Monday, November 25, 2013

Toronto Leads Because Toronto Reads

Yup, Toronto leads - and I don't mean in the number of jokes about its mayor. With its 98 branches, Toronto boasts the largest public library system in North America, and the highest per capita circulation in the world. At 19M, Toronto libraries attract more than Toronto's top 10 attractions* combined.

The public library is a source of pride to Toronto folk, and activists have risen up to defend the system against Mayor Ford's agenda for significant cuts. Sort of makes up for the embarrassment of Rob Ford. Well, a bit.

There is a great video celebrating Toronto's library system here.

*CN Tower, CNE, The ROM, TIFF, The Science Centre, Toronto Zoo, Canada's Wonderland, the AGO, Skydome and Air Canada Centre

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fertility Rates

We all know that fertility rates have dropped in the developed world to the replacement fertility rate (2.1 children per woman) or less.  A mind-blowing animated infographic from The Economist shows just how dramatically fertility rates have fallen in Asia.   (The Economist calls this a gentle decline, but I find it more dramatic than that). From a fertility rate of 5.8 in 1980, Asia will hit the magic 2.1 in 2014, bringing the population to equilibrium, a pattern mirrored almost exactly in Latin America.

The drop in fertility is more widespread than just in China where the one-child policy has obviously caused their fertility rate to plunge.Bangladesh's fertility rate, for instance, went from 6.9 to 2.9 in just 30 years from 1970, while Iran's dropped from 6.5 in 1980 to 1.9 in 2005.  The World Fact Book published by the CIA shows under half the countries in the world with a fertility rate above 2.1, but those rates are also expected to fall where economic security and women's rights and education increase. The UN predicts that world population will peak at 9.22B in 2075 and then drop slightly to stabilize at just under 9B in 2300.

But you should just go and look at this wonderful infographic.  The Economist has taken a page from Hans Rosling's book - take some dry numbers and show the trends by animating them.  Wonderful.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

World Toilet Day - What a Load of Crap

Did you notice that yesterday was UN World Toilet Day? Lack of sanitation is a big problem in the developing world.  According to the Gates Foundation, which has adopted sanitation as one of its key priorities, 40% of the developing world practises open defecation or has poor sanitation - that's 2.5 billion people - a direct cause of 1.5 million child deaths from diarrhea a year.

The Gates Foundation's 2012 Reinvent the Toilet competition awarded prizes to university researchers at California Institute of Technology, Loughborough University and University of Toronto and awarded second round grants to other institutions. A common theme of these toilets is to extract energy and clean water from human waste - win-win for sure.  See the Gates Foundation press release here.

For a great introduction to this topic, watch Rose George's witty and informative TED talk entitled Let's Talk Crap.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Economic Centre of Gravity

We all know economic power is shifting away from the US toward China.  This interesting chart by McKinsey, based on data from Angus Maddison of University of Groningen, shows how economic power has shifted from AD1 to present day, along with forecasts into the future.  Not surprisingly, the centre of gravity has shifted most rapidly between 2000 and 2010, since we all know that all rates of change have accelerated in recent days.

This map definitely recalled for me some of the themes in History of the World Since 1300, the wonderful Coursera course by Jeremy Adelman of Princeton that I took last year.  I sent Adelman a copy of the map and he cautioned that the data was hugely controversial.  He was surprised that the 1950 data was not further west, given the dominance of California and trans-Pacific exchanges. Adelman also pointed out how Euro-centric the image was: you could picture that shift shooting out over the Pacific rather than creeping back across Europe.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Murder as a Fine Art

I gotta admit it, I am particularly attracted to mystery novels with an interesting, or even exotic, setting. David Morrell's book, Murder as a Fine Art, features Detective Shawn Ryan, one of the first detectives on the London police force.

Morrell's book takes place in the mid-19th Century, and he slips lots of historical facts about life, mores and politics in Victorian England, the evolving methodology of the relatively new police force, and the darker side of British rule in India, its pursuit of the opium trade and covert efforts to destabilize Europe.

The fascinating Thomas de Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, plays a considerable role in the book.  The most interesting character is his daughter Emily, a thoroughly modern woman of the time.

The mystery takes a number of dark psychological turns and is fascinating in and of itself, but the historical background is what made this book so appealing to me.  Give it a read if you want something light and entertaining.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Christensen Wins - Again!

Clayton Christensen has topped the list of best Business Thinkers, for the second time in a row.  His seminal book, The Innovator's Dilemma was published in 1997, but by 2001, he was only ranked 39th on the list.

Why did it take so long for him to be recognized? The Innovator's Dilemma proposes a number of counter-intuitive explanations of why 'great companies fail'. When I first met Clay in 1997 and heard these ideas, they hit me like an bolt of lightning "Ah that explains so much!" But I had had a somewhat unorthodox business background by then, and I was totally unschooled in and untainted by traditional business and MBA thinking. For most people it took years for these powerful ideas to percolate.

Today, Christensen's thinking has profoundly influenced management thinking, although the words 'disruptive innovation' are applied to just about any new idea or product, even when they are not in the least disruptive. In any case, it's great to see my hero recognized and I'm betting this honour will stimulate even more people to read his important books.

Note that Kim and Mauborgne, authors of Blue Ocean Strategy sit at #2. Blue Ocean Strategy is an elaboration of the theory of disruption, with the addition of a great visualization approach that enhances explainability of disruptive innovation.  Canada can be really proud to see Roger Martin and Don Tapscott in third and fourth spot.  Women hold 4 of the top 10 spots on the list, representing a significant breakthrough, and Chinese squeeze into 31st and 50th positions for the first appearance of Chinese thinkers on the list.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Highest Paid Public Officials in US

Many lament the dismal performance of the US education system.  Despite vast amounts of money spent, US students lag those in other countries.

College athletic systems are doing just fine though, with college coaches being the highest-paid public officials in fully 80% of states, as shown in this map by

Football coaches do best.  USA Today recently published a list of the top 10 salaries in football.

In general, basketball coaches don't do quite so well, with the glaring exception of Mike Krysewski, the highest paid of them all.  He does turn out a strong team year after year (as this Duke fan can personally attest to) but $7M?

There's a myth that these programs contribute substantial monies to the coffers of their universities. In Disrupting Class, Christensen had a statistic that said the vast majority of college athletic programs actually lose money (can't lay my hands on the book to dig out the exact reference). Deadspin concurs with Christensen's assessment; they claim that athletic programs at the top 99 schools lost an average of $5M once you take out student fees and university subsidies. So, with free labour from all the students players, the business model still doesn't work. Doesn't seem like all that good a business to me.

Would less attention on athletics and more on education result in better education results for Americans?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

BufferBox - A Classic Innovation Story

So, you have this great job, a really interesting and challenging but very demanding job with a to-do list that tries to suck you into work early and late and your partner also has a great job with lots of travel and your life is really hectic and you have to drive Susie to basketball tonight and Johnny to hockey tomorrow morning and life is wonderful but oh where is the time to shop for mundane things for the house or the upcoming kid's birthday party or heaven forfend Christmas shopping when the parking lots at the shopping centres will be full and that kind of shopping just means you'll be exhausted by the time you sit down to share the joy of the tree and big Christmas dinner but of my goodness now you can shop online in your own time after the kids are in bed in your pjs with a glass of cooled chardonnay and doesn't that just make life more liveable.

Except . . .  you're . . . never . . . home . . . when . . . they . . . deliver . . . the package.

Wow, this is a problem that screams for solution.  Clayton Christensen calls this the Job to be Done - customers hire a product to get a job done for them - and points to job identification as the starting point for innovation. Design thinking similarly starts with the definition of the problem as the first step in good design.

In 2011, Mike McCauley, Jay Shah and Aditya Bali were students at the University of Waterloo.  They recognized this problem and designed a solution as a project in their fourth year design course. They called it BufferBox.

Soon BufferBox was incubated at the university's VeloCity campus designed to nurture entrepreneurially inclined students, and then scored support from YCombinator, an incubator in Silicon Valley.   After a pilot in Waterloo, the service was expanded to Toronto. Establishing presence in GO commuter train stations was a major coup.  How wonderful for commuters to simply pick up their parcels on their way home!

So, all is going well. These young entrepreneurs are following a classic path for innovation: find a problem, design a solution, get financial support, pilot to test usability, develop partnerships.

Then along comes Amazon Locker, with the same idea as BufferBox idea, for Amazon customers only. A validation of the BufferBox concept, but a terrifying competitor.

And so the bright young Canadian start-up is acquired by Google. This is again part of a classic innovation story.  It may be impossible for a small start-up to scale their innovation as fast as the market requires, and so their best strategy is a juicy buyout.  Google paid $25M for BufferBox. Nice payoff for a piece of homework.

BufferBox has been rolled out to two cities, Toronto and San Francisco. Luckily I live in Toronto and I've just used BufferBox.  Planning to be away during the expected arrival of an online purchase from Costco, I elected to use a nearby BufferBox for delivery (5 blocks away).  So I entered the address of the BufferBox sorting warehouse in Burlington plus a code for that particular BufferBox near me. BufferBox starts delivery of the packages same day or at night on the day the parcel gets to Burlington so typically the delivery gets to you one day later than it would get to your house.  Note the cleverness of doing most of these deliveries overnight - no hassling Toronto's horrendous traffic during the day.  And voila, the parcel arrived as promised. Then my gracious granddaughter picked up the parcel with my code.  Worked like a charm. I've often avoided online purchases because of delivery issues. I'll be using BufferBox again.

* that image of a woman at the top is from Living Green magazine

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


First I was a happy ING Direct customer.  Then I was a proud ING Direct Bank board member. Soon I'll be a happy customer of Tangerine, the new name for ING Direct.  The new name is prompted by the terms of the purchase by Scotiabank and will take effect next spring.
I love the name, linking to ING Direct's orange past, as well as the inclusion of the upward arrow, part of its recent branding initiatives.  But how do you make the announcement of a new name exciting to customers.  Today ING Direct showed us.  I have always admired ING Direct's marketing and today I was, well, dazzled by how well they launched the new name.  What did they do right?

  • Invited customers to tune in via live stream with their employees at the annual Orange Rally (guess that will soon be the Tangerine Rally).  This ensured there was enthusiastic applause for every announcement.  Maybe some viewers thought this was artificial, but that enthusiasm and engagement is typical of this company
  • Peter Aceto front and centre: he's an absolutely great speaker. Peter reinforced what isn't  going to change.  ING Direct will continue to be a pioneer, to deliver great customer service and innovative products, and stay true to its mission of helping and encouraging customers to take care of their money.
  • Frederick, famous spokesperson in the early days of ING Direct, led the crowd in a rousing rendition of his famous line "Save Your Money".  What a symbolic way to link the past with the future.
  • Introduced new products.  After all, customers are more interested in products and service than in names and logos.  Peter reviewed the recently released Cheque-in feature (deposit a cheque by taking a photo of it), and announced the imminent introduction of a credit card, and the ability to use Scotiabank ABMs without a fee.
  • Good clips from the people who worked on the project to give some background about the choices leading to Tangerine.
  • Inclusion of the band Walk Off the Earth which became popular by cheap music videos which built its fan base independently from booking agents, music labels, or management before signing up with Columbia last year.  A maverick in music that joined up with a big name.  Nudge, nudge, get the parallel?
Bravo!  Congratulations to all my old friends at ING Direct.

Gender Matters. . .Continued

Just after writing a post about the WEF's study on gender equality, I came across the map, which was published in the New York Times.  Very interesting.  I don't remember this being one of the measures used by the WEF.