Category Archives: research and development

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.

https_blogs-images.forbes.comjamiemoyfiles201802block-chain-2852998_1920-1200x534 (1)

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 do the right thing — 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.

Skills are Our Best Renewable Strategy

I recently went to the IBM Amplify conference, which was built around IBM’s cognitive offering, Watson. It was, of course, all about knowledge and skills. Although technology majored, human skills were also a theme, and I raced around trying to keep up.

Girls who code and more

IBM Chairman Ginni Rometty closed her keynote by recognizing three young women from California who excelled in IBM P-Tech six-year high school schools, offering those lucky students jobs as IBM interns.  Skills were visible through partners:  CoffeeBean and its Soical-ID, BlueSky CloudCommerce, Bridge Solutions, Lightwell fulfillment. Rocket Fuel, and SapientRazorfish — all driving, extending, the cognitive technology into their respective sectors.

IBM has deep experience in getting the right skill sets from its people, and Marc Benioff of Salesforce was there to represent a new generation of companies that underscore the value-add of ongoing training and education.

Business and jobs policy 

Benioff — an innovation evangelist — referenced a meeting he and Rometty (among others) recently attended with President Trump:

“I want to thank all the business leaders that have joined us to discuss a subject that’s very important to me: Training our workforce for the 21st century, especially in respect to manufacturing jobs,” CNN quotes Trump as having said during that meeting. “Here in the United States, companies have created revolutionary high tech and online courses.”

More to come in this area, no doubt.

H-1B visa applications out tomorrow

H-1B visa applications are due out tomorrow. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced quotas will remain the same despite proposed changes, and some 85,000 applications will be available to tech companies. In the past, the visas have primarily been gone to professionals from India for IT jobs, and although data shows there has been a small impact on tech sectors wages, overall the program has demonstrated it enhances innovation, lowers consumer prices and boosts company profits.

It’s good to know there’s a larger discussion on jobs and skills.  But in the end, each of us is responsible for keeping our own skills up-to-snuff, and making sure elected officials and our professional communities help in any and all ways they can.  Skills are the best renewable strategy we have.  None of us should be sitting on our hands (or laurels).

Coding is Only the Tip of the Iceberg, Ivanka

News that Ivanka Trump plans take coding classes with her five-year old daughter reminded me how important it is for public figures to use role-model power carefully, strategically.  Witness Michelle Obama’s use of fashion as a channel for her message.

I get that women are under-represented in technical fields. I also get that many young women are unprepared to make enough money to buy a car, home, support kids and their own old age. But not everyone is a coder, and the odds are that almost any skill acquired today will be outdated tomorrow.

Jobs are more than coding, and there are more jobs than coding

I’m not minimizing programming skills; they cultivate patience and problem solving ability.  But, coding is not the silver bullet of gender equality. Girls need more than C++.  They need to be able to read and write and think. Companies have layoffs and starts ups fail.  Jobs disappear. Spouses die and family members need care. We age.  Technology is a big part of the way we live, but what about education, health care, finance, dog training?

Case in point:  a young friend, Mary Hill, was in town to celebrate winning a $100,000 in angel funding.  Mary is developing an at-home test for sexually-transmitted diseases, a global market that’s projected to reach $190,000 million by 2022. Mary, I should mention, was raised by a single mom who worked for a state agency.  She went to a public high school, an arts magnet no less,  and nurtured by a very creative family, was able to take it from there. She doesn’t know how to code, but she is definitely a problem solver.

Apprenticeships across industries?

So, here’s hoping Ivanka’s coding will help. Maybe her example will help her dad encourage some big-pocketed businesses — pharmaceutical companies, large banks,  retailers, real estate developers — to invest in some education and training to caulk some of the gaps in our educational system, much like technology companies are doing today with coding sponsorships.  It’s good business and smart investing.

 

 

Weighing the Trans-Pacific Partnership on a Larger Scale

Two statistics alone — that 96 percent of the world’s consumers and 80 percent of the world’s purchasing power are outside the United States — should insure our attention is riveted on the first of President Obama’s signature trade deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as it bobs before an un-receptive Congress in a lame-duck year.

 

charlesrivkin

Ambassador Charles Rivkin, the State Department’s assistant secretary of Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs

This week TPP evangelist Charles Rivkin was in town to talk about the state of the deal and its benefit to the small businesses and tech startups that make up 95% of Austin’s economy. Ambassador Rivkin is no empty suit. His blue-chip credentials in technology, entertainment and business include negotiating the $1B sale of the Jim Henson company. A self-effacing speaker, he cited a nickname, “Don Quixote,” for promoting causes he believes in (like President Obama).

 

Trade is a complex topic that quickly becomes emotional. But Ambassador Rivkin did something interesting:  he inched the discussion out of the “what” category (jobs) and into another, more properly labeled “how.” Framing TPP as a once-in-a blue-moon opportunity to “raise the standards of international trade” — climate change, endangered species, human rights — while also touting the benefits to specific sectors of the economy. In technology, for example, TPP is the first trade deal to address intellectual property.

Windmill alert:  Watchdog groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Citizen oppose the deal, which doesn’t go far enough for their respective publics. EFF in particular is worried the deal will hamper investigative journalism and openness while endangering privacy. Nobel Laureate and Columbia business professor Joseph Stiglitz, an advisor to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, is also against it, pointing out that financial industry, as always it seems, gets off lightly, as do pharmaceuticals and big business in general.

But other voices support Ambassador Rivkin’s argument. The New York Times’ Nathaniel Popper’s nonlinear look at trade deals cites  TPP supporter David Autor (“China Shock”):

global-trade_paul-windle

Courtesy of Paul Windle, the New York Timescites TPP supporter David Autor (“China Shock”): TPP:

 

“The gains to the people who benefited are so enormous — they were destitute,m and now they were brought into the global middle class…The fact that there are adverse consequences in the United States should be taken seriously, but it doesn’t tilt the balance.”

In other words, trade can be seen as a tool to offset economic aid, or as Popper concludes, the benefits of trade have to be evaluated on both sides of the transaction.

Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman is a bit pithier: “Politicians should be honest and realistic about trade, rather than taking cheap shots. Striking poses is easy; figuring out what we can and should do is a lot harder.”

Any way you cut it, I’m glad we have a savvy Don Quixote at work on TPP.

 

 

 

 

Trying a New Approach to Collaboration, Large and Small

When I think of horrific meeting experiences, my mind rewinds to a hands-on seminar I led years ago for Apple. The objective was to introduce teachers to Apple’s desktop. It was a group presentation with auditorium-style seating and keyboards for participants to use in conjunction with the talk. About 10 minutes into my sch-peel, a tiny grandmotherly-looking woman stood up and said to the group: “We’re not idiots. Why do we have to listen to this person, let’s just do this!”  And away they went, clicking happily along in utter chaos. That was point my boss walked in. Needless to say it was an interesting debrief.

meeting

The 20th century approach to informing, educating and convincing a group of people. 

I thought about that woman this week during a Liberating Structures workshop led by Keith McCandless (who wrote the book) and Anna Jackson who spearheads an LS meetup group here in Austin. Is there a better way to inform, collaborate, teach and motivate a group of people?  I’m a newbie but I’d say the tools they introduced me to are the best I’ve seen so far. I can see how they could work in all kinds of organizations. The idea is to tweak the feng shui of group interactions – topic, space, pacing, participation – and deploy a set of tools that better focus and distribute the conversation among the people who matter.

liberated meeting

Are there more possibilities here? Bigger group, more leaders. See the 1-2-4-All tool.  

You can read more on the Liberating Structures website. It lists all the tools and gives you a menu of when/how to apply them.

Since I haven’t applied it yet, the results are theoretical. But hey, if it works for The World Bank and The Gates Foundation, I’m all in. I’m intrigued about seeing how the tools would work cross-culturally, in situations where some of the participants are remote (there’s a technology conversation) and when selling one’s ideas to executives.

More to come.  I only wish I, like Merlin, could live backwards: Just think how I could have helped and gained from that woman who was so frustrated and anxious to learn so long ago.  I hope she’s running a company somewhere.