Optionality Framework: A Brand Strategy Framework for a World in Flux.

Note: This article adapts NN Taleb’s idea about ‘optionality’ from his excellent book ‘ Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder‘; and uses research from Richard Bulliet’s book The Camel and the Wheel.

Camel or a car?

Can you imagine a day when everyone around you stops using automobiles and instead starts riding camel? It turns out there’s a precedence for such a shift.

If you were in the Middle East sometime between the 6th to 4th century BC you would have seen chariots in the army, seen long paved roads in major cities, seen traders using pack-animal carriages to haul goods.
The wheel moved the world around. Even then. Until it stopped.

If you were to time travel a few centuries ahead, anytime between the 3rd century AD to 18th century, you would have been surprised by the near-total disappearance of wheeled carriages from the region, in favour of camels.

Baffling isn’t it.

The fact that wheels, the epitome of ‘disruptive innovations’, fell out of favour in certain contexts, makes you wonder about the awesome forces that precipitated that shift.

Why did the wheel fall out of favour?

In comparison to camels, wheels were fragile (then) – prone to breaking down, couldn’t ford through shallow rivers, couldn’t traverse deserts, were slower (when attached to other pack animals.), were far less efficient (needed the deadweight of the wagon), needed special infrastructure of roads, and needed one person per carriage whereas a single person could shepherd up to six camels!

But camels existed in the 6th century BC too. Why then people preferred wheels before but not after? Clearly, efficiency was necessary but not a sufficient condition to instigate change.

The transformative agent was surprising – the invention of the North Arabian saddle.

This saddle turned the cargo-carrying ship of the desert, the camel, into a battleship. The more secure saddle allowed the camel rider to use swords and pikes and positioned the rider much higher up, which gave a great advantage in battle.

This ‘optionality’ of camel, its ability to turn into a dependable technology for the battleground, changed the balance of power.* Let me take a moment here to elaborate on the concept of optionality. Optionality is the freedom to readily take advantage of an emerging situation, afforded by the fact that you have multiple options. As against having no choice and being left to get squeezed by fate’s pincers. Functionally, a saddle is just a seat. But by being more secure, created the possibility for the rider to do something else besides sitting on it. That option was not available to them earlier.

A useful metaphor is that of platform and APIs. Here the camel is a platform, and the saddle is an application that fulfils the certain requirement. In this context, the ability of the platform to host APIs is critical. If a platform can’t host APIs, the platform is useless. Camel won because it could host the saddle.

Camel nomads gained control of caravan routes. This, in turn, allowed for more social and economic integration of camel nomads with the settled societies and so, camels proliferated.

What can we learn from this story?

  1. Robust wins against fragile.
    Camel was more robust compared to the wheel.
  2. Optionality that improves the ability to compete matters more.
    Consider wheel as a ‘platform’ – the base technology over which, you can build added functionality. Compared to the camel, the wheel is more versatile. One could create carriages with varying specifications, attach a varying number of animals and so on. In comparison, camel as a platform is potentially less versatile.
    A wheel then had more ‘optionality’. Yet, the camel’s ‘API’ of saddle won out because it enhanced the rider’s ability to swiftly attack or defend, more capably. Thus, optionality that improves performance matters more than optionality that improves versatility alone.
  3. Inversely, lack of optionality that improves ability to compete, is fatal.
    Optionality is the freedom of having choices when confronted with novel situations. Inversely, lack of it is servitude to fate, being caught completely unaware and unprepared to emergent situations.  
  4. Advantage is relative and temporary.
    Camel is not better than a Humvee or a drone. No advantage is absolute. As technology changes, so does the nature of competition and source of advantage. 
  5. A change that gives an asymmetric advantage, dominates.
    Camel with the saddle was markedly better than the wheel in battle. But it ended up replacing the wheel everywhere else too (except for pottery wheels). This is because of the phenomenon of a ‘positive feedback loop’.  As more people realised the advantage of a camel over a wheel, more adopted it. As such the adoption is not linear but accelerates with the expanding reach of the idea.
  6. The new default.
    Asymmetric scaling leads to new ‘default’ as other options recede to obsolescence.
  7. Change comes from the edges.
    Change comes from those who have less to lose, more to gain.
    In the fight for supremacy between Camel nomads and city traders, camel nomads had more to gain, less to lose. Vice versa for the traders trying to protect their goods in caravan.
  8. Power matters.
    The quest to gain power animates all changes.
  9. Distinctive awareness about what changes, what doesn’t is helpful.
    To win, one must be able to distinguish an advantageous choice from a disadvantageous one. That discernibility requires the understanding of the dynamics of economic and social power and a keen sense of its shift.
    In this case, the need for transportation did not change. However, trade dynamics were changing with the Arab conquest in the region.
    The rise in overland trade between southern and northern Arabia during the time was a major factor that increased the importance of camels.
    Wheel’s technological transformation was a millennium away, into the future. The saddle technology was transforming the present-day dynamics of then.
  10. Efficiency is necessary but not sufficient to precipitate shift.

Why is this story relevant now?

Humans think linearly. Reality is anything but. This story illustrates this. Did we ever imagine a millennia-long gap between wheel use in human history? It warns us to not take visions of progress/ growth for granted.
Secondly, this story is about change. It illustrates the principles of systemic change, ably. This is relevant now because we are now living in an age where change is only accelerating. Civilisational changes that happened over millennia, happen now in years.

Implicit in our strategic thinking is an assumption of stability, of linear change. That is why strategy often feels ‘theoretical’, a euphemism for being not useful or not true.

For a world in constant flux, we need a strategy that appreciates the dynamics of change.

Brand strategy framework made for a world in flux.

The surest way to fail in a rapidly changing world is to depend on strategies that assume stability & linear change. Brands that focus on efficiency and not on optionality, are bound to get blindsided with change and suffer ruin.

To survive, one must ensure of never getting cornered. To thrive, one must be able to identify and then seize an advantageous opportunity to its full potential. This simple principle is at the core of the optionality framework.

This perspective helps us separate noise from the signal. It enables us to see the big picture while being firmly grounded in the realities of here and now. It forces us to focus on activities that really matter – the ones that help gain asymmetric advantage and avoid ruin. The brand strategy framework informed with this perspective is firmly rooted in business realities and yet supercharges the brand with imagination and empathy.

Here are six questions that can guide brands towards growth, relevance, and resilience.

1. What is our ‘platform’? What APIs can we house on this platform?

2. What is changing? What is unchanging?  
Is the change transitory or systemic?

3. What optionality does our competitor have that can threaten our existence? Watch the edges for threats/ opportunities.

4. Which options can give us an asymmetric advantage?

5. How are power dynamics shifting in our category? How can we benefit from it?

6. How can we become the default options in the lives of our consumers?

Let’s explore each of these questions briefly to understand how to use this framework.

  1. Define our platform and APIs.
    a. Platform
    :
    For the purpose of this framework, I define platform as the core of the business – the organisational capabilities, properties, assets, offerings, its relationships – that define the scope of its present and potential future activities. For a firm’s existence to make sense, the whole must be bigger than its parts. It’s ability to host APIs is a measure of this ability. If it can enable new capabilities with emerging situations, it’s a platform worth building. For instance, for Maruti Suzuki, its factories, its dealerships, its online presence, its workforce, its history, its brand – all add up to a whole which enables mobility for millions, employs thousands and plays a pivotal role in nation-building.
    b. APIs:
    In this context, APIs are the synergistic added functionalities that the firm can deliver, given its core platform. An excellent example of this is Maruti Suzuki’s adaptation of their factories into ventilator production units during the Covid emergency.
    APIs are products of the optionality that the platform enables. Maruti Suzuki’s peculiar platform, which included its infrastructure and its culture, drove it to turn its factories into ventilator production units.
  2. Be aware of the changing and the unchanging.
    The unchanging: The need for mobility, the prestige associated with ownership.
    The changing: Rising concerns about pollution and overcrowding, increasing dependence and shortage of semiconductors, IoT & app-based gig economy, rise of subscription-based economies, Open-sourced Tesla’s patents, and so on.
    Climate change is systemic, hence the need for zero-emission mobility. App-based taxi services as threat to ownership of cars, might not be as big a risk, with profitability remaining elusive to aggregator apps even after a decade.
     
  3. Prepare against optionality that threatens our existence.
    Perhaps Tesla and other e-vehicle brands’ entry in India and the government’s regulatory push for electric vehicles poses an existential threat to Maruti Suzuki.
    Another source of danger is improving public transport infrastructure.
    To counter this threat, it should explore options to produce e-vehicles which are as good if not better than the best available today in the world. Secondly, it may also explore the choice of producing mass transit vehicles.
  4. Define and leverage options that give us an asymmetric advantage.
    This is the key question. Having a solid thesis here can unlock a strategic shift in a brand’s fortunes.
    Here’s my attempt at it. Maruti Suzuki enjoys a strong brand perception as being an Indian family’s trusted car. For the brand, Indianness and familial bonds are quite important. So, here’s an idea.
    We know that most families are now nucleated – separated by distance but united by traditions and bonds. Families share things & experiences.
    What if we create a family-centric car subscription service that all family members can use through a single subscription. Wherever the family members might be, Maruti Suzuki can personalise their mobility, ensure safety and connectedness and economize travel. A proposition like this can be immensely valuable and unlock new revenue streams for the company.
  5. Align with power dynamics.
    In the realm of brands, real power is in building coalition with customers, partners, and employees. Maruti Suzuki needs allies among the eco-conscious & value-conscious consumer base. It needs to strategically build passionate communities that would champion the brand’s cause.
  6. Become the default.
    In a world flooded with attention-leaching distractions, being the default choice for a sizeable chunk of the consumer set is essential for a brand to survive. In this case, as Maruti Suzuki enters the e-vehicle space, it has the advantage of being a market leader with the widest network in the country. It can use this to supply superior services/ provide proprietary charging tech etc., to lock in consumers. (Though, it would be better for the world for it to adopt open standards.)
    What brand APIs, experiences, propositions can help build a strong relationship and ensure that the consumer consistently chooses the brand? What possibility are we uniquely unlocking for our consumers? For Maruti Suzuki, it could mean campaigns and features about family safety, or it could mean subscription services or integrated online journeys.

This framework allows us to imagine and ideate for a wide enough range of activities while focusing on the big picture. Used intelligently, it helps align corporate, brand, and communications strategy seamlessly. It is simple and concise enough to be understood by a wide-ranging set of stakeholders. Yet, it is robust and aware of the actual complexities of business, so the exercise doesn’t devolve into an esoteric ritual that doesn’t inform actual actions.          

I hope it helps you unlock disruptive growth for your brand. Feel free to critique and suggest improvements to it. I will keep improving on the idea.

TL; DR

Concepts to know:

1. Optionality – Optionality is the freedom to readily take advantage of an emerging situation, afforded by the fact that you have multiple options. As against having no choice and being left to get squeezed by fate’s pincers.

2. Feedback loop – In most natural systems, the output of the system affects the functioning of the system itself. There are two kinds of feedback loops – reinforcing and balancing. Reinforcing loops amplify and fuel change. (e.g., viral content online) Balancing loops, in contrast, keep equilibrium. (e.g., temperature of tea reverts to room temperature.)

3. Platform – Core organisational capabilities, priorities, properties that define their purpose and activities.

4. APIs – APIs are the synergistic added functionalities that the firm’s platform enables.

Principles for a world in flux:

  1. Robust wins against fragile.
  2. Optionality that improves the ability to compete matters more.
  3. Inversely, lack of optionality to improve the ability to compete, is fatal.
  4. A change that gives an asymmetric advantage, dominates.
  5. Ergo, the existence of defaults. Be the default.
  6. Advantage is relative and temporary.
  7. Change comes from the edges.
  8. Power matters.
  9. Distinctive awareness about what changes, what doesn’t is necessary.
  10. Efficiency is necessary but not sufficient.

The framework:

  1. Define our platform & APIs.
  2. Be aware of the changing and the unchanging. Is the change transitory or systemic?
  3. Prepare against optionality that threatens our existence.
  4. Define and leverage options that give us an asymmetric advantage.
  5. Align with power dynamics.
  6. Become the default.

[1] Bulliet, R. W. (1990). The Camel and the Wheel. Columbia University Press.

* I owe this article to NN Taleb. His excellent book, ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder’, changed the way I see the world. It was only a matter of time before I applied his concepts to brand strategy. While I will explain the concept of optionality soon enough, I highly recommend reading his book to understand it better.

Five principles to rescue humanity from the Post-Covid spiral

The crisis is bringing out the worst in us: Curtailment of labour laws, labour being on the line of fire in every decision we take, corruption in n-95 masks, complete lack of foresight and compassion in decision making, rampant profiteering by brands… greed is so normalised now that business and political leaders don’t even have the slightest discomfort in throwing its weakest under the bus, if it means saving their top-lines from eroding a bit.

The realist in me says that we are fucked, we are heading towards dark ages – walls will close, inequality will rise, climate will create new refugees and in a decade we will have mass civil unrests across the world.

I don’t want that to happen. So I want to think of how we can rescue ourselves from this situation? I see this event has as an opportunity to do revolutionary pivots.

Here’s a few principles that i think would serve us well…

  1. Systemising Wealth Transfers
    The situation can get dire. we need to urgently institute wealth transfers. from cities to hinterlands, from top 0.1% to bottom 70%, from money market to actual economy.
    The elite has rigged the economy, the laws, the legislative in its favour. As long as that remains, we are doomed. Violent revolutions are quite likely. Alternatively the p2p economies which exclude the existing system players is also a revolutionary possibility. Both seem far-fetched. Consider the fact that a recent document by IRS officers CONSIDERING increasing wealth tax, just considering, were laid-off. That’s the power of elites.
    Well, we are doomed as long as elites continue to influence our systems.
    We must innovate to incentivise wealth transfer. Either through taxes, moral campaigns, decoupling from global economy etc.,
  2. New view of growth: Increasing Productivity, decreasing consumption
    Growth can come from productivity and consumption. it’s easier to stimulate consumption among the elite, harder to educate, train, build infrastructure for increasing productivity. India will continue to suffer unless we pivot to productivity gains to grow.
  3. New Eco-conscious Economies
    We are heading headlong into a future ravaged with climate change related uncertainties. India will be uninhabitable in another 50 years. We have to build economic exchanges, market places that helps us survive. Economy needn’t be always extractive.
  4. Breaks on globalisation
    Globalisation will slow down and even reverse. Global mechanisms of co-operation are breaking. Money flows but people can’t. Much discontent.
    New post-covid themes – self-sufficiency, no more bottomless cheap capital (a la amazon), decentralisation.
  5. Platform as commons
    Here I have written about this in more details.
    we need to build platforms that belong to people, that empower their exchanges, that are not driven with only profit motive.

Covid-19 is here to stay.

Imagining a Post-Covid World

As Covid-19 mutates, so must our lives.

The virus might be microscopic, but its impacts come in various shapes at various scales. It affects how we feel, how we work, how the global leaders form new alliances and even how the earth heaves a sigh of relief (or not).

So here’s looking at the world at the post-corona world through seven levels of consciousness.

1. Individual

a. The isolated soul

The economic currents take us away from our hometowns and the coronavirus has shut doors on the possibility of going back anytime soon.
Quarantined, worried and unsure – we are profoundly lonely as existential questions dance on our conscience without pause.
Distractions are our only succour.

b. Trust

In a hypermediated world, opinions after opinions lash at our consciousness like waves at a rocky beach – incessant and slowly eroding our sense of solidity.
Hydrochloroquine, 9 min 9 tamashas… power that be wants us sedated with confusion and meaningless gestures.
Who do we trust? What do we do?

c. Freedom

Every cough a threat, every touch an attack. Scared, worried our eyes have grown suspicious. Even after lockdown, how freely will you move?

How will we measure freedom in 2021?
With number of trackers on our phone tracing Covid’s spread?

d. Individualism

We have been living so far as if we can live disconnected invulnerably. ‘I rise alone. I chart my own path.’
But we die together. we suffer together.

It might be a ‘me-versus-the-world’ world.
But for us to survive it must become ‘we-are-in-this-together’ world.

e. Power

Covid-19 has stripped us of our hubris. We are now suspicious of our own breathing and touching. We are truly helpless. Our enemy is invisible, all around us. And for a while, we will have no weapon against it.

f. Death

Fear of death is a kinetic force; it moves us to do things in our lives. It forces us to live more consciously.
Better eating, exercising, reading up, talking to people for longer, entertaining philosophical curiosities, getting religious… Fear of death is a fountain of activity.

g. Amusement

Well, not all of us are brave enough to acknowledge death. We must remain in denial. We must remain entertained and amused. God forbid that the internet stops working now. We would have riots the next day.

2. Social Life

Intimacy

Intimacy is beautiful with the right partner. It’s a private hell, otherwise. Under lockdown, people are discovering this, often for the first time. Record number of Chinese couples filed for divorces in Wuhan after lockdown was lifted. What will happen to your relationship by May 3rd?

Social dinners

To meet someone in the capitalist world is to spend money collectively on an evening/ afternoon meal. Under lockdown, we are now instead playing games together, complaining about the bad connection of video calls together…
To be social need not be about spending money.

Family life

A family may stay apart in today’s world, but it worries together. We police each other, we exchange news and laugh uncomfortably away the political differences.

3. Community

Public spaces

In the last century, the socialists imagined great things from public spaces – fertile spaces for ideas to emerge, art to get created, political discourses to be enjoyed, anthems to togetherness be sung…
Public spaces died first with malls. Covid was the latest nail in the coffin. The public imagination for possibilities with public spaces has taken a tragic turn.

Class

Crises are opportunities to disrupt. Revolutionaries can tip over the critical mass. Or capitalist can profiteer and strengthen hold over the resources.
Privacy, masks, foodgrains, brandband access – everything is an opportunity with someone losing, someone winning.

Health-centred orientation

Microfinance empowered women and rebuilt community relationships around finance. Maybe time has come now for health centred co-operatives, shared insurances, indigenous knowledge systems meeting modern medicine?

4. Culture

Us vs Them

Covid will strengthen the xenophobia, make us sceptical of each other. We are hurtling towards the dark ages where we seek people to pin blame on rather than seeking co-operation. We will come-around. Fingers crossed.

Caste & Religion

The whatsapp university graduates are busy turning social distancing into a communal/ casteist conspiracy. Social untouchability might become untouchability. How do we ensure that caste system doesn’t gain currency?
Religious powers are bound to gain power everywhere.

Small town vs Cities

The epidemic has made evident the absolute lack of safety net for the migrant labourers in city. Demonetisation, CAA riots and now Covid induced hunger. Third strike and out? Would migrants demand more now? Shouldn’t they?

Time for taking economy to small towns instead of getting people from small towns to economic centres.

5. Economy

Capitalism & Human capabilities

With imagination and agency, human enterprise can shapeshift to adapt and counter the threat of any crisis. If every swiss person is ALSO trained in operating arms, and many last-generation villagers could ALSO sow paddy, why can’t most earthlings be trained in multiple capabilities? Imagine a person being able to serve first-aid AND code. Another can bear arms AND do financial analysis.
Capitalism wants specialism – one cog doing one act repeatedly in service of efficiency and cost reduction.
For humanity to thrive that model must change. The cog needs to be empowered to react, empowered with more capabilities than one.

Digital v/s physical

The ones with wi-fi access and jobs that can be done online are the new haves. The have-nots are the ones who must interact and produce something in the physical world.
Until the next vulnerability to digital world is discovered. Diversify our existence between digital and physical?

6. Politics

Governments versus subjects

Will this be another excuse to consolidate power and disenfranchise people in one way or another?
Covid-19 might pave the way for Authoritarianism rule in Southeast Asia.

Global versus Local

A globalised world is a world that globalises risks too.
Many countries will wake up to this insight and start ‘diversifying risk’.
Local capabilities and resources are not replaceable, cannot be made redundant. We will witness a hard swing to localism.

7. Planet

Why commute now that we know WFH works?
Why fly so often when we can do without it?
Why spend as much in shopping, entertainment when we now know that we can do without it?
Look at the blue sky outside. Look at the birds that have returned. Wouldn’t we want to retain these things in our lives? We might just end up not pushing our children in the climate change induced hellhole.

Embrace complexity to navigate the complex world

This article was subsequently published in Kantar’s BrandZ 2019 report. You can access it here.

____

“The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales. To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales.”

– Freeman Dyson, From Eros to Gaia, NY, Pantheon, 1992

Unprecedented times

Certain insights come to fore when we retreat from the immediate and allow ourselves to see beyond ourselves – beyond the scale of an individual. In this quote, Freeman Dyson exhorts us to look at humanity from six different scales – as an individual, as a family, as a tribe/ nation, as a culture, as a species and finally as the web of life on our planet. As we zoom out, we see humanity engaging with different kinds of threats and opportunities that play out over different time horizons – from momentary to years, to millennia to eons.

Me, you and every individual before us, is part of a celestial tapestry that has weathered near extinction events, loss of entire cultures, fall of kingdoms, wars and death. Humanity has thus far, survived. Can we go on though?

Humanity survived for a million years when it couldn’t affect nature globally, where cultures lasted for millennia and remained relatively isolated, where technologies took centuries to propagate.

But, Climate Change is threatening the ‘web of life’ as you read this. Culture is being flattened with globalization. The increasing complexity of modern economy is making livelihoods volatile.

These are unprecedented times.

The Anthropocene has been an era of accelerated change brought upon by humankind. The changes are at all levels and they are multiplying.

What brought us here, will tear us apart if it continues unabated. We need a fundamentally new approach to navigate ahead. Cybernetics, a transdisciplinary approach to study complex systems, perhaps has a valuable perspective that businesses can learn from.

Economy as a complex system

Businesses do not operate in isolation. They are affected by technological changes, environmental changes, demographic changes, sociological changes and so on. There are far too many interdependent & independent variables at play here.

As such, the first thing to recognize here is that predicting these changes and preparing for them is near impossible. There goes your silver bullet.

Secondly, every action has a reaction, which in turn has a reaction, precipitating in a feedback loop. In our case, the feedback loops manifest as regulations, cultural movements such as the current swing towards nationalism across the world, refugee crisis, drop in fertility rates and so on. If you look at these trends from a ‘feedback loop’ perspective, it might help in anticipating probabilities of change much better than most current linear models (though still with high uncertainty).  

Thirdly, realise that businesses have a role to play in most of these issues. We can’t remain ignorant of our role in climate change for instance. Our ignorance and inaction will be at our peril. Businesses with long term view of their survival should work with governments to reign in businesses with short term view which might be polluting the planet, increasing inequality or threatening social order.

Lastly, realise that the rate of change especially with technological advancement will only accelerate. For a ‘constant change paradigm’, the organizational structure of businesses must fundamentally change to survive and thrive. Linear hierarchies can’t respond quickly enough. To respond rapidly, the organizational structure must allow for ‘emergence’. Emergence is the ability of a collective to do something that individuals couldn’t do on their own. Ants exhibit it when they navigate challenges to their colony or to source food, without a central decision-making body. They do so, by following a few simple principles encoded in their genes that guide their behaviour around certain stimuli.

There’s a lesson here. Organisations that institute simple principles which empower autonomous behaviours among its workforce can respond to new threats and challenges much more effectively. This is already happening to an extent with online tools that reduce much of the friction that defined business in 20th century – in raising capital (with Kickstarter), in communicating (with Slack/Whatsapp), in manufacturing (with 3d printers, Shenzhen supply chain) and so on. With on-demand manufacturing in Shenzhen, on-demand access to cloud with AWS, on-demand access to capital on Kickstarter/ VC, on-demand access to talent through gig-economy, anyone can respond to an emergent threat/ opportunity now and start an organisation.

It’s a brave new world out there. To navigate changes in these rapid waters, you will be required to take a few brave decision and pivot towards emergent organization, environmental consciousness and appreciation of the complex reality of the world. Thankfully, it has never been easier to pivot than now. Embrace the complexity, and pivot.

Summation

  1. It’s time to wake up and see businesses as part of the broader fabric of humanity.
  2. Realise that we live in an increasingly complex world.
  3. Which requires us to acknowledge our limits in anticipating future.
  4. But it does not mean we should not try. Embrace complexity and allow for uncertainty. Use the ‘feedback loop’ perspective to gain competitive edge over others who still use linear/ simplistic projections to define their business goals.
  5. Realise that we can remain ignorant about our role in climate change, at our own peril.
  6. Evolve from hierarchical structure to emergent organizational structure.

If agencies remain married to ‘ads’, agencies are doomed.

Traditional advertising agencies were essentially amoral tongues on rent.  In the pre-digital age, where there was no other way of knowing the truth (or rumours) about products and brands, advertisements was the only major source of opinion/ information (after WOM) about the product’s usefulness/ efficacy/ likeability.
There was a role for advertising in the lives of people. It was global village’s emissary of good times. It was the window to a new lifestyle. It was the helpful aunt who knows solutions to all our problems. And it was all in good cheery humour. Oh, golly-gee. What a wonderful world advertising was building for people. In a media-starved world, people lapped up the shiny world painted by advertising. The modernist utopia was painted by advertising.

Internet broke that world. It made the world transparent. People could verify claims, could complain, could rally fellow consumes into shaming advertisers who were dishonest. Advertising just didn’t ring true any more. At best they were entertaining distractions. At worst they were insidious worry-mongers who amplified the worst aspects of humanity – misogyny, racism, greed…Mostly they were an annoyance best muted or ignored.

From a brand point of view, ads were not efficient anymore in telling consumers anything they didn’t already know or wanted to know. Advertising simply had lost the plot.

Then came Amazon, facebook and google. And boy did they take the life out of advertising. Many agencies are dead, they just don’t know it yet. They see pitches, dwindling margins as symptoms of economy, politics etc. They don’t see the picture. The disease is different. The disease is ‘death of brands’. And with it, traditional agencies.

People do not need ads anymore to inform/ educate/ convince them about anything. thank you very much. They have google, facebook for that. They stream their brand experience (mostly if it is bad) live on facebook. They pummel the brand social media handlers when brands do a faux pas. They’ve got the power and they know it.

People buy ‘products’ on amazon and flipkart now. They don’t care for brands anymore.
With Amazon’s Alexa and Prime, amazon will ‘seamlessly’ relieve the burden of choices and chore shopping for wealthiest of consumers. That means hello private labels and small players, bye bye big CPG brands.

Sure, some people might continue to believe that they must drink redbull and eat tacos and drive audis and exhibit iphones… but the vast majority of non-lifestyle CPG brands, daily use brands – brand on which we spend most frequently. They will see erosion in their ‘brand value’.

Go niche or go big. There is no middle ground anymore for most brands.

What that means for agencies? Forget the age of ‘lines’ and brand ethos. ‘brand with a purpose’ and ‘lifestyle defining brands’ can only be a handful. Most of agency clients are not these brands.

Agencies of the future need to help most brands become more ‘uniquely useful’ to the consumer. Agencies need to be able to create opportunities and harness unexpected opportunities for brands. Here are some interesting brief to work for.

‘How can we ensure that the consumer searches for my brand name and not the category name when buying on amazon?’

“How can we change the amazon prime habit and get the consumer to buy stuff at my store on his way home?”

How can my brand reach consumer better, quicker, more delightfully than amazon/ google can?

and so on.

The point it, days of ‘lines’ and ‘scripts’ are gone. We must be able to solve real business growth problems and be ready to leverage any medium/ expertise/ experience. If agencies remain married to ‘ads’, agencies are doomed.

OpenAI is not enough: On why Elon Musk must also disrupt the education system and ignite utopian imagination

Elon Musk is one of the few powerful people in the world who actually cares for the world, has a vision and has the ability to steer the world in conscientious directions. And Elon Musk is worried. He is worried about our probable future overlords – Artificial Intelligence (AI) , and rightly so. (“Not all AI futures are benign.“) And his response to that threat is characteristically ambitious and well targeted. He has started two new ventures in that field – Neuralink and OpenAI. Neuralink hopes to create ‘neural lace’ that removes the middleman of hardware between our thoughts and computing power. OpenAI hopes to democratize research about AI so that the advances of the technology are evenly distributed.
I am interested in this promise of OpenAI. Access to technology gives one power. And the currently powerful people, can buy access for themselves and create false barriers of access for others to technologies that are powerful. And OpenAI hopes to subvert that dynamic. The wish to democratise access to knowledge is at the very source of the Open movement. But for the wish to be fulfilled, much more needs to be done than OpenAI.

As it stands now, the two companies, by design, will only contribute to acceleration of AI adoption among elite without actual democratisation. OpenAI stops short at making the advances public, without ensuring that the public has the capability or intent of using those technologies. The current educational infrastructure is tremendously inadequate to educate enough people who could take the research at OpenAI and do something with it. Also, there is the issue of convenience and intent. Look for example, the promise of ‘sixth sense‘. Its been 7 years since that technology went open, but we don’t see people leveraging it widely. Or take the case of 3D printing. It was supposed to revolutionise manufacturing – but it didn’t.

Secondly, look at the world – everyone is building walls. To an extent that is inevitable.What happens to technologies in a world full of walls and xenophobia? Technology gets weaponized and secretive, not open.  

Like I said, there are two key issues here – capability and intent.

First, we need people to have skills in applied sciences with capabilities to leverage AI tech. Second, we need to show people the positive future that they can be a part of. We need people with imagination to dream of positive futures, before we can make the positive futures true. This will help in making it convenient and desirable for people to be part of this open alternate system for AI knowledge.

In both the cases of sixth sense and 3D printing, there simply was not enough public will to disrupt their existing lifestyles in favour of a more empowering tech that is less convenient. They were not emotionally moved by these tech’s promises. In absence of emotional will, people always choose convenience over empowerment. That is the great threat that Aldous Huxley warned us against in his ‘Brave New World’.   People will choose Soma that is detrimental over inconvenient though beneficial changes, because that is in service of prevalent power structures. Status-quo must be maintained, until it becomes unsustainable – That is the rule of the game. People and the power centers are geared for this behavior.

Musk understands the power of convenience well. His wealth is built with his ideas that made transactions convenient (Paypal), alternative fuel convenient and desirable (Tesla). So he is well positioned and capable to do the things necessary to make OpenAI’s promise a reality.

So Elon Musk, please invest in world’s (not US alone, since the promise is that of equality) educational infrastructure.
And secondly, propagandists/ strategists like me can help in making OpenAI a part of our cultural fabric, so that its adoption becomes easy. We need utopian ideas that people get motivated with – ideas that people want to be part of, to participate in. And this is where the strategy would be very different from any of the Elon Musk companies before. You would actually need to do propaganda/ marketing for this to work. We need utopian ideas that ignite people with imagination, for this to work.

Future of work

In response to a quora question – Future- How will the future of businesses and management look like and what changes should we expect?

1. Jobs for the Hyper-specialised

2. Second economy = computers transacting, interacting with other computers. the economy that is completely run by computers and algorithms, with little human support. Read this excellent article from HBR. I have taken inputs from it liberally to answer this question. Second economy will be worth $7.6 Trillion by 2025.

2. Future of robots replacing the workers – 100 million workers to be replaced in US alone by 2025, where the total workforce today is 146 million.

What this means is, the world as we know it will have to change – culturally, economically, physically for a peaceful future. The second economy is inevitable to a certain extent. It will replace jobs and no new jobs will be created. The prosperity created would be accessible to fewer and fewer people. Most of us will lose out. For a peaceful future, perhaps the governments would have to consider a golden mean of expanded social security + lifestyle allowances for the vast majority of people, and high taxes for the controllers of the vast systems.

3. Very high rates of change – As it is, we find it difficult to keep up with the changes affecting our work – may it be managers or workers – newer systems, newer softwares, newer ways of doing things. The rate of change will only accelerate here after.

This poses problems not only for the employed (increasing pressure to keep up. besides how many would be ready to compete in such a scenario?), but more so for the unemployed. There simply would not be enough jobs for unskilled/ semi-skilled people.

CEOs and CXOs shouldn’t be too smug. Even managerial positions would very likely be occupied by algorithms and servers. There will be an app for everything.

4. An Alternative to central bank money – Globalisation and intelligent algorithms = consolidated control in the hands of a few people. Which means concentration of money in a few pockets. Which means, for the vast majority, for their lives to have a meaning, their lives need to divorce from the current currency of money. P2P, bitcoin money could actually be the spiritually and technologically relevant form of money for future.

5. Media and communications will become the most important industries – To control perceptions, mass trends, mass opinions.

In the immediate future..

1. Importance of Social media influencers – directors of curiosities. Makers of sense of ever burgeoning mass of choices and information.

2. Loss of ‘security’: high churn and abrasive growth of ‘Human resources’. Social security weakened.

3. Predatory giant corporations:

a. Amazon started it. Their policy of pricing for a loss to edge out the competition has become the mantra for most big corporations. Before internet, this would have affected a retailer in a city. Now, such policy affects business across industries across the world. Amazon is making retailer businesses insecure across the world. They hope for retailers across the world to shutter down in a few years so that they could enjoy monopoly later on. Same strategy is used by Flipkart, OLA and so on.

Look at OLA for a second. It under prices local taxi drivers. OLA Taxi drivers get subsidy over the fare earned. This unfair advantage is pushing out local taxi businesses. In the short term, it is good for the consumers – with low fares, good cabs, good service… but in the long term, who is stop the monopoly of OLA to charge consumer thrice the amount of a normal fair? The payout to drivers too is not consistent. In a short period of a year, the payout policies and amounts have varied tremendously. (according to a few drivers I spoke to.. apparently it was a healthy sum a year ago, 6 months ago they stopped paying subsidy.. ad hoc opportunistic policies).

Essentially, we are encouraging assholes to run 21st century businesses.

b. Qualities such as kindness, consideration of human life outside of their job role are already absent from much of the work places. The newer breed of startups such asapple, Uber, Zomato have a terrible moral compass. They see nothing wrong in hiring and firing indiscriminately. They see nothing wrong in finding loopholes in policies and laws to earn more money at the cost to the wider world. They see nothing wrong in being ridiculously selfish. This has spawned a new culture of impunity and apathy in the search of rapid growth of riches.

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Originally published here

‘What will our life be like in 2065?’

This entry is in response to a quora question – What will life to be like 50 years from now?

Future gazing is tricky because, we can affect it to an extent. And ‘we’ don’t act unilaterally, and ‘we’ don’t comprehend the ‘extent’ of our acts and our limitations.
Having said that, here are some trends, in no particular order, which might continue for the next 50 years.

1. Climate change
Humanity has dug its own grave with 2 of earth’s 9 ecological boundaries in the red zone. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet.
There is no doubt that our efforts of survival against climate change will shape our life in future. Again, since there is no unified ‘we’, we humans compete against each other. So there will be winner and there would be losers. Rich have an upper hand – escape from shrinking shores, access to machines to compensate for toxic weather (Air purifiers and ACs for example), money to buy scarce resources (water, food etc.). The poor will undoubtedly suffer the most. The next big wars would be fought for survival.

So if you are rich, your life would be lived in well-defined cocoons of some sort. If you are not so rich, a major part of your life will be spent in hospitals/ working overtime to pay the bills/ being an eco-refugee.

  1. Globalisation

Globalisation has far reaching consequences. It is now irreversible and entrenched. The power is increasingly getting concentrated in the hands of fewer people. ‘Interests’ of a few corporates, financiers and nations now dictate global flow of money and events. Many of today’s events (rise of ISIS, middle class’s rising prosperity, disenfranchised aboriginals across the world, weakened labour forces, secret global deals and so on) are directly an effect of Globalisation.

Read Noam Chomsky for better appreciation of what has been happening. Start here.

Effect on life: Your life will be affected by people and events far removed from you. For example, the economic meltdown in US had a direct impact on my paycheque six years ago. This trend will only strengthen.
You might have to go farther and farther in search of jobs, as disparity between wealth of people from metros and non-metros widen.

New technology is being continuously created in service of the richer class. The benefit to the poorer people is largely accidental.

Read ‘A brave new world’ by Aldous Huxley for a taste of the world we are heading to. It is a bit dramatized and extreme vision of the trends, but a good indicator of our life in future.

  1. Rising Inequality

Globalisation enables the middle class to prosper on one hand, while making the workers/ labourers more vulnerable. It is easier for the rich to get richer, quicker. The access to tools (such as internet, public transport) while democratising to an extent, is leveraged more strongly by the more powerful. (Internet was a haven for minorities and persecuted in its infancy. Now it is the eyes of the big brother governments and worse, the giant corporates.)

Effect on life: Disaffection with life. Rise of media, drugs and such other opiates to keep the masses from revolting.
If you are from a marginalised community, your identity will be eventually ‘sanitized’. The future is one massive mass of homogenous people.
Read here to understand who will succeed in the rat race of survival in the future.

  1. Loss of privacy
    Prism surveillance program

Ever present and larger powers (governments, corporates) will control individuals and know about your thoughts, actions, routines, interests and so on. If you are inconsequential, then this might not bother you, but if you are in some way annoying to the global system, then the lack of anonymity will be the noose around freedom’s neck.

Check out the excellent, albeit dark, TV series ‘Black Mirror’ that paints a grim picture of our lives in future.

  1. Rise of the machines
    a. Humans will rely more and more on machines.
    b. Humans will become redundant in most of the workplaces. HBR’s article on AI
    c. AI will be integral to the system of the globalised world
    d. Reduction in human dignity, empathy

    6. The Culture is dead. Long live the culture.

Most likely new interactive technologies will be leveraged by the powerful to homogenize identities and your experiences. What I mean by that is, cultures will be flattened, and there will be less number of languages, customs, and rituals. You will belong to either of the handful of religions. You will be speaking in one of the few hundred languages. You will share the same holidays with the rest of world. (Bye bye gudi padwa, hello Christmas.)

New immersive Medias and interactions will create new global rituals and experiences. People across the world will live in identical cities, eating identical Mcburgers, dying of identical cardiovascular diseases.

False identity markers must be created to give a sense of solid identity to individuals. And this is where brands and marketers will come to play. Supermarkets are the new temples. And brands are the chosen gods of affirmation. My career as an advertising guy has a bright future. (Well, almost.)

Here’s something to read about the future of ideas.

7. Connected and opiated mind

These days we are most fascinated with advancement in Interface technologies… touch screens, virtual reality, 3d printing, and tactile sense transmission and so on. The sum total effect of it will be for you to be ever connected to your job, your government, and your brands. You will be inured to the experience of bondage. You will expect and want your thoughts being governed by these large gratifying forces.

  1. Man will be root-less.
    Globalised world is corrosive to simplistic myths and beliefs that help men make sense of their world. He is reminded every day that what he knows is incomplete and wrong. His heroes, customs, symbols are under threat. To protect his sanity, he will either fight or become root-less – adrift in the all-consuming vortex of globalised despair.
  2. Health

Rich will live healthier and far longer. The poor might live longer too, but pollution, lack of public support will run down most poor people of the world. Rich people will have AI enhanced bodies and minds.

10. Powerful Corporates subverting national structures
Corporates will become more important than nations. Few billionaires would have outsized impact on policy making through either direct interference (what is called ‘lobying’) or through philanthrocapitalism.

  1. Demographic spanner in the wheels

    Read this excellent article from WSJ about demographic trend of the world through 2050.
    My broad stroke implications from that work :
    a. Rich countries will have elderly people living with robot assisted services. Indians and Africans will make up a sizable chunk of labour for these advanced nations.
    b. Poorer countries such as India and African nations will face demographic pressure – large population, inadequate infrastructure, low productivity of labour. If education and skill building becomes a priority, then perhaps these countries might grow in influence, with improvement in lives of people. Otherwise, the under prepared young would be ready fodder for sectarian/ identity/ resource based skirmishes, wars, agitations and what not.

So in sum,

You will be root-less, consequence less, in search of meaning. You will be heavily under the influence of opiates of some kind – either concerns about sport teams, music, movies or buzzfeed listicles. (And drugs too, obviously. A root-less (spiritually bankrupt) man must dissolve himself in spirits.) What this means is, you will most probably find purpose in abstractions, the finer things in life, while your actual life is being completely out of your control.

You might enjoy a few technologically advances, but the more powerful will always have a stronger leverage on that technology than an individual.

But all is not lost. What one needs to appreciate is the fact that we now have the power to define the course of our future, to an extent. Fight the forces NOW for your right of privacy, of dignity, of access to good health and education. What you must do for a better life tomorrow is fight today.

There is hope in democracy 2.0. With digital technology, let’s empower democracy and thereby empowering individuals.

Inventing indulgent future for the rich

Saw this promotional video for Bosch’s automated driving system. There are similar efforts being attempted by other corporates too, notably Google.
But here again, I feel corporates are trying to answer the wrong question.

‘In the future’ – we shouldn’t need to travel unless we desire to travel (that is to say, travel only for leisure and not because you must to earn your bread). Our scientific endeavors need to be geared to completely remove commutes from our lives. In which case, driving would become an activity largely undertaken for leisure.
But the fact remains, the way our economy is geared, people must leave there homes and travel greater and greater distances to bigger and bigger cities to earn. In China alone, 120 million youngsters leave their homes to find jobs in a year.
Why is globalization only aiding economy and not human will? (Jobs migrating to cheaper and cheaper venues, forcing people to migrate towards jobs. As against, people moving to different places on their own volition without economic coercion facilitated by globalized economies that only aid mega-corporates.)
In the age of cloud-this and cloud-that, why do we still need to commute to earn? Why are companies not trying to reduce commutes and are instead are trying to automate commutes? Even Google, which is in the business of cloud this-that.

We need our best minds to focus on the way we are going to work together, live together; not on the way we indulge ourselves.

P.S.
Also, where are all the new cars going to go? the virus like expansion of cars on our roads will make it astronomically costly in future to own/ operate one. only a few would be able to afford mobility. Drive around Delhi and know what a dystopian future of road looks like. there are no more roads for more and more cars! We will be forced to de-incentivize individual driving.  

Why invent for a future that is not going to present itself ever? why invent for indulgence of the rich?

What good are Google glasses? OR How tech companies can choose not to be evil.

Why invent Google glasses?
Here’s Sergey Brin trying to answer that question.

Doesn’t his argument seem a little unconvincing – a weak reason to deploy the best of the brains on the planet and 3 years worth of efforts.
The primary pivot of his argument is the glass’ ability to improve social posture (?). He talks about how when interacting with your cell phone, you look down, away from the rest of the world. How when nervous, one fiddles with cell phone to escape the real world.
So how is Glass a solution? It is an even more ‘evolved’ tool to keep the outside world ‘out’!

Ok, so Glass frees your hands. for what? for better documentation of our narcissism? These series of innovations (social media, smart phones, glass) are answering the most base yearnings of our narcissistic behavior.

When you look down, at least there’s that bit of honesty – ‘yes, I am looking away from you. Sorry for my awkward inability to be social.’ With Glass, how honest are you with your interactions in the real world, if you are constantly mindful of the online world at the corner of your eye. (Social media is the magical mirror for the narcissists. Google glass makes the narcissism even more intimate.) Obsessive Facebook users know the urge to check notifications. Imagine that with Glass.

Watch ‘Black Mirror’s this episode for another perspective of how this tech might evolve. (Must see the whole series. work of genius.)

More importantly, I feel that technology giants like Google and Apple can’t really prioritise well. The world has stepped back and given the mantle of technological progress to these few companies it seems. There is this unfortunate tendency where excellence in one aspect is taken to mean a general quality of excellence – cricketers as politicians, businessmen as policymakers… wrong wrong assumption.

Human ingenuity can certainly do much better than what Google or Apple have done. Well, to begin with, we need to get our priorities right.

The starting point should not be ‘what can technology do?‘. Because, it is with questions like these that Google Glass gets created and one has to see Sergey Brin trying to force fit a weak reason for its creation after the product idea had already been thought of.
Perhaps, the starting point should be ‘what do we really need right now and how can technology help us get it?’

We don’t need more ways to shut off people, we need more ways to be confident in our social interactions.
We need to be able to protect what is sacred & personal to us. (Hence always opt-in as default, not opt-out option as default.)
We need control over what we say, do, hear, see.
We need a better understanding of what we consume and how it affects the world.
We need technology that doesn’t eliminate another human being from interaction/ work/ jobs.
We need technology that  doesn’t increase the gulf between the haves and have-nots.

We need a non-Luddite, but a realist, humanist manifesto for technology companies to follow. To not be evil means eternal vigilance of the effect of one’s own actions.
Companies are eager to ‘lead the change’, ‘make a dent in the universe’, but with what effect? with what cost?
Apples and Oranges of the world need to think not only of the superior interface designs, but also about how the ones who cannot afford these elitist fruits would react to this new exclusion? How is it making obsession about trivial material issues fashionable and what does it mean to our ecology, social interactions, our economy?
If you do not want to be evil, be a little more circumspect.

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Originally published here.