Sunday, November 29, 2009

No One Gets Fired for Buying Big Blue… until this past week.

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When Gene Amdahl left IBM in the mid 1970s he commented on the utility of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) in the IBM sales process. Popularized under the adage “Nobody gets fired for buying IBM”, the FUD principle just showed the length of its reach this week in Dubai. In my posting today, I am honoring one of Dubai’s most interesting characters who, but for the weight of axiomatic conventional wisdom, would be a household name. Instead, he has become a recent casualty in the global financial crisis. However, as you read about this fascinating personality, I trust that you see that he is a metaphor for many others. In his departure this past week, I consider the inscription on so many of the tombstones in the cemetery of Trinity Church on Wall Street:

All you Good People
that here pass by
as you are now so
once was I, as I am
now so Shall you be
therefore Prepare
to Follow me.


The one about whom I’m moved to write is Dr. Omar bin Sulaiman. “Dr. Omar” – as he is known to most – is a brilliant professional in the Emirates. Rising to the rank of Governor of the Dubai International Financial Center and Vice Chairman of the U.A.E. Central Bank, Dr. Omar was, indeed, deeply dedicated to manifesting the vision of Dubai as a regional and global financial center. And, left to his own intuition, may well have succeeded. However, like so many of his contemporaries in places like Singapore, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and much of Europe, intuition just a few years ago was jettisoned in favor of “Big Blue” – figuratively and, regrettably, following the acquistion of PricewaterhouseCoopers consulting practice, literally as well. And mind you, whether you’re looking at Saudi Arabia’s growing interest in being the next “Silicon Valley”, Singapore’s A*STAR, or Vietnam’s newest technology centers, the price for consensus thinking will include sharing consensus outcomes.

I first met Dr. Omar on a phone call arranged by business associates in the United Kingdom and a dear friend in Egypt. The substance of the phone call was a discussion of how the planned Dubai International Financial Center and Exchange (DIFC and DIFX, respectively) could become a differentiated financial market – one that offered a global, unique position. I discussed the rare opportunity that the DIFX’s creation had in the world of equity markets – an opportunity afforded no other exchange on the planet. You see, if you really wanted a transparent exchange in which the market was not subjected to information asymmetries (“ignorance arbitrage”, as I like to call it), what better a place to do this then a market sympathetic to Islamic Finance and its strictures on ethical disclosure and risk sharing.

To understand the opportunity, let me take you on an exemplary journey through an actual market case…

You see, when I started M•CAM in the mid 1990s, we started reviewing the intellectual property of the world’s largest companies – many of which were (and still are) publicly traded. In many instances, technology alleged to be “core” to enterprises, was either inadequately protected or not protected at all by means of proprietary assertions made in the marketplace. Representations about drugs, cell phones, power systems, materials, transportation technologies, business methods, and countless other technologies, were incomplete in most cases and were outright misstatements quite often. Earnings projected off of patent licenses were often based on completely fraudulent positions. Against that backdrop, M•CAM was asked to review patents held by competitors but not to look at any information that could adversely impact the prospective client’s portfolio. In short, if you wanted to damage someone else’s assertion on a proprietary claim, that was fine, but if you used the same methodology on your own, it would be devastating.

After the United States’ and the European Patent Offices found out that they were caught issuing counterfeit properties to industry participants who then went on to represent their proprietary interests to the market, they closed ranks to defend the industrial base. Unfortunately, what they didn’t contemplate was that many companies, realizing that their patent portfolios were smoke and mirrors decided to abandoned their useless innovation artifacts and some – regrettably for the tax-paying public, decided to throw them away by way of patent donation. This process frequently involved colluding with a third party – usually a research institution who would vouch for “valuation” – and donating the properties for 10s or 100s of millions of dollars in tax deductible “donations”. The recipient institutions generally abandoned these “assets” as soon as they had completed using them as evidence of corporate sponsorship justifying Federal sponsored research grants.

Many of these same companies continue to flagrantly violate U.S. Treasury rules with what’s known as the In Process Research and Experimentation Tax Credit which is supposed to reward companies for new R&D. This loophole – estimated to be the second largest tax fraud in the U.S. at present – exposes the public markets to enormous tax liabilities and fraud penalties should the government ever decide to tackle this abuse.

So, back to the DIFC opportunity. What if you started a public market for companies that DID NOT have massive fraud skeletons in their closets? What if you launched a market, we suggested, where transparency included things like compliance with tax, intellectual property, and financial accountability? What if you launched a market where mining and oil companies were required to report on their use of indigenous lands and lands taken from displaced people so that the market could see the real price and real profit of an enterprise? What if you really made market ethics and transparency a differentiator? What if you actually used Ethical Standards – as set forth in numerous fatwa – as a global market differentiator?

For the record, Dr. Omar actually deeply considered this. In many meetings in Dubai prior to and immediately following the launch of the DIFX, we sat with him and administrators at the Dubai Financial Services Authority (DFSA) and discussed standards for a different market. However, when one is confronted with the inertia of incumbency, the appetite for differentiation wanes. And so it was that the bright vision of Dr. Omar and his patron, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum vanished in the dust storms blown by easy credit, credit default swaps, and sukuks which were indistinguishable from financial products unmoored from any responsibility or risk sharing. In short, the sirens of convention and ease, fully engulfed one of the most promising market opportunities of modern times. And, by September 2005, one of the most promising global market opportunities relented to the “Big Blue”.

The DIFC and NASDAQ Dubai are not lost. In fact, in the face of this past week’s announcement of Dubai World’s massive liquidity challenge, we may actually see an opportunity re-emerge. What we know is simple. Dubai is not unique. It followed many. Raising Tokyo a ski slope as the Japanese were razing theirs. Out malling Singapore and Hong Kong as the high fashion retail sector was being mauled in the rest of the world. Building castles in the sky while the atmosphere was toxifying for commercial and high-end residential markets.

As we see the global market continue to reel, the world needs a market based on transparency and ethics. While Dr. Omar has been the professional casualty of the tectonic tremor in Dubai, his intuition was not off. He came closer to the next financial reality than anyone else. And with so many other GCC and North Africa efforts trying to mimic Dubai, there is a lesson to be learned here. And if learned, the world will be better for it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tribute to Caden

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On Sunday, November 22, 2009 a young man named Caden joined the morning Light. I was deeply moved by this seven year-old both in his life and in his passing. And so, a few days late, this week’s InvertedAlchemy post is my way of sharing with you a story that bears retelling.

I met Caden on the same day I met my dear friend Bob Kendall. From that day to this, I learned that Caden would teach me, in a few short months, wisdom that I never aspired to know. I didn’t want to know what it feels like to stand in a hospital with beautiful parents while the details of a tumor are described and find the end of words where all I could do is be present. I didn’t want to know that there comes a time when McDonalds French fries and Chicken Nuggets are too exhausting to eat so that a Happy Meal cools with time and tears into an inedible mass. I didn’t want to know that the empathy that binds humanity could invade days and nights for months as child and parents implored the universe for one more day on the lake, one more ride in the forest and that this empathy would find its way to me whether I was in Virginia or on the other side of the world in Papua New Guinea. However, I needed to learn through these catechisms and needed Caden to be my teacher.

Caden carried light in life. He communicated with all of us and for all of us. As his voice failed, he took to drawing and began linking color and image in artifacts which will be long held in their cipher. However, Caden drew one image on the night of our first meeting which will live, for me, as the message of hope in these times of puzzle. The image is in purple marker. At first glance, one can make out a form that could at one moment be a tree branch and the next could be the wanderings of a caged bird. None of these. The image is of a bridge. The bridge has an anchor only on one side and juts into the whiteness of the page. It goes to? Nowhere? Anywhere? Everywhere?

Caden’s Bridge is a gift of wisdom. For in it, a child of six years invited a reconsideration on many planes. Does a bridge only have its identity and essence if it looks like a bridge? Does a bridge contain its utility only when it connects two identified points? Can a bridge merely be the beginning of a connector which is sufficient for others to draw their own destiny? Can any image drawn in purple be a bridge not to a destination but linking inquiry between planes, times, and understanding?

Caden has crossed. Lux Invictus. Peace.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Voice of the Trees

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One month from now we will be advised as to how humanity will tackle climate change. As the closing manifestos are being spun into the tapestry heralding the dawn of a new age of ecology, we will see many efforts to insure that those who have asked for too much cede “enough” for those who seek to preserve their lust for consumption. Extraction and consumption incumbencies already presage a win post-Copenhagen in which, no matter what, the models they have come to use will require marketing adaptation rather than systemic transformation. Following the innovation already rife in the carbon trading world – namely the present laundering of money and U.S. Treasuries for drug, terror, and arms trade using carbon credits as the unregulated utility of choice – alchemists will do their best to turn Copenhagen into gold. NGOs will raise money to champion their particular cause. Industries will hire marketing firms to create messages to insure that public knows they’re committed to bold initiatives. And in the end, I wonder, who will speak for the trees?

Not long ago, I was asked to explain carbon credits to a group of community elders and leaders in a land far removed from Copenhagen. Combined European Union and National Aid agencies had taken advantage of the Prime Minister of this place and his imposed mantle of being a “model for the developing world” as a collaborator in carbon trade. Communities were asked to enter into an agreement to sell their forest canopy for a fee in exchange for the industrial use of said canopy for carbon absorption.

After explaining photosynthesis, the Kreb’s Cycle, and combustion in a detailed level thought tedious by the most respectful of the group, one of the elders looked at me with the most puzzled of expressions. “But why have they picked the trees to clean up the mess?”

Together, we sat beneath a rain tree, with its branches spread wide against the humid skies. Its trunk and limbs held thousands of ferns, mosses, and vines. Bird, reptile, and mammal had sanctuary in every vantage point. What would these carbon buyers pay for:
- the pure water which the leaves condensed from the air irrigating the plants, animals and people below;
- the medicine that can be prepared from the leaves;
- the nutrition that can be derived from the bark and roots;
- the wood that is used to build homes when a branch falls;
- the animals that call the tree home;
- the soil that the tree’s roots retain;
- the leaves that the tree produces which provides fertile soil for crops; and,
- the promise of the new trees which sprout in the protection of this one tree?
The living being – the tree – it turned out, was worth more than its carbon consumption value. And the communities were being asked to indenture the tree for a carbon credit.

I was struck, in that moment, with the realization that our best intentions to save the rainforests, purchase carbon indulgences in a vain attempt to buy our souls’ redemption, and to create a monetary utility for development – all seemingly laudable objectives – actually had created a greater ecosystem tragedy. In the end, having fully addicted ourselves to our pathology of relentless consumption, we have now taken an interesting social psychotic shift. It appears that our environmental preservation impulses may actually be aligning with a concept attributed to David Bernstein called “Abusive Multiple Transference”. Here is the much repeated (though uncited) lay definition of AMT:

“abusers not only transfer negative feelings directed towards their former abusers to their own victims, but also transfer the power and dominance of the former abusers to themselves.”

Now, let’s consider the ecological impulse in light of AMT. Having consumed ourselves to the point of destruction, “we” (both as perpetrator, participant, and victim, we tell ourselves) need to “do” something. So, what “we” “do” when we are most awakened to a laudatory enlightenment is solve our social problem by making the trees consumers. Yes, that’s right, in an impulse to create a solution, we turn to the only utility we have – consumption. Only this time, we’re imposing our consumption on the trees. As if the trees, all along, have been slacking! Somehow, we rationalize, if we exchange money in their sight, we will induce them to consume more CO2. And the most vocal supporters of this advocacy are those who feel most victimized and helpless in the face of an extracting and polluting insanity!

In the run-up to Copenhagen, can we please consider a world, just for a moment, where we don’t project consumption onto nature? Haven’t we done enough damage? Can we consider that an alternative approach would be to look deeper? Why have the sum total of our utilities been reduced to consumption memorialized by an exchange of money? Could Brazil, India, China, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Peru, Indonesia, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Republic of Korea, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine actually be united in an economic engagement in which they are not compensated for what they don’t do in terms of environmental destruction but rather lead as prime contractors for deployment of technologies and corporate models which are aligned to humanity and nature? Could the “Woods of Bretton” become the new paradigm where a systemic monetary policy could be freed from capricious extractive debt and aligned with stewardship of the Global Commons? And while we’re in the woods, could we take a few minutes to contemplate how the trees could teach us?

breathe, just breathe
let the life that you lead
be all that you need
let go of the fear
let go of the time
let go of the one
to try to put you down
you're gonna be fine
don't hold it inside
go ahead right now
and let it all come round
breathe, just breathe
take the world off your shoulders
and put it on me
breathe, just breathe
let the life that you lead
be all that you need


- Ryan Star “Breathe”

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Archimedean Theorem 2 – “Worth Doing” Metrics

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Increasingly I find myself engaging with individuals and communities who are tuned into the realization that we are on the precipice of a great transformation. Incumbencies on all fronts are evidencing voids where confidence was once thought to dwell. And while many stand in awe of the crumbling icons, a growing number now believe that they are both observers and actors on the stage of what’s about to be. In many respects, a sense of a community of stewards of that-which-is-to-come is bubbling up in all corners of the globe and the notion of individuated identity is fading.

However, as fa├žade crumbles, a tragic irony has emerged. And this irony struck me quite profoundly in two conversations I had over the past week with two different groups of transformation advocates and prophets. As we discussed the hospicing of the old paradigms of power and values in the interest of affording the immanent transition some degree of grace and dignity, we began to discuss what tentative first steps could be taken into the dawning transformation. And then, like the Medussa from the mist, the phrase was uttered, “We could really get this started if we could find the funding.”

If we could get it funded.

When was the last time you heard this? When was the last time you said this? What manner of idolatry have we come to? An idea is good, but it’s only actionable if it’s funded. Addressing a social need or humanitarian crisis is laudable but it only rises to a level of action if it can be funded. Deploying new forms of development initiatives for the most marginalized states in the world would have merit if only an NGO would step up and fund it. An enterprise may achieve global impact but it only is successful if it accumulated monetary artifacts because, “that’s the only scorecard we can measure at the end of the day.” The UN Development Goals are only actionable if they are funded. Each of these statements has been made in my hearing in the last 7 days.

Well, I am here to tell you that anyone who speaks of transformation and punctuates it with “if it gets funded” is animating money with an insidious power that will perpetually obstruct and destroy every impulse preceding the statement. I have been overwhelmed by those who, in the run up to the UNFCCC event in Copenhagen, believe that we will transform our extractive degradation of the public commons of land, air, water, culture, and community based on a balance sheet argument where money is the final arbiter. We could address carbon emissions with green investments and government incentives if the right political forces just give us our funding. I often wonder if we have invited our "if it gets funded" invocation into such conversations for the explicit purpose of having the faux comfort that we've secured our moral plausible deniability. "After all", we argue, "we would have done the right thing if it had been funded." I am repulsed when I hear NGOs state that they will back off of principled social justice and the rule of law regarding matters such as food production, medicine delivery, and infrastructure support because they cannot threaten their donor base by challenging legal abuses such as trade and industrial property legal violations. When one of the world’s largest NGOs chooses to ignore agriculture and medicine technologies which exist in the open source so that their multi-national donor partners can “participate” in public-private partnerships which are tax-deductible and laden with goodwill marketing, where is the voice that speaks for the millions who suffer and die at the hands of the moral bankruptcy?

Down this bizzare inquiry we find Archimedean Theorem II. Worth doing is a condition in which an individual or collective response to human need persists to a point sufficient to conclude that, with money it would be “worth doing”. An important corollary to Archimedean Theorem II is that whatever exists in abundance in the community discerning “worth doing” is the resource that is required to initiate action and this will never be money. It will often take the form of reputation risk, vocal endorsement, courageous leadership, a prophetic voice, an organizing or catalyzing act or other resources of inestimable and undenominateable value. And it is quite likely that the first measure of integral engagement will actually be marked with an invitation to execute “worth doing” with less money as the first step is likely to be unrewarded with a monetary endorsement. However, when the monetary metric incumbency sees that “worth doing” persists, untold resources will align for subsequent activity.

Living in the realm of Archimedean Theorem II is “worth doing”. As an itinerant in such a land, I can tell you that the consequences are beyond your wildest, wealthiest, imaginations.

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Global Innovation Commons receives pre–Copenhagen coverage; European Patent Office official minimizes violation of patent law

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Global Innovation Commons receives pre–Copenhagen coverage; European Patent Office official minimizes violation of patent law

November 5, 2009 – Brussels, Belgium –– Innovation policy will be the fulcrum for many climate negotiations at United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen. Negotiators seek to extend existing intellectual property practices to vital issues including climate change technologies. M·CAM has provided the world's most comprehensive interactive archive of climate change technologies which have been opaque to the global market for decades – being brought to international visibility in the Global Innovation Commons (http://www.globalinnovationcommons.org). In a deployment partnership with the World Bank and International Finance Corporation's (IFC) infoDev, M–CAM has made available over $2 trillion of both revenue generating and research and development technologies for public, open-source, use.

In today's cover article in Der Spiegel – Patent Lies: Who Says Saving the Planet Has to Cost a Fortune – M·CAM's work on innovation ethics is highlighted. In addition, a now retired senior officer of the European Patent Office acknowledges, on the record, that the illegal practice of redundant patent filings is merely a "detail." "Sometimes patents are not worth what they claim they are in terms of innovation," Gerard Giroud, the recently retired international affairs director of the European Patent Office, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But it seems to me a detail. Patent offices should grant patents to encourage investment in a particular type of technology – because that investment is what will save the planet."

For the complete article, please download:

http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,628606,00.html

It is important to realize that every conversation about "innovation" as a key to economic "recovery" centers around the belief that somehow or another, the U.S. and Europe will emerge as the innovators of the next economic cycle. This assumption is unfortunate for a number of reasons. First, it presumes that the past 30 years of education of the world's best engineers, business people, and technologists didn't produce more Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Taiwanese professionals than the total of those from and residing in the U.S. and Europe. Second, it presumes that the past two decades of consumption have been based on innovation. Unfortunately, we have been seeing a growth of consumption - not innovation - in most industrial sectors. Finally, it fails to acknowledge that our conversion ratio of innovation to enterprise is less than 3% in the U.S. and Europe. We are good at building food chains for incumbent acquisition in M&A but we're not good at transformation and adoption of game-changers.

The new will be collaborative, open source, and borderless.

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