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🛰 Hardware in China, Blockchain, and Second Order Effects of Cars – IOP Observatory #20

April 4 · Issue #20 · View online
The VUCA Observatory
glad you could make it.
This week, we take a look at hardware manufacturing, think about the effects that electric and autonomous cars might have, and applaud a regulator that acknowledges the uncertainty that lies in the future of energy.
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Hardware is Hard
Have you heard? Ikea is getting into the Home Automation game. The Swedish furniture giant has announced a ZigBee LightLink-based lighting solution, available some time in April. That might be just the move consumer IoT needs for more mass-appeal. Ikea can move volume, after all. The pricing isn’t so much different from the established Philips Hue solution, however, and so far there’s no word on compatibility and platform integration, so label me skeptical for now.
But it goes to show that capital-T Technology is invading ever more parts of our economy. A furniture store is now selling connected products.
In that, it might be worthwhile to have a look at Shenzhen, the Silicon Valley for electronics design and manufacture. To that end, the Financial Times has a great story on Shenzhen-based Wearables manufacturers who are starting to leapfrog the western competition which they initially set out to copy.
And China will be on a lot of people’s minds who are either working on IoT-related startups, or thinking about doing one. Conceptspring has a great overview of the product development process for hardware, while – who, as the name suggests – are in the business of making Keyboards, detail their experience of bringing a hardware product into the world. As always, it’s enlightening. While lot’s of folks these days say that hardware is the new software, those views show that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Lastly, there’s a good guide from Hack A Day on how to source parts from the big Chinese marketplaces for your prototypes.
The Effects of Electric and Autonomy
In my thinking, heavily informed by Carlota Perez’s work on the topic, technological developments follow two distinct phases: first comes the inputs innovation, where the industry figures out how to implement new technology to make their processes and products more efficient, followed by outputs innovation, where innovation becomes messier, as you try to build on top of new technology. I’ve written about that before.
With the development of cars running apace as it is – there’s almost weekly announcements around autonomy and electrification – it seems like the right time to look at what outputs innovation might look like for the future of mobility. Ben Evans provides a good starting place looking at potential second order effects across the economy and human behaviours that might fall into place once the roll-out of electric and autonomous vehicles is underway in earnest.
Over at the City Observatory, there’s an alternative view on the limiting factors and potential problems that might come with widespread roll-out. Urban geometries are limited after all, and infrastructure has built-in inertia that makes it slow to react to technology changes.
That policy has a role to play in shaping the future of infrastructure should be self-evident. So it’s not surprising that the players are jockeying into position in shaping how policy might look like. Take for instance Uber, that floated (and indicated general support for) congestion charges applied to road use. Crucially though, that idea seems to be predicated on tax authorities getting records of vehicle miles travelled.
Just how that kind of data, which you usually sign away in privacy policies and terms of use agreements, can be used is exemplified by a scathing report on Tesla’s practices around log data of its vehicles once they’ve been in a crash. If you so much as indicate, even to the police, that AutoPilot might have been engaged, the company will use the data to defend itself, without you ever getting the chance to see the data in question.
If you follow energy news, you’ve probably grown weary of renewables forecasts, too. Even the most optimistic cases usually fall far short of the reality. Now here’s a fun paper by Ofgem, the UK’s energy regulator, looking at what that might mean for, well, regulating the energy industry. I must say, it makes for a refreshing read. Committing to prioritising learning in the face of massive unknowns about the future system seems like a sensible approach that other countries should take a cue from.
And while there’s been a lot of noise about the US and the potential scrapping of EPA climate regulations, it should be obvious from just looking at the market that coal (and especially the associated jobs in coal) won’t come back. Turns out the big threat is not actually regulation, but cheaper renewables. But can renewables get even cheaper fast enough to help meet the Paris accord?
Another ingredient in any energy system that relies on large parts of renewables is storage. And while there are experiments aplenty with pumped air storage, power to gas, and even flywheel storage, it seems plausible that battery storage will play a huge part in that. To that end, there seems to be a veritable Lithium rush underway to extract the mineral and help avoid a shortage, amidst a five-fold price increase over the last three years.
Oh, and here’s a fun statistic: clearing a single bitcoin transaction requires as much energy as charging your tesla and driving it 500km. Have that in mind the next time someone tries to sell you on blockchains underpinning the electric system.
The Strange, Weird, and Interesting
End Notes
That’s it for this week. See you next Tuesday.
As always, feedback is most welcome. Let me know what you think of this week’s issue at
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