Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (Our work-from-anywhere future; All eyes on digital payments), E-learning (New playbook for customised learning), Economy (To fully understand the migrant worker crisis, we need a larger perspective; Fed isn't printing as much money as you think), Globalisation (What the West gets wrong about China) and Health (How long can we live?).

Published: May 22, 2021 07:22:21 AM IST
Updated: May 21, 2021 05:36:04 PM IST

Ten interesting things we read this weekImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (Our work-from-anywhere future; All eyes on digital payments), E-learning (New playbook for customised learning), Economy (To fully understand the migrant worker crisis, we need a larger perspective; Fed isn’t printing as much money as you think), Globalisation (What the West gets wrong about China) and Health (How long can we live?).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended May 22, 2021.

1)     Our work-from-anywhere future
[Source: HBR
Are all-remote or majority-remote organizations the future of knowledge work? Is work from anywhere (WFA) here to stay? Since last year, we all know that this can be possible. However, concerns persist regarding how WFA affects communication, including brainstorming and problem-solving; knowledge sharing; socialization, camaraderie, and mentoring; performance evaluation and compensation; and data security and regulation. But, the current pandemic has opened senior leaders’ minds to the idea of adopting WFA for all or part of their workforces. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), a global IT services company, has announced a plan to be 75% remote by 2025. In addition to TCS, companies including Twitter, Facebook, Shopify, Siemens, and State Bank of India have announced that they will make remote work permanent even after a vaccine is available.

While there are many benefits of working from home or anywhere, for both individuals and companies, the amount of challenges are also equal. One of the key challenges for organisations implementing WFA is communications. Global organisations should therefore get comfortable with asynchronous communication, whether through a Slack channel, a customized intracompany portal, or even a shared Google document in which geographically distributed team members write their questions and comments and trust that other team members in distant time zones will respond at the first opportunity. Knowledge sharing is another challenge for all-remote or majority-remote organizations. Distributed colleagues can’t tap one another on the shoulder to ask questions or get help.

WFA may not be possible at this time for some organizations, such as manufacturing companies—though that could change with advances in 3D printing, automation, digital twins, and other technologies. However, with the right strategy, organizational processes, technologies, and—most important—leadership, many more companies, teams, and functions than one might have thought could go all or mostly remote. If leaders support synchronous and asynchronous communication, brainstorming, and problem-solving; lead initiatives to codify knowledge online; encourage virtual socialization, team building, and mentoring; invest in and enforce data security; work with government stakeholders to ensure regulatory compliance; and set an example by becoming WFA employees themselves, all-remote organizations may indeed emerge as the future of work.

2)     A new playbook for customised learning: edutubers and the ecosystem driving a tutor-creator economy [Source: Economic Times
Many online tutors have gone beyond using YouTube and Facebook Live to educate millions of people. These online tutors are also known as ‘Edutubers’. Edutubers are online entrepreneurs, with their channels and apps as their companies, and are powered by an ecosystem that caters exclusively to this ed-tech segment created by teachers for teachers. Fast gaining traction among academic and non-academic students alike, the pandemic-driven lockdown and uncertainty around traditional learning channels have further helped them build their base. This article takes you through the journey of two edutubers, Rahul Deshwal and Sudhir Shivaram. Deshwal has millions of students, who swear by his easy-to-follow Hindi-medium lessons to prepare for job-oriented exams. Shivaram conducts tutorial on wildlife photography. However, his mainstay was the wildlife tours and physical workshops he conducted. The Covid-19 outbreak hit both.

Even as Shivaram had to cancel 10 sold-out tours, he felt it was time to amp up his online play. Going through his website statistics, he noticed that 80-90% of his users came from mobile. He felt an app could give his students a more customised learning experience. But how could he find someone to build it? That’s when Classplus comes to the rescue. Mukul Rustagi, an education entrepreneur, founded Classplus with a simple credo: Don’t try to solve the learning problem; instead, provide the infrastructure for the people who can teach to help them launch, run, and scale their ventures online. “We want to help anyone who thinks they can teach something well. What we offer is like a super-app that combines the features of live learning facility, connectivity, payment gateway, and learning,” says Rustagi.

Meanwhile, there has been much talk of how non-fungible crypto tokens can enable the content-creator economy. Imagine a piece of content you created being tagged with an NFT token and generating income for you every time it is used or referenced. Is that the version future? That story is yet to emerge. At the moment, Deshwal is banking on his students. Despite the uncertainty around exams and continued institution closures, he has quite a following — Instagram (17,000-plus), YouTube (200,000-plus), Telegram (140,000-plus), and app downloads (60,000-plus). Similarly, for Shivaram, whose photography page on Facebook has over 1.9 million likes, the 8,000-plus people who have downloaded his app are hungry for more. He believes someday soon, people will return for his guided wildlife photography tours as well. Till then, they can improve their skills, even under the lockdown, at home.  

3)     Tips from Youyang Gu, the pandemic’s star data scientist who had never worked on healthcare models [Source: Economic Times]
Data scientist Youyang Gu, an MIT electrical engineering and computer science grad, had an exciting last year, forecasting Covid-related numbers. When he saw that Covid projections out there didn’t make sense, he went on to create his own model for forecasting. “My whole entire goal was to produce the most accurate model possible,” Gu says, from his apartment in Manhattan. “No ‘if this’ or ‘if that.’ Basically, no ‘ifs.’ It doesn’t really matter what the scenarios are. I just wanted to lay it out: ‘This is the most likely or realistic forecast for what’s going to happen.’”

Soon he built a machine-learning model and launched his COVID-19 Projections website. He ran the model every day—it only took one hour on his laptop—and posted covid-19 death projections for 50 US states, 34 counties, and 71 countries. Millions checked his website daily. Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, took notice and commented on Twitter that Gu’s model was “making predictions that seem as good as any I’ve seen.” “I had zero background in infectious-disease modeling,” he says. But he did have a few years’ experience as a data scientist in finance, working with statistical models—models that, based on certain statistical assumptions, analyze data and make projections about, say, where the price of a stock will be in the future.

The forecasts proved remarkably accurate. For instance, on May 3, he made an appearance on CNN Tonight and shared his model’s projections that the US would reach 70,000 deaths on May 5, 80,000 deaths on May 11, 90,000 deaths on May 18, and 100,000 deaths on May 27. On May 28, he tweeted, “ got all 4 dates exactly correct.” With some rounding, that was true. Gu shut down his first model in early October because by then there were lots of teams doing good death forecasts. He turned instead to modeling true infections versus reported infections. While the past year was very exciting for him, he says that he has also learnt a lot. Some of the lessons that he learnt were: 1) Focus on fundamentals, 2) Minimize assumptions, 3) Test the hypothesis, 4) Learn from mistakes, 5) Engage critics, 6) Exercise healthy skepticism.

4)     All eyes on digital payments
[Source: Project Syndicate]
Raghuram G. Rajan, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, in this article talks about the excitement surrounding digital payments, especially cryptocurrencies. He writes how the pandemic has accelerated the switch to digital payments, as people have shifted to e-commerce and taken steps to avoid handling currency in ordinary purchases. He also says that there’s excitement around cryptocurrencies. “A cryptocurrency like Bitcoin offers ostensible benefits as a means of payment because, unlike fiat currencies, it cannot be inflated away (because its supply is fixed), and it allows for decentralized payment verification, eliminating the need for any party to trust the others involved, let alone trusting government or regulators.”

But, there are challenges and weaknesses to Bitcoin’s use. “Firms, barring those led by true believers, do not want to keep a currency whose value can fluctuate by 10% every day. And Bitcoin transactions are expensive and inefficient, owing to the costly decentralized verification process. By some estimates, the annual electricity use needed to verify Bitcoin transactions exceeds that of a medium-size country. It is hard to imagine that such an environmentally destructive process will be tolerated indefinitely.” So basically, cryptocurrencies are thus a work in progress.

Also, antitrust is another issue when it comes to cryptocurrencies. “Does a single payment provider that handles all business services – including e-commerce and logistics – have an excessive amount of market power? The recent tensions between Chinese regulators and Ant Group owe something to the fear that e-commerce platforms like Alibaba (Ant’s parent company) are using their market power – enhanced through payments – to restrict competition. One remedy here would be to create public payment bridges, such as India’s Unified Payments Interface, where the key payment services are open to all comers and not controlled by any one private entity.” As central banks are mulling over getting into digital payments, they fear losing control over payments as physical cash becomes redundant.

5)     To fully understand the migrant worker crisis, we need a larger perspective [Source: The Wire]
According to the Economic Survey of India 2016-17, there were over a 100 million migrant workers in India, many drawn from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. They work in precarious worksites in sectors ranging from construction and brick kilns to rural harvesting operations. These migrations are brokered by contractors, often tied with debt, and studies have documented difficult prospects of upward mobility. By definition, work in informal economy implies complete insecurity: you may have to work 12 hours a day every day for the whole month or you may get just a few days’ work a month. The worker puts herself out; but that does not ensure a daily meal. But one thing is sure. If you do not work that day, there is no dinner for you and your family. That is the on-the-ground definition of the informal economy.

The exodus of migrant workers, like the earlier one last year, tells us that there is something basically very wrong with the way development is being conceived and implemented, with the way we are looking at people. The Interstate Migrants Act has been in existence since 1989. Though not totally in tune with the complexities of the situation of the migrants, it does have some provisions that can provide some relief to migrant workers. However, over the years, this Act has been almost totally non-functional. Now there is an attempt to bring in a policy for migration. The policy accepts a lot of suggestions from the Task Force on Migration, 2017. The draft policy favours what it calls a ‘rights-based approach’ as different from focusing ‘on cash transfers, special quotas, and reservations’. It acknowledges that migrants contribute at least 10% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP).

A policy on migration is a welcome move. However, one also needs to relook at the entire question of migration from the point of view of the migrant. Aspirational migration can indeed be an enriching experience. But, distress migration begins on the wrong footing. Distress migration due to dispossession of the meagre resources they had leads to nothing less than a desperate, precarious workforce akin to slave-like conditions, where real control over your life is a faraway dream. It all boils down to our priorities as a people. Rather than hanker after a $5 trillion economy, people-focused development is the only way if we do not want to face the fear of extinction through climate change issues and calamities, through more and more pandemics and epidemics. As it has often been said: There is enough in the world for what people need; but not enough for their greed.

6)     The fly in the small finance bank ointment [Source: The Ken
In 2015, Raghuram Rajan, the then Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, introduced the idea of small finance banks (SFBs). It was an attempt to take the entire suite of banking services to low-income households—the ‘small’ here referred to the kind of customer the banks would deal with. Around 72 different financial institutions applied, including large microfinance institutions (MFI), local area banks and non-banking financial institutions (NBFCs), and some individuals. Only 10 got the licence. Cut to 2021, the RBI received just four applications for this class of banks. What happened? One of the reasons is the current ongoing pandemic which struck last year. The pandemic has kept lenders busy, trying to work out just how badly they’ve been hit.

Becoming an SFB, for microfinance institutions (MFIs), opened a door that was previously shut for them—they could collect deposits. But the regulator’s rider was that 50% of all loans that SFBs gave out had to be below Rs 25 lakh ($3.4 million). And 75% of them had to go to the priority sector, which includes the weaker sections of society, micro-enterprises, and for agriculture. But, the problem actually begins with the deposits. The balance in India’s bank accounts averages less than Rs1 lakh ($1,370). So courting deposits from the same set of customers SFBs lend to would make the business unviable—most of the people in the low-income segment just don’t have enough savings to park in a bank. Banks need to attract deposits at low interest rates in order to lend at high interest rates, hitting that sweet spot of cheap cost of funds. But to get deposits in the first place, banks have to offer the bait of high interest rates.

The RBI’s original idea for a small finance bank was dead on arrival. Given MFIs’ expertise in lending to the bottom of the pyramid, the RBI believed that these entities, as SFBs, could give the option of deposits to the segment they were lending to. But the regulator left the intricacies of the business model necessary to achieve that to the SFBs. The RBI has allowed SBFs to apply to become a full-fledged bank after completing five years. So well-adjusted SFBs such as AU Finance and Equitas are evaluating becoming a full-fledged bank. But if the well-run SFBs will ultimately turn into full-fledged banks, the SFBs’ very purpose—lending to the low-income sector—remains unfinished.

7)     The Fed isn’t printing as much money as you think
[Source: Collaborative Fund
Inflation happens when too much money chases too few goods, and Covid-19 closed a lot of businesses and gave people an unprecedented amount of money. The author of this article talks about how the Fed is printing a lot of money, but not nearly as much as it looks. Money supply has increased from $4 trillion a year ago to $18 trillion today. A 350% increase! But, the huge majority of the increase you’re seeing is not due to money printing or new money creation. It’s an accounting rule change. The supply of money is measured a few different ways. M1, which this chart shows, measures money that’s readily available – mostly paper cash, coins, and checking accounts. Another measure called M2 is a little broader. It includes money in savings accounts and retail money market accounts.

When Covid hit, regulators realized that having trillions of dollars in savings accounts with limited withdrawals was a burden as 22 million people lost their jobs. So last April the Fed changed the rules and eliminated the six-withdrawal limit on savings accounts. It wrote: “The interim final rule allows depository institutions immediately to suspend enforcement of the six transfer limit and to allow their customers to make an unlimited number of convenient transfers and withdrawals from their savings deposits at a time when financial events associated with the coronavirus pandemic have made such access more urgent.” This changed the relationship between M1 and M2. Savings accounts are measured in M2 and left out of M1. But once the six-withdrawal rule was removed, every savings account suddenly became, in the eyes of regulators and people who make these charts, a checking account.

Of the $14 trillion increase in M1, $11.2 trillion (80%) came from an accounting rule change that shifted money from savings accounts to checking accounts. That’s why M2, which is more comprehensive than M1, has increased by $11 trillion less than M1 over the last year. Two things stick out here: What else are we missing? What other data points look straightforward but, when dug into, reveal themselves to be more complicated than we imagined? It has to be dozens, hundreds, thousands. Covid-19 has broken the relationships and long-standing correlations across all kinds of economic variables. Forecasting is always hard, but it’s harder now.

8)     'To Tackle COVID In Rural India, Enable At-Home Care, Involve Panchayats, NGOs'
[Source: IndiaSpend]
In this interview, Dr. Pavitra Mohan (secretary and co-founder of Basic Healthcare Services) and Poonam Muttreja (executive director of the Population Foundation of India) talk about the impact of Covid-19 on rural India, putting plans in place for medium and long term to improve the public health infrastructure in villages, and more. Ms. Muttreja believes that the government hasn’t done much. “The big difference this time is that we are neither prepared nor do I get the impression that our government is serious about preparing for either the second wave or a third wave,” she says. Dr. Mohan says that the effect of first wave was small, but the effect of second wave is immense and is spreading much faster, and its affecting deeper rural areas.

Dr. Mohan had been advocating from the start that having oxygen concentrators in all clinics is a must. He says, “Two main things we are seeing even in severe cases: One is that there is a lot of care that is possible at home. But in hospitals, there are two things that can be made available at the most decentralised units--oxygen, and then if you really need it, at the next level, BiPAP or CPAP, which are not as expensive as ventilators. Of course, a small proportion would require ventilators but that cannot be made available everywhere. We need to look back and see that if we strengthen our peripheral health centres with the basics, we can actually get it right nine out of 10 times and we need not rely on hospital-based care for preventing the bulk of deaths.”

When it comes to improving the quality of healthcare, Dr. Mohan says, “To begin with, there needs to be a philosophical and technical shift--to focus on decentralised primary healthcare [rather] than the hospital-based system that we are increasingly creating. We have to move from specialised to more generalist care. We have to move from specialists to doctors, and doctors to nurses, and nurses to community health workers. We have to spend our time and energy in developing strong primary healthcare teams at the front. We need to support them, we need to mentor them. We have to move away and also have a greater belief in the public system.”

9)     How long can we live? [Source: NY Times
There was a lady by the name Jeanne Calment who died at the age of 122 in 1997. But, before that in 1992, Jean-Marie Robine and Michel Allard thought she was someone special and someone who merited a case study. Over the next few years, Robine and Allard, in collaboration with several other researchers and archivists, interviewed Calment dozens of times and thoroughly documented her life history, verifying her age and cementing her reputation as the oldest person who ever lived. The answer that they, and other researchers, were searching for was…What exactly is the limit on the human life span? As medical and social advances mitigate diseases of old age and prolong life, the number of exceptionally long-lived people is increasing sharply. The United Nations estimates that there were about 95,000 centenarians in 1990 and more than 450,000 in 2015. By 2100, there will be 25 million.

The theoretical limits on the length of a human life have vexed scientists and philosophers for thousands of years, but for most of history their discussions were largely based on musings and personal observations. In 2016, an especially provocative study in the prestigious research journal Nature strongly implied that the authors had found the limit to the human life span. Jan Vijg, a geneticist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and two colleagues analyzed decades’ worth of mortality data from several countries and concluded that although the highest reported age at death in these countries increased rapidly between the 1970s and 1990s, it had failed to rise since then, stagnating at an average of 114.9 years. Human life span, it seemed, had arrived at its limit. Although some individuals, like Jeanne Calment, might reach staggering ages, they were outliers, not indicators of a continual lengthening of life.

Many of the disputes over human longevity studies center on the integrity of different data sets and the varying statistical methods researchers use to analyze them. Where one group of scientists perceives a clear trend, another suspects an illusion. Biomedically extended longevity would not only revolutionize general well-being by minimizing or preventing diseases of aging, they say, it would also vastly enrich human experience. It would mean the chance for several fulfilling and diverse careers; the freedom to explore much more of the world; the joy of playing with your great-great-great-grandchildren; the satisfaction of actually sitting in the shade of the tree you planted so long ago.

10)     What the West gets wrong about China [Source: HBR
In this article, the authors talk about how people in both business and politics often cling to three widely shared but essentially false assumptions about modern China. What are these myths? 1) Economics and democracy are two sides of the same coin: In China, growth has come in the context of stable communist rule, suggesting that democracy and growth are not inevitably mutually dependent. July 2020 polling data from the Ash Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government revealed 95% satisfaction with the Beijing government among Chinese citizens. The authors’ own experiences on the ground in China confirm this. A cleaner in Chongqing now owns several apartments because the CCP reformed property laws. A Shanghai journalist is paid by her state-controlled magazine to fly around the world for stories on global lifestyle trends. A young student in Nanjing can study propulsion physics at Beijing’s Tsinghua University thanks to social mobility and the party’s significant investment in scientific research.

2) Authoritarian political systems can’t be legitimate: Many Chinese not only don’t believe that democracy is necessary for economic success but do believe that their form of government is legitimate and effective. Westerners’ failure to appreciate this explains why many still expect China to reduce its role as investor, regulator, and, especially, intellectual property owner when that role is in fact seen as essential by the Chinese government. Many Chinese believe that their political system is now actually more legitimate and effective than the West’s. This is a belief alien to many Western business executives, especially if they’ve had experience with other authoritarian regimes. Also, you can’t become a senior leader in China without having proved your worth as a manager. China’s leaders argue that its essentially Leninist rule book makes Chinese politics far less arbitrary or nepotistic than those of many other, notably Western, countries.

3) The Chinese live, work, and invest like westerners: China’s recent history means that Chinese people and the state approach decisions very differently from Westerners. Because human beings tend to believe that other humans make decisions as they do, this may be the most difficult assumption for Westerners to overcome. Many Chinese consumers prefer the short-term gains of the stock market to locking their money away in long-term savings vehicles. As market research consistently tells us, the majority of individual Chinese investors behave more like traders. For example, a 2015 survey found that 81% of them trade at least once a month, even though frequent trading is invariably a way to destroy rather than create long-term fund value. At every point since 1949 the Chinese Communist Party has been central to the institutions, society, and daily experiences that shape the Chinese people.  

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