Category Archives: research and development

The Outing of Climate Change: How About a Policy?

This week saw the follow-on meeting to the Paris Climate Accord. The news is not good; or, as the Washington Post put it, “We are in trouble.” But at least the facts are clear. Yesterday,  the Global Carbon Project reported that carbon emission levels are not only growing (this year, 1.6 percent), they’re expected to jump another 2.7 percent, to 37.1 billion tons in 2019. The usual suspects: China in first place, the United States, Russia, and the EU. India was called out for rapidly-growing coal use. This news came on the heels of a Congressionally-mandated report the White House slipped out late on Black Friday warning of both severe environmental and economic damage if we continue on our present course.

Washington Post_emissions

Carbon emissions, the chief culprit in climate change, have hit a record high, and are climbing. It’s fair to say as this chart climbs, the quality of our (increasingly close) future goes down.

It’s time to build a shared vision of our future 

Which brings me to a conversation  among three brilliant scientists. The session, held during the Texas Tribune’s TribFest last Fall, explored our resistance to managing global warming and was sponsored by BP, an early champion of carbon reduction. The panel included:

  • Jason Bordoff, formerly the senior director for energy and  climate change at the NSA (yes, climate change impacts national security in a big way), now at Columbia
  • Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech.
  • Michael Webber, the Webber Energy Group, soon to be scientific and technical director at the French energy powerhouse ENGIE, on leave from the University of Texas at Austin

A policy that embraces both energy and climate

The consensus among the three: We need a policy that embraces both climate and energy, a shared vision of the future in terms of food, jobs, opportunities. Not an easy conversation, but as Hayhoe pointed out, it can start with a simple question: What do you care about? What do we share  — our children’s quality of life, being able to walk outside and breath, having water to drink, hunting and fishing, whatever it is that matters to each of us.

“The only reason we care about climate is because it affects things we already care about. It’s not an environmental issue; it’s a human issue. This is why I care about a changing climate, because it exacerbates our greatest humanitarian challenges: poverty, hunger, inequality, and more.”  @KHayhoe

“This doesn’t matter” isn’t getting us anywhere

Hard? Scary? Not applicable? It doesn’t matter, as Hayhoe pointed out,  the “this doesn’t matter to me” approach isn’t getting us anywhere in the face of mounting evidence .

Texas is Number One among the most vulnerable 

Regardless of whom you ask, Texas is among the fastest-growing states in the country. Webber noted that Texans love being number one, and the state also stars as number one in terms of climate vulnerability. Thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent rollback of restrictive guidelines, drilling is booming along the Gulf Coast, home to both the nation’s most productive oil fields and one of  most environmentally vulnerable regions in the country. Houston, at the epicenter of drilling activity is still recovering from the most expensive ($125 billion and counting) hurricanes in history.

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Hurricane Harvey cost us $125 billion and counting — but it also convinced the city to develop a climate action plan. Photo courtesy of the Texas Tribune.

The state, which Webber described as the home of epic droughts punctuated by Biblical floods, is bound to become even more vulnerable as the rate of climate change rockets along at 50 percent faster than the rate of historical measurements. The jury is out on whether any action will come out of the upcoming legislative session, though Beto O’Rourke’s willingness to spar with (and almost beat) Texas’ junior senator was a hopeful note. Another bright spot: Houston has a climate action plan. But as above at the international level, so below here in Texas:  Are we too late?

Leadership matters

Final note: I attended the session thanks to an invitation from Paula Barnett-Bulcao, BP’s senior director of government relations and public affairs. I’ve admired BP for years for their vision and willingness to wear a white hat in an industry known for climate degradation. Barnett, who’s been with BP for 16 years, told me that when she was starting out in the industry, BP was the company she knew she wanted to work for.  Unfortunately, as is the way with white hats, BP fell off their horse in a big way with the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.  So it was very, very good to see the company out in front again. Leadership matters – everywhere and on all levels.

 

China and Innovation: While We’re Tweeting, the Future Happens

David Firestein, the executive director of the University of Texas’ new China Public Policy Center headlined a recent session of our speaker series, The World Spins, with some advice about competing with China.

“In the end, we’re going to have to step up and compete.  China is not our enemy. But it is our most formidable national competitor.”

Firestein, an Austin native who spent 20 years in China with the State Department and another 10 as a senior vice president at the East-West Institute, has no illusions about what’s at stake.

“It’s like a cage match in wrestling,” he explained, where one wrestler, the United States,

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

David FIrestein, executive director of the China Public Policy Center: “In the end, we’re going to have to step up and compete.”

follows the rules, and the other, China, uses any- and everything to win. And winning means becoming the first country in history to be a brutally market-oriented authoritarian dictatorship.

In a cage match, tweets and tariffs are a poor match against a singularly focused industrial policy and a bill of rights that says:  Citizen, you stay out of politics, and we, the government, will make you rich.

One battleground:  artificial intelligence and big data

If you’re not reading Jeff Ding’s ChinaAI Newsletter, you should be. Ding, who is a graduate student at Cambridge, shares translations of Chinese policy, strategy and technology. His most recent is a report from boutique private investment firm Rising Investments on China’s Civil-Military Fusion.  The report notes that although applications based on artificial intelligence (big data, internet) need time to developed.

  • AI military applications still need a lot of time: products for the military industry require “high reliability,” so emerging technology like AI will be used as reserves and not be applied until they are mature, and the related technologies for AI (big data, internet) also have a number of security issues.
  • Intelligent weaponry and intelligent robots will have a major impact on the strategy and the tactics of future wars.

China also plans to use the same public-private partnerships that built the American technology sector to achieve its goals.

  • China did not permit non-government capital to enter into national defense industries until 2005. They are still looking for the emergence of a 50-100bn military industry private corporation on the scale of say Lockheed Martin.
  • The goal is to have over 80% of defense industry information construction technology come from private enterprise. China hopes to reach the first wave of peak civil-military fusion in 3-5 years.

Will political turmoil stifle American innovation?

Without the Dept. of Defense we wouldn’t have the Internet or email, much less venture capital and private equity.  Read Andrew Ross Sorkin’s excellent article about the push back against defense contracts among the employees of Silicon Valley technology giants. Sorkin quotes Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School and a member of the Defense Innovation Board, an independent federal advisory committee set up under President Barack Obama, said he believed that the partisanship that was contributing to the debate would ultimately stifle innovation.

“I worry that it will stall progress,” said Grant. “Innovation has been fueled for decades by private-public partnerships. It smacks of cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Meanwhile, Firestein reminded us, China is in that cage match, its eye on the long-term, even as American strategy changes with an election cycle, from tweet to tweet. It’s hard to win a cage match when it’s unclear what winning looks like.

“I think we’re at the beginning of a major transformation and a technology revolution that is, by an order of magnitude, more disruptive than the internet revolution 20 years ago,” Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council recently told American Public Media’s Marketplace Report.

“If we don’t get wise to these trends that are reshaping our economy and are going to affect the way we work, live and everything else, the future is going to take us by surprise.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Policy Weirding: Climate Change and National Security

Will the military drive our national climate change agenda?  Dr. Joshua Busby dropped by a session of the World Spins for an update. Just last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that new regulations on toxic chemicals and soot are to be based on data and science generally available to the public (otherwise known as “pop science”). In the past six months, the EPA deleted climate change from its strategic initiatives. President Trump announced the United States’ intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, making it the only nation on earth unwilling to voluntarily reduce its carbon emissions, identified as the major contributor to global warming.

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A military weather-tracking station. Photo courtesy of the United Nations Climate Change report.

Whiplash contradiction over how to address changing weather patterns 

Over roughly the same time period, the National Defense Authorization Act identified climate change as a national security issue. The Center for Climate Change and Security published a chronology of over 12 separate concerns raised by senior Dept. of Defense officials, including:

I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation. I will ensure that the department continues to be prepared to conduct operations today and in the future, and that we are prepared to address the effects of a changing climate on our threat assessments, resources, and readiness.”

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis

An associate professor at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Policy and an internationally-recognized expert on climate change policy and national security, Busby remains unperturbed in the face of whiplash contradiction. A veteran of climate research and negotiation, he recommended substituting “climate weirding” for “climate change” to cultivate civil discussion — not so easy in a world where the weather is mentioned in the same breath as terrorism.

 “It’s (climate change) a super-wicked problem, characterized by greed, lots of actors and short-term actions.”

Dr. Joshua Busby

The military perspective: assess and plan for risk   

From a military perspective, the risks posed by climate change are unequivocal. They can be assigned a dollar figure. The 2017 hurricane season was the costliest in U.S. history. Damages topped $200 billion, not including cost of calling out the National Guard for the three most expensive hurricanes in recent history — Harvey, Irma and Maria.  Tasked with managing installations from Newport News to Africa and Antarctica, it must contend with rising sea levels, temperature and humidity; agricultural production; and  massive migration.

“In the Arctic, the combination of melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, and sea-level rise is eroding shorelines, which is damaging radar and communication installations, runways, seawalls, and training areas. In the Marshall Islands, an Air Force radar installation built on an atoll at a cost of $1,000,000,000 is projected to be underwater within two decades.”

The National Defense Authorization Act

Busby and his team are helping the military pinpoint trouble spots before they occur. Using a composite mapping tool, they identify the countries most vulnerable to a combination of weather, famine, poverty and weak government — India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Bangladesh. In this way, military can more effectively plan and direct help where it will be needed, as well as measure results over time.

Meanwhile in private sector, opportunity

While the military sees threats, the private sector sees opportunity. Rich Sorkin, CEO of Jupiter, a risk assessment firm recently profiled by NPR, raised $10 million and hired top scientists from the federal government in a bid to help businesses and property owners prepare for a changing climate.

“Hugely important, globally significant, gigantic economic problem, not currently being addressed.”

                                                    Rich Sorkin, CEO, Jupiter

And of course, defense contractor Raytheon forecasts a boon in weapon sales:   “Domestically, the effects of climate change could overwhelm disaster-response capabilities. Internationally, climate change may cause humanitarian disasters, contribute to political violence, and undermine weak governments.”

Want to learn more?

The Center for Climate and Security

Publications

Slides from the presentation

NOTE:  If you haven’t followed NPR and Frontline’s coverage of the economic devastation wrought be Hurricane Maria and the inadequacy of the federal response, I recommend reading/watching it here.  Maria, of course, was the third major hurricane that required federal aid in the fall of 2017.

 

 

 

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.

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).