September 18, 2018

The Week in BIG Ideas Volume 7

By Beverley Hammond
Founder & CEO

 

This weekend I was lamenting with a girlfriend that with the public narrative consumed by partisan divisiveness (on both sides of the border), biased opinions, tariffs, trade wars, and “fake news” there just seems so much negativity, divisiveness and focus on what is wrong with the world that it is hard to pay attention to what is really happening around us and stay optimistic about what is ahead.

So, this week The Week in BIG Ideas looks at some of those who are committed to solving what ails us, restoring hope and optimism in their own way. In fact, this isn’t just a look at those people, it is a celebration of them. Bring it on!

And it is also Emmy week so of course there is that. Welcome to The Week in BIG Ideas Volume 7.

 

BIG Idea #1:  Dream Higher Than the Sky and Deeper Than the Ocean

 

“When thinking about environmental issues people say – oh that's a long way off. That's for our children to worry about. So Hellooo!! Here I am. Why don't we just clean it up?”

Boyan Slat at TEDxDelft 2016

More than 5 Trillion (with a ‘T’) pieces of plastic garbage disposed of by humans have accumulated in the world’s oceans. Over time an ocean’s vortex currents carry this debris to five natural gathering points or gyres, also known as “garbage patches.” The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as part of the North Pacific Gyre, is an area more than 1.6 million square kilometers in size. Full. Of. Plastic.

As this debris breaks down into little particles, it is eaten by fish, seals, birds and other wildlife, poisoning them, infiltrating the ecosystem and eventually ending up back in our food supply chain.

Oblivious as it seems, we continue our love affair with plastic, even as Oceanographer Charles Moore who first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch back in 1997 suggests the problem is so big it could take 79,000 years to clean up.

At long last, the problem is starting to get some attention. This week my favourite local restaurant posted a sign announcing that in an effort to help decrease the use of disposable plastic, they will no longer make single-use plastic straws available. That’s something.

So is this.

24-year-old Boyan Slat and his organization The Ocean Cleanup took some action on disposable plastic this week too. Embarking on the world’s largest ocean clean-up project with the launch of the first of its 2,000-foot-long plastic cleaning arrays, the organization is on a mission to collect 50 tonnes of plastic this year alone from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The technologically advanced System 001 cleaning array designed by The Ocean Cleanup is the result of a major breakthrough. It looks like a boom and acts like an artificial coastline that leverages the ocean’s natural currents, concentrates the debris and then captures it. 

It can capture debris exponentially faster and less expensively than traditional approaches and earlier prototypes. According to their own estimates, with a full deployment of 60 arrays, they should be able to remove 50 per cent of the garbage patch region's plastic within five years. It’s not hard to do the math on that. Five is a lot less than 79,000.

The idea which began as a high school science project when Slat was 16 has been through a few iterations, trials and some tribulation in the few years since he dropped out of aerospace engineering to pursue his dream of developing the technology to rid the oceans of plastic.

A dream that has been criticized by scientists and ‘blow-hards’ alike.

Some suggest we can’t possibly fix what has happened. We can only stop what might happen through education and prevention. Slat and his 65-person organization are advocates of education, of course, and believe stopping plastic pollution in the first place needs to be a global priority. But as he said about an epiphany he had one day while watching adults toss plastic waste, “Some people will never learn”.

Still others accuse Slat of diverting funds that could be better deployed elsewhere in the fight to save our oceans and raising expectations for something that is impossible to achieve.

It is true, the full 28-million-dollar system has yet to be proven. As one of the last of many pilots and as a result of a lot of modelling, a 400-foot array was towed out to sea in May of this year, to test its durability. It passed the test. But this launch marks the first time a full-size array will be activated.

Still, in the battle of “impossible” vs “possible” on this one, I am on “Team Possible”.

For my part, I am now paying attention. I am off straws and water bottles and will request paper when next asked at the grocery store. I will do my part and I will bank on the passion and smarts of this extraordinary young man, his amazing dream and this technologically-advanced scheme to do theirs.

 

BIG Idea #2: Just the Facts, Ma’am

 

As a recovering policy-wonk I can’t believe I missed this one. Thanks to @fairacre2004 and @billmaher for catching me up.

Way back in 2016, while I was sleeping, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie Ballmer launched USAFacts an avowedly unbiased not-for-profit that according to its site, “draws on federal data sources to piece together a picture of government revenues, spending and activities, as well as national demographic trends.”

It all began when the Ballmers were contemplating options for philanthropic giving and wanted to get a better view of the landscape by first understanding where government money is spent. But there was no place to do that. Surprised that the Government is not held to the same standards of transparency for its shareholders (the people) as publicly traded companies are to theirs, the tech tycoon and his wife set out to create a place where it would be.

Powered by research brains from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), the Penn Wharton Budget Model and Lynchburg College, using all of the publicly available data they can find and curate, USAFacts makes no recommendations about what government should do, but simply presents the facts about what government does - objectively and in a way that is understandable and easily accessible.

Not surprisingly, the organization has implemented a reporting process that mimics the rigour expected of public companies, including an Annual Report and a simulated 10-K (that’s the form public companies file each year with the Securities and Exchange Commission). This past spring Ballmer even hosted “America’s Shareholder Meeting” – a webcast highlighting the numbers from USAFacts 2018 Annual Report.

In June, Poppy Macdonald (formerly of Politico) was hired as Managing Director for USAFacts in an effort to enhance the organization’s ability to package and publish data in relevant ways. While her journalism background may make the group more vulnerable to criticism and cries of “fake news”, it seems sufficient systems to ensure objectivity are embedded to insulate against that.

With no political or policy agenda, they call the data-driven portrait of the American people “a public service”. In this toxic time; in an environment fraught with populism, polarization and an utter lack of trust and respect, I’d call that an understatement.

USAFacts has been around for a couple of years now so while it’s not an idea from this week, it certainly is a refreshing idea. And a BIG one at that!

 

BIG Idea #3: From TV to ‘The Tube’

 

For a few years, my only interest in the Emmy Awards was the fashion. Unless I had seen an episode of a network sitcom on an airplane [I’m looking at you Big Bang Theory], watched it on Netflix, or streamed it, I probably hadn’t seen it. That has all changed.

This year was the 70th Emmy Awards, an amazing milestone for “the biggest night in television”. But since HBO took home most of the statues and officially changed the rules of play (or should I say “pay”) almost 20 years ago, it hasn't been the biggest night for the networks or for TV as we once knew it. Even the Emmy website now describes the award as recognizing “excellence within various areas of television and emerging media.”

The feeling of impending network doom wasn't subtle last night, starting with the opening monologue when the evening’s host NBC SNL celeb Colin Jost thanked the thousands in the room and “the hundreds watching at home”. His Weekend Update partner and co-host Michael Che got straight to the point when he proclaimed, “Our network, NBC has the most nominations of any broadcast network, which is kind of like being the sexiest person on life support. It’s not great.”

It’s not. The awards reinforced the point when Netflix – the industry disrupter and modern-day villain of TV – tied HBO with 23 wins, after receiving the most nominations this year. Turns out spending $8 billion on original content is a winning strategy and making programming available via commercial-free streaming all day every day, a very popular format.

So when SNL boss and NBC exec Lorne Michaels in his acceptance speech for the Best Variety Sketch Emmy (one of only a handful for the network) opined that “in 1975 when we started, there were a lot of articles for most of that decade about how the networks wouldn’t be around much longer, and here we are, it’s 2018 and we’re the Emmys and we’re on NBC" he looked like parody of himself. 1975? Wha’??? At a time when the networks are trying desperately to recalibrate their business models to counter “the Netflix effect” he was either eulogizing or providing some good fodder for a skit this weekend.

It’s almost as ridiculous as the response former Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes made a few years back when asked if Netflix was a threat to traditional media. He laughed, “It's a little bit like, is the Albanian army going to take over the world.”

Today, the service has more than 120 million subscribers around the world and has made more than $3.9 billion in revenue in one quarter alone. So, we should be watching for the Albanians. Or in the very least feel certain the Albanians are watching Netflix.

Netflix dwarfs all comers right now but with Apple, Disney, Amazon and Alphabet’s YouTube all playing in original content and digital and streaming, it is hard to predict where the industry is headed.

As Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph has said, “the whole method of storytelling is changing."

So who will change the game next? I’m picking YouTube as the one to watch [pun intended]. Already untouchable in streaming, YouTube launched YouTube TV in the USA last year – a sleek, user friendly, paid live streaming service with programming from all of the major networks and more. At the same time, YouTube’s ad-free, subscription programming service YouTube Premium gives subscribers access to its growing list of original shows. While it still spends nothing on development compared to Netflix and latest estimates suggest it has only about two million subscribers (a fraction of the Netflix number).

Managing Director of YouTube/Video Global Solutions, Debbie Weinstein states that YouTube has well “over a Billion users and each day those users watch a billion hours of video.” TV screens now account for 150 million hours per day of watch time.

Put it all together and you've got the makings of the next BIG disruptor in TV. We may not know what that looks like yet, but there is a really good chance Alphabet is figuring it out. Stay tuned…

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If you’re enjoying this blog, please pass it on and feel free to share any ideas – your own or others – with me at bev@republicstory.com, using the Subject Line: Here’s a BIG Idea!

 

Until next week, this was The Week in BIG Ideas!

BH