Friday, November 14, 2008

Leveling the Playing Field for the American Auto Industry

The failure of the American auto industry has lots of root causes, but the difference in cost structures and buying incentives between US and foreign auto makers surely has a lot to do with the industry’s lack of competitiveness.

Lack of universal health care here means that every car manufactured in this country is saddled with $2100 of health costs that aren’t included in European or Japanese cars.

Comparatively low gas prices mean that American consumers have not had the same fuel efficiency incentives buyers in every other country have had. Sure, Toyota was clever about designing and building the Prius. And fully 35% of Prius sales to date have been in Japan alone, a dramatically smaller market than the US. So just how prescient was Toyota? They were designing and building cars that suited their own domestic market.

Human rights and labor requirements are held to much higher (and more costly) standards by US car manufacturers than by their foreign counterparts, so I’ve been told.

As Congress contemplates a bailout for the auto industry, we should consider correcting the underlying causes. Addressing these would mean the industry has a much higher likelihood for competitive success in the long-term. If we really want a thriving car industry in the country, we need to reduce the burden of health care costs for this industry (and all industries), require the same human rights and labor standards for all cars being sold in this country, and raise the cost of gas in this country so that it more closely mirrors those experienced by European and Japanese consumers, and is more aligned toward our goals of energy independence and CO2 reduction.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Apps for Democracy

Go see Apps for Democracy. It’s what I’m talking about!

1. The DC City government built a platform for engagement. They put up DC's Data Catalog online and invited internal agencies and external free agents – we sometimes call them “people” – to create mashups for $20k in prize money.

2. The city is trying to tap into the excess mental capacity and time of skilled, clever, and innovative people everywhere who want to challenge themselves.

3. Too soon to know what the unintended benefits are, but they are certainly reaping some intended benefits:

• Neighborhood crime
• Historic tour of DC
• Parking garages
• Hospital info

Oh, it has to be incredibly stupid form to put a link in the first few words of a blog. So if you are totally intrigued, now is the time to go check it out again here, a link at the end.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Time for Cooperative Capitalism

Crisis describes our times. The perilous state of the American and global economies, environments, and personal finances have me convinced that we’ve got to start working and thinking more cooperatively.

Last June I began to give public voice to these ideas and approach that has been taking shape in my mind for a long time -- Ann Arbor (June 11 ppt) and at the Personal Democracy Forum in NY (June 24).

For many years I’ve been attracted to the beautiful efficiency and widespread benefits of shared resources (cars, rides, networks). And over the last few years, I’ve been espousing the need for business and government to think more expansively about the web 2.0 phenomenon – where end users create content and value by building on a common platform (eBay, wikipedia, flickr, Facebook being some famous examples). We need to envision collaborative financing (lending circles), collaborative infrastructure (mesh networks), and collaborative consumption (car-sharing). It is time to push this idea and approach as far as it can go. A way to think about this approach is “cooperative capitalism.”

Here is the formula:
1. Identify excess capacity.
2. Build a platform for others to share/engage with this excess capacity.
3. Appreciate unanticipated benefits

My favorite example at a city level is Bogota’s Ciclovia:

1. The Penalosa brothers (Mayor Enrique and Gil, Head of Parks & Recreation) noted that on Sundays traffic throughout the city was very light.

2. Every Sunday from 9am to 2pm, more than 72 miles of roads are closed to car traffic and open to pedestrians and bicyclists. Tens of thousands of residents get out and use the ‘new trails and paths’ every week. Cost to the city for this highly prized and transforming resource? Just the cost putting up and taking down the barriers.

3. Unanticipated benefits include a healthier population, a stronger community, and increased bicycle use every day of the week.

My favorite opportunity at a city & national level (see my TED talk for a big vision explanation):

1. The wireless devices being used for open road tolling (and in the future for congestion pricing and road pricing) cost about $28, are single purposed, closed, and in active use for about 30 seconds a month. That is a lot of excess wireless capacity!

2. Create an open source mesh (ad hoc peer to peer) communications platform that would turn the device in the cars into nodes (routing and repeating data bits). The software could also be used in all wireless devices (laptops, cellphones, pdas, traffic lights, smart utility meters, etc.), creating a mobile internet (collaborative infrastructure). Each person will have paid for his/her own device (collaborative infrastructure financing).

3. While spending what was required to do the task of open road tolling or congestion pricing and buying in a manner that used an open standard, and an open device, we have now made this investment leverageable for any number of innovative uses, created a robust and resilient nationwide network for local data transmission, and laid the foundation for the next economic engine for the US and world economies. I have a lot to say on this topic, best not here. Email me if you want to see the white paper.

We can glean from the above example some generalization principles that the US government should apply to the relevant procurements: require open standards, open APIs, give preference to responders that leverage existing infrastructure, investments, organizations – in other words – value and encourage cooperation among companies rather than reward closed proprietary systems that shut out such opportunities.

Examples at the corporate level would include Zipcar of course, which enables all the idle capacity of cars to be put to good use through its technology platform that makes sharing cars fast, easy, convenient, and cost-effective. Last year I visited Siemens New York office where the bulk of floor space has been turned over to cubicles that are not owned by any one person, but rather used as needed by its nomadic workforce that shows up in New York only periodically – dramatically reducing the amount of office space needed if each one of its employees had their own office. The unexpected benefits of open platforms abound -- users can innovate, or point the way for innovation (see for a new way of thinking).

And at an individual and household level, what can we lend and what can we borrow? What can we buy used, and what can we make sure we put back into the marketplace? Think of eBay as collaborative consumption.

This way of thinking isn’t bad for the economy. Remember that our starting point is that everyone is going to spend as much as they have to spend. We – families, companies, governments -- all have so much we want to accomplish with such limited financial resources that the most logical, rational, profitable, and self-interested thing to do is to spend it as efficiently as we can: maximizing the benefit of each dollar spent, while minimizing the resource consumption. Since we know we are going to spend every cent, let’s get the most possible value out of that spending.

Think of our times. Cooperative capitalism is not just an interesting approach, it is an imperative.


Blog posts are supposed to be short and to the point – that is satisfied by the above. For a little more background on why the current financial crises leads me to move from thinking that these are just interesting ideas, to a much stronger concept of “imperative,” read on.

We are living in a world of very precarious revenue sources at all levels of the economy – household, corporate, and governmental. Americans are at their lowest savings rate since the 1930s. In August, the GAO estimated the 2008 Federal deficit to be $410b, 3% of the GDP. The addition of the $700 billion bailout has the potential to double this to 6%. On October 1, our national debt passed $10 trillion dollars (that’s a 1 followed by an unlucky 13 zeroes).

And yet, despite our incredibly tight – and shrinking – budgets, we face spending imperatives of unparalleled proportions. In the US, the explosive highway and infrastructure building of the 1940s-1970s, are now meeting the end of their 30-50 year anticipated life spans. We have much rebuilding to do, just to stay even, and we have much new building needed to accommodate our growing population and 21st century transportation and communication needs.

We have an energy and climate crisis, that demand we rethink, retool, and build anew our power plants, our factories, our office, our stores, our homes, and our travel patterns. We have a broken healthcare system that without a fix will swallow the budgets of business and government, and then, despite those expenditures, leave many uninsured.

And of course, we Americans live in a world of 6.3 billion people, rising rapidly to 9 billion. And we all know this world cannot sustain the current use patterns many ‘enjoy’ if applied to everyone.

A friend of mine, Juan Enriquez, just gave his 20 minute analysis and prescription last week at PopTech, on the need for the next administration to start a program of austerity. He gives a compelling argument and has some nice visuals. And last week, Bruce Nussbaum blogged for Businessweek an opinion piece called “Zipcar Capitalism, a new economic model?,” an approach the author says he will bring with him to the World Economic Forum this week in Dubai. Both of these argument are running down the same path I am.

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