The story of stuff… and how we can write a happy ending

Filed Under (Sustainable World) by picker on 12-04-2011

I’ve been reading The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard, an eye-opening (and eye-watering) book that I would immediately make mandatory in every school program around the world: with an informal yet compelling style, it can dramatically change one’s misplaced assumptions and show how badly our global economic system is currently run.

A 20 minute video by the author will be a better introduction than any further word.

Among the many interesting stories reported by the book, I was especially impressed by one about Coltan, a mineral essential for the production of consumer electronics. Around 80% of its world supplies happen to be in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 2000 the price of Coltan started dramatically soaring, mostly because of the huge success of Sony’s PS2 game console, causing:

- thousands of Congolese to rush into the area to get at the metal, destroying national parks and killing gorillas and other wildlife in the process;

- both official and rebel armies to follow suit, kill or enslave those Congolese people and exploit children and women’s work with the most brutal methods of coercion (the UN reckons that about 45,000 local women were raped in 2005 only).

All of this ultimately happened to let other children play with their game consoles. But how could we blame them? They are simply at the opposite end of the perverse production-consumption-disposal chain that we’re letting screw the world. And although those kids’ quality of life is arguably better than their Congolese counterparts, they are victims as well to a certain extent: it is proved that our consumerist lifestyle is not making us happy at all. The United States is the richest country in the world, but ranked 150th out of the 178 countries considered in the last Happy Planet Index. Guess which country is constantly in the top positions year after year? Costa Rica in Central America, which:

- no longer has an army since 1949, when the government shifted the previous military budget to fund internal conservation projects;

- has combined its ministries of Energy and Environment and achieved an astonishing 99% of energy production from renewable sources;

- has assigned all the money gained from a carbon tax to fund the local communities effort to protect forests, triggering an impressive reversal in deforestation.

I read and write about information technology and I feel constantly amazed by the way it’s changing our lives for the better. As both a passionate product manager and an enthusiastic consumer, I’m proud to be part of the IT revolution. But as a citizen I’m increasingly worried about its impact over our planet and the people who live on it.

It doesn’t seem impossible to make the whole cycle more sustainable though.

Let’s consider for instance Apple, one of the world’s most admired companies. Thanks to a disruptive entrance in the handset market a few years ago, they are currently gaining around half of the industry profits with less than 5% of market share! I’m as impressed by these results and hooked to their amazing products as many other people, but I’ve got a question: given those remarkable margins, why do Apple need to produce its electronic gadgets through some of the Asian manufacturers least known for their respect of either human rights or the environment? The corporations’ relentless and blind race towards unlimited growth and (apparent) wealth is turning this world, slowly but irreversibly, into a miserable and unfair place.

Seth Godin has recently wrote about a huge opportunity called peace dividend, that we all wasted around 20 years ago when the Cold War was suddenly over: we could have re-purposed military spending and technology to improve our quality of life, just as Costa Rica had done long before. We didn’t. Seth’s provocation therefore is: are we going to do the same with the technological dividend coming from the digitalization of so many processes and the resulting increase in efficiency and opportunities?

There is good news here: as citizens and consumers, this time we have the means to influence such an outcome in an unprecedented way, thanks to a former piece of military technology escaped to the sad destiny mentioned above: the Internet.

That’s how we can write a happy ending to The Story of Stuff: by triggering a new generation of direct democratic participation, thanks to the amazing reach of the Internet. The big organisations responsible for most of the aberrations the book talks about can lobby and corrupt governments around the world… but how will they be able to do the same with each of us?

Annie Leonard is the perfect example. She didn’t need any big budget to start a web project called The Story of Stuff, to make clips like the one above and upload them on YouTube, to write and publish a great book with the same name. Yet she’s influencing many people like me, who are actively recommending her work and planning to play their part to change things for the better.

Do you believe that you don’t have enough time? You can still make a difference with your choices as a consumer, by preferring and encouraging the most responsible products and companies. A first step is to avoid any product made of toxic PVC or packaged in hard-to-recycle hybrid materials. A further one is to use handy applications such as GoodGuide, available on the Internet and as iOS/Android app, to check the impact of most consumer products on your health and the environment as you shop. These trends are already influencing the policies of many companies around the world.

Last but not least… spread the word!

Democracy, Internet… and sun!

Filed Under (New energy) by picker on 29-01-2011

Perhaps it’s because none of my history teachers has ever carried out the program beyond World War II… but as a kid I used to think that we lived in a fair and peaceful era.

Unfortunately we are still very far from that. Today I happened to watch the news on TV (something I had got used to absolutely avoid as I lived in Italy, where the few remaining independent journalists can only write on the Internet), and I found a very personal connection among the following facts:

Internet and the mobile phones have been shut down in Egypt to curb the on-going protests, because most rioting demonstrators had used the social networks as primary means of organization;

British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has defended the austerity measures of his government and urged the whole Europe to follow;

between 18,000 and 30,000 liters of petroleum are polluting one of the most beautiful shores of Sardinia, but most Italian newspapers are not reporting the fact at all. Meanwhile the “usual mighty” are planning to build new nuclear plants and keep pushing the consumption of fossil fuels, in agreement with the government led by a man whose life has been a relentless journey across the Italian Penal Code (the latest allegation being exploitation of child prostitution).

I felt so sad. Internet is the only remaining hope of a young generation which was expected to live in silence and ignorance, to be entertained and misinformed, to pay for the privileges of those who literally burned every possible resource and loaded the public balance sheets with unbelievable debts in the last fifty years or so, and now either enjoy fat and unsustainable pensions or keep leading supposedly democratic countries.

Of course this is true with different gradations across the world. Nonetheless, it’s increasingly clear that even the most enlightened democracies are pursuing interests far from the real needs of their people, because no one dares either touching the so-called vested rights (even when they’re clearly unfair) or leading a real change of course over the way our productive systems are run. The protection of jobs is the usual excuse to safeguard the economical status quo and turn us all into the proverbial boiling frog.

For example, it turns out that within 6 hours the world’s deserts receive more energy from the sun than humanity consumes in a year (source), and that we don’t need new technologies to exploit it (source) but only the political will.

Does anyone believe that the huge required investment wouldn’t be worth it, considered the increasing devastation that fossil fuels and global warming are spreading across the planet?

If you’re reading this article, you probably don’t… But you’re a young person who surfs the Web, which means you’re not part of any majority able to elect governments and run the world.

Product management and the role of emotions

Filed Under (Technology) by picker on 25-10-2010

I’ve recently read Inspired by Marty Cagan, a clever journey across the best practices and most common mistakes of product management.

A lot of thoughts (and resolutions) were blending inside my mind after turning the last page over… well, in a metaphysical sense, for I was using an e-book reader! What I want to briefly share here is the outcome of an interview with Jeff Bonforte, an experienced executive at Yahoo!, that the author includes in the book.

Mr Bonforte basically adds a layer of analysis to the famous technology adoption curve, based on which emotions drive the users of each group. This leads to interesting results, which I think can have a role in helping product managers develop “valuable, usable and feasible” products (to quote Marty Cagan)… or, in more traditional words, to avoid Moore’s “chasm” after the early adopters phase.

Of course these definitions are not innovative and revolutionary by themselves. But we’ll never be careful enough at studying the frustrations, emotions and expectations of common people as we develop new products…

This is among the lessons Marty Cagan reinforced with his great book.

Why does every successful product ultimately come from California’s Silicon Valley?

Filed Under (Technology) by picker on 06-10-2010

Last week I listened to a nice speech by the “curious journalist” Roberto Bonzio. He talked about his project Italiani di Frontiera and proposed a fascinating list of Italian characters who can boast histories of success abroad.

One especially impressed me for his relentless spirit of entrepreneurship.

Amadeo Giannini was a young independent banker, offering small loans mainly to a small community of people with his same Italian heritage. When a disastrous earthquake hit San Francisco in 1906, he started building his success story (and helped rebuilding the city) by making substantial loans to many hard-working people, as opposed to the usual bankers’ policy of servicing wealthy customers only.

This way, Mr Giannini basically invented what we currently call venture capital.

A few years later he was among the main financers of an obscure movie titled The Kid, then helped his creator Charlie Chaplin found a brand-new studio named United Artists.

He kept financing risky projects through his entire life, meeting success and failure… and – I guess – treating these two impostors just the same.

It is told that when Amadeo Giannini died in 1949 at age 79, his personal fortune was relatively modest, but hundreds of ordinary people showed up at his funeral. Meanwhile his bank had become a giant, and is today the largest in the United States: have you ever seen Bank of America‘s logo around?

History says that Silicon Valley has experienced such a rapid growth, from agricultural land south of San Francisco to the world’s center of innovation, thanks to people like Amadeo Giannini: able to spread a sense of urgency for progress and risk-taking. Other examples include Stanford graduates like Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, who started a long tradition of successful tech companies founded in garages.

So, which is the answer to the title of this post? At the end of his second mandate, Tony Blair flew to Silicon Valley and asked the same question to company executives such as Apple’s Steve Jobs and Cisco’s John Chambers. They made him observe the strict relationship between university campuses and the corporate world, and emphasized the relentless pursuit of meritocracy.

So sad that Amadeo Giannini’s country of origin is still light-years far from that…

Don’t touch the Web!

Filed Under (Technology) by picker on 24-08-2010

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What happens when the marginal cost of serving online customers turns out to be almost zero? Chris Anderson’s Free offers a complete and clever answer to that question, written with the same compelling style of The Long Tail.

It shows how the Web has enabled a brand-new class of business models, and thus become such a Wonder Land of free, high-quality applications and services.

I really loved reading the book. And I got positively impressed even by a speech Anderson recently delivered in Milan, about the disruptive effect of the Internet over so many brick-and-mortar businesses.

So what the hell crossed his mind when he recently wrote and published an article titled The Web is Dead?…

Ok: he wanted to remark the rising power of the Apps, which is undoubtedly a fact. Granted: as editor in chief at Wired, he needs to push the magazine sales even by purposely triggering some buzz and squabble.

But I believe that statement is far too much.

A lot of reasons have already been pointed out by critics across the Web.

In a nutshell, my own can be described as follows:

- yes, the Apps are a big success for their ability to drive dedicated experiences, ideal for handling specific tasks… so no wonder that many companies and organizations are betting on them to attract customers into their own walled gardens, out of the Web…

- but the Web is alive and in very good shape indeed, because it gives its best just where the Apps struggle: universal compatibility. Today I can handle most of my online activities on nearly every devices… regardless of their operating system (and even by borrowing someone else’s laptop for a few minutes or getting in a cyber cafe)… AS LONG AS THEY HAVE A WEB BROWSER.

Keep loving your 3-years-old smartphone… just get Joikuspot and you’ll always be on the edge!

Filed Under (Technology, Tricks) by picker on 03-07-2010

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iPhone, Android and their likes have definitely changed the way we define a smartphone, so quickly that most of the competitors are still struggling to catch up.

Although I consider myself a techno-fan and I’m often among first adopters of consumer technologies, this time I’m sticking with my 3-years-old Nokia E71 for a little while.

After all I guess we can still call it a smartphone, even though its screen is non-touch and quite small on current standards. In fact the following points still make it a very good companion:

- comfortable QWERTY keyboard (say what you want, touch-screen-addicted readers, but I bet I can text faster than you!)

- still up-to-date hardware equipment, including wi-fi, 3G, bluetooth and GPS

- embedded Mail-for-Exchange client

- availability of free applications for those features most of us use the most: Gmail, Google Maps, Ovi Maps, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, Nimbuzz (a multi-service chat client)…

Not enough? You’re right.

The final, critical ingredient is Joikuspot. This smart program connects to the Internet in 3G and shares that connection via wi-fi, turning the E71 (and many other phones) into a wi-fi hotspot in a snap.

Only recently added in some smartphones natively, this feature is usually defined “wi-fi tethering”.

Think about the possibilities. I mainly enjoy the latest apps on my iPod Touch and download new content from everywhere on my e-book reader… but one could even surf the Internet with two notebooks at the same time from a beach…

Just get a 3G flat data tariff before!

Why Blockbuster Inc. could still resurrect

Filed Under (Technology) by picker on 06-05-2010

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Recent articles about Blockbuster Video’s upcoming bankruptcy, with Chapter 11 approaching and no apparent strategy for a relaunch, make me pretty sad: I believe it’s such a shame!

Let me explain why. During a couple of business trips I’ve been reading Inside Steve’s Brain, a smart book about a guy who definitely knows how to make a difference: Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs. I already knew how troubled Apple Inc was in the late 1990s, when Jobs took its role back after many years out of the company. Thanks to that book, I discovered some serious similarities between today’s Blockbuster and 15 years ago’s Apple Inc. For instance:

- Apple had a huge set of different products and versions, without anything close to a precise focus or strategy -> Blockbuster has started losing money from its hundreds of shops, and now is acting as a confused late follower in those adjacent markets responsible for its crisis (from online rentals to automated kiosks)

- Jobs immediately identified Apple’s brand as the most valuable asset to start a relaunch from -> Blockbuster’s blue and yellow logo is still synonym of “cinema” across most of the Western countries

Not enough? Sure, it’s hard for everyone to be compared with the cool and innovative Apple we all know. But let’s go back to 1997, when Apple’s logo had rainbow stripes and the Power Macintosh had the appearance you can see here on the left.

Yes, a different era. But Jobs started his unbelievable series of best seller products with the iMac (here on the right) one year later only.
Big step forward, uh?

Blockbuster could start a new course as well, leveraging one of its supposed weaknesses: the shops. I believe an effective recipe should be based on the so-called “Internet of the Things”.

Movies are not common products. Hollywood’s “dream factory” is not just a claim.

One could enter a Blockbuster store, be recognized by a RFID loyalty card without pulling it out of the wallet… and get amazed by HD trailers, profiled offers and recommendations… with every movie ready to be downloaded on a digital memory in a snap.

A whole new approach, capable of suddenly shifting the company image from the 1980s to 2010 and beyond. Who said customers always want to stay home while choosing a movie? They could be eager to go out, if the shops were able to amuse and entertain them!

Connected TVs grow up

Filed Under (Clips, Technology) by picker on 19-02-2010

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When advertisements reach the Super Bowl scene, they’re supposed to push widespread products to the largest audience of the whole year. Therefore tech innovations usually run that stage when they’re ready to turn into mass-market wonders.

As far as I remember, a brick-&-mortar content distributor such as Blockbuster has broadcast a Super Bowl ad only once. Well, this year Vizio has shown how its latest TVs can bring both premium video content and web services to the living room. Through the Internet. In a snap.

The rules of the game are definitely changing…

Plant a real tree… with your iPhone!

Filed Under (New energy, Technology) by picker on 23-01-2010

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My blog’s ultimate purpose is building a merge between technology and sustainability. I wish I could neither just write about these two topics in different posts, nor simply delve into the technologies eco-friendly products are produced with.

I’d rather love finding out ways in which consumer oriented technology can help developing a cleaner world, by making what the Internet can do best: eliminate barriers.

Here you go with A Real Tree. Just a few taps on your iPhone screen, and for $0.99 a real tree will be planted on your behalf in a developing country facing deforestation. Then the application will give you a real-time (estimated) glimpse on how your tree is doing. Check it out!

The hype cycle of ebook readers

Filed Under (Stuff, Technology) by picker on 06-01-2010

The New Year always carries assessments about what happened and resolutions for the following twelve months. Someone also looks back at past predictions, seizing the moment to evaluate them with hindsight.

By applying all of this to consumer electronics, I think Apple’s iPhone has determined the most relevant market trend across 2009, being much more than the excellent niche product someone had initially considered it. While touch screens and widgets/applications have swiftly become a must for everyone out there, I’m asking myself: what’s going to play a similar role in 2010?

My bet is on ebook readers.

On the way to explain this statement, let’s make one step back. Gartner, a market research firm, believes every technologies go through a hype cycle before gaining a widespread diffusion: after a peak of inflated expectations, there’s a “trough of disillusionment” before the technology reaches the “slope of enlightment”.

In Gartner’s 2009 Hype Cycle Report, issued in July 2009, ebook readers were placed at the maximum level of expectations, just before the disillusionment phase.

Six months later, I believe this phase could be almost over. Using the chart below as an instruction manual, ebook readers are in my opinion where competition increases and second generation products reach the market.

Time (the horizontal axis) is running so fast that ebook readers could be climbing the slope in six months, when Gartner’s next report is expected to be issued.

This technology has the potential to eventually change the way we’ve been reading for centuries. The Internet is already doing it for news and every other short/medium length text. Ebook readers could finish the job.

The huge retailer Amazon, originally born just as a bookshop, is leading the ebook readers market not by accident with its Kindle, whose DX version has gained worldwide 3G coverage just today (the more popular Kindle 2 already had it).

Moreover, the potentially most brilliant competitor happens to be the Nook from Barnes & Noble, a US-based bookseller. The Nook is still young but adds a small LCD touch screen for navigation and is powered by Android operating system, which could support interesting features like (back to the 2009 must-haves) widgets.

This means one thing: content eventually rules over features.

No matter what Sony or others are going to launch in technical terms. A seamless access to books and magazines is definitely the key aspect.