This week: the myth of the lone genius, can life compete with Instagram, and is coal still cheaper? Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
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Introduction: This is The Future, This Week on Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter and I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful things that change the world. OK let's roll.
Sandra: Today in The Future, This Week: the myth of the lone genius, can life compete with Instagram, and is coal still cheaper? I'm Sandra Peter, I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai: I'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group.
Sandra: So Kai what happened in the future this week?
Kai: Our first story was sent to us by our keen listener Dirk. It's from The New York Times titled "Tech's damaging myths of the loner genius nerd".
Sandra: So the story starts with the Google engineer who was fired last week over this memo about women being less well suited to technology or engineering jobs and tries to go beyond what the author might have gotten wrong on biology and on all the evidence that we have.
Kai: And we did discuss sexism in Silicon Valley previously so that's not really surprising or anything new. It has created a lot of attention in the media but we want to hone in on something else here - the argument that the article makes around the myth of the rational lone male person in Silicon Valley who is the supreme inventor of new ideas and new technology.
Sandra: Basically the article hones in on the fact that the author might not have been wrong just on the biology but he might have been wrong on what it's like to work in tech. And that's what we want to focus on today. So unlike the myth which is the lone guy in the basement working by himself, in fact interpersonal skills, collaboration, empathy, emotional intelligence, communicating, working in a team is an essential part of working in technology today and working on these large engineering teams. So the fact that we might assume that these jobs are being done by lonely men in their basements is not only harmful to attracting more women into the sector or also attracting some men who might not see themselves as loners wanting to work by themselves in a basement but it can also lead to the creation of what could be dysfunctional teams also to bad products and services.
Kai: So let's break this down. If we look at the archetype loner irrational nerd and we find opposites for this what we would get is someone who is collaborative with lots of empathy and values diversity. So this is really what this is about right. The argument that is being made is innovation is really a collaborative effort. It needs a lot of empathy because you are designing for other people so you need to be able to put yourself into the shoes of your customers, you need to envision what their world is like and what it would be like to have a product that might solve their problems and you can only do this by inviting diverse perspectives into the company, not just in terms of gender but in terms of different skills, different backgrounds like Steve Jobs famously engaged with calligraphy and aspects of industrial designs which really did not have a place in the computer industry at that time. So it's really a much broader picture.
Sandra: Indeed and this is becoming increasingly important and we've got a paper that the New York Times article touches on which is by David Deming who is a professor at Harvard and he's looking at the growing importance of social skills in today's market and really showing that jobs that require the combination of hard skills, maths skills as well as social skills and computer science would be one of these jobs. But so would be things like nursing that require a whole host of social skills but also very strong skills, financial management - these are the types of jobs that have really done best in the modern economy and the jobs that are really growing.
Kai: Yes and it is important that we recognise that those skills are often equally if not more important. But at the same time and the article mentions that in Silicon Valley, in Google, in companies like that any skills to do with people (the so-called soft skills) are often undervalued. So the article says the more you work is talking to the machine, the more valuable it is. So there's this conception that if you're dealing with the hard stuff, the coding and the machine it's really highly valued. But if you're just talking about consumers and people it's kind of a second rate skill and afterthought when in fact practices such as design thinking are telling us that people are always first in the process.
Sandra: And indeed we've seen examples and we've discussed this in previous podcasts of moments where things like empathy and design were not taken into account and where products have failed to take into account for instance women with Apple Health. We've discussed this on the previous podcast.
Kai: Yes who would have thought that women have menstrual cycles not the team of solely male engineers who launched this product apparently.
Sandra: Apple has since recognised that and the app now includes period trackers as well. So it's now a health tool also for women. Google Plus had similar problems with requiring people on their social network to disclose their gender and that lead to a lot of harassment, things that were not predicted, again by a team that made the decision based on the technical argument that the software could more easily construct sentences like she shared a photograph.
Kai: So what we do in design thinking is we start with envisioning the world of the people we're designing for. So we're using a concept called personas. And I want to give a shout out to our colleagues at Ripple Effect, Anne and her team, for coining the phrase authentic persona. So this is really not grabbing a template, a stereotype of a general user off the shelf. This is really going through the motions of envisioning what the world of the particular people that we're designing for is like so that we can get an appreciation for what it's like to live in their world and therefore to affect change to their world by way of designing products for them. So this process really starts and should therefore value very highly those people skills.
Sandra: So designing not just the interface but designing the entire user experience.
Kai: Yes. In the sense that we're affecting change to their world, to their way of life, to the way in which they can go about a particular part of their life in a different way with the product that we're trying to design.
Sandra: Quite often these design choices are quite clear but there is a real danger when some of these design choices go into for instance building algorithms which are much less visible but have a huge influence in how we work, how we live, how we socialise, determining what news we read, whether we get the job or not, whom we date and so on. So the problem's only get exacerbated and we've discussed at length how these biases can creep into algorithms in our episode two weeks ago.
Kai: Well the good news is though that in many cases good designs are the results of team efforts. The question that I want to ask is why then is it that we have this myth of the lone genius to whom we attribute inventions such as Steve Jobs invented the iPhone. Clearly he did not do this by himself nor did he actually do this himself.
Sandra: I think this is not a problem that is specific to the tech industry or to engineers in general. The innovator inventor, lone ranger, lone genius myth is one that has been prevalent throughout history and especially in our Western culture.
Kai: So is this a product of our highly individualised Western society where we place so much emphasis on the contributions of particular individuals so is that something that we wouldn't see maybe in Eastern cultures?
Sandra: I think to a large extent yes. Also it rests a lot on the types of narratives that we can tell each other. So let's think for instance about the invention of something like penicillin. We have this story about Fleming who was this brilliant mad scientist who one day forgot his bacteria culture and it got contaminated by a fungus and the fungus killed everything by the time he got back into the lab. And lo and behold he had invented penicillin and this was 1928 and that's how the story gets told because that's an easy story to tell. It's much harder to tell a story about penicillin where from Fleming's discovery of the fungus it took almost 15 years for penicillin to become widespread in news because when he discovered it very few people took notice. Fleming wasn't a chemist so he didn't really know how to synthesise penicillin so that it could be widespread and useful. He discovered one small part of what needed to be a huge solution to a disease problem. And it took a decade for another couple of people to discover and understand the significance of this and to find the method to actually start experimenting on mice then experiment on humans, see these incredible results. But then it took another group of people to produce this in massive quantities and only by the early 1940s when the Second World War was raging the US war production began to enlist over 20 companies to start producing this at scale. So really whilst it's easier for us to tell a story of Fleming leaving something open and discovering penicillin it's actually him, it's a couple of chemists coming and understanding this and producing it at scale, it's a lot of testing and then it's a war and another 20 companies that made the effort to produce this at scale and for this to actually have a real impact but we're enamoured with stories we can tell and we can identify with.
Kai: Or take Steve Jobs. Yes. Steve Jobs was a charismatic leader. He certainly had a huge influence at Apple but he could not have invented or launched or produced the iPhone by himself. So what Apple did under Steve Jobs has always been a gigantic collaborative effort. And yes he used to be critical and he could be harsh and no one says that collaboration is holding hands and singing Kumbaya. But it's certainly a multi-person, very diversely skilled team that was responsible for creating the iPhone. And there's a lot of evidence that especially Steve Jobs and his team and John Ivy have a very deep understanding of the world of the people that they are designing for. So there's evidence that Steve Jobs thought about what education, what living in a classroom could and should be like long before the iPad was conceived so for them it always starts with the people they're designing for, even though we tend to look back and say oh look at Steve Jobs look at John Ivy they are these geniuses doing all of this. I think this is what we might call an attribution error, right? We like to have the myth of the lone genius because it gives us something to aspire to ourselves. And it's a much nicer story to tell. No one is interested in the story of the 15 people who worked long hours you know on nagging problems and finally launched a product.
Sandra: But quite often those are the real stories. And speaking of Engineers surprisingly with everything that's going on in the news some of the first computer programmers were actually women.
Kai: The NASA movie "Hidden Figures" shows that very nicely.
Sandra: So if you haven't seen it...
Kai: ...go and watch it.
Sandra: Go and watch it, Hidden Figures.
Kai: The story of three brilliant African-American women at NASA who were the brains behind one of the greatest operation in NASA's history - the launch of the first astronaut into orbit.
Sandra: So funnily enough computer programming was originally considered a woman's job. And let's be honest, many of the big science projects that we currently have ongoing are huge collaborative efforts. And whether that is something that is being done at one of the Frightful Five, one of these large companies where none of the products that Google or Facebook or anyone else is putting out, these are not single engineer products, to really huge projects, big science that we have like the Human Genome Project or the Large Hadron Collider which all involve thousands of people from a variety of disciplines and with a variety of skills, many of them that have to do with collaboration, with empathy, with communication that are absolutely essential for solving some of the big problems that we have.
Kai: So this brings us to our second story which also has to do with design.
Sandra: So this story is from The Ringer, and it asks can real life compete with the Instagram playground and it highlights places like the Museum of Ice Cream or the Paul Smith Pink Wall which provide the perfect drops for these highly crafted, highly authentic in quotes Instagram experiences.
Kai: So it talks about a new phenomenon. Places that are built mainly as backdrops for Instagram, for people to come in and photograph themselves in these spaces to then post to their Instagram accounts.
Sandra: The Instagram experience didn't start out like that so for instance the Paul Smith Pink Wall...
Kai: ...is a genuine shop...
Sandra: ...and it was created way before Instagram was even an app.
Kai: It is used in the article as an example of a perfectly Instagramable place which has inspired a lot of new colourful and playful spaces that cater exclusively to the audience who want to photograph themselves in exclusive, unique, authentic situations. The irony of which is of course that they create these streams of people pouring in to these locations to all do the same thing basically. Then it often starts out by engaging celebrities in the first instance to then motivate the crowds to come in and queue up and do the same thing.
Sandra: What makes a good Instagramable place?
Kai: Interestingly the article actually talks about what these spaces that cater for Instagram should look like and we find it quite interesting that they have a lot of paradoxical elements. So for example they should be highly exclusive.
Sandra: Yeah really accessible.
Kai: So everyone should be able to go in there. Of course they need to be brand new.
Sandra: Yet everybody should know about them.
Kai: Spaces like this should be able to accommodate everyone.
Sandra: Yet really create the illusion of being alone.
Kai: Obviously they have to look good in a selfie.
Sandra: Yet be big enough to accommodate huge crowds of people.
Kai: They have to look really cool.
Sandra: Yet be able to blend in the background.
Kai: And they have to be unique of course.
Sandra: Yet to provide a repeatable experience.
Kai: So these spaces really should give the individual a backdrop to express their very own authenticity.
Sandra: An authenticity that everyone else can share.
Kai: That's right. Which ironically is a mass phenomenon. So let's discuss the notion of authenticity here, because it's one of those things where Instagrammers can smell when a place is trying too hard and is being inauthentic and not suitable as an Instagramable place.
Sandra: In the very beginning Instagram used to be tied directly to this idea of a human experience in a particular place. So if we go back to the very beginning, Instagram was an app called "Burbn" from the drink but spelled differently. And this app would really allow you to check in at a particular location and make some plans around that location, hang out with friends and also post pictures of these meet ups. As the iPhone camera got invented the app creators discovered that actually the posting and sharing of photography were really the thing that people were using most. And they pivoted towards developing the app that now is called Instagram. That would only share photography and made that really simple. And the photographs that were initially shared were photographs that were directly linked to some sort of personal experience in a particular place.
Kai: Often a fairly informal documentation of what people would be doing to collect in a stream, a visual narrative of one's life.
Sandra: And they were linked to a family trip or a dinner with friends or a wedding reception or a morning coffee. Now they have been disconnected from the actual experience and authenticity became the picture itself.
Kai: So over time a certain aesthetic emerged around Instagram photography and people really got obsessed with what those pictures looked like rather than necessarily what they showed. So it is now very important that Instagram pictures are really pretty. They're really beautiful so people spend a lot of time creating the perfect Instagram picture. It has become a certain genre of photography but in the process creating those pictures has become kind of an end in itself.
Sandra: So really what this has led to is a professionalisation of Instagram and this is something that we have touched upon before when we did our episode on #VANLIFE.
Kai: Yes the way in which you know certain practices such as advertising colonise other practices and crowd out what they were about initially.
Sandra: What we have now with Instagram is an entire industry complete with interior designers, food designers, beauty experts, models, all these people who create the Instagram-look.
Kai: Restaurants that create food as Instagramable experiences. There's now restaurants where you can book the Instagram table that comes with great LED lighting to create the perfect scenery to photograph your food. There's restaurants in New York that hand out Instagram kits complete with LED lighting and selfie stick and backdrop for your food to really look good in those Instagram photos.
Sandra: You can get makeup that will give you the Instagram face.
Kai: Or as the article puts it "the whole world starts looking like an Instagram ad". But seriously what is happening now is that there is an industry that caters for Instagraming as a thing in itself. So there's places that are built solely to attract Instagrammers that would then come in, photograph the place, provide free advertising for more users to come in to then do exactly the same. And that's what it's all about.
Sandra: So really what we're seeing is an interesting interplay between on the one hand the democratisation that the platform like Instagram affords - we can all participate in this photo sharing and then with the professionalisation of the platform really a lot of the power being drawn away from the users and the users become the ones that are being used.
Kai: Yeah. So what tends to happen then is that some users get caught up in this rat race right. You're chasing these authentic experiences but you're not really being authentic because you're posting to comply with what Instagram requires in terms of aesthetic. While the original, more informal unscripted sharing of photographs moves on to other platforms and we're seeing this with the launch of Snapchat that has now taken over some of that posting which is now also already undergoing this professionalisation with more businesses streaming into that place.
Sandra: So really when this happens there are only two choices. And Instagram's CEO also recognises that there is this pressure on users to comply with the aesthetic of Instagram and with the need to have high quality postings. So on the one hand users as you mentioned have moved to other platforms or we see users posting on multiple platforms, posting on Instagram but also sharing off Snapchat or on Facebook or on other platforms where they feel they might keep all the photographs. Or we're seeing companies like Instagram attempting to provide new services that try to reintroduce some of that authenticity.
Kai: Recapture, rekindle some of that authenticity such as with the "stories" feature.
Sandra: So another one that we'll keep an eye on. Our last story for today however takes us in a completely different direction. We're going to talk about coal.
Kai: So this extends our discussion we had the other week about comparing electric cars with conventional cars. This is about a comparison between coal fired electricity generation and renewable energy and it comes on the back of an episode of Q & A on ABC television where an audience member asked the following question.
Audio: "Hi. Renewable energy is more carbon efficient and now cheaper than coal and other fossil fuels. And with the advent of battery technology may soon become more stable but the transition to renewable energy risks jobs in vulnerable communities of national party constituencies. So is there a way that we can transition to renewable energy in a way that doesn't include coal but still includes jobs for those vulnerable communities.
Sandra: So what we really want to find out is whether renewable energy is cheaper than coal energy.
Kai: Now here is the response he got from Resources Minister Senator Matt Canavan.
Audio: I don't accept the fact that renewables are at the moment cheaper than coal it's not the advice the Australian government has particularly when you look at the need for dispatchable power. We need to have electricity system which can provide energy on a permanent basis. On that basis, coal is still probably the cheapest way of doing that.
Sandra: So the article that we're referring to today is a fact check of the question of whether coal is still cheaper than renewables as an energy source. And it comes from The Conversation.
Kai: So this is a really good segment that The Conversation runs a fact check basically looks into the science behind the arguments that are being made on shows such as "Q & A"
Sandra: And really on anything in the media.
Kai: And in this instance we have Ken Baldwin who's the director of the Energy Change Institute at the Australian National University doing a calculation of the comparison between coal and renewable energies and we also get two reviews providing extra fact checks. So it's a really rigorous way of shedding some light on those truisms that are often tossed around in the media.
Sandra: And The Conversation's fact check unit is really the first one of its kind in Australia and it's one of the first ones in the world that's accredited by the international fact checking network. This is an alliance of fact checkers hosted at the Poynter Institute in the US.
Kai: So in a post truth world I think a very valuable initiative. Let's look at the facts here. And much like with the comparison of electric cars and conventional cars this is not a straightforward simple argument to make because we have to take into account a few things. Now one aspect is that most coal fired plants are already in existence and they have already recovered their capital costs so they are producing basically at marginal cost whereas most wind power plants and renewables are still in the process of recovering capital costs.
Sandra: So the first distinction we need to make is whether we're talking about an existing coal plant or whether we are talking about a coal fired power station that would be built today, that would be called a new belt price.
Kai: So the straightforward argument is that for existing coal fired plants in Australia the way in which they're currently run they produce at about 40 dollars a megawatt hour.
Sandra: Plus wind power costs between 60 and 70 dollars for a megawatt hour.
Kai: So current coal fired plants are producing cheaper energy to wind power that is coming into the market which tends to be the cheapest of the renewables. This result gets reversed once we look at.
Sandra: A new build supercritical coal power plant which would be at around.
Kai: 75 or more dollars per megawatt hour. So this is what is often tossed around as clean coal.
Sandra: And if we were to take that wind power today would be cheaper than coal as new build for both sources of electricity.
Kai: So that is significant for any new power plant that comes online, renewables are now competitive if not cheaper than conventional coal fired energy resources.
Sandra: So what else should we take into account when we do this calculation? Bottom line here is coal based energy we can produce today is cheaper than wind energy. But if we were to construct new coal power plants they would be costlier than renewable energy.
Kai: So that's the bottom line of the article. Now the additional reviews go on to say that if we take into account not only that there will be a price on carbon in the future in Australia but merely the risk that that might happen, would have to be already factored into the capital cost of financing new coal fired power plants. The equation becomes even worse for new coal fired plants. So that would extend the advantage that renewables would have. But we also want to point out and that comes on the back of another article that was published this week this time in the Guardian, which shows that the Australian coal power plants really have a much bigger problem.
Sandra: And that is they would be currently illegal in places like the US, most of Europe and China.
Kai: So most of those countries have much tougher regulation when it comes to pollution and also the article shows how lax the enforcement of the standards are that we have in Australia where a lot of the coal fired plants frequently exceed the already generous maximums. But they also consistently have been found to underreport their emissions. So the problem here is that there's a massive cost that becomes hidden and socialised in the health system, so this article provides the staggering number of two point six billion dollars in health costs that comes from pollution in the areas that are affected by coal fired power plants.
Sandra: So what we want to point out here is that it's quite easy to reduce such complex discussions to which one is cheaper per hour to produce. But what we're not seeing is all these other factors that actually would go into consideration of which one we prefer. And of course even with renewables we want to take into account that such technology does not run one hundred percent of the time and that there is probably a backup cost to be added in case we are using let's say wind as an energy source, large scale batteries would come to counter that. And indeed we're seeing Ikea for instance starting to sell batteries for the home.
Kai: Yes and South Australia is trialling solutions to draw on batteries in people's home that are coming online at an exponentially growing rate to make them part of the back up of the entire grid. So there's now intelligent solutions which will allow balancing the grids that is increasingly dependent on renewables by drawing on a distributed battery solution rather than just building massive storage plants. But also let's not forget that there are now renewable energy solutions that do provide baseline power such as the newly announced solar thermal power plant in Port Augusta in South Australia which basically works by a large number of mirrors projecting the sunlight onto a tower which then heats up molten salts which can then store heat and be used for electricity generation day and night basically. Which incidentally also provides those much needed new jobs in regional areas.
Sandra: And jobs has indeed been brought up as one of the arguments for keeping these coal fired plants. We want to know however that this is not necessarily the case with the new builds again. So we've seen for instance in the US in Michigan there were three coal power plants that employed about 500 people being replaced with a single natural gas facility that only requires 35 people to run. So the number of jobs really becomes comparable with renewable energies.
Kai: So it's often said that regulating coal fired power generation would actually kill jobs.
Sandra: But technology is doing that already.
Kai: Yes and we have a much bigger problem because without regulation that makes renewables competitive we're missing out on the jobs growth and the innovation that happens in those industries which is now happening in other places Europe but also mainly in China. So we're not benefiting on the back of that. And what is worse with the rest of the world switching to renewables at a mass scale in generating their power, the coal prices dropping, which of course when you're only interested in electricity prices, which seems to be the main argument in Australia at the moment, locks us in to coal fired power even further which really runs the danger that we are being left behind and become a really dirty corner of the world.
Sandra: We don't want to become that dirty corner of the world.
Kai: No. The irony however is and there is a segment on the ABC Catalyst that showed that quite nicely recently, is that with a lack of initiative in the industry and from the regulators, people are taking matters into their own hands. So solar and especially solar batteries are now becoming increasingly popular and Australia is actually leading the way in individual adoption of battery technology in people's homes because guess what, the low prices for coal fired power does not translate into lower consumer prices which are among the highest in the world.
Sandra: And this will only become a more widespread technology as places like Ikea, we've seen recently will start to sell batteries for the home.
Kai: Which brings us back to one of our favourite topics, which is disruption.
Sandra: I thought it was batteries.
Kai: Yes but in this case it's battery disruption. So we're really seeing the makings of a bottom up disruption of this industry where the lack of regulation might actually in the long term play against the industry and lead to a disruption that grows slowly but once it hits and we've seen these wide spreads distributed power generation being adopted, might really change the face of the industry. And there's already new start-ups that are coming in that allow landlords to harvest solar energy and sell it to their tenants that provide new solutions for solar power plants in strata.
Sandra: Or sharing.
Kai: Absolutely sharing where whole suburbs can share a solar infrastructure. So we're really seeing some interesting technological solution and a bottom up movement that might change the face of this industry.
Sandra: And speaking of disruption the big announcement for this week.
Kai: So there's a shout out - DISRUPT.SYDNEY, the business school's disruption conference, in its fifth year happens on the 22nd of September. The topic this year is Imagining the Future. We have a really interesting line up of speakers talking about all kinds.
Sandra: Really the BEST line up we have had yet.
Kai: We have talks on imagining the future, on organizing innovation, governance in changing environments. We have workshops by Capgemini, Commonwealth Bank, Ripple Effect group, on such topics as the role of science fiction in envisioning the future, the role of people in design in innovation. So a lot of those topics that we've been talking on the podcasts are being brought to life.
Sandra: And speaking of topics we've covered on the podcast you will be able to also...
Kai: Meet Mike. So the first time the Australian public gets to see Mike's digital avatar in action. It is quite spectacular.
Sandra: So come please join us at DISRUPT.SYDNEY on the 22nd of September. All of the details will be in our show notes. We hope you can make it!
Kai: Or visit disruptsydney.com.
Sandra: And that's all we have time for today.
Kai: Thank you for listening.
Sandra: Thanks for listening.
Outro: This was The Future, This Week, made possible by the Sydney Business Insights team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week, right here with us our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good and keeps us honest. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online, on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news you want us to discuss please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.