threatening pollution and habitat loss. Rather, the government has decided to take a case-by-case approach to protecting us, our land and the animals we share it with.
When you reach the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library as I did recently, turn, and you find yourself dwarfed by an immense presidential seal. At its center is the bald eagle, the symbol of both the United States of America and the office of its president. The scale and power of that symbol take your breath away.
But the eagle, tagged as the Endangered Species Act’s greatest success story, has fallen out of favor. Our government has decided to measure its value on the open market and reward the highest bidder.
Monetizing the environment
Bald eagles live in trees along waterways where they can nest and fish. Wetlands, prized by developers and vulnerable to hurricanes, droughts, floods, effluence and all manner of disruptions, are rich, bio-diverse ecosystems the EPA compares to coral reefs and rain forests noting, “More than one-third of the United States’ threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands, and nearly half use wetlands at some point in their lives.”
Like global financial markets, habitats are finely balanced. We tip the balance when we just don’t know any better, which is why clear-cut rules are so important. Water transmutes from rain to groundwater, to wetlands, to streams, each vulnerable in itself and as part of an interdependent ecosystem. Like the DDT which decimated eagle populations 50 years ago, contaminants flow into streams, rivers and seep into wetlands, poisoning fish, animals and humans.
Declaring war against ourselves
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, charged with protecting our air, water and eagles, have been busy. Among their tsunami of actions is the “modernization” of the 1973 Environmental Species Act. New rules replace the Act’s clear-cut guidelines with a case-by-case approach, inserting subjectivity into legal determinations of whether protection is warranted. If the agencies’ track record is any indication, the government has refused to act even when the science is clear, and its own scientists recommend protection.
Consider the pesticide chlorpyrifos, cited by the EPA as the “most used conventional insecticide” and its own staff scientists as “dangerous.” Chlorpyrifos is sprayed on 50 of the crops we eat (broccoli, anyone), animal feed. Plan to call Mosquito Sam to get rid of those mosquitos in your yard or on the golf course? Chances are Sam will use chlorpyrifos. The ear tags used to identify cattle in feed lots are treated with it, as are wooden fences. It travels into our homes via indoor bait traps and the produce we eat. It’s been found in carpets and on children’s toys. If studies on rats are any indication, it attacks the nervous system and can cause attention-deficit disorders and hyperactivity in children. It kills birds, bees and is absorbed into the tissues of fish and whatever eats them, just as the DDT decimated our eagles decades ago.
What is an eagle worth?
The government will use a mathematical model to weigh the value of monetizing its habitat by say, calculating projected logging revenue against preserving the trees where the eagles nest. The problem? Subjectivity. A July 2019 analysis by Jim Damicis of the economic development consultancy Camoin Assoc., predicts the logging industry will decline over the next five years “driven by a slowdown of housing construction from recent peaks and from increased foreign competition.” Where’s the money? More environmentally sustainable alternatives.
As for wetlands, critical to flood protection as well as wildlife preservation? How does our eagle compare with a new resort?
There will be a reckoning
Outside, the temperature tops 99 degrees. The creek outside my window has been dry for over two months. Maps of the American West are the color of dried blood from drought. Our children are suing our government for its refusal to take positive action on global warming, emboldened by a 16-year with the audacity to sail across the Atlantic and tell Congress to pay attention to the science, and act.
Standing there on the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library, turn away from the eagle and face the opposite direction. Now you face President Johnson’s papers, bound in red. It’s the reckoning of one man’s efforts to fill what’s been called the most powerful office in the world. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Bill and passed Medicare and Medicaid into law. But he forfeited his legacy fighting a war against a perceived foreign threat.
The current administration is fighting a war against the air, land and water we depend on. There will be a reckoning.
The Defense Innovation Board report on 5G is a warning that the U.S. is headed down a path of isolation that with disastrous economic and moral implications.
A super-fast national Internet exclusively for urban America? That’s the scenario that comes to mind in reading the Defense Innovation Board‘s report on 5G, the next generation of super-fast wireless communication. Written by technology’s A-List, it outlines a trajectory that separates cities from rural areas, the have’s from the have-not’s and the United States from the rest of the world in a “post-Western wireless ecosystem.”
“The leader in 5G stands to gain hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue over the next decade, with widespread job creation across the wireless technology sector. 5G has the potential to revolutionize other industries as well … The country that owns 5G will own many of these innovations and set standards for the rest of the world…
That country is currently not likely to be the United States.”
“The 5G Ecosystem: Risks & Opportunities for DoD,” Defense Innovation Board
Chaired by former Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt, the Board was commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to make recommendations to the Dept. of Defense on the next wave of innovation.
I recommend the 30-page document itself, but if you’re pressed for time, try Dr. Lee, Physic Genius’ more entertaining version though, disclosure, despite some inquiries, I have no idea who Dr. Lee is.
A technical approach that deepens divisions
In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission allocates the electromagnetic spectrum. Most current 5G development is in the “sub-6” range. But in the United States, the military owns that portion of the spectrum. So the FCC made a higher-band width known as “mmWave” available for commercial development, which is where Verizon and AT&T are developing their 5G offerings.
Only two other countries currently support mmWave for 5G. Both of these countries are now U.S. allies — Japan and South Korea — and both are using a dual strategy, developing both the sub-6 and mmWave ranges.
U.S. policy makers and suppliers hope mmWave will eventually become the global standard, but as the Defense Innovation Board report makes clear, it’s not a strategy to hang your hat on. MmWave transmissions are more powerful but shorter and blocked by solid barriers — walls, trees, even people. Providing comprehensive service will require what the report labels a “massive infrastructure build-out” ($$$). If and when that is successful, mmWave service may not be viable for rural areas, where reliable connectivity is a literally a lifeline.
Consider that despite diplomatic tensions with China, Canada recently signed a contract with Huawei to deliver 4G LTE to rural communities in the Arctic, remote areas of north-eastern Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador and according to Huawei, some 25 communities in the largely Inuit areas of the Nunavut territory.
Own the IP; own the industry
No American company makes the base station equipment to transmit 5G signals. The United States owned the majority of 4G-related standards-essential patents. But today over one-third, (34%) of worldwide standards-essential patents for 5G technology are owned by Chinese companies, 15% by Huawei alone, according to Asia Nikkei News. South Korea is second, with over 25% of standard-essential patents.
That will make building the network infrastructure for autonomous cars or next generation factories more expensive for U.S. companies. But owning the intellectual property will reduce costs and accelerate China’s building the infrastructure of the future.
Huawei has signed 50 contracts to provide next-generation 5G networks to 30 countries including Italy and the United Kingdom.
We damn the consequences at our peril
Were the United States to decide to compete with the rest of the world, the Board’s report provides a timeline. Sharing the sub-6 spectrum will take five years, and the Board considers a sharing spectrum a viable alternative. Clearing the spectrum would take 10 years. This would get us to the starting gate — if the federal government were to open up the sub-6 range. And that’s a big “if” in this political environment.
“Damn the consequences!”
General George Patton
The consequences of isolation are immeasurable. Beyond the obvious — American competitiveness, jobs, standard of life, education, opportunity — connectivity is the root capability for solving every over-arching problem we face — climate change, income inequality, immigration, human rights.
I just finished reading Hyeonseo Lee‘s remarkable story of escaping from North Korea with her family. She’s paid a broker to get her mother and brother to South Korea when they are imprisoned in Laos. Here, she’s waiting to enter Laos to rescue them:
“About 20 people were waiting in line to have their passwords stamped. A few were backpacking white Westerners in high spirits. I looked at them with envy. They were inhabitants of that other universe, governed by laws, human rights and welcoming tourist boards. It was oblivious to the one I inhabited, of secret police, assumed IDs and low-life brokers.”
Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names
Laws, human rights and a high standard of living are part of a vulnerable legal and moral infrastructure. Protecting its integrity and viability requires an actionable connectivity policy and a cogent strategy. The Defense Innovation Board report is a warning salvo. We must make sure that it is heard.
Austin, Texas, the site of the June 2019 CULCON Symposium on U.S.-Japan Collaboration was also the site of SEMATECH, a public-private partnership that modeled how to manage an international competitive crisis.
Three things are clear about the future: technology will determine competitiveness; talent comes in all colors, nationalities and genders; and the problems are too big, too complex to solve in isolation.
The annual CULCON Symposium on U.S.-Japan Collaboration was held in Austin last week, the site where 30 years ago a rallying cry of “make America great again,” created SEMATECH, now a model of how government, industry and academic institutions can work together to manage competitive crises.
Today Japan, nestled precariously between North Korea and China, is doing something similar, boosting its competitiveness in science and technology by expanding university-industry partnerships and building a more inclusive work force.
Who owns the future? The electromagnetic spectrumand 5G
Bursts of “make Japan great again” thinking punctuated the session. In what was apparently a last minute change to his presentation, cybersecurity expert Dr. Motohiro Tsuchiya, pointed out that the United States owns Japan’s electromagnetic spectrum, the highway for next-generation 5G mobile technology, the internet of things (IoT), as well as x-rays, gamma rays and radio waves.
Thirty years ago, who would have thought something called the “electromagnetic spectrum” would become so essential to a single country’s competitiveness? But 5G technology has vast implications for not just cellphone upgrades, but but for medicine, business and national security. Case in point: Russia recently signed an agreement to allow Huawei, a lightening rod in the U.S.-China trade war, to develop the country’s next-generation wireless network, but since the Russian military owns their electromagnetic spectrum, there could be blips in its implementation.
This world and then the next
Dr. Takashi Tanaka, an expert in machine learning at the University of Texas and like the other panelists a product of international collaboration, pointed out that rocket technology can also be applied to missiles, a critical capability for an island nation with testy neighbors.
Proprietary rights in space? Dr. Moriba Jah, an expert on Space Domain Awareness, brought up the ever-controversial Elon Musk’s launch of 60 Starlink satellites into the crowded night sky, the first of a proposed fleet of 12,000 designated to provide global internet coverage.
Funding and talent
Innovation is all about funding and talent, which implies a partnership between the public and private sectors. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provided the seed money for SEMATECH. The National Science Foundation funds emerging sectors like artificial intelligence where American leadership is increasingly challenged. Japan, a global leader in robotics, is stepping up its investment in other sectors as well.
“Last year (2018), the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, the government’s science advisory body, announced a 7% rise in spending on science and technology (to 3.84 trillion yen), after years of stagnant funding. The government is considering another 100 billion yen for the upcoming fiscal year to pay for exploratory research aimed at achieving what The Mainichi newspaper calls “moonshot” results. The government is on track to hit a goal of spending 1% of GDP on science and technology in higher education by 2020.”
David Swinbanks, Nature, Nature 567, S9-S11 (2019)
Talent is increasingly collaborative. The CULCON panelists referenced cultural barriers in Japanese universities that inhibit the collaboration, from silo-ed departments to paying research assistants. But then again, perhaps the group’s of Austin as a meeting site was significant. The city is a case history in how a single successful experiment in public-private collaboration, SEMATECH, spawned a vital tech hub that continues to attract jobs and talent.
Stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm
I shared Churchill’s quote with my seatmate, Mr. Naoyuki Agawa, who asked a bedrock question of Austin’s assistant city manager, Ray Arellano: What do you say to people who have failed? Mr. Agawa teaches American constitutional law at Doshisha University in Kyoto, following a long career practicing law in New York and Washington and a stint as Japan’s Minister for Public Affairs.
His point was well taken. Without role models, without examples, without encouragement and social and financial support, failure is a hopeless quagmire.
I said I could do it, and I did it
Eureka! Beamed into the panel discussion on space technology was a Texas success story. Mykaela Dunn, a native of tiny Stafford, Texas and a recent aerospace engineering graduate from the University of Texas, has just started her internship in the California-based Stealth Space Company, courtesy of a Brooke Owens fellowship. Dunn encouraged the audience to consider more than grade point averages (GPAs) in evaluating talent, mentioning that she had to remind herself to do the same.
When is fear a valid reason for protectionism? At what point does openness become bad business and a national security concern? David Firestein, the executive director of the China Public Policy Center, stopped by the “World Spins” to remind us that relationships make the world go round, and punitive tariffs don’t win trade wars.
David Firestein dropped by last week’s “World Spins” session to reassure us that at about $1 trillion, give or take a few million, the U.S.-China trade relationship is too big to fail. But he had some thoughts on where we’re taking it.
Firestein‘s credentials in U.S.-China relations are wide and deep — the State Department, EastWest Institute, and now, president and CEO of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations — in addition to his role in academia launching the LBJ School of Public Affairs’ China Public Policy Center.
Perceptions of growing authoritarianism
“China’s rising authoritarianism colors U.S. views in a profound way.”
The Uighur minority and the telecom giant Huawei are the poster children of American perceptions of China, prompting national security concerns that have underpinned both the administration’s trade narrative and domestic regulatory actions. On the heels of watching China use facial recognition software to persecute the Uighur and other Muslim minorities, San Francisco banned the technology. Last week those same concerns spread to Washington, bubbling up at the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Blacklisted by the administration, Huawei typifies China’s state-supported hybrid economy. The telecom giant sits on a deepening Maginot Line between the Internet of the East and that of the West, drawing a line between American interests and increasingly, everyone else’s.
“In public and private statements, American intelligence officials and telecommunications executives and experts have begun to concede that the United Sates will be operating in a world where Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies most likely control 40 percent to 60 percent of the networks over which business, diplomats, spies and citizens do business.”
There’s a silver lining for Big Tech. Nothing unites like a common enemy, and China has provided Qualcomm, Facebook, Google et. al. with a new “America First” narrative to relieve regulatory threats.
The missing quid pro quo
“China is vastly more closed to us than we are to them,” Firestein said. “When someone from China gets off a plane in San Francisco, they have immediate access to their email through WhatsApp. But an American landing in Beijing can’t access their Gmail.”
For an administration determined to deliver on its “America First” campaign promises, protecting America from China is a top priority. Vice President Mike Pence’s watermark speech at the Hudson Institute frames the U.S. response to Chinese “economic aggression.”
With China, all silk roads lead to intellectual property. In the absence of any Chinese quid pro quo to American openness, in 2018 the administration has expanded its powers to protect domestic technology from foreign investment. The Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) began to block mergers and acquisitions considered a threat to national security. The Export Control Reform Act (ECRA) and the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA) are charged with protecting tech sectors that map with its “Made in China 2025” strategy — advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, semiconductors and telecommunications.
Applying worst-of-breed practices
Unintended consequences abound. The ban on Huawei network technology hits rural areas the hardest because the small network providers have to swap out cheaper Huawei equipment for more expensive offerings. And faced with its American supply chain being cut off, China will accelerate its build-your-own strategy, a trend that is already impacting U.S. tech companies’ stock prices.
Which brings us to where Firestein breaks rank. A trade strategy based almost exclusively on punitive tariffs has penalized American producers by eliminating lucrative markets, disrupted supply chains and cost consumers at check out.
“The United States is adopting “worst of breed” practices that are destructive to the economy … Our trade deficit with China is the largest good and services deficit dating back to 1776.”
Nowhere is the cost of the trade war more obvious than in the agricultural sector. Last week at a “hats on” event, President Trump announced a $16 billion farm aid package in a robbing Peter to pay Paul strategy to offset farmers’ losses with taxpayers’ dollars.
In fact, tariffs can make industries less competitive.
It breeds a kind of laziness here,” said Simon Lester, director of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. Tariffs are taxes on outside goods, so they inherently protect some U.S. businesses from foreign competition. “You don’t have to compete with the best in the world you can just relax you don’t have to work that hard and face any competition,” he says.
Despite the national security narrative, the relationship between China and the United States is not about military might. Certainly, the U.S. technology industry is rooted in federal defense funding, and the Department of Defense continues to fund innovation. But this is a 21st century struggle not a 20th century one. China’s goals are economic.
“Military interests are a function of power. China is building its military to define its power … But let me assure you, China has no interest in becoming the world’s policeman.”
Relationships make the world go round
The conversation closed with a reminder that relationships grease the wheels that make the world go round. Firestein brought up a flash point from his first few weeks in Austin when two U.S. Congressmen, a U.S. Senator, numerous professors and the University of Texas student newspaper protested an offer from the Confucius Institute to make a donation to the CPPC. Firestein noted, however, that the United States has similar practices, and that in the end:
“Relationship matters. We have to get it in sync.”
What does the future look like?
A year ago, Firestein cautioned that competing with China was like a no-holds barred cage fight in wrestling. China knows what it wants its future to look like. State control provides a longterm planning horizon. It has a clearly written industrial strategy, state funding and a non-interference strategy with its people. The United States operates from tweet to tweet. As for a strategy?
In the end, we’re going to have to step up and compete. China is not our enemy but it is our fiercest competitor.
David Firestein, in a May 2018 talk at the “World Spins”
In the not too distant future artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, advanced manufacturing, semiconductors, telecommunications will shape not just American competitiveness but what our world will become. Even the current administration, loathe to cooperate on much of anything, went so far as to endorse a set of international AI guidelines sketched out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. To echo a comment made by Senator Richard Burr at the University of Texas’ Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum:
If we don’t create a framework for this technology, who will?
Senator Richard Burr, chairman, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Nov. 2018
Titanic trade clashes, Chimerica, Huawei,’s blacklisting, theft of intellectual property — oh my! As the trade war with China intensifies, Tyler Johnson’s “The Way of the “Laowai” reminds us that international business is an art; opportunity, a matter of perspective.
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.
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.
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)
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 …
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.”
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
The Fifth Annual Texas National Security Forum called for closer cooperation between government and the technology community. Is a public-private partnership in our future?
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.
“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:
“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.
Collaborationis 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
For more information, 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.