The Global Stretch for Yield

0 Comments

The deepening economic crisis in Venezuela has left many residents scrambling to secure basic necessities. When they can, tens of thousands stream into Colombia to buy food and other supplies. Looting is an everyday occurrence. And last month, a study found that half of sixth graders attending public schools had gone to bed hungry in the past week. The situation in Venezuela is an unwelcome reminder of what happens when food becomes scarce.

The Latin American country’s crisis is the result of a political failure, but poor management is not the only cause of shortfalls. Demand shocks, like supply disruptions, can have a similarly devastating effect. And because of rising demand over the coming decades, we’ll need to produce a lot more food or expect to see shortages on a global scale.

shelves

The National Intelligence Council expects worldwide demand for food to grow at least 35% between 2012 and 2030. This is driven by population growth, but also by rising incomes. That’s because as people get wealthier, their diets shift towards more protein, fruits, vegetables, sugars, oils, and fats. Per capita consumption of fish, for example, is expected to rise 11.7% over the next decade in developing countries (excluding Sub-Saharan Africa). Dairy consumption? A whopping 21.6%. And don't forget that animals themselves must eat, so the impact on grains will be even larger.

To many, such a demand boom conjures images of Malthusian shortages and widespread famine. While some may foresee a Venezuela-like future, the global risk of such shortages in the short run is greatly diminished by a host of developments that promise to increase food yields.


As people get wealthier, their diets shift towards more protein, fruits, vegetables, sugars, oils, and fats.


As a recent report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the OECD argues, we could meet future food demand primarily by extending prevailing productivity levels to low-yield regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, and, to a much lesser extent, increasing the area we farm on. The report predicts no supply shortfalls in the next ten years, with 80% of increased crop output coming from yield increases, especially in low-productivity regions.

In addition to increasing global crop yields, shifting the type of animal protein consumed can help offset rising demand. Given that fish are far more efficient at converting feed into protein than cattle, a shift from beef to fish would significantly reduce pressure on supply. A booming aquaculture industry has already enabled record global per capita fish consumption. We shouldn’t be surprised to more frequently see fish farms popping up in unexpected places, from the foundation of what was supposed to be the world’s tallest building in China, to the guts of cargo ships.

But it’s not just changing the kind of protein we farm that will help. Scientists are working hard at engineering the fish themselves to be more productive. Last November, the FDA approved a genetically modified salmon that grows twice as fast to market weight as its organic half-sibling (although the organization has since delayed the import of the fish). According to Aquabounty, the developer of the modified salmon, their fish requires 25% less food. Researchers and chefs are also exploring alternative protein sources to meet demand, from algae and peas to crickets and lab-grown meat.

fish

Despite the optimism of scientists and economists alike, there is one gigantic factor that could make meeting global food demand more difficult: climate change. Shifts in temperatures and an onslaught of droughts threaten to lower yields, and regulations associated with climate change mitigation could raise costs. Here’s a map showing potential changes in yields for corn, potato, rice, and wheat by 2050 across the globe. In response to the threat of diminished yields, scientists are trying to genetically engineer crops that could resist these environmental pressures, but it is unclear whether progress will be fast enough. And if political backlash to Frankenfoods enters this mix, the pace may slow further.

The stakes are high. One model projected that food shortfalls caused by climate change could result in over half a million deaths by 2050. And let’s not forget that food price spikes drive social unrest, which could compound the chaos and add to the death toll caused by hunger. Countries in the Middle East and Africa are particularly vulnerable. And indeed, researchers believe that climate change exacerbated a drought that helped bring on the conflict in Syria, which has been called “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II,” claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and displacing millions more.

crowd

The connection between climate, food, and politics is likely to capture more and more headlines in the coming decades. Let’s hope human ingenuity helps us continue to grow yield, and that climate change mitigation efforts prove effective. The combination of those two developments may just be enough for us to avoid the many tragedies that accompany food shortages.

Whatever happens, we can all benefit from taking a step back and noticing the interdependence of what on the surface might seem like disparate forces.

To Innovate, Embrace Breadth

0 Comments

For many, innovation calls to mind images of mad scientists and genius engineers. The hyper-specialization they represent is, however, only part of the story. In fact, nurturing a broad range of perspectives is just as critical for progress as monolithic domain expertise.

Bringing different points of view to the table turbocharges problem solving, as the results of science and innovation competitions attest. In these contests, organizations offer prizes to those who offer the best solution to an engineering or scientific problem. In a 2010 study of 166 science competitions, researchers Lars Bo Jeppesen and Karim R. Lakhani found that submissions were more likely to win when offered either by a woman or someone coming from a field different than the one at hand. Yet another reason for business to embrace gender equality!

The success of these two overlapping groups suggested that a diversity of perspectives can generate better solutions, particularly if outsiders—whether social or technical—are included. (The authors consider women outsiders in this context because they are subject to “systematic social exclusion…in the natural sciences.”) Less constrained by the baggage of conventional thought within a domain, outsiders can offer novel ideas and independent assessments. Distance from an issue, it seems, is an asset, not a liability.


Outsiders can offer novel ideas and independent assessments.


In the 18th century, the British government offered a large prize to anyone who could invent a technique for measuring longitude while at sea. Jeppesen and Lakhani point out that “Sir Isaac Newton, the principal scientific advisor on the Longitude Board, had boldly asserted that only astronomical solutions were possible and were anyway to be preferred.” But the winning answer came from a clockmaker, not an astronomer—a testament to how difficult it is to predict where progress will come from in advance.

Thanks to the internet, we have seen a proliferation of innovation competitions supplying a wealth of similar stories. For instance, a marine scientist was able to fix a health shake company’s problem with the coloring of its product thanks to his experience working with seawater. In another example, a chemist with no experience in the petroleum industry proposed a novel solution to oil spill cleanup. The answer came to him by serendipity, informed by his experience working a summer job in construction. As a research program manager from the Oil Spill Research Institute put it, “Within the oil-spill response industry, there are a limited number of people to work on these problems….I’m fascinated to see that our winning solution uses related technology found in the cement industry. We would never have found this through our regular process.”

MEETING

Outsiders solve problems by applying their unique points of view in unpredictable ways. And it’s not just disparate experts that can add value in this manner. Users are another vital source of independent perspective. In a 2012 study, the scholars Marion K. Poetz and Martin Schreier examined an Austrian company’s attempt to gather product ideas both from in-house experts and users. Judging the contributions blindly, the company’s executives found the users’ ideas to be both more novel and more beneficial to consumers than the professionals’.

The creativity of amateurs is not particularly surprising: there are countless examples of innovations we take for granted coming from users, as MIT Sloan’s Eric Von Hippel has described. For instance, according to Von Hippel and two co-authors, “The skateboard was developed and built by children for their own use. They did it by taking apart a kind of roller skate that attached to shoes and hammering the skate wheels onto boards (thus, ‘skateboard’).” Or take Twitter, where users first adopted retweets, hashtags, and @-replies as conventions before they were built into the architecture of the social network.

While having a wide range of viewpoints on a team is critical, it’s also extremely useful to have a breadth of perspective within each team member. Another competition study found that participants with experience in a range of domains were more likely to make substantial contributions. They were also more likely to help moderate discussion and provide feedback to their peers. As the authors put it, “Apparently, a broad stock of knowledge…helps participants understand the solutions provided by others, and so enables individuals to combine previous suggestions in a meaningful way.”


It’s also useful to have a breadth of perspective within each team member.


Breadth of communities complements a broad base of knowledge. Social scientists studying a music technology forum found that “people who spanned communities were confronted by other means of solving problems that spurred their ability to innovate and provoked the community members to think differently.” From their knowledge base to their social ties, individuals’ breadth can be just as important as breadth across a team.

Recruiters of all stripes should keep this in mind when trying to find the elusive “perfect” match for an open position. Why not consider a less obvious candidate for a tough-to-fill position?  He or she might offer fresh perspectives, independent thinking, and much-needed freedom from prevailing logic.

Because many innovations arise from combining distinct perspectives in unexpected ways, we should seek out those with viewpoints different from our own. Bottom line: in a world that prizes hyper-specialization above all else, the power of breadth can differentiate you from the crowd.

How All Technology Could Fail At Once

0 Comments

We live in a scary world, where cyber attacks and shootings compete for headlines with pandemics and climate change. The threat landscape is, to put it bluntly, very crowded. Amid this clamor, there’s one danger that warrants more attention, as it could shake the very foundations of society.

Specifically, I’m talking about an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, one that could bring down the electrical grid and cause communication, healthcare, transportation and other systems to fail. In the worst-case scenario, modern society would abruptly lose the benefit of over a century of technological progress.

How could this happen? Nuclear explosions cause immediate destruction by releasing an enormous shock wave and burst of heat. When occurring at high altitudes, they also create a large pulse of electromagnetic radiation. The EMP generates a massive spike in voltage that can bring down electrical grids and damage electronic devices and systems.

StarfishPrime

In a 1962 nuclear test, known as “Starfish Prime,” the United States detonated a nuclear bomb 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean. The explosion generated a dazzling sight, with hotels hosting “Rainbow Bomb Parties” for onlookers. The resulting EMP disabled satellites and even disrupted telephones and streetlights in Hawaii.  Military strategists soon realized attackers could leverage this effect to disable a nation’s infrastructure.

What would the aftermath of such an EMP attack look like? It’s not pretty. The bestselling 2009 science fiction novel One Second After describes one grim possibility. Because electronic systems fail, transportation, communication, and refrigeration all cease, resulting in shortfalls of food and medicine. 90% of the US population dies.

Think this is mere fiction? Think again.  Here’s how a study from the National Academy of Sciences describes a possible aftermath: “collateral effects of a longer-term outage would likely include, for example, disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure; and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration.”


What would the aftermath of an EMP attack look like?  It’s not pretty.


Thankfully, we’ve never suffered such an attack—but we have considered dishing one out on our enemies. According to Newsweek, during the early 1990s Gulf War, “the U.S. commander in the gulf, General Norman Schwarzkopf, requested authorization to explode a nuclear device high over Iraq at the start of hostilities...[in order to] generate a massive electromagnetic pulse, which would shut down every electronic device in Iraq.” One source claimed the request made it to President Bush, who rejected it.

A devastating disruption of the kind envisioned by General Schwarzkopf could happen even without an attack. A solar storm could generate the same effect. And that’s not just a theory—it’s happened before. In 1989, “a vast cloud of…plasma” ejected from the sun caused a 12-hour blackout in Quebec. An even more extreme space weather event—expected to occur approximately every 150 years—could result in worse blackouts and cost the US as much as $2.6 trillion.

So what can we do about this risk? To begin, we need to understand it and raise awareness. James Woolsey, the former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, has highlighted the existential risks to America's critical infrastructureScientists, politicians, and investors alike have joined Mr. Woolsey in working to bring attention to the issue.

Target

Beyond communication, there are also concrete steps we can take to limit the potential impact of an EMP. One possibility is to upgrade our national grid to be more resilient. The congressional EMP commission estimated this would cost around $2 billion, a very small amount relative to the potential damage. Unfortunately, the government has made little progress implementing the necessary upgrades.

While the risks of EMP disruption are quite concerning, some think focusing on the threat is overly alarmist. Critics highlight the technical difficulty of an EMP attack, adding that an enemy with a nuclear bomb would be much more likely to deploy it directly on an urban target. But even they concede the solar threat alone justifies precautionary measures. On the bright side, a upgrade to our aging early warning systems for dangerous solar storms goes online this month.

Clearly, though, more investments are needed. Ignoring critical vulnerabilities is risky business. And the stakes are rising every day as our reliance on technology grows in every realm of our lives. As we continue building increasingly robust infrastructure, we should also develop contingency plans for technological breakdowns. For however much we bolster our systems, unexpected failures can rapidly cascade through our interconnected modern society.

As noted in Joe Nichols’ hit song “The Impossible,” we need to think about the unthinkable: “unsinkable ships sink, unbreakable walls break, sometimes the things you think would never happen, happen just like that… I’ve learned to never underestimate the impossible.

The Economic Upside of Gender Equality

0 Comments

Persistent gender disparities in business are an enormous problem, from both ethical and economic perspectives. Achieving gender equality would unleash tremendous economic upside.

While growing in visibility since the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, the issue has not received the full attention it deserves. But this is starting to change. The McKinsey Global Institute has been addressing it head-on and noted in a recent report that achieving gender equality in the workplace could add $4.3 trillion to America’s GDP in 2025. 40% of this GDP uplift, the report notes, comes from higher female participation in the labor pool, 30% from narrowing the gap between men and women who work part time, and 30% from changing the mix of sectors in which women work.

Although ongoing, progress on this issue has been uneven— particularly in the two key areas of representation and compensation. Female representation has grown in fields like medicine and law over the years, but in computer science it dropped off sharply in the mid-1980s, as tech firms began to market personal computers as toys for boys. The 2014 Athena Factor 2.0 report on women in science, technology, and engineering cited “hostile macho cultures” and “scarcity of effective sponsors” as key drivers of the continued gender imbalance. Today, women comprise only 22% of coders.

SiliconValley

Shortfalls exist in specific fields, but across them all, underrepresentation increases sharply on higher rungs of the corporate ladder. According to the World Economic Forum, the tech sector experiences one of the biggest drop-offs in female representation from junior to senior positions—but it’s not alone. Across all industries, “there are just 66 women for every 100 men in business-leadership and managerial positions,” a McKinsey report noted.

These shortfalls drive compensation gaps. According to Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, disparities are minimal early in careers. But the gender wage gap persists because, later on, social expectations lead women to seek out jobs offering “temporal flexibility”—manageable hours associated with lower compensation.

Graph

In one study, Goldin found that while Chicago MBA alums of both genders earned comparable salaries after graduation, a decade later, the women earned 43% less. In addition to the expense of temporal flexibility, unconscious bias and inequality in salary negotiations may also be to blame. The latter forces in particular may help to explain the much-discussed slights to successful women such as Jennifer Lawrence and Robin Wright.

Countries and companies are using a variety of strategies to resolve inequities in business. Some, like Norway, have mandated seats be reserved for women on corporate boards. Evidence suggests this is working. Others, like companies in Silicon Valley, are increasingly transparent about disparities and are setting explicit goals to address them.

Policies encouraging both parents to take parental leave also help. A 2010 Swedish study showed that “a mother’s future earnings increase on average 7 percent for every month the father takes leave,” according to the New York Times. In the US, Silicon Valley companies have been particularly proactive in promoting parental leave policies.

Parents

We have a long way to go to achieve parity both in representation and pay. In some of the most unequal professions—like finance and medicine—women make only 60% of what men make. And among S&P 500 companies, women only hold 20% of board seats. We need bold public and corporate policies to resolve these issues.

Achieving gender parity isn’t just ethical. It’s also good for business. Bloomberg recently released a gender equality index for large companies, signaling a newfound interest among profit-hungry investors.  And with good reason: gender balance drives earnings. Monique Morrow, Chief Technology Officer and Evangelist for Cisco’s New Frontiers Development and Engineering, points to a recent study showing that companies were 15% more profitable when women filled roughly a third or more of key leadership roles.

And the benefits will accrue beyond individual firms.  As the McKinsey report suggests, gender equality will boost the economy as a whole.  Warren Buffet put it succinctly: “We’ve seen what can be accomplished when we use 50% of our human capacity. If you visualize what 100% can do, you’ll join me as an unbridled optimist about America’s future.”


Achieving gender parity isn’t just ethical. It’s also good for business. 


Women also add innovation capacity to the firms in which they work. A 2010 study of science challenges found that women performed better than men, postulating that female participants, being more socially marginal in scientific fields, were less burdened by the conventional wisdom that governed their male peers. On the software repository GitHub, researchers found that women’s contributions to open source projects were more likely to be accepted than men’s—but only if the women’s gender was hidden. Barring better representation, the technologies we design may be doomed to myopia.

In the end, both moral and business imperatives will drive gender parity. How will we know when the task is complete? As Morrow has put it, we’ll know we’ve succeededwhen we don’t have to talk about it anymore. When we don’t need special conferences around the topic.

 

Subscribe To My Newsletter