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Public debts, cost-cutting measures and increased focus on mobile devices to improve productivity


Public debt has been a growing concern for many governments across the world. Despite efforts to control spending and increase tax revenue, many countries are facing record-high levels of government debt. This situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led governments to take on additional debt to fund stimulus packages and support struggling industries.

The challenge now for governments is to balance the need to stimulate economies and provide social services with the need to keep public debt under control. Failure to do so can lead to economic instability, inflation, and reduced access to credit markets. Across the world, governments are taking different approaches to manage their public debt.

In Europe, several countries have implemented austerity measures to reduce debt levels. This has led to cuts in social and welfare programs, reduced public sector employment, and increased taxes. The UK, for example, reduced its deficit from 10% of GDP in 2010 to 2.4% in 2017 through austerity measures.

In contrast, Japan has taken a more expansionary approach to public debt. The country’s debt-to-GDP ratio is over 230%, one of the highest in the world. However, the Japanese government has been able to borrow at very low interest rates due to a high level of domestic savings. The government has used this low borrowing cost to fund infrastructure projects and stimulate economic growth.

In the United States, public debt has been increasing steadily since the 1980s. The country’s debt-to-GDP ratio was 130% in 2020, and is projected to continue rising in the coming years. The government has focused on stimulating economic growth through tax cuts and infrastructure spending. However, this has led to concerns about the long-term sustainability of the country’s debt levels.

Governments globally are increasingly looking for ways to reduce expenses that come with running public services, and a couple are resorting to outsourcing public services to private companies. There are various examples of how governments are cutting cost by outsourcing public service.

Private businesses can deliver services at a lower fee compared to a government agency that has numerous legal and bureaucratic procedures. For instance, the United States government has outsourced federal jobs such as maintenance, food service, and information technology, among others, to private companies. This has resulted in $4 billion in savings annually.

However, we need to also consider its drawbacks. Companies would most likely prioritize profit over service delivery, putting the quality of service provided to taxpayers at risk. Outsourcing public services also creates an accountability issue, leaving the government with some challenges over the service delivery process. No matter how poor the contractors are, the public will always hold the government accountable for unsatisfactory performance.

Apart from outsourcing public services, I noted an interesting trend, i.e. as governments across the world look for ways to cut costs and streamline operations, more are turning to the use of mobile devices to assist in supervisory roles. While this approach can be productive and efficient, it does come with some privacy concerns.

Mobile devices have become ubiquitous in our lives, so it’s not surprising that governments are exploring ways to use them to their advantage. As I mentioned, one area where they can be particularly useful is in supervisory roles. By using mobile devices, supervisors can easily access information about their teams, including productivity metrics and communication logs. This can help them identify areas where there are problems and make changes quickly.

However, the use of mobile devices in this way does have some privacy implications. Employees may feel uncomfortable knowing that their every move is being tracked and monitored. Additionally, there is always the risk of the data being hacked or otherwise compromised.

The use of mobile devices in supervisory roles increases the risk of cyber-attacks, such as data breaches, hacking, and unauthorized access to sensitive information, which can result in reputational and financial damages. The use of personal devices for work purposes can further increase the risk as these devices may not have adequate security measures in place. Security of such devices could be compromised easily.

Mitigating these risks is not easy, so proactive measures must be undertaken to protect their mobile devices and the information stored in them. This includes setting up strong cybersecurity measures and regularly updating software. Company’s security policies must also be followed, such as the use of virtual private networks (VPN) and avoiding public Wi-Fi networks for work purposes.

Governments that are considering this approach need to carefully weigh the benefits against the risks. They should put in place strict privacy policies and procedures to ensure that employees’ privacy rights are protected. By doing so, they can reap the benefits of this innovative approach to cost cutting while still respecting the privacy of their workers.

As technology becomes an increasingly integral part of our lives, privacy concerns have also been on the rise. People are becoming more aware of the vast amounts of personal data that technology providers collect, and are understandably cautious about how that sensitive information is being used. But this issue isn’t limited to consumers – it extends to employees as well. As workers become more reliant on technology for their jobs, it’s essential that we ensure their privacy is respected.

Employers have a duty to protect their employees’ privacy, even if those workers are technically contracted under the company. This means taking steps to safeguard sensitive data and limiting access to only those who need it. For example, companies can implement role-based access controls, which ensure that only employees who require certain data to do their jobs can view it.

It’s also important for companies to be transparent about their privacy policies and the types of data they collect. Employees should be informed about what information is being collected, how it’s being used, and who has access to it. This transparency helps to establish trust and builds a culture of privacy within the organization.

Finally, companies must also be aware of the social and legal ramifications of privacy violations. Breaches of employee privacy can harm a company’s reputation and lead to legal action being taken against it. Therefore, it’s in their best interest to ensure that they are taking all necessary steps to safeguard their employees’ privacy.

As technology continues to play an ever-increasing role in our lives, the need for privacy protections becomes more urgent. Employers have an obligation to respect their employees’ privacy, and must take the necessary steps to ensure that their data remains secure. By doing so, they can create a culture of trust and empower their workers to use technology confidently and effectively.

Environment degradation, extinction of animals and how genetic engineering might play a future role in reversing the damage


Written by Zeng Han-Jun


Intuitively, many of us would presume that the reduction of animal populations in tropical forests and oceans, might be linked to the acceleration of climate change. And they would not be too far off because recent studies have shown that losses of animals and fishes do, in a way, lower the forests’ and oceans’ ability to store carbon, which might otherwise accelerate global warming. So how does it happen?


Firstly, tropical forests store roughly about 40% of the world’s carbon, but that carbon is released into the atmosphere when forests are degraded or destroyed. Huge animals such as large primates, tapirs, and toucans play important roles in dispersing the seeds of the largest trees that store the most carbon. For example, these animals consume fruits from trees, move around the forest, then move its bowels, thereby planting the seeds further away and new trees sprout from there. This process helps to maintain a healthy forest.


As a result, a fall in those animal populations has a direct impact on how successfully these forest environments can naturally maintain itself and prevent carbon from entering the atmosphere.


Secondly, the oceans are also critical part of the Earth’s carbon cycle, because it exchanges carbon dioxide with the atmosphere, which is a significant greenhouse gas connected to global warming and climate change.


Organic carbon may move from the top to the ocean depths via a natural process known as the biological pump, which occurs when algal material or fecal pellets from fishes and other creatures sink. Algae that are floating at the ocean’s surface, take in carbon dioxide that is absorbed by the large water body surface. The algae may sink directly into the ocean or gets eaten up by fishes and other creatures, excreting it as fecal pellets which then sink to the bottom of the ocean. Of course, this is just one of the ways how carbon dioxide is being absorbed. It could also happen due to the mixing of ocean waters.


Carbon that sinks below the ocean surface layer is sequestered, or stored, at the bottom of the ocean for hundreds of years or more, depending on the depth and location of the organic carbon export. This natural mechanism produces a sink that serves to balance the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.


Some of these animals, are very important nodes of these natural cycles and many of them are becoming extinct, like some species of whales, tigers, elephants, gorillas, rhinos, dolphins, etc. Many of us cannot appreciate how close these animal species are to extinction because they are often represented in children’s story books, television shows and movies. As these media platforms continue to air and showcase these animals, we might develop a false expectation that they would continue to exist, far into the future.


The reality?


We have only around 50,000 Asian elephants left in the world. The Sumatran elephants have it even worse, at around 2,000 plus left. As for tigers, many of them are disappearing from the face of Earth. The last sighting of a South China Tiger was in 1996 and there is roughly about 200 plus Malayan Tigers left in the wilderness. Also, due to deforestation, there is roughly about 200 plus Cross River Gorillas and 50 plus Javan Rhinos left.


Can you imagine if we are left with around 50 humans in the entire world?


Our environment and climate are changing steadily, and in some parts of the world, it is increasingly becoming very difficult for these animal species to survive. For the past few years, we have already lost the Northern White Rhinoceros, Baiji dolphins, Simeulue Hill myna, Lost shark, Smooth hand fish, Lake Lanao freshwater fish, Spined dwarf mantis and many more. Research by WWF showed that several species of Rhinos, Leopards, Orangutans, Gorillas, Tigers and many others will become extinct in the near- to mid-future.


There are many mechanical means of reforestation. Mechanical methods of harvesting fruits and sieving out seeds. Monitoring of Earth’s surface for green coverage and then streaming these data to cleverly crafted algorithms to guide drones for seed dispersal, green regeneration, battery charging and maybe even monitoring illegal poaching. But I think we should remind ourselves, from time to time, that the natural eco-system already has in place processes to regulate and maintain the health of forests and oceans. So, the mechanical methods should adapt as much as possible to natural-based solutions.


Zoos and nature parks are also some ways to slow down their extinction and like many organizations, proper governance, good consultancy and transparency, in addition to sufficient funding, might go a long way in aiding this cause.  Another promising area is in the domain of genetics research.


Several recent genetics research around the world has produced favorable results in reviving certain bird strains, and this could be a game changer in protecting animal species. Genetic engineering has its problems, but it also has moral and ethical value in today’s society; hence, a new field of ethics is born to study and shed light on the ethical part of this field: bioethics. Bioethics is a branch of study as well as a professional practice concerned with ethical questions of science and technology and it is typically connected to problems like environment, well-being and public.


The topic of genetic engineering in reviving extinct species, could possibly surface more often in the future, and we most likely would see more conversational engagements between this scientific field and the ethics part of the equation. As such, more healthy ongoing engagements is key to achieving consensus to moving things forward (or backward in this case).


We need more accurate data about the current situation of both forests and oceans. However, with the ongoing tension between countries, promoting the use of monitoring and surveillance systems to obtain detailed understanding of animal and marine lives, could easily be misconstrued as being linked to military operations.


Aside from that, we need to present these data in a simple-to-understand format. From my experience, quite a number of people cannot connect with lengthy essays, professionally drawn charts and tables that are peppered with terms such as “experts”, “government” and the likes. There has to be a lot of purposeful storytelling with diverse representations, plus it should ideally be presented in an entertaining manner. I envision those collaborations with story writers, film makers (both short and long), meme creators, NFT artists and game developers to get some good mileage in disseminating such insights on the ground.


I mean, why not? Luxury watch makers are collaborating with management consultants in launching new watch series. Luxury car makers are collaborating with sneaker designers to launch new cars. Collaborations across traditional siloes could help to spark new products and reach new audience. Finally, we need to create platforms for real conversations to take place and put in place processes that could translate these discussions to impactful actions.



The future of urban migration, green construction and turning carbon dioxide into building materials


Written by Zeng Han-Jun


Most people aspire to better their lives. Some achieve it by seeking better employment opportunities and others through migration. There are many ways to achieving it and no matter which channel they rely on, I think that one of the driving factors, is because they are aware that it is attainable. In the past, there are some people who had no way of knowing how they could progress in life. To do so meant that they had to either: adopt a shotgun approach, trying out many different options and seeing which would yield results or simply just forging ahead with whatever opportunities that they had, without knowing and/ or caring how things would turn out.


Technology is changing everything. Information is freely available everywhere as long as you have access to at least 2G internet network. Now, with the speed at how internet technology is progressing, there is a very high chance that most of us would be enjoying much cheaper internet services and greater internet coverage. Cheaper internet allows more people to digest contents from social platforms and this increases awareness of how others in foreign countries are living their lives, for example, eating habits, living conditions, working conditions, salaries drawn and so on.


Against this backdrop, some might start to think that the grass is greener on the other side and then aspire to migrate, for that kind of lifestyle. This is one of the factors that drive migration and will increasingly be so. In fact, I believe that the focus should be on urban migration because many of the office-based jobs that the younger generations yearn for, are mostly based in urban environment.


For perspective, according to World Bank’s data, the urban and rural populations in 2007 were almost exactly equal at 3.33 billion each. Fast forward to 2020, the urban populations has increased beyond 4.4 billion, while the world’s rural populations had increased only slightly beyond 3.4 billion. We cannot be sure if this is due solely to urban migration, but by observing the shape of the trend, the plain reality is that our urban population is increasing at an increasing rate. Also, it appeared that the rural population has started to taper off in 2020 and might set to decrease in the short-term future.



This shows clearly that more people want to migrate to urban environment. As such, governments in choice areas for migration will have to tackle this issue and this could mean allocating substantial amount of public funding and also chaperoning more private investments into building more urban spaces for this group of people. They need to anticipate this and prepare in advance so that they are able to develop sufficient buffer to maintain the livability of their environment.


The below chart, reproduced from WEF, reveals some interesting trends, painting North America, western parts of Europe and Australia as the traditional centers of migration growth. In the same chart, it highlighted cities like Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo, Bangkok, eastern parts of Europe, Southern Africa, certain places in South America, etc as the new centers of migration growth. As such, the livability of these centers of new migration growth is going to be an important topic because it will be one of the defining factors when it comes to attracting talents.



The livability of urban environment is the outcome of the balance among important factors such as the ability of a society in providing sufficient and good employment opportunities, ensuring high quality of life and fostering an environmentally friendly built environment. It is a dynamic process; its outcome constantly being shaped by movement of people in and out of the urban environment.


Facilitating the movement of people has its fair share of challenges, some of which could disturb the sensitive balance of livability in many societies.  One way to solving this, is through creative and innovative shaping of urban environment so that it allows for sufficient living spaces, non-disruptive flow of people and goods, and designing pockets of areas for somewhat private gatherings. All these without stifling the exuberance of the human spirit.



This is achievable, a concept that has been brought to life in some of the best parks in the world and it could be adapted for urban environment as well – a clever fusion of the natural environment and elements and infrastructure, combined with a keen understanding of social behavior. There are also many naturally occurring environments that foster this kind of openness and dynamic interactions. These types of spaces could also be found in pockets of forests or along flowing rivers where wonderous diversity of organisms live together in high density. Similar concepts could be found in many other parts of nature as well. Nature is an excellent source of inspiration.


One thing for sure. Reimagination of our built environment to handle increasing urban migration, will require substantial amount of construction work. These construction works must be strategically planned, so that we could avoid the urban sprawl that is found in many cities around the world. Another thing to note, is that construction is both energy- and material-intensive. The sector is significant in GHG emissions and when adding emissions from the building construction industry on top of operational emissions, the sector accounted for 38% of total global energy-related CO2 emissions. Urban migration trend could push this figure up as the years go by.



In fact, the effects would be more pronounced in the new centers for migration growth, that is, Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo, Bangkok, eastern parts of Europe, Southern Africa, certain places in South America, etc. And because of the possible uptrend of carbon emission and how such metrics are being reported internationally, these locations could become possible candidates for being flagged out as high environmental polluters because of their construction activities in the short- to medium-term future.



Most of these new centers of future migration growth, already have high trading volume.  It would be risky to their trading activities if these countries were flagged out as high environmental polluters, as this would stress trade agreements and impede supply chain in the short- and medium-term future.


Timber is already in very short supply. Switching to timber form of construction, could potentially attract bad actors into the market space and result in even more illegal logging of trees. Advancements in satellite and traceability technology could slow down these bad actors and foster sustainable harvesting.


However, even with sustainable and regenerative techniques, we need to be aware that trees, like all products of nature, need sufficient time to grow into healthy status before it is ripe for timbering. For the trees to reach their full growth, it really depends on the climate and the water available. First, our climate is changing therefore the effect on trees is unpredictable. Second, we are running out of fresh water and seeping of saltwater inland is already threatening many fauna and flora species around the world. In tropical climates with warm weather and a plentiful water supply, a tree could become fully grown in 30 years. A tree in cooler regions may take several hundred years to reach full maturity depending on the tree species.


Until we have rejuvenated our green lushes to a balance point, we might need to change the way we construct our urban spaces via green steel, green concrete, green design and so on. Not just moderating and lowering the amount of carbon emissions from these construction activities but thinking of methods to harness carbon dioxide and turning them into building materials. That means being bold with our approaches, elevating ourselves beyond the Net Zero principal. One promising area of research is upcycling carbon dioxide into building materials such as concrete.


Cement production, which is used to make concrete, accounts for up to 5% of total global carbon emissions. Current research and development efforts have demonstrated that reduction of the carbon and water footprint in concrete production can be achieved by curing it with waste CO2 rather than with water. Again, I have to highlight that water scarcity is affecting many parts of the world and we need to think of ways to reduce the amount of water that is used in industrial and construction activities.


Direct carbon capture technology is already available to augment this process, but the process of harnessing carbon dioxide for concrete production has not been able to reach the point whereby it could scale commercially. Countries that could fast-track this development are those that already have strong private-public partnership between the building regulators, research community and builders. These bodies of collaboration are in an excellent position to capture the future market of green construction.

Leveraging recyclables to hedge against rising prices of raw materials


Written by Zeng Han-Jun


The driving force that is pushing for cleaner energy is clear. Urbanization will continue in many parts of the world and the challenges for the next lap, will still be the same, that is to provide relatively good quality housing, adequate nourishments and sufficient economic opportunities. Albeit this time, there is an intense focus on ensuring sustainability of global resources against our growth trajectory, while ensuring that our continuing and new actions do not add to the environmental pollution.


It’s really easier said than done, because our industries are hardwired for many decades, to produce goods and services in a certain way. Some of which are responsible for emitting high level of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) into our atmosphere, irresponsible extraction of water that leads to degradation of environment, non-circular agriculture practices that strip Earth clean of its natural carbon capture capabilities, etc.


On one hand, we have had significant number of investments that were poured into erecting these business DNAs. Business schools around the world extol these business constructs to its students, who then flock to all corners of the world, propagating those school of thoughts in words and in actions. On the other hand, we also have had growing demands for some of these goods and services, which really is a form of market confirmation. All these drive profits and further cement the ways of production like the ones we see now.


In preparing for the next few decades of growth, I believe that we need stronger push to pioneer more effective and cheaper ways of recycling materials, to the point that it makes market sense to adopt recycled materials for industrial production. It is practical to do so because raw materials are becoming pricier. Below is a chart from the World Bank showing the weighted average of aluminum, copper, iron ore, lead, nickel, tin and zinc prices. It has grown to 103.81 points in August 2022, from 65.55 points in April 2022 (start of the pandemic) and that is 58.37% growth over that period.


The 2008 recession sent this index way above 200 points. If a deep recession does occur in the short-term future, I would not be surprised to see similar dynamics playing out again. And with this possible development, any businesses that rely on new raw materials for production, could be in for a deep shock in the short-term future. Due to this, the operational costs of some businesses could rise approximately by more than 100%, completely eroding any profits and maybe even cash reserves.


A lot of companies could fall into this category, for example, window and door frame manufacturers, glass product manufacturers, tools and diecast products manufacturers, etc. Many of these companies are value-adding to our societies with their products and it would be great to see their continual contributions into the far future.


For this to happen, I strongly believe that the procurement and sourcing function has to work hand-in-hand with the recycling and development (R&D) function. Instead of sourcing for raw materials and procuring those resources directly from places of extraction, we have to shift our focus to looking for resources among waste. That is to think of waste as precious resource, and why not?


Many of the electronic products that were thrown away, do contain a lot of precious metals and minerals, and a lot of it could be put to good use again and again. Which is why I think that we need to identify the top 20% of the waste generators and from there, further filter out those that have performed excellently in tackling this problem, distill from their experience and scale it.


We need to tackle the “why”, asking really deep questions and coming up with answers that could shape our subconscious behaviors, activating a top-down reframing of societal values that could hopefully, gear us towards environment-friendly consumerism. At the other spectrum, we also need new tools to shape the risks and returns of corporate behaviors.

We genuinely have a growing waste problem, one that is driven by rapid urbanization and growing populations, our global annual waste generation is expected to jump to 3.4 billion tons over the next 30 years, up from 2.01 billion tons in 2016. To give some perspective about the size of this mammoth trash, a 1-ton truck can house about 10 people comfortably. 3.4 billion tons worth of 1-ton trucks can house about 34 billion people. At the moment, our global population is nearing 8 billion people and it is still nowhere near that size. We have a lot of trash, and we should be looking at ways to reusing these resources instead of dumping it into landfills or incinerating it. 


There is a lot of business sense in developing corporate recycling programs. For example, a kitchen knife manufacturer that offers discounts or token points for consumers who decided to trade in their old kitchen knives for new ones. One, it promotes loyalty among the existing customers. Second, if the program extends to people who bought knives from elsewhere and want to upgrade with your kitchen knives. Then, you would have gotten yourself a new customer base and also more recyclable materials for your production. Third, your company is hedging against future prices of raw materials when it is able to tap on recyclables Fourth, when potential customers chose to upgrade their knives with your program, your company is, in a way, helping to reduce the amount of global waste. Fifth, it just shows how committed your company is to the sustainability drive and there is also a lot of good marketing in that.


There is a lot of business sense in recycling.

Moving the global mindshare towards a sustainable green future


Written by Zeng Han-Jun


Looking through the recent report released by Vivid Economics (VE), I cannot help but zoom into the stellar performance of Canada, how they have reversed their poor performance and topped the chart in creating stimulus packages that better our natural environment. The chart below, reproduced from VE’s report, is an index that attempted to capture the so-called greenness of stimulus package by 11 major economies.  Basically, it is a measure of the amount of money that governments spent on stimulating their economies during the Covid-19 pandemic, and to check on how much of that contributed to greening our environment.

Canada did well, as you can see from this chart. The country managed to secure third place, ranking just behind the European Union, and they managed to pull this off from a negative Greenness of Stimulus Index (GSI) score in October 2020. Additionally, the country further pledged more than USD$12 billion over five years for public transport, cementing their support for their sustainability drive. This showed that the government is committed to improving and that strong environmental stimulus measures can overcome even poor past performance.

What Canada has done to achieve this, is that they have provided an entire suite of measures such as tax deferments, direct payments and wage subsidies in order to support local businesses.  Those portions that went to supporting the agriculture, energy, green transport and nature-based solutions initiatives, helped to improve Canada’s GSI score. Those that went to supporting airport, airline support and road network development policies, contributed to the decline of Canada’s GSI score. Overall, after netting the improvements against the declines, Canada turned out pretty well, and as I mentioned earlier, the outcomes made me very interested in the details of the GSI framework.


The GSI framework took into account the amount of stimulus money that went into environmentally relevant sectors, existing green orientation of those sectors and the efforts to steer stimulus toward (or away from) sustainability. Based on the report, the environmentally relevant sectors are agriculture, industry, manufacturing, waste, energy and transportation.


We do not know the exact details of the calculations and what goes into the equations; Are there any weightages to the sectors? If so, how are the weightages are derived? Are the weightages adjusted for the environmental viability of the sectors for the short-, medium- or long-term outlook (for example, how does the introduction and impact of emerging technology such as sustainable aviation fuel, road surface chargers, etc, affect the transport sector)? Is the money spent, averaged against land size or per capita? How do they deal with those countries that do not have all the environmentally relevant sectors for example, agriculture? What about extremely pollutive sectors that cause direct and indirect environmental harm such as the fashion industry? Why do they exclude these sectors and include others?


We have no way of knowing these. In the case of Canada, the country pumped significant stimulus into the agriculture sector and that helped to push up the GSI score. Some countries may not have or are unable to have significant presence in certain sectors due to geographical limitations. Should these countries be included in the basket?


There are so many questions, but, then again, the survey and the index managed to give a rough sense of what each country is doing for their respective sustainability journey. Plus, it sort of emphasizes the importance of the role that government plays in advancing the green economy.


In fact, there are so many things that we have to do to green our future. My only fear is that we cannot visualize the vast number of details to keep things going; some of which require a total transformation of job scopes, in others the creation of entirely new jobs that we cannot even imagine now. All of which require substantive efforts in education, re-education, encouragement, policy shifts and private-public partnerships. All these, in order to shepherd as much interest as possible towards positive transformation. So, what else can we do?


Sustainability policy

We need a roadmap that fosters innovations to reduce dramatically the cost of adopting renewable energy. We know that the cost of production, especially for solar, is dropping. By right, that should tease countries into wider adoption of solar, but I argue that the adoption dynamics is not simply due to a single factor. The below chart is reproduced from IEA, and it showed that China accounted for 46% of the new generating renewable capacity added in 2021, mostly in offshore wind which increased sixfold. In Europe, solar accounted for most of the growth, with notable projects in Germany, Poland, France and Spain. India’s, ASEAN’s and MEA’s take up rate in the measured categories of renewable energy, paled in comparison to those of China’s, USA’s and Europe’s.

According to recent trailing 12 months estimates by IEA, the cost of polysilicon used in solar panels has more than quadrupled, while the price of steel rose by 50% and copper by 70%. Overall, raw material costs for all types of renewable energy were 15% to 25% higher. Inflation and uncertainties of global markets could add inflationary pressure on the already rising cost of materials, materials acquisitions and construction of renewable energy facilities.


Additionally, ESG regulations are closing onto mining activities, putting the lenses on mining’s impacts on the environment and nearby communities, energy sources used in mining operations, behavior of security forces in mining areas, treatments of waste discharges, exit strategies of miners from exhausted mines and the list continues. Plus, countries are going after the same materials that exist in finite amounts. All these compounds and complicates the acquisition of materials, but at the other end of the spectrum, I say that there has never been a brighter future for companies that are providing advanced recycling services.


Also, on the upside, I argue that there is a lot of potential for India, ASEAN and MEA to play catch up and it is important that they do. The military aggression by Russia in Ukraine has exposed not only vulnerabilities in the global supply chain network but also in energy policies. Renewable energy capabilities are ways to mitigate this issue, but we need innovations that further reduce the cost of adopting these alternative energy sources, for the reasons that I have stated above.


Transition strategy

Steering away from this, I want to dive somewhat into the operations underlying policies. Effective changes take time, require investment and need effort. All of these cannot gel unless there is significant cooperation between the people, public and private segments. In this, I see clearly that there is a lot of opportunities for transition finance to play a critical part in shaping the ongoing narratives that are brewing in different sectors along the short-, medium- and long-term future.


The details are important. For example, preparing the student body for the future of work, requires clever policies, cleverer implementations and smart monitoring. Smart monitoring is critical especially for large jurisdictions. Quick and drastic pivots are often… disastrous.  Likewise for the existing workforce, judicious attempts should be made to pinpoint and identify largely similar work patterns between existing industries and future industries, thereby using the observations as a bridge for the transition. Similarly for equipment, just as Heckler and Koch adapted their sewing machines into the present-day sub machine guns HK MP5 or how some countries are adapting their hydropower dams into solar power plants, we must also adapt accordingly with the times. All these require innovators, scientists, engineers, education specialists, etc to come together and focus their collective intellectual prowess to effect a transformative change.


Establishment of climate change measures by the government

Elected governments should also play their parts well. Apart from establishing decarbonization policies and roadmaps for climate change measures, they could further enhance their value-add by (1) coordinating and facilitating collaborations between industry groups, financial institutions and various government agencies, (2) fostering an environment whereby public sector agencies and educational institutions are able to advance, retain and accumulate knowledge in specialized technical domains, (3) increasing awareness of sustainability and climate change issues among the citizens and encouraging them towards a Net Zero future, and (4) deploying government funds properly with an incentives and subsidies system that uplifts citizens towards a sustainability-oriented mindset – which is what I hope that the Green Stimulus Index (GSI) is trying to promote.


Public sector, unlike most in the private sector, have the capacity to look further across the horizon, and plan for the future. Public sector agencies usually are not tied to short-term demands for financial performances that are largely driven by profit-seeking actors. In fact, some public sector agencies are able to aggregate data from various sources, to construct a slightly better-informed picture of what is going on in the world, and they should make good use of that advantage.


These public sector players are able to establish trends and recognize patterns that may not be so obvious to some of their private sector counterparts. As such, they should work closely with the markets to shape and move the conversation towards the greater good for everyone, all these while balancing the private sector’s profit-seeking behavior. This creates a win-win-win outcome for people, public and private sector. Some private sector counterparts are in the better position to harness useful data and subsequently develop meaningful information. These organizations could explore to ease any potential frictions with policy makers, by extending their capabilities to augment policymaking and of course, treading carefully along and around privacy issues.


Establishment of a green financial system

The financial system should play a strong support role to what the governments are doing. According to the result of a survey conducted across 9,443 respondents in 2020, published by Statista in 2022 and reproduced below, 14% of small- and medium-sized companies in the United States had debt outstanding between USD$50,000 and USD$100,000. This means that 79% had outstanding debts. Plus, NASDAQ recently reported that there are still strong demands for bonds despite the Fed looking to raise interest rates in order to keep inflation in check. This goes to hint that the financial markets, through its various instruments, should still have some level of influence over corporate behavior.


If they are seeing what the public sector is seeing, and also in preparation for changing consumer behavior and job-seeking behavior for example, like those that would surface from the emerging Gen A cohort. Then, it would be logical to put in place the pillars and sandboxes for innovations, digital platforms, external certifications, ratings, accounting standards, risks metrics, risks appetites, etc. Additionally, also shaping intermediaries like venture capitalists, private equities and working with game-changing actors like FinTech providers.


This could enable a new financial market that is in a better position to handle green products with clear sustainability-linked KPIs, for example, private-public partnerships, infrastructure finance, transition finance, blended finance, green bonds, ESG funds, sustainable indices, securitization and derivatives, etc.


Financial markets should work closely with industry experts and government bodies to chisel and chip away bits and pieces of old financial framework, artfully hammering out a roadmap for green finance in general. Changes such as developing a sensible carbon pricing system, strengthening transparency, promoting information disclosure and tweaking the incentive framework amongst others, to shape risk and return, is a definite must. This would help in proliferating extensively and intensively the sustainability mindshare.


The future outlook of Asia’s agriculture sector and its sustainability and manpower issues


Written by Zeng Han-Jun


Sustainability issues are growing concerns for many individuals, small, medium and large businesses and government bodies. Our food sources, as many would already know, could be disrupted in many ways by climate change. Supply chain, logistics, energy consumption, and even farming, are just some of the elements that could be affected. Farming is becoming more challenging as crops are being affected by the rapidly changing weather patterns.


Some crops are unable to survive the increasing heat condition and lack of water. Flooding caused by extreme weather destroys the soil condition that is important for crop reproduction and survival. Adding to the list of woes, the younger generations are turning away from such labor-intensive industries, preferring to work in office-based jobs. These factors make it more challenging to keep afloat the agriculture sector.


Declining agricultural production due to climate change

For example, let’s use the example of rice. Rice is a staple for more than half of the world population and it is also a problematic crop to farm. It requires massive amount of water and the paddies in which it grows emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane contribution from rice farming was estimated at 10% of total global methane contributions, behind enteric fermentation (29%) at first place and oil and gas (20%) at second place.  Precisely because of these factors, it is difficult to ignore this crop.

I attached a heat map from the World Population Review so that we can have a better perspective of the amount of rice produced in different locations around the word. Basically, the top rice producing countries in this chart are (arranged according to production, with the first being the top producer):

1st – China

2nd – India

3rd – Bangladesh

4th – Indonesia

5th – Vietnam

6th – Thailand

7th – Burma (Myanmar)

8th – Philippines


All of these countries are located in Asia region and myriad sources forecasted varying effects of climate change on different parts of Asia. There are some studies that predicted rising sea levels, heat waves, more intense and frequent rains and drought in many parts of Southeast Asia. Other scientific research also forecasted that there would be frequent and more severe heat waves in East Asia and South Asia. By and large, climate change might reduce global rice production to 309 million tons in 2100, from 515 million tons in 2022, and this is taking place in tandem with burgeoning population growth in most parts of Asia.


Growing Asian population to feed

Asia’s population would definitely continue to grow for quite some time, which could strain the region’s resources. Based on the chart that I have reproduced from the World Bank, it is shown that population would continue to grow substantially in countries like Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Vietnam. Overall, Asia’s entire population grew at 0.9% in 2020, 0.62% in 2022. Overall, it is slowing down and even though other ageing countries like Japan and Hong Kong are showing glaring statistics in population decline, their collective impact on the Asia’s population growth is minimal and as such, I believe that Asia’s population growth rate would slow down but stay positive in the short-term to medium-term future.

What this means is that we would have less food for more people annually. Furthermore, even though there are a lot of scientific estimates predicting the decreasing trend of food supply, I must highlight that those are just mathematical predictions that serve as guides (not absolute truths), because we cannot be really sure how reality might pan out. In reality, the food supply might trend downward even faster than predicted (or maybe even slower).


Manpower risk to agriculture sector due to shifting work preferences

Honestly, rice is just one part of the food equation. There are also other types of food sources plus our water supply that face the same climate change challenges and, are at risk of being disrupted as well. On top of that, most countries would have fewer young people who are interested in working in these sectors. Many are already shifting to non-farm work therefore there are substantial manpower risk in this sector.

From the graph above, you can see that China has been witnessing a dramatic shift in the number of labors employed in agriculture. In fact, the country has registered the highest rate of change among all Asian agriculture producers for the past two decades. While the trend seems to have somewhat slow down, I believe that the downward trend would persist and create substantial manpower risk to its local food production in the medium- to long-term future. As such, it would be logical for China to continue to seek greater productivity through technology breakthroughs and/ or strengthen food trade agreements with the rest of the Asian agriculture producers


Those who are unfamiliar with the agriculture sector, would incline towards higher level of mechanization and even greater reliance on technology. The fact is the sector has already mechanized to a large extent. So much so that some observers noted that agricultural modernization has already been associated with some negative outcomes, including continued degradation of natural resources like water and forest areas. Increasing agriculture sector’s productivity through technology, will require new breakthroughs and transformation of jobs.


Many countries, especially China, would need to go beyond mechanization and seek new breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, internet of things (IoT), data management and traceability. AI, robotics and automation would allow producers to ensure continuing farming when they are away from these operations or working on other projects. Predictive analytics from models could provide insight into potential losses from future environmental or pest events. Data management augments the storage and transportation system, while providing ledgers of information and data flow help producers to ensure that they have the right products and prevent mix ups and confusion of flow. Data collection, insights, and connectivity from the field can be provided via IoT sensors to check on parameters such as soil moisture, health, fertilizer tank levels, fuel levels, irrigation system monitoring, and many more. These various IoT-related technologies form a large data pool that may be fed into technologies such as machine learning as part of AI for faster decision making and continuous operations.


India is in a strong position to take over as leading agriculture producer

India is the second leading agriculture producer in the globe, and their agriculture labor force has been decreasing but relatively stable when compared to the rest of the Asian producers. I think that India will be least affected by manpower risk among the Asian producers. Even if they continue to face decreasing manpower in the agriculture sector, they could still try to draw more people into the agriculture sector from the untouchable caste.


The country has an estimated 200 million people from the untouchable caste, more than the respective populations of Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos.  Several non-profit organizations are already working at this front, drawing additional workforce into the agriculture from the untouchable caste and in many ways, opening up more employment opportunities for this group of people. So far, these organizations have been very successful and there are a lot of precious lessons to distill from their experience.

Additionally, India’s GDP per capita in 1990 was behind most Asian nations except for China and Vietnam. Fast-forward thirty years, China and Vietnam have far surpassed India and joined the rest of the Asian countries. India remained as one of the lowest performers in terms of GDP per capita among the Asian nations. Evidently, both China’s and Vietnam’s developmental policies have, over the years, favored moving capital and manpower into producing higher value goods and services, which might explain their significant progress in GDP per capita. Apart from this, many have argued that as countries become more prosperous, agriculture as a share of GDP would reduce. That has certainly been the case for many Asian countries, except for India. Agriculture continues to form a significant portion of India’s GDP and is currently the highest among all Asian countries.


Both indicators seem to point out that India was a poor country and has become even poorer over the years, but I think otherwise. Because of what I argued earlier, I believed that (1) a food crisis due to climate change is creeping steadily, (2) decreasing manpower in the agriculture is disrupting the sector but (3) India would remain in a good stead to become the leading actor in the agriculture sector in the medium-term to long-term future. Even though the country is unable to catch up with the rest in GDP per capita and might continue to face severe brain drain, I believe that they would still be able to sustain their agriculture sector. When climate change and manpower risks start to disturb the agriculture sector of Asian countries, these countries might then have to rely on India as part of their food supply diversification strategy.


There will still be other challenges, but I believe it could be mitigated by improving/ introducing circular farming techniques and these could be achieved through capability development workshops, creating a very simple financial payment system and as I argued in my earlier think pieces, setting up a co-op system that allows for integrated planning, transparent loan system and education among the farmers. During my working trips to rural parts of India, I noticed that there are very few visitors apart from those already staying in these places. Most city people would not go to these places unless there are very good reasons to do so. The rural areas have their own ecosystems, very much confined to among themselves, always supplying the same basic goods and services to one another and I suspect that the money supply has remained largely the same throughout the years. Carefully curated farming opportunities could help these rural ecosystems to achieve new breakthroughs.


It is highly likely that, in the worst case, some of these countries could experience internal conflicts due to food and water shortages in the medium- to long-term future and this cannot be solved by electing a new government. I believe that the knots could only be disentangled by adopting an open mindset to international, interstate and city-to-village cooperation and nurturing the local’s ability to solve problems with scientific and engineering methods. These countries would need a strong core group of people who are well-trained in science and technology and more critically, they must be motivated to solve problems, not just the ones that pay the most. Before the situation worsens, elected governments should work closely with capitalists to identify the core issues and solve the problems.

Potential future scenario of Lithium, Electric Vehicles (EVs) and the rise of alternate energy like Hydrogen


Written by Zeng Han-Jun


The energy crisis sparked by Russia’s military aggression had many rethinking about the future of energy and justly as well, because both events, the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s military aggression have disrupted supply chain and caused energy prices to spike. This has affected many people’s standard of living in many ways, one of which is to physically suffer through the cold weather and it might get worse during winter. I strongly believe that those who spent most of their lives in the global south, might find it difficult to understand how bitter cold winters can be in some parts of the world and the importance of keeping warm when it freezes. It is a very painful lesson that stemmed partly from over-relying on a handful of traditional energy sources.


As such, it is logical that there is a growing demand for alternative energy sources in many areas, from powering factories, heating up homes and offices, to moving vehicles. In the earlier phase of the growing demand, the narrative was that using fossil fuel is bad for the environment because of the substantial release of carbon into our atmosphere. That awareness played an important role in promoting electric batteries as an alternate mean of powering vehicles.


In my earlier think piece, I discussed about the current production level of lithium, which is an important component of the EVs’ electric battery, and how it pales when compared to the estimated demand for lithium by 2030. If you refer to the heat map below, you would be able to estimate that the total global lithium production stood at roughly around 82,200 tons. Several current estimates and studies showed that the total global demand for lithium in 2030, will go far beyond 82,200 tons. In exact figure, it is more than 1.9 million tons which is equivalent to 23 times more than the total global production figure in 2020.


Now, if you were to refer again to the heat map produced by the U.S. Geological Survey, you will gather that the total global store of lithium is roughly about 50 million tons. At the first glance, it may seem that we have enough lithium to go around and technically could continue with mining. If the global demand is to peak at 1.9 million tons in 2030, there is still enough lithium to extract for another good 26 years, but in reality, demand for lithium will most likely continue to grow after 2030.


This is why analysts have put out the figure that we could be in short supply of lithium by 2050. Some people that I have spoken to, believe that lithium recycling technology would be more stable and productive, thus enabling the circulation of mined lithium for industrial uses for many more years after 2050. And this is their justification for greater activity in lithium mining.


We would if we could but should we really do so?


I think that it is not feasible because of the following five reasons. First of all, the physical disturbances to the environment and communities that are living near to the mines. Second, carbon emission of the mining operations. Third, the future geopolitical tension that it creates and fourth, creating a single point of failure by focusing too much on electric batteries. Let me explain why.


1. Physical disturbances to the environment and nearby communities

Now, partly because of expanding interest in sustainability, people are starting to understand the impacts that some human activities, including mining, has on the environment. I see that the current narrative has evolved into questioning whether or not Electric Vehicles (EVs) are truly one of the silver bullets to saving our environment or merely just kicking the can down the street. First of all, I noted that many apply a broad understanding of what they know of mining i.e. the usual digging of earth, crushing boulders and deployment of many environmentally unfriendly technology, to lithium mining. Mining activities are generally all the same, but it is quite different with lithium mining at the moment.


Lithium is historically known to be produced from two sources: brines and hard rock mining. Lithium produced from brines is a cost-efficient process. These brines containing lithium are derived entirely from the leaching of volcanic rocks. The cost of lithium produced from hard rock mining is double than that of what is extracted from brines containing the metal. Mining starts by drilling a hole and pumping brine to the surface. Miners then leave it to evaporate for months, first creating a mix of manganese, potassium, borax, and salts which is filtered and placed into another evaporation pool.


It would take roughly between 12 and 18 months for that mix to be filtered enough in order to be able to extract the lithium carbonate. While it is relatively cheap and effective, the process needs a lot of water, estimated at 1.9 million liters per ton of lithium extracted.


For perspective, it was estimated that it would take around 63 kg of 99.5% pure lithium to make a 70 kWh EV battery pack. This means that the manufacturing would use up more than 119,000 liters of water, equivalent to satisfying a single full grown person’s drinking need for 32,162 days (~ 88 years).


That’s just one way to see it. Here is another way. Estimates of water audits showed that it takes about 237 liters of water to produce about 1 kg of cabbage, so instead of producing one battery pack, with the same amount of water, you could technically produce about 502 kg of cabbage which I think, could be used to feed a small family for about a year or so? Instead of cabbages, you could also divert water to planting trees as well. So, the mining process diverts water away from what the environment and man need.


These are the opportunity cost to manufacturing a single EV battery pack. However, I could also reframe my thinking and adopt a green and longer-term perspective. I could adapt the single battery pack to other environmentally friendly uses that might potentially produce more water, food, greenery or other social benefits than what the manufacturing originally consumes. That being the case, I might essentially, at multiple levels, be producing an ESG- (Environmental, Social and Governance) friendly product.


2. Carbon emission of the Lithium mining operations

The below graph, produced by the International Energy Agency in 2021, is a very interesting chart. It shows that the current Lithium mining pathway produces roughly about 2.8 tCO2 per tonne LCE equivalent, much lower than most other types of mining operations.


At this level of activity, the production houses are churning out roughly about 82,200 tons of lithium (2020 figures). We would have to activate or maybe even develop other ways of extracting lithium if we are going to meet the growing demand. Meeting growing demand for lithium could lead to higher carbon emission. Based on this graph, by activating all known means at the moment, we would increase the carbon emission of lithium mining to 35.2 tCO2 per tonne LCE equivalent, from 2.8 tCO2 per tonne LCE equivalent (~ 1,257% increase).

Most people would think that since other types of activities are faring much worse, so why the focus on lithium mining? The thing is, every bit counts, and the ESG and sustainability focus is slowly and surely extending to all domains, not just lithium mining. Provided that no major events occur and shake the fundaments of the current world structure, ESG and sustainability certifications and regulations most definitely will cover all industries in the future, hopefully moderating carbon emission and ease the global temperature rise to a more human-acceptable level.


3. Potential geopolitical tension

It is no secret knowledge and almost everyone knows about it, dominance over or at least keeping close to raw materials, is one of the key chess moves that could advance one’s strategic position. If EV ecosystem, comprising all types of mobility devices or modes, is the chess game, then lithium is one of the key components to triumph. Looking at the above heat map produced by the U.S. Geological Survey, one could get a rough give-or-take intuitive sense of who is dominating the chess game.


What this means is that, if there is anyone who is a little bit keen on any of the EV-related businesses, they should start to join the winning side or at least slowly start divesting away from the disadvantaged side.


4. Creating a single point of failure by focusing too much on electric batteries


If there are any learning lessons to distill from the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s military aggression, I would say that it is the identification and continual mitigations of any single points of failures to important functions. Electric batteries are merely a store of energy, and this energy could directly or indirectly be derived from different sources such as fossil fuel, alternative energy or renewable energy. With the current technology, it is entirely possible to recreate a vehicle that is powered entirely by alternative or renewable energy, without the use of electric batteries.


When energy sources were threatened, scientists and engineers quickly leaped forward to develop new ways to powering vehicles. Similarly, if anyone were to push too hard the narrative of EVs while at the same time stifling competition, the tables could flip, thereby forcing competition to try to develop alternate propulsion methods which sidesteps entirely the use of electric batteries. In fact, the technology is already there and energy sources like hydrogen, ammonia, ethanol (from sugar cane), hydrogen fuel cell, solar, road-power, to name a few, are being implemented, adapted and integrated into existing vehicle technology. Even fuel stations are currently being adapted to provide different types of energy sources to vehicles. However, when it comes to safety, I place higher favorable weightage on electric batteries than hydrogen, and I will explain why later.


Hydrogen is a promising energy source, and another potential energy source is ammonia. One of the key areas to improve on, is to refine the waste collection and management system, then integrating that understanding into the process of producing hydrogen. This area holds a lot of potential to solving important environmental issues. As such, it is critical to adopt a holistic approach to tackling this challenge and I believe that it could only be achieved by viewing through the lenses of multiple urban system sciences without forsaking the operational details.


All details must be considered from an urban system science point of view. For example, positioning of the waste management plants, auxiliary waste management centers and hydrogen power plants, must be precisely planned, according to the future development plans, traffic patterns, national defense considerations, weather patterns and other natural phenomenon. More does not mean better, neither is less bad, but an optimal number of placements should enable complement strengthening of each other’s capabilities.


This is important in itself, and also extends its influence on the transport patterns of the waste management vehicles and the hydrogen transport vehicles, affecting factors like traffic volume and national defense. Exploration of Artificial Intelligence in augmenting this area is a promising area, still at a nascent level but definitely achievable.


In terms of safety, I think that electric batteries are the better solution compared to hydrogen. Electric batteries burn but hydrogen can cause extremely life-threatening explosions that can take down entire buildings within the destruction perimeter. Protective engineering techniques such as the strategic use of reinforced concrete, steel sheets and others, become very important subjects. The greater the underground hydrogen pipeline network proliferates, the greater need to build in more safety factors. Such consideration becomes exceedingly critical to providing a safe space in highly built up and dense urban environment. There were several past explosions involving natural gas pipelines in New York and the results were skyrocketing.


A lot of advance work is needed to develop the certified framework for pyrolysis process, hydrogen production and safety inspection at different stages of the value chain. Apart from that, substantial amount of time must be planned for the local workforce to gain sufficient expertise in these areas before rolling out the initiatives.

Climate risks’ effects on the salt production sector and its relationship to the rest of the value-chain


Written by Zeng Han-Jun


The extreme heavy raining season during this summer, has affected many places around the world. More than 900 people have died in Pakistan from severe rains and flooding this summer, as the country sees its eighth cycle of monsoon rains. In New Zealand’s northern and central regions after four days of downpours, forced hundreds of people from their homes. In New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park, around 200 people had to be evacuated after being trapped for several hours by rising waters.


These are just some examples of what has happened during this summer and there are actually many more cases like these around the world. As climate change persists, we are going to witness more frequent cycles of hot and cold weather patterns therefore, giving rise to even more extreme weather conditions.


As such, consideration and inclusion of ESG and Sustainability principals into business operations should logically be a growing concern. Businesses that do not understand how climate risks will impact their operations, are at severe disadvantage. There is no point in arguing whether climate change is caused by humans or is a natural phenomenon. The fact is that the entire global environmental condition is changing faster than ever. Sunk costs into operational infrastructures are most likely built based on past climatic conditions and may not be future-ready. While analysts can look to the past for references, it is definitely not indicative of future changes.


ESG and sustainability principals and risks go far beyond the determination of Scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions. It is not just about paying a consultant to settle the paperwork after the scholars and regulators have decided on the materiality, double-counting issues and other intricate details in ESG frameworks and certifications. Like I said, it goes far beyond that, and may even reach deep into business reserves. Let me share more using an example.


The salt production sector has been badly hit by the intense raining and floodings. Take note that this sector accounted for 270 million metric tons of salt in 2020, and the global market for salt manufacturing was valued at more than USD$28 billion that year. It is a very important industry because its production serves as feeder to many important sectors such as the chemicals, animal feeds, food and beverages and many others. Even items like butter, cheese and dairy dips depend on salt for taste and texture, and you will be mildly surprised by the lack of salt in common food like this.


During this rainy summer season, several producers’ salt piles were washed away by the floodings, and this has cause substantial losses to these companies, and in some cases, significant damages to the entire country. This is especially so for places that rely heavily on food exports that are made partly with salt. You will be surprised at how easy such risks could have been mitigated long ago by cost-effective and practical engineering solutions. Yet the business owners remained nonchalant despite the growing awareness and understanding of how climate change is turning out.


We are about to exit summer; these businesses are now in a hurry to account for their losses and most likely will pass on these losses to the rest of the value-chain, affecting the prices of many end-products and, eventually, pass the repricing on to the consumers.  The business and operational teams of many salt production companies are scrambling to replenish stocks so that they could fulfil the upcoming orders. There is a high chance that some customers will turn to salt replacements once the acute shortages of salt hit the market later.


ESG and Sustainability risks are very real, and it is going to affect many industries. Some risks are unpredictable so we cannot do much about it. But business owners should once again review, assess and plan ahead for the obvious risks that we can see right now.

How digitalization could disrupt advancements in sustainable urban development


Written by Zeng Han-Jun


Even with the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, economic recovery still seemed to be hampered by the global manpower crunch that is faced in many countries. On this point, it appears that this trend might continue to worsen in the short- to medium-term future and is expected to impact many industries, more so in those that rely heavily on manpower.


Logistics is one such industry. It is one of the key enablers of the world’s supply chain and entire countries depend on it for movement of goods within countries and across borders. This industry is a critical node to the entire global business system because it interacts with many resources such as equipment, machinery, components, materials, fertilizers, seeds, food and drinks and items, to homes, supermarkets, stores, etc. Many research houses also look at logistics as a proxy to economic performance therefore this gives one a perspective of how important it is.


In fact, today’s global distribution, manufacturing and procurement depends heavily on logistics. Even with the growth of additive manufacturing, we would still need to depend on the logistic sector to transport the raw materials for most additive manufacturing operations.


The subset components of logistics could be broadly categorized as land, sea and air transport. Simply phrased, goods and materials can be transported to its destination via land, sea and air transport, all of which are important functioning gears to the great machinery of a sustainable urban development.


For those reasons, that is why I decided to write about sea transport in this think piece. If people were to draw parallels between cities and urban development to living bodies, then I would boldly say that the sea transport component comprising the shipping capabilities, port management and its connectivity paths to the rest of the inland transport systems, is similar to the mouth of the living body.


Just as the mouth receives nourishments to sustain and grow the living body, the entire combined functions of the shipping capabilities and port management, too receives the necessary goods and materials to sustain and build a country. Even large, prefabricated building components are now constructed overseas, then shipped to the designated country for further assembly into residential, office, entertainment or factory buildings.


The shipping-related industry is manpower-intensive yet persistently faces the problem of manpower shortages. The pipeline of talents is expected to continue to veer away from this industry in the future. Developed countries are facing similar issues but for different reasons. For developing countries, I believe that one of the reasons why this is happening, is because more people are able to find equal if not more financial compensations in freelancing, office-based jobs, sales career in insurance and real estate or emerging opportunities in content creation, cryptocurrency, web3, etc. Most of these jobs can be performed remotely and also from anywhere in the world as long as there are internet services.


Things might worsen when digitalization tweaks up its knob. Once internet services become even more affordable and accessible, developing countries might start to face growing challenges in finding good and reliable workforce and also, find it increasingly difficult for any hope of creating a future-proof sustainable urban development.  The stages of development will be as such. First, the manpower will be affected. Second, means of trading will be affected. Third, economy will be affected. Fourth, social dynamics will be affected.


For perspective, let’s use Rwanda as an example. A Maritime engineer in Rwanda, earns an average salary of about USD$500 to USD$700 per month. This is a very good and respectable salary for a Maritime engineer especially after he/she/they/zir have received a number of years of professional trainings in subjects like mathematics, sciences and engineering. All of these culminate in a professionally trained mind that is skillful enough to solve difficult and complex challenges. Furthermore, it is usually in solving these complex challenges that helps to improve the ecosystem. Also, not forgetting the fact that such trainings serve as fundament to receiving and understanding even more complicated and difficult subjects, thereby enabling one to push the envelope for innovations in specialized areas.


So, with this perspective in place, let me explain how digitalization, and cheaper and affordable internet services, could disturb the efforts of sustainable urban development. Digitalization is going to enable more innovations which then allow people to monetize digitally in more ways than ever. Cheaper and affordable internet services will allow more people to access these means of livelihood. One popular example of how people can monetize digitally, is on the social media platform, TikTok.


The platform offers a variety of content, presented in such easy-to-consume format and its entire user experience leaves many wanting for more. Plus, TikTok performances by people in developing nations, present fresh and never-before-seen content that many global consumers crave for, which is why, many content creators from developing countries did very well during the pandemic.


Cross-cultural fascination is one of the stronger and prominent factors in drawing large crowds to these performances. If the audience likes these performances, they can reward the performer by leaving tips.  It was estimated that on an average, a creator with half a million followers or views can earn up to USD$450 a month. There are also other benefits that come along with persistency in content creation, such as sponsorships, advertisements, live shows, plus the ability to work from anywhere. All of these might add up to more than a Maritime engineer’s monthly salary of around USD$500 to USD$700.


In fact, there are several other emerging avenues that compete directly at that salary level for talents, which I have already mentioned earlier. The best part about these career alternatives is the low barriers to entry and yet they still remain financially rewarding. Well, of course one can argue that emerging opportunities present new sources of income to individuals and also to the nation but at the expense of what? Conventional strategies of relying on tax revenue to fund studies or subsidize salaries, are dependent on students’ interest in the subject and market forces at play. In the worst-case scenario, digitalization could further hollow out the remaining of what is left of the shipping industry.


Countries at risk from the rise of digitalization could be the ones that show the smallest salary gap between professional salaries in the Maritime industry and the potential salary offered by these emerging opportunities. Besides that, those countries with stagnating salaries will face the greatest risk because they might continue to face challenges in keeping pace. In addition to this, we also have inflation to account for. Turnover is going to continue if salaries cannot keep up with global inflation and this might make it even more appealing to turn to alternative livelihoods.


Also, more people are starting to question the sustainability quotient of the shipping sector as Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) concerns start to gain traction among the regulators, interest groups, financiers and consumers. Several prominent players are starting to explore alternative energy sources like wind-assisted propulsion, electric batteries, solar, hydrogen, ammonia, etc but overall, the perception of shipping still pales in the area of sustainability. I believe that this would have substantial impact on young people’s future career choices.


Automation combined with Artificial Intelligence is definitely one way to overcome constraints, but it involves significant investments, rigorous long-term planning and continuing execution. An intensive study of the organization is required so that some roles could be streamlined, some roles to be eliminated, some roles to be changed entirely, funds and salaries re-allocated and in many cases, knowledge management practices to be enshrined.  The outcome would be an organization that has shrunk in headcounts, to perhaps a few hundred people armed with automation that is powered by Artificial Intelligence, replacing the work performed by more than few thousand workers previously.


There are many other ways to explore but that is not the point of this think piece. Perhaps I might reserve it to a future piece (or maybe not). The main point that I am trying to drive across and to get anyone to ponder over is that, firstly, digitalization is going to create new economic opportunities but at what opportunity cost? Second, what are the possible impacts in the short-, medium- and long-term future, and finally, what strategic moves to safe-guard optimally against these impacts?

Some thoughts about cryptocurrencies and the banking system


Someone recently asked me about the future of the financial sector, especially that of the banks. To be upfront about it, I don’t work in the finance sector but this is my take on it.


With the development of Web 3, blockchain and cryptocurrency, the concept of money is going to continue with its current trajectory of journeying towards digitization and decentralization. Money has already been existing in the digital format for quite some time and I believe that this transformation was actually integral to the early growth of the financial sector at the turn of the century. Along this journey, the digitization of money also helped to spark the proliferation of many creative pursuits, ones that help to reimagine currency and its storage.


First, we witnessed the emergence of DeFi, which is an emerging financial technology that is based on secure distributed ledgers. This technology removes the control that banks and institutions have on money, financial products, and financial services. This means that anyone can potentially just store their money in their digital wallets without ever going through any third-party organizations.


I think that this trend of viewing cryptocurrency as an legitimate medium of transactions, will become stronger when Gen As enter the workforce. Gen A is the generation after Gen Z. This generation is one that lives and breathes cryptocurrency.  Why? This generation is being brought up on a steady diet of games like Roblox and MineCraft.


In these types of gaming construct, aside from playing the games, players can also create games for others to play and they can monetize their gaming creations in various ways, such as charging entry fees, paying for superpowers, paying to skip difficult levels, etc.


Plus, they can also design digital assets like jewelries, clothing’s, accessories, etc and sell these for a tidy sum of money. Last I checked, one of the players sold a piece of game weapon for around USD$32 and he/she/they/zir sold it more than 1,000 times.  There are many of such cases. Instead of USD, players/ creators earn Robux, which is the digital currency used in the Roblox game and they can store it on Roblox’s server.


Through platforms like these, Gen As are exposed to and have become very familiar with earning/ using digital cash. Their first experiences with money never involved any banks, unlike the earlier generations. As such, it is natural for them to view/ use cryptocurrency as an legitimate medium of transactions when they step into the workforce. Salaries by then, could be deposit directly into their digital wallets. Many mom-and-pop stores now also accept cryptocurrency.  By then, they may not even need to step into a bank or use any banking apps for any financial transactions.


Second, hackers and scammers have been persistently exploiting banks’ cybersecurity weaknesses and have shaken substantially the consumers’ confidence in banks. During the peak of Covid-19, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority has been busy dealing with such hacking and scamming incidents in Hong Kong. Media platforms have also been reporting similar incidents in other parts of the world and this really added fuel to the fire.


At the other end of the spectrum, there were also reports of spectacular weaknesses within the cryptocurrency system. Proponents of cryptocurrency like to promote the view that the blockchain is unhackable but anyone who has done some research will know that this is not true. It just takes a lot longer to hack the system with current technology.


These blockchains and nodes, after installation, will always become legacy systems and lagging behind new technology. Even when upgrades have been applied to these legacy systems, the improvements provided by the enhancements are still limited by previous algorithms. New technology can be developed from scratch, and that in itself can be considered as an advantage because it is not encumbered by old build. When new technology develops and computer processing power increases, hackers in the future are going to test the new technology against these legacy systems. I believe that one day it might have sufficient computing power to hack and manipulate the systems.


Now, its like watching a tennis match with both sides taking hits, and the bystanders glued to see which side will buckle under first and then they will flock to the safer haven. So, on this second point, I think that the resiliency, stability and security of the system, are extremely important functions of a financial system, and it signals its ability to preserve the wealth of the user. Now, it seems like banks are doing a better job at this, but I noted that not everyone is drawn to this (which I will explain later).


Third, the value of services provided by banks are slowly being whisked off by innovations stemming from DeFi. For e.g. people currently buy houses with vanilla products like housing loans from banks. Now, people can potentially buy houses or take out loans by crowd funding from multiple people on the blockchain. Monthly repayments can be split through smart contracts apportioned to the multiple lenders.


Failing to repay loan? Well, smart contracts can be designed to pick up on that after certain number of buckets, reassigning titles and activating an automatic auction through a linked property website.  Anyway, smart contracts can potentially be programmed to give out tenders for repossessions on behalf of all lenders. All these actions can be performed without a bank, lawyer(s), and maybe even without a real estate broker.


Fourth, at the moment, growing body of organizations and consumers are increasingly concerned about ESG and sustainability issues and how business operations contribute to carbon emissions. Cryptocurrency and its exchanges were previously under a lot of attacks for how much their technology consumes electricity and accelerates climate change. All these time, I noted that coders and technologists have been working extremely hard to make their operations more green and as many already know, some of the exchanges and mining operations are shifting to harvesting renewable energy like hydropower and leveraging proof processes that use less energy. I must say that the people who are on the side of cryptocurrency are making significant headwinds by ensuring that their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions are fully minimized.


However, I can’t say the same for the banks. The finance sector is a well-aged industry therefore it is involved in different sectors, so even though they may score well in Scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions, I am not too sure about how they will fare in the Scope 3 category. I’ll be really concerned if banks’ Scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions are more than the crypto exchanges and mining operations. I belong to the Millennial generation and I think that the Gen Zs and Gen As are even more concerned about ESG and sustainability issues and this is going to affect their future choices.


Fifth, if you notice, we have amazing real stories of how people betted on cryptocurrency and became overnight millionaires and billionaires. People are drawn to such stories because it gives them hope of a better future. As such, many are on the lookout for new Initial Coin Offerings, hoping for a repeat of the BitCoin story. These people are not on the lookout for stability. On the other hand, they are seeking a lot of fluctuations so that they can flip their digital assets at a higher price.


Apart from this, we have witnessed extraordinary news reports of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) artists who sold their NFT artworks for millions of dollars and because of this, we have incredible number of people flocking to peddle their NFT artworks. I am actually not concerned about how NFTs could potentially be used as a vehicle for money laundering although it really is a concern. I am more amazed at the social effects created by the invention of NFTs, how NFTs can only be purchased by using cryptocurrencies, how it has activated an extremely large global group of artists and artist wannabes and finally, how all these combined to play a critical role in generating enormous amount of demand for cryptocurrencies.


So I currently have these five thoughts and to quickly summarize, it will be that the draw towards cryptocurrencies will become stronger because of firstly, NFTs and second, Gen As coming into the workforce. On the accounts of ESG and sustainability, we cannot be sure that Scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions of banks are more than that of crypto exchanges and mining operations. If cryptocurrencies are indeed more environmental-friendly, it simply adds another point to attracting consumers. In additional to that, innovations stemming from DeFi are competing directly with the traditional financial products offered by banks. This makes both sides equal in some sense and since its equal, consumers would have less resistance in choosing alternatives to banks. Last but definitely not the least, the cybersecurity of the financial system. It influences the consumer’s (or at least just my) perception about the resiliency, stability and security of the financial system, and how these inter-play to preserve the consumer’s wealth.

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