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886 posts categorized "Current Affairs"

November 01, 2013

SAP Discusses the Future of Business, Part 2

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I indicated that I divided the facts presented in an interesting SAP slideshow entitled "99 Facts on the Future of Business" into thirteen separate categories. In that post, I discussed the first five categories: Big Data; Business Leadership; Customer Service/Experience; and Education. In this post, I'll discuss the remaining eight categories, namely: Emerging Markets; Innovate or Perish; the Internet of Things; Risk Management; the Supply Chain; Targeted Marketing; Urban Growth; and a Miscellaneous category. SAP introduced the presentation by explaining:

"Business Innovation is the key ingredient for growth in the future of business. Changes in technology, new customer expectations, a re-defined contract between employees and employers, strained resources, and business and social networks are requiring businesses to become insight-driven businesses. In this presentation, we have gathered 99 facts that represent the changes taking place in the world today. Each fact represents a key insight and suggests where we need to focus and change to become viable, sustainable and growing future businesses."

As noted in Part 1, I placed these facts into thirteen categories to help paint a more coherent picture of the future as seen by the analysts at SAP. In the first post, I included the first five categories: Big Data; Business Leadership; Customer Service/Experience; and Education. In this post, I'll discuss the remaining eight categories, namely: Emerging Markets; Innovate or Perish; the Internet of Things; Risk Management; the Supply Chain; Targeted Marketing; Urban Growth; and a Miscellaneous category.

99 Facts

To continue reading this post, click on this link to the new Enterra Insights site.

October 31, 2013

SAP Discusses the Future of Business, Part 1

In an interesting slideshow entitled "99 Facts on the Future of Business," the folks at SAP paint a picture of the future to which businesses should pay attention. The company introduces the presentation by explaining: "Business Innovation is the key ingredient for growth in the future of business. Changes in technology, new customer expectations, a re-defined contract between employees and employers, strained resources, and business and social networks are requiring businesses to become insight-driven businesses. In this presentation, we have gathered 99 facts that represent the changes taking place in the world today. Each fact represents a key insight and suggests where we need to focus and change to become viable, sustainable and growing future businesses." I've placed these facts into thirteen categories to help paint a more coherent picture of the future as seen by the analysts at SAP. In this post, I'll include the first five categories in this post. They are: Big Data; Business Leadership; Customer Service/Experience; and Education. The remaining eight categories will be provided in the next post.

99 Facts

To continue reading this post, click on this link to the new Enterra Insights site.

October 17, 2013

Working on Top of the World: The Arctic Opens Up

A couple of years ago, Andrew E. Kramer wrote a story in the New York Times about an "an ice-free passage" across the stretch of Arctic Ocean that borders Russia's northern border. ["Warming Revives Dream of Sea Route in Russian Arctic," 17 October 2011] Kramer reported that a decade earlier "an ice-free passage, even at the peak of summer, was exceptionally rare." He goes on to report that, as a result of the shrinking Arctic ice pack, "companies in Russia and other countries around the Arctic Ocean are mining that dark cloud's silver lining by finding new opportunities for commerce and trade." Kramer quotes Vladimir V. Putin, who declared, "The Arctic is the shortcut between the largest markets of Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. It is an excellent opportunity to optimize costs."

Arctic Ocean 03China would certainly like to take advantage of the Arctic passage which is called the Northeast Passage if you head east across Canada and the Northwest Passage if you head west across Russia. Tom Mitchell and Richard Milne report that "the journey via the Bering Strait could shave as much as 15 days off the traditional route through the Suez Canal and Mediterranean Sea." ["Chinese cargo ship sets sail for Arctic short-cut," Financial Times, 11 August 2013] They reported, "The Yong Sheng, a 19,000-tonne vessel operated by state-owned Cosco Group, set sail on August 8 from Dalian, a port in northeastern China, bound for Rotterdam." The ship arrived in The Netherlands on 10 September. In a later article about the Yong Sheng's voyage, Mitchell and Milne reported, "Another benefit of regular shipping services through the Northeast Passage was dramatically illustrated halfway through the Yong Sheng's voyage. As she sailed across the East Siberian Sea on August 31, one of her sister vessels, the Cosco Asia, was attacked in the Suez Canal." ["First Chinese cargo ship nears end of Northeast Passage transit," Financial Times, 6 September 2013] Despite Putin's endorsement of the route, Mitchell and Milne report that not everyone is as sanguine about the passage's future as he is. They explain:

"Despite the passage's allure, most shipping executives and analysts remain sceptical about the dream of an industry transformed by regular summer services across the top of Russia. While the number of 'polar transit permissions' granted by Russian authorities has grown dramatically since 2010 – to more than 370 this year – only about 20 per cent of them were for full transits of the 5,400km route."

The latest news concerning the passage involves a Danish ship, the bulk carrier Nordic Orion, which was "the first commercial bulk carrier to traverse the route since the SS Manhattan broke through in 1969." ["Danish firm seeks to be first to bring bulk carrier through Northwest Passage," by Wendy Stueck, The Globe and Mail, 19 September 2013] Stueck reports that the "Nordic Orion was loaded with coal at a Vancouver terminal. From there, it headed to Finland" where it pulled into port in early October. The staff at The Maritime Executive reports:

"The North West Passage across the Arctic is shorter than the traditional route through the Panama Canal and thereby has the potential to generate important saving in both time, fuel and CO2 emissions. Christian Bonfils, [Managing director in Nordic Bulk Carriers A/S], explains. 'The North West Passage shortens the distance with 1.000 nautical miles. This results in a reduction in fuel consumption and transportation time – and it also means lower CO2 emissions. The fuel savings alone add up to approximately USD 80,000.' In addition this new route allows full utilisation of the ships capacity and thereby carries 25% more cargo than through the Panama Canal. It takes more than an average ship to sail the North West Passage. The trip across the Arctic is a challenging task that requires great experience, navigational skills and modern world class ships. In fact, there are only a few vessels which can handle the task." ["Historic Sea Route Opens Through Canadian Arctic Waters," 25 September 2013]

Per-Ola Karlsson and Laurence C. Smith report that it is not only shipping companies that are planning to take advantage of the shrinking Arctic icecap. "As the ice recedes in the Arctic," they write, "talk of industry entering the region to take advantage of its economic opportunities is on the rise. The territories contain significant natural resources, including conventional hydrocarbons (natural gas, condensate, and oil), metals, fish, high-value minerals such as diamonds and rare earths, and fresh water." ["Is the Arctic the Next Emerging Market?" Strategy + Business, 27 August 2013] They continue:

"But many of those who wish to develop the region overlook the primary truth about it: It is an emerging market. To be sure, as one of the last of the true wildernesses remaining in our world, the Arctic is a uniquely challenging environment. But it is not empty. It is home to some 4 million people comprising a broad range of cultures — and an economy worth about US$230 billion annually. The land is inhabited by more than 40 ethnic groups, such as the Sámi of northern Scandinavia, the Evenki of Russia, and the Inuit of Canada. In Canada, Greenland, and the United States, in particular, local control by aboriginal communities and regional business corporations can be substantial. Most of the Arctic region is governed under existing national structures and international frameworks similar to those in other areas of the world. It’s not the northernmost equivalent of the next frontier, waiting to be conquered by big business or governments desperate for resources. Adding to the complexity, the interested parties don't yet possess the technology or know-how to access the Arctic’s resources in a sustainable way. "

If you want to read more about the resources in the Arctic and who's going after them, read my posts Search for Resources at the Top of the World and Attention to the Cold Arctic Heats Up. Karlsson and Smith conclude, "The Arctic region will require novel, cooperative solutions to overcome these challenges to sustainable economic development. The time to act is now: The resources locked in the Arctic could shift the balance of energy supply and demand in the world in important ways." I certainly won't argue with that conclusion.

October 02, 2013

Keeping Up with Changing Tastes

IBM has been trying to demonstrate how its Watson computer can be useful in a number of fields. Earlier this year, it delved into the realm of cuisine. Watson ingested notes taken by IBM researchers during a collaboration with James Briscione, a chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, along with "20,000 recipes, data on the chemistry of food ingredients, and measured ratings of flavors people like in categories like 'olfactory pleasantness'," and created a breakfast pastry called a "Spanish crescent." ["And Now, From I.B.M., Chef Watson," by Steve Lohr, New York Times, 27 February 2013] Lohr reports:

Food and senses"Watson's assignment has been to come up with recipes that are both novel and taste good. In the case of the breakfast pastry, Watson was told to come up with something inspired by Spanish cuisine, but unusual and healthy. The computer-ordered ingredients include cocoa, saffron, black pepper, almonds and honey — but no butter, Watson's apparent nod to healthier eating. Then, Mr. Briscione, working with those ingredients, had to adjust portions and make the pastry. 'If I could have used butter, it would have been a lot easier,' said the chef, who used vegetable oil instead. Michael Karasick, director of I.B.M.'s Almaden lab, had one of the Spanish crescents for breakfast recently. 'Pretty good' was his scientific judgment."

The point of the story is that a lot of analysis goes into making great dish (generally by human brains). Watson used both food chemistry and human opinion to help it in its analysis. As I've pointed in out in past posts, all of our senses come into play when we eat. While it comes as no surprise that taste is king, our sense of taste can be fooled by how something looks or feels (see my post entitled Sensing Food: The Role of Color. John Stanton, Contributing Editor of Food Processing magazine, writes, "It's no shock that taste is important to consumers; however, the surprise is that in many cases, we find taste takes second place or worse to other factors" when producers create new products. ["Taste Remains Consumers' Top Preference for New Foods and Beverages," 6 September 2013] Stanton laments, "Many of the initial efforts in producing healthy foods failed because the packaging tasted slightly better than the product." He discusses a number of "healthier" products that were introduced only to fail because they failed the taste challenge. You can almost hear him asking, "What were they thinking?" One of the challenges, he notes, is that food is a lot like fashion. As super model Heidi Klum would say, "One your day your in; the next day you're out." Stanton writes:

"The changing tastes of consumers have vexed food marketers for years. Changes in ethnic composition, attitudes of different age groups, health issues and the need for convenience have led food marketers to invest heavily in consumer insights and research to determine what consumers want."

One example of a company trying to keep ahead of changing tastes is McCormick & Company. For over a dozen years, it has been publishing a Flavor Forecast (see my post entitled McCormick® Flavor Forecast® 2013. Stanton indicates that getting the taste right is also good for the bottom line. "Better taste means better profits," he writes. "Most of the really good tasting foods often have the highest margins." So let's examine some of what's happening in the world of food and senses.


Mark Garrison reports, "Sour foods and flavors are riding high at the moment, and our growing desire for them is changing the food industry." ["More Sour to You," Slate, 20 June 2013] He continues:

"If Katherine Alford says sour flavors are having a national moment, pay attention. A vice president at the Food Network, Alford runs its expansive test kitchen in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. Recipes and ideas that make the cut here will find their way into kitchens across America through the network's TV, Web, and magazine content. Alford's job is to stay in front of America's ever-changing palate without alienating a mainstream audience. Right now, Alford is finding that audience increasingly hungry for sour foods."

Ellen Bryon agrees flavors with a bit tang and sourness are becoming more mainstream. "No one says, 'I feel like fermented food tonight'," she writes. "But pungent, tangy flavors — all results of fermentation — are increasingly sneaking into grocery-store aisles." ["Mmm, the Flavors of Fermentation," Wall Street Journal, 10 April 2013] She continues:

"Packaged-food makers, grocers and chefs say more Americans are developing a bigger taste for fermented foods. Flavor experts even envision a world where spicy kimchi replaces pedestrian sauerkraut on American hot dogs. Already, fermented flavors are popping up on snacks and condiments such as Lay's Sriracha potato chips, Heinz balsamic vinegar flavored ketchup and Trader Joe's Spicy Seaweed Ramen noodles. The Subway sandwich chain is testing a creamy Sriracha sauce. Demand is especially strong from baby boomers, who face a weakening ability to taste and are drawn to stronger flavors, and the 20-something millennials, who seek new and exotic tastes."

Garrison reports, "Both sour and spicy flavors have ridden to popularity on a wave of new international cuisines that reflect the nation's growing diversity." Stephanie Strom agrees that American tastes are expanding and that demographic diversity is playing a major role. "The growing influence on America's palate of the influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asia has been ... subtle," she writes, "even as grocery shelves increasingly display products containing ingredients like lemon grass and sriracha peppers." ["American Tastes Branch Out, and Food Makers Follow," New York Times, 8 July 2013] She continues:

"For years, multinational food companies have been experimenting with ingredients, often being unable to find appeal broad enough to start or sustain a new brand. But as the buying power of Latino and Asian consumers expands, fruit flavors, hotter spices, different textures and grains and even packaging innovations are becoming essential for big food manufacturers trying to appeal to diverse appetites, according to company executives. From 2010 to 2012, sales of ethnic foods rose 4.5 percent, to $8.7 billion. The Mintel Group, a market research firm, estimates that between 2012 and 2017 sales of ethnic foods in grocery stores will grow more than 20 percent. Mintel predicts Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods will increase the most in that time in terms of dollar sales."


Candice Choi reports, "Companies are tossing out the identical shapes and drab colors that scream of factory conveyor belts. There's no way to measure exactly how much food makers are investing to make their products look more natural or fresh. But adaptation is seen as necessary for fueling steady growth." ["Food Companies Work To Make It Look Natural,", 18 June 2013] Another way that companies use sight to appeal to consumers is through the use of color. Recently, however, use of artificial colors has drawn a lot of scrutiny. Eliza Barclay reports, "We've grown accustomed to choosing our food from a spectacular rainbow — care for an impossibly pink cupcake, a cerulean blue sports drink or yogurt in preppy lavender? But there's a growing backlash against the synthetic dyes that give us these eye-popping hues. And now scientists are turning to the little-known (and little-grown) purple sweet potato to develop plant-based dyes that can be labeled as nonthreatening vegetable juice." ["Purple Sweet Potato A Contender To Replace Artificial Food Dyes," National Public Radio, 9 September 2013]

Natural color plays an important health role according to some pundits. The Epoch Times reports, "Over 3,000 years ago, the Yellow Emperor wrote in his classic book on internal medicine, Huangdineijing, that if people wanted to obtain health and longevity, they should eat food with 'five colors, five tastes, and five fragrances'." ["Food With 'Five Colors' Benefit Health," 29 August 2013] The article continues:

"The benefits of a color-rich diet are also recognized by Western nutritionists. In the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, some of the recommendations include adding the following color-rich foods to one's diet: dark green vegetables, orange vegetables, legumes, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat milk products. The guidelines were released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ... According to [Marla Caplon, nutritionist and supervisor for the Division of Food and Nutrition Services for the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland], yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, rich in beta carotene, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C contain powerful antioxidants that neutralize free radicals. Green vegetables are rich in phytochemicals and are good sources of iron, calcium, vitamins K, A, and C. Blue and purple fruits and vegetables contain anthocyanins, which are powerful antioxidants that help the prevention of heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer. The red group contains lycopene, an antioxidant that can help protect against cancer. ... The white group contains allicin, which has been known to help lower blood sugar and have amazing anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. This group also contains powerful antioxidants, which help to protect against cancer and heart disease."


Catherine Alexander, Vice President of Corporate Communications with Comax Flavors, told Hank Schultz, "One particular challenge ... is to incorporate echoes of texture into the flavor matrix. ... Texture is a huge part of what imparts pleasure to food ... and can impact how flavor is perceived." ["If spciness is king, texture might be queen, and strawberry rules its own realm," Food Navigator, 29 August 2013] Alexander also indicated that she had "seen a study that says texture is becoming almost more important than flavor." I'm skeptical about that last point. I agree with Stanton that taste will always trump the other senses when it comes to food enjoyment.


Back in the days when every main street had a butcher and baker, smart bakers vented the aromas of baking bread out into the street to attract customers. Aroma continues to be an important part of eating experience. PepsiCo is one manufacturer that certainly believes that to be true. It recently filed a patent for "a method of encapsulating aromas within beverage packaging to entice US consumers with 'favorable aromas' before they drink ... juices or coffees." ["PepsiCo seeks US patent to encapsulate beverage aromas within packaging," by Ben Bouckley, Beverage Daily, 10 September 2013] Naijie Zhang and Peter Given, inventors of the technology, told Bouckley, "Research has shown that aromas can in some instances have substantial impact on consumer perception of the taste of a beverage or other food, trigger a favourable emotional response, elicit a favourite memory, and/or otherwise improve overall product performance."

Undoubtedly, research will continue within the food industry about how the senses work individually and together to make eating the most pleasurable experience it can be. I believe that cognitive computers, like Enterra's Cognitive Reasoning Platform™, will be solicited to help with this research.

August 20, 2013

Additive Manufacturing and the Future of the Supply Chain

Sweeping statements are rarely true. That's why a headline that declared "Today’s complex global supply chains are poised to be dismantled" caught my eye. The summary of the article, which was written by Paul Brody, states, "Thanks to the growth of 3D printing, intelligent robots, and open-source hardware, tomorrow's supply chains will be faster, smaller, cheaper, and local." [Gigaom, 21 July 2013] There is certainly a kernel of truth in that statement, but I'm certain that not all global supply chains are going to be dismantled. The question really is: How disruptive is additive manufacturing going to be to supply chains? Noted MIT professor Yossi Sheffi, writes, "The additive manufacturing revolution is underway, and product supply chains lie directly in its path of creative destruction. Which ones, if any, will survive?" ["Does 3D Printing Doom the Supply Chain?" Supply Chain @ MIT, 18 July 2013] Brody continues:

3d Supply chain"Supply chains today are big, complex and global. Keeping them humming is an enormous challenge. But does it have to be that way? We think the world is entering the era of small, simple and local supply chains, powered by a new generation of manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing, intelligent assembly robotics and open-source hardware – also known as the Software Defined Supply Chain."

Clearly, all of those advances are going to affect supply chains as well as manufacturing. Professor Sheffi provides a glimpse of how some of the changes could play out. He writes:

"Some supply chains will become obsolete as a result of this flexibility. For example, 3D printers in auto repair shops and retail outlets could make certain auto components on site, eliminating the need for these items to be delivered by suppliers. Many expedited shipments will not be necessary as the technology matures. When a production line goes down, for instance, the part needed to fix the problem might have to be shipped from a faraway supplier using expensive same-day delivery services. Simply printing the part in situ avoids this costly transportation option. Scenarios like these do not auger well for express delivery companies. But the news is not all bad because alternative business opportunities will open up. Delivering the raw materials that feed 3D printers is such a possibility."

Unlike many forecasts about what the future holds, Brody claims that his predictions are going to become reality in the near-term "The 3D printing revolution is not a decade or more away," he explains, "it's going to start showing up in mass production within the next five years. Despite skepticism, research demonstrates 3D manufacturing improvements combined with the expiration of key patents will lead to a 79 percent reduction in average cost to print objects in five years, and a total of nearly 90 percent over the next 10 years." Brody's mention of patents raises the real fly in the ointment when it comes to additive manufacturing. Michael Weinberg, Senior Staff Attorney and Innovation Evangelist at Public Knowledge, explains:

"3D Printing has all the makings of a great disruptive technology. ... It also raises some interesting legal issues. As we have seen from the rise of the internet, the ability to easily create and share goes hand-in-hand with the ability to copy and distribute. ... Copyright is historically used to protect creatively conceived works that serve no functional purpose. That means that while many objects that come out of a 3D Printer — the sculptures and decorative baubles — will be protected by copyright, many more will not. As a result, copying those useful objects will not infringe on anyone's copyright. ... That does not mean that there is no way to protect these useful objects. Patent gives protection to many of the useful articles that are beyond the scope of copyright. ... While copyright protects creative expression the moment that it is fixed, someone with a patentable idea needs to make an affirmative decision to apply for a patent. That takes both time and money, and requires a showing of novelty and usefulness. ... If 3D Printing does gain wide adoption, the real secret will be to consider intellectual property concerns with an open mind and to ask a few simple questions. Is this really a new problem? Can the existing intellectual property regime cope with this problem? If not, what is the specific shortcoming? What are the wider effects of addressing that shortcoming? These questions should help us focus on what is truly new about 3D Printing, and what is just the status quo wrapped up in a fancy new technology."

The editors at Bloomberg report, "3-D printing is already having a demonstrable effect on the economy." ["How 3-D Printing Could Disrupt the Economy of the Future," 14 May 2013] They point out that additive manufacturing has historically been used to produce prototypes; but, last year, "28.3 percent of the $2.2 billion global 3-D printing market was tied to the production of parts for final products rather than prototypes." They agree with most other pundits that additive manufacturing represents a disruptive technology. They conclude, "Disruption can be dangerous and scary. It can also lead to wondrous new businesses and ways of life. Perhaps more importantly, it's inevitable -- so get in front of it while you can." That's really the same message that Brody and Sheffi are trying to get across. Perhaps the biggest change that additive manufacturing will introduce is mass customization. While that may sound a bit oxymoronic, what it really means is that the average consumer will have access to affordable customized products. Sheffi explains:

"Customization offers another example of how the technology will close some doors and open others in the supply chain domain. 3D printing makes it much easier to tailor products to customer needs, even down to the individual level. By tweaking the computerized blueprint and maybe altering the mix of materials, manufacturers can produce a limitless number of design variations. This newfound versatility is likely to trigger a dramatic increase in the number of product SKUs, which adds complexity and hence cost to supply chains. The proliferation of SKUs will pose a major challenge for companies. On the other hand, 3D printers are smaller and more compact than traditional manufacturing installations, and require fewer and less skilled operators. As a result, they can be located closer to consumer locations. This close proximity to markets, coupled with the short lead times made possible by 3D technology, shortens supply chains and reduces the need for large inventories. Service levels can be improved since additive manufacturing is ideally suited to just-in-time operations. These are only the possibilities that we can imagine in this early stage of the technology’s evolution."

Ken Cottrill, a Global Communications Consultant at MIT's Center for Transportation & Logistics, believes that hype over additive manufacturing could be creating a false dawn. "3D printing is being hailed as a breakthrough technology that will revolutionize manufacturing and supply chain management," he writes. "This may be the case, but we should avoid repeating the mistake of relying on hype to judge its value." ["3D Printing: Let’s Not Manufacture False Dawns," Supply Chain @ MIT, 23 May 2013] He notes there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about additive manufacturing. In addition to intellectual property rights concerns mentioned earlier, he indicates that questions remain about subjects such as quality, life cycles, and trust. He concludes, "Posing questions like these does not discredit a potentially paradigm-shifting technology; it helps us to take a step back and evaluate its evolutionary track dispassionately." Professor Sheffi probably agrees with his colleague; but, he still believes that it is important to envision what could be possible. He concludes:

"Imagine global networks of additive manufacturing machines that are attuned to local markets and can be reconfigured in real time as demand patterns change. Such a network would take supply chain agility to new levels. Or distribution centers that store and supply product blueprints rather than physical products, located 'in the cloud' or in server farms. Of course the world can be altered further if home-based 3D printing becomes the norm. In this world, every home is equipped with a printer capable of making most of the products it needs. Supply chains that support the flow of products and parts to consumers will vanish, to be replaced by supply chains of raw material. It's a compelling vision, but a long way off. Even assuming that consumers want to become micro manufacturing centers, the technology is many years away from such mass market applications. Meantime, 3D printing is a disruptive technology that will destroy many traditional manufacturing models. But reports that the concept of a supply chain will die at the hands of additive manufacturing are exaggerated."

We may well be at the dawn of new age of manufacturing. Nevertheless, it is too soon to draw sweeping conclusions about how this new age will affect supply chains.

August 01, 2013

The Benefits of Urbanization on Innovation

People continue to flock to cities. Although some migration is forced (see, for example "China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities," by Ian Johnson, New York Times, 15 June 2013), most of it is voluntary. Many analysts believe there are good reasons that people prefer urban life (like better use of resources and better access to services), but Jim Russell isn't sure. He writes, "Greater population density drives innovation and productivity. Albeit a theory, urbanists rally around the idea. I'm skeptical of the claim. The conclusion supports the preferred geography, raising a red flag." ["The Magic of Cities," Sustainable Cities Collective, 9 June 2013] Russell states, however, that a new study by MIT researcher Wei Pan is tempering his skepticism. He cites an article by Emily Badger in which she interviews Pan. ["The Real Reason Cities Are Centers of Innovation," The Atlantic Cities, y June 2013] She begins her article by writing:

The Magic of Cities"It's obvious from human history that people have long found unique value in living and working in cities, even if for reasons they couldn't quite articulate. Put people together, and opportunities and ideas and wealth seem to grow at a more powerful rate than a simple sum of all our numbers. This has been intuitively true for centuries of city-dwellers."

In the information age, however, intuition is seldom satisfactory. Badger continues:

"There have been plenty of theories. Adam Smith famously figured that people become more productive when we're able to specialize, each of us honing a separate area of expertise. And when lots of us elbow into cities, we're able to specialize in ways that we can't when a rural farmer must also double as his own butcher, accountant and milkmaid. Other economists have suggested that cities become great agglomerators of industry when factories cluster together around economies of scale and communal access to transportation."

Pan and his associates (Gourab Ghoshal, Coco Krumme, Manuel Cebrian, and Alex Pentland), attempt to move beyond theory in a study entitled Urban characteristics attributable to density-driven tie formation. That's a title only an academician (or an academician's mother) could love. The study's abstract is just about as dry:

"Motivated by empirical evidence on the interplay between geography, population density and societal interaction, we propose a generative process for the evolution of social structure in cities. Our analytical and simulation results predict both super-linear scaling of social tie density and information flow as a function of the population. We demonstrate that our model provides a robust and accurate fit for the dependency of city characteristics with city size, ranging from individual-level dyadic interactions (number of acquaintances, volume of communication) to population-level variables (contagious disease rates, patenting activity, economic productivity and crime) without the need to appeal to modularity, specialization, or hierarchy."

In the paper, the authors write, "One of the enduring paradoxes of urban economics concerns why people continue to move to cities, despite elevated levels of crime, pollution, and wage premiums that have steadily lost ground to premiums on rent." Why indeed? Pan told Badger, "We think there's an underlying completely different way of thinking here, which is very different from the economist's way of thinking." The study builds on previous work by researchers at the Santa Fe Institute that proved "the math behind the power of cities: As they grow in population, all kinds of positive outcomes like patents and GDP and innovation (and negative ones like STDs and crime) grow at an exponential factor of 1.1 to 1.3. This means that all the benefits (and downsides) that come from cities don't just grow linearly; they grow super-linearly. Badger writes:

"As for why this happens, ... Pan pushes aside theories about the location of manufacturing or the specialty of trade. 'It's more fundamental than that,' he says. 'Cities are about people. It's just that simple.'"

Manufacturers and retailers certainly see cities in that fundamental way. As they view the future, they want to know how to reach the billions of people that live (and will live) in urban environments. Only big data analytics can help sort out the diversity, preferences, and locations of future urban consumers. Pan and his colleagues "argue that the underlying force that drives super-linear productivity in cities is the density with which we're able to form social ties. The larger your city, in other words, the more people (using this same super-linear scale) you’re likely to come into contact with." Pan told Badger, "If you think about productivity, it's all about ideas, information flows, how easily you can access ideas and opportunities. We believe that the interaction mechanism is what drives the productivity of the city." Badger continues:

"It's not possible for scientists to measure your social ties in the same way they can measure GPD or crime incidents or STD infections (despite their best wishes, they can't put sensors on all of us). But this study examined a proxy for the same idea: The researchers looked at phone logs between anonymized telephone numbers all over the country, in search of the number of people who we communicate with inside our own metropolitan statistical area. 'If you look at the interaction patterns of cities,' Pan says, 'You will see that they grow super-linearly with population with the same growth rate as productivity, as innovation, as crime, as HIV, as STDs.' All of those facets of urban life have appeared until now to share a somewhat mysterious mathematical relationship. But this research suggests that this particular super-linear growth rate is directly tied to how dense cities enable us to connect to each other. As cities grow, our connections to each other grow by an exponential factor. And those connections are the root of productivity. 'What really happens when you move to a big city is you get to know a lot of different people, although they are not necessarily your "friends,"' Pan says. 'These are the people who bring different ideas, bring different opportunities, and meetings with other great people that may help you.'"

Russell, however, isn't convinced that density is the most important factor when it comes to spurring innovation in urban environments, he believes it is migration. He writes:

"The magic of big cities is migration. A sprawling residential pattern doesn't dampen the effect. Talent can live in the core or super-commute into downtown. Concerning innovation, better to be an immigrant than work in [the] Big City. Migration matters more, much more, than density."

Other recent work, however, seems to support the density theory proposed by Pan and his colleagues. Economists Neil Lee of Lancaster University Management School and Andres Rodriguez-Pose of the London School of Economics conducted a survey "of roughly 1,600 small and medium enterprises across the United Kingdom." Their results indicated, "U.K. firms located in the city were indeed more likely than those in rural areas to report both new products (52 to 46 percent, respectively) and new processes (43 to 34 percent)." ["Cities Are Innovative Because They Contain More Ideas to Steal," by Eric Jaffe, The Atlantic Cities, 12 June 2013] Jaffe concludes:

"The city environment, ripe with chance exchanges and interactions, might only explain a sliver of new product development. Some complex combination of other forces (e.g., creative inspiration or specific demands or more approaches to problem-solving) is also involved. When it came to new business processes, however, the urban advantage seemed to rely almost entirely on ideas learned from neighboring firms (as opposed to original ideas). Here the city itself would appear to play its greatest role in innovation. Greater proximity to other firms, and perhaps also greater employee movement from company to company, no doubt increases the flow of outside information and leads to new ways of working."

In other words, density (i.e., greater proximity to other businesses) plays and important role in urban innovation. That doesn't mean that migration, as proposed by Russell, doesn't also matter. The bottom line is that magic does occur in cities and it is the result of increased opportunities for interactions between people.

June 17, 2013

Smart Cities 37 Years On

"If you work for a young web company," writes Jasmine Gardner, "you probably think your office is pretty cool. Maybe it has a pool table or even a roof terrace. Pah! Give it 37 years and, according to engineering company Arup, our office blocks will contain working farms, produce their own energy, be linked together by suspended green walkways and sections of each floor will be removable, upgradable and replaceable." ["Smart cities: what urban life will be like in 2050," London Evening Standard, 4 March 2013] Sounds exciting doesn't it? Well, don't get too excited. Futurists tend to exaggerate how much things will change in the future and seldom are their predictions fulfilled. The attached 1925 postcard is a good example of two things.Future New York City First, buildings last a long time. You can easily see recognizable New York City buildings that are standing today. Even though a few high profile buildings had been added to NYC skyline by 1962 (37 years after the postcard was printed), people traveling forward in time would still have been able to walk down the streets of New York and recognize where they were. The second point, is that the details are nearly always wrong. Aircraft never looked like those depicted; elevated trains never ran skyward through buildings; and so forth. Obviously, futurists don't get everything wrong; but, if they were given a letter grade for the bulk of their predictions they would probably get a "D."

Having said that, I really don't fault the futurists. Their job is to look at what's possible not really predict the probable. Everything that the Arup company predicted is possible. Buildings like those described probably will be built, but not a lot of them. I predict that if you travel forward in time 37 years to 2050, you would be able to walk down the street of any major city that exists today and find your way around using landmark buildings that are already in place. Cities change slowly -- at least established (i.e., brownfield) ones.

There are new cities being built, however, especially in the developing world. How those cities are built will make a huge difference in the lives of millions of future citizens. It is in those cities where one might see the kinds of buildings predicted by Arup. Gardner continues:

"This is the building of the future, imagined in a report released [in March 2013] by Arup’s 'Foresight + Innovation' arm. It is just one example of the elements that will make up our 'smart cities' of the next age. 'Smart cities' is the buzz phrase of the moment. It refers to energy-efficient and spacially economical urban worlds in which we'll live in years to come — all thanks to technology. Smarter cities are now a focus of both big business, such as Shell and IBM, and small entrepreneurs and scientists, such as the Dutch microbiologists who have developed a self-healing concrete. Cracks in the buildings of the future will be filled by calcium carbonate, produced by a bacteria feeding on nutrients, both incorporated into the cement. The bacteria are only activated when rainwater gets into a crack."

Some older buildings will undoubtedly be retrofitted with smart technologies to make them more efficient and others will gain new life by housing urban farms or 3D manufacturing plants; but, only in newly constructed cities are you likely to find "from-the-ground-up" smart technologies built into every building. Nevertheless, it remains important for urban planners and engineers to keep developing concepts. You never know when a true breakthrough will occur that will help us cope with the 9 billion people who will inhabit the planet in 2050 (most of whom will live in cities). Rick Robinson, executive architect for the IBM's Smarter Cities initiative, told Gardner, "In the West we've become accustomed to building cities outwards around cars. If more people fall into that lifestyle we're going to exhaust the world's resources very, very quickly." Robinson recognizes that it is the new urban dweller coming to live in newly constructed cities that will in large measure hold the key to planet's future.

But city dwellers living in brownfield cities are also going to put pressure on resources and energy. Adam Newton, a project manager for the Strategy and Scenarios team at Shell, told Gardner, "By 2050, between 70 and 80 per cent of the world's population will live in cities. How and where people consume energy will be very important." Frankly, I'm much more concerned about the future of brownfield cities than those that are yet to be constructed. Here are a few reasons why. Old water pipes leak. Sanitation systems are being overwhelmed (if they exist at all). Transportation patterns are mostly established. Inefficient electric grids are already in place. Finally, many of the building that will be around in 2050 are already built. Smart people and enlightened politicians are going to have to work with private enterprise if we want things to change for the better in many of these brownfield cities. Gardner continues:

"For IBM, smarter cities mean ones that harness data. It is already creating space on the cloud to share information such as water flow and distribution. 'By managing pressure on a water distribution network, you can serve additional houses without needing to expand the system — allowing you to support a growing population without spending hundreds of millions of pounds on infrastructure,' explains Robinson. Intelligent traffic lights are also high on the agenda. 'In Singapore and California we've used technology that can make predictions that are 85 per cent accurate about how traffic is going to develop over the next hour,' he says. In future the light sequencing might change automatically. For Shell, it's all about energy efficiency. 'The low energy prices that drove cities to sprawl may not exist in 20 years. Fewer roads and better integrated public transport is likely to be the way forward,' says Newton."

But better and more integrated public transportation systems costs money (which cities don't have) and will only be sustainable if the cultural mindset of urbanites and suburbanites change significantly. Rick Robinson bluntly states, "No-one is going to pay cities to become Smarter." [Sustainable Cities Collective, 30 November 2012] He goes on to discuss "four ways in which money is already spent" and then recommends way "to harness that spending power to achieve the outcomes that cities need." He concludes, "We should not wait for new, large-scale sources of Smarter City funding to appear before we start to transform our cities – we cannot afford to; and it’s simply not going to happen. What we must do is look at the progress that is already being made by cities, entrepreneurs and communities across the world, and follow their example."

The economic sector that is most likely to see deep penetration of smart technologies is the electric utility sector. Gardner reports, for example, that the U.S. energy data analytics company Intelen has begun a project "which monitors energy usage in office blocks with smart meters and has created a social gaming application where employees compete for low-energy scores." That's a great initiative because it addresses both technology and culture. Gardner admits that "these don’t seem [like] outlandish developments," such as those described in the Arup report, and she wonders if its "futuristic building [is] just science fiction." Josef Hargrave, the author of Arup's report, acknowledges that some of the predictions made in the report are unrealistic (like the flying robots which remove and re-insert building sections), but he believes that smart electricity grid integration is very realistic. Having said that, Hargrave told Gardner that "all the ideas are based on current prototypes and development — flying robots are actually being developed in Zurich, Switzerland, and can build a six-metre tower out of foam bricks." Gardner concludes:

"Given the exponential rate of technological advancement, it's not hard to fathom that skyscrapers coated with photovoltaic paint will indeed come to pass — and sooner than you think. Indeed, the floors of Arup's building occupied by algae-filled biofuel pods are not unlike a current project by French biochemist Pierre Calleja. He is building algae street lamps that eat up CO2 in the atmosphere. Combine this with another algae lamp that produces its own light using energy created by photosynthesis and you get self-powered, anti-pollution street lamps. Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) just announced their creation of a graphene supercapacitor — essentially a battery but one that charges up to 1,000 times faster than the normal kind, and that can be composted. The future promises instant phone chargers and petrol stations with plugs that can charge cars faster than they currently fill up on unleaded. ... The real smart aspect may come down not to the technology which we know exists but to foresight and willingness to change. 'There have to be new models of collaboration for businesses and decision-makers in cities and government to have the positive impact we know the technology could support,' says [Shell's] Newton. The city that leads in this department may just end up the smartest in the class."

Cities will change over the next 37 years. Change is inevitable. Whether that change is good or bad remains to be seen. The one thing that worries me most is the fact that almost all Smart Cities initiatives address problems associated with connected citizens. Many of today's largest cities have large, unconnected ghettos associated with them. Individuals who live in those ghettos are survivors; but, getting them connected to grids and networks would make their lives much more productive and their futures much brighter. In all the talk about smart cities, we can't forget about them.

May 31, 2013

A Thought Probe Series on Tomorrow's Population, Big Data, and Personalized Predictive Analytics: Part 6, Getting Personal

In the final segment of this series on tomorrow's population, big data, and personalized predictive analytics, I want to get personal. The series has primarily focused on cities because that is where the majority of the world's population lives. We must remember, however, that the world's cities are occupied by millions of individuals. Too often we lump all city dwellers together and treat them as a homogenous group (e.g., we say, "He's a New Yorker"). New York City residents know, however, that the city is a melting pot of cultures and individuals. Understanding these differences is at the very heart of what makes a city smart -- and only big data analytics can provide that understanding.

Big data can be empowering and transformative. Individuals, corporations, and governments all over the globe are generating zettabytes of data every year as they connect to networks using their computers and cell phones. People all over the world can search for and purchase consumer products; make dinner reservations at their favorite restaurants; perform research; conduct banking transactions across country boundaries; interact socially with their friends; perform activities associated with their careers; and deepen the interactions of their lives. And, as recent events have demonstrated, newly connected individuals in the developing world can also transform countries and drive social change using mobile telecommunications and social media. As these developing countries grow and millions of more people come "on-line," the next large marketplace in the global economy is being created for consumer goods and services that cater to the needs and desires of these newly connected consumers (who are estimated to be more than 2 Billion in number). ["Capturing the world’s emerging middle class," David Court and Laxman Narasimhan, McKinsey Quarterly, July 2010]

However, big data presents challenges for today's networks and computing systems. Major challenges include: data comes from everywhere, is mostly unstructured, is in many shapes and forms, and is far too large to move. Historically, data has come from traditional structured sources, such as corporate and governmental computer systems. Today it increasingly comes from unstructured data sources such as the Internet, mobile devices, social media interactions, GPS location information, weather models, RFID, transportation and logistics scans that do not reside neatly within the tables and columns of traditional uniform databases and computer systems. What this means is that big data is too "Big" and too "Unstructured" to be currently leveraged by most organizations.

Even if the data could be centralized, today's computing systems still have difficulty making sense of the data (i.e., understanding and learning) from the interactions between both related and seemingly unrelated data elements. Using current analytic techniques, most decision-making frameworks are challenged to process and understand volumes of data and then instigate actions that foster desired outcomes within timely decision cycles.

That is why it is essential in today's business and government environments to employ technologies that process and analyze big data in a way much like the human mind senses its environment and processes data. For example, an individual assesses the risks of crossing a street when a car is approaching. The mind processes variables like car speed, distance, obstacles, personal motor skills, and so forth, before making the decision to cross or wait. Like human thought processes, cognitive reasoning ingests and transforms data into prioritized information; creates rich referential connections between data elements; enables understanding and learning; and is then presented as actionable intelligence (within relevant timeframes). This kind of cognitive reasoning can be used by businesses and governments to take on some of today's most vexing challenges. Many of these challenges are cross-industry and cross-discipline in nature. They require complex simultaneous analysis on many levels that can model real, or open, world considerations. Some of these interdisciplinary challenges that apply to the global Consumer Products/Food and Retail Industries include, amongst many others, how to:

  • Feed and provide water to a hungry and thirsty planet;
  • Efficiently develop and deliver energy to a highly consumptive population without increasing the carbon footprint;
  • Motivate consumer-centric outcomes with differentiated insights to maximize value for the consumer, Consumer Packaged Goods companies, and retailers alike;
  • Personalize recommendations for global consumers about the products they purchase;
  • Develop and deliver new drugs to cure disease and increase quality of life;
  • Manage the global supply chain efficiently and with fewer risks; and,
  • More accurately predict weather and its impacts on the environment.

As noted in previous posts, each of the world's 50 largest cities is unique. Some have deep historical roots as large cities and others have only recently joined the list as a result of massive building efforts in places like China (see the attached map -- based on a map from Free World Maps). As the global population continues to grow, new "greenfield" cities are likely to emerge. Regardless of whether a city labeled a "brownfield" (i.e., older) or "greenfield" (i.e., newer) city, some challenges they face are universal (e.g., infrastructure, sanitation, education, healthcare, food security, and so forth). Meeting those challenges, however, can differ significantly. That is where big data analytics plays its most important role.

50 Largest Cities v02 w cities

Making smart decisions about urban growth and lifestyles is important. I agree with Parag Khanna, Director of the Hybrid Reality Institute and a leading geo-strategist, that cities will play a leading role in world affairs. ["Cities, Not Countries, Will Once Again be Key to World Order," The National, 26 March 2013] He argues, "Urban corridors are a force multiplier, a source of great strength." Such corridors can exist within a country as well as between countries. These corridors exist because they link the largest number of people and, therefore, provide the most opportunities (and challenges) associated with life's endeavors. At the international level, most of the traffic along these corridors involves the flow of information, goods, and services. Ensuring that these flows are optimized is going to require cooperation and technology. Khanna believes there are seven activities that cities must embrace if they are going to provide a good quality of life for their residents. They are:
  • First, use technology to empower the population. ...
  • Second, the use of scenario planning to forecast diverse possibilities and strategies for a turbulent world. ...
  • Third, complement urban master planning with economic master-planning. This means investing in the vocational training systems that prepare the labour force for rapidly shifting supply chains.
  • Fourth, use data and social media as a tool of governance to more efficiently deliver public services and manage traffic.
  • Fifth, constantly upgrade infrastructure to meet sustainability standards.
  • Sixth, expand the economic footprint through investing in special economic zones in neighbouring countries.
  • Seventh, and finally, think of all residents of increasingly multinational/ethnic cities not as citizens versus non-citizens, but as stakeholders.

For the remainder of this post, I want to concentrate on three of those activities: Using technology to empower people and companies; improving "rapidly shifting supply chains"; and upgrading infrastructure.

Using technology to empower people and companies

Since most of the new consumers that form the global middle class are found in cities, companies want to connect with them. Because business, like politics, is local, global companies need to act like local enterprises, regardless of their size, if they want to succeed in this new business landscape. That's because cities are so diverse. Each neighborhood has its own character, lifestyle, and preferences. From one street to the next, the culture can change dramatically. If companies want to get in front of the money, they need to understand neighborhood differences and tailor their offerings to meet local preferences. Although some of those offerings will be made available in local brick-and-mortar stores, tomorrow's business landscape is going to be dominated by mobile devices. This makes the digital path-to-purchase a critical element of any company's business strategy. The most successful companies will find a way to seamlessly weave together multi-channel sales opportunities.

In order to sell a product or service, however, manufacturers need to ensure that consumers know about it. That's where technology can empower consumers, manufacturers, and retailers. In mega-cities, the ability to target consumers will be the sine qua non of successful business strategies. For a more in-depth discussion of targeted marketing, read my posts entitled Personalization and Targeted Marketing, Part 1 and Part 2. Even areas that are supposedly "off the grid" have been penetrated by mobile phone technology. The so-called "bottom billion" who live in these areas still require products and services. There are profits to be made selling to the bottom billion, if the products and services can be tailored to their circumstances. Big data analytics can help companies and governments better understand the requirements of people living in these "off the grid" areas so that they are not destined to live forever in poverty and squalor.

Improving "rapidly shifting supply chains"

At Enterra Solutions, we believe that companies must obtain full visibility into their supply chains -- from the issuance of a purchase order (PO), continuing through production milestones, transportation (i.e., ocean shipping, rail/truck), to warehouse delivery, and ultimately shipping to a customer. In order to achieve this, they need to implement what we call Global Network Synchronization. For a company, Global Network Synchronization refers to the ability to understand the complex interactions and dependencies within its supply chain. If a supply chain can be synchronized, it can quickly adjust to disruptive events (e.g., production delays, raw material shortages, weather, port delays, labor disputes, and other events). Global Network Synchronization can also reduce systemic risk by looking for supply chain risk exposures and pre-planning to mitigate those exposures. A company's global sourcing strategy requires real-time supply chain visibility and understanding the perturbative effects of any delays, so that action can be taken to mitigate any negative consequences. Understanding the perturbative effects of a supply chain disruption is a complex multi-threaded analysis that must take into account the entire range of critical supply chain issues and risks.

Upgrading infrastructure

Cities are not going to get smarter if their infrastructure remains dumb and outdated. The single most important infrastructure a city needs is a good electrical grid. Without a stable and reliable source of electricity, cities can't attract businesses, create new jobs, or become an "always on" hub of activity. The next most important infrastructure requirement is a good water and sanitation system. Without such a system, the population is likely to remain unhealthy and exposed to disease. With water forecast to be in short supply in the future, having a state-of-the-art water system could mean survival for some cities. For more on this topic, read my posts entitled Water, Water, Every Where -- What Can We do About It? -- Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Transportation infrastructure is essential for economic growth. Goods cannot move on dirt roads during severe storms. Container-laden ships cannot offload at ports whose harbors are not deep enough or whose docks can't handle the containers. Some analysts believe, however, that the greatest infrastructure shortfall in the developing world is found in the so-called "last mile" of distribution. For example, Andrew Youn and Nicholas Fusso write, "Today’s greatest need is not for scientists and engineers to create new tools. The real need is for better distribution of solutions that already work." ["Distribution, the Key to Unlocking the Development Toolbox," Next Billion, 25 April 2013] Although developing countries suffer from significant infrastructure shortfalls, even countries like the United States have infrastructure issues (see my post entitled Infrastructure, the Supply Chain, and Economic Growth. You cannot discuss transportation-related infrastructure issues in isolation. The logistics world has always been intermodal, but the complexity of orchestrating intermodal shipments is increasing. Only technology can deal with this complexity; which leads to the final infrastructure that is becoming essential for economic growth -- an information grid.

Analysts are predicting that we will shortly have an Internet of Things that will primarily involve machine-to-machine communication. Smart buildings, smart grids, smart robots, smart cars, and every other "smart" machine will be communicating on the Internet of Things ensuring that systems are functioning efficiently and effectively. Technology has always made progress easier and improved the quality of life for millions of people. I don't see this trend ending any time soon.

May 13, 2013

Enjoying Food: Taste, and Our Other Senses

Any true connoisseur of food understands that all of our senses (taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing) play a role in how we experience and enjoy food. I agree with the website, which states:

"The human body is amazing! Our body gives us a variety of different methods to interact with the world we live in. We receive information from the world via our senses. Each sense is distinct and different. ... Two people can be in the same situation but based on what they sense, they will each experience something different. Everyone relies upon their senses differently and some of the senses may be more accurate than others. ... The sense of taste teaches us flavors of food. We learn what things taste like so we can recognize what is good and bad for our body to ingest. With the variety of foods there are to eat and enjoy, it is not surprising that eating is one of our favorite things to do. Our senses all interact with each other and pass on information to our brain. Once received, our mind interprets everything and logs it away into memory. This process is what creates the individual experiences we enjoy."

Most people are aware of the close connection between the sense of smell and the sense of taste; but, they may not be aware of other sensory relationships associated with how we enjoy food. Let's begin with discussion with the basic sense of taste.


Taste is a complex subject, but let me provide you with the Cliff's Notes version of how our sense of taste works:

Taste buds"The stimuli for taste are chemical substances dissolved in water or other fluids. Taste can be described as four basic sensations, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, which can be combined in various ways to make all other taste sensations. Taste receptors (called taste buds) for these sensations are located primarily on various areas of the tongue: front, sweet; sides, sour; sides and front, salty; and back, bitter (see the attached figure). There are about 10,000 taste buds, which are situated primarily in or around the bumps (papillae) on the tongue. Each papilla contains several taste buds, from which information is sent by afferent nerves to the thalamus and, ultimately, to areas in the cortex." ["The Chemical Senses: Taste and Smell,", 26 April 2013]

Some people now add a fifth sensation, umami, a Japanese word that can be translated "pleasant savory taste." The medical description of taste may not make food and flavors sound very exciting, but you have to admit that it is amazing that four or five basic sensations can produce the phenomenal number of tastes we experience when eating. As noted above, there is special relationship between the senses of taste and smell. So it's natural that we next discuss the sense of smell.

Smell and Taste

Before they started flavoring children's medicines, there were some pretty nasty tasting concoctions prescribed by doctors. Inevitably, mothers would tell their children to hold their noses while swallowing the stuff. For many children, the act of holding their nose while consuming something unpleasant was their first exposure to the relationship between taste and smell. The Cliff's Notes page says this about smell.

"The stimuli for smell are volatile chemical substances suspended in the air. These molecules stimulate the olfactory receptors, which are in the upper portions of the nasal passages. Neurons from these receptors bundle together to form the olfactory nerve, which travels to the olfactory bulb at the base of the brain. The theory of smell is not well understood (for example, how an odor of apple pie can evoke pleasant childhood memories)."

Interestingly, new research claims that the nasal passage isn't the only area in the body that contains odorant receptors. ["Odorant Receptors Found In Non-Olfactory Cells," Medical News Today, 8 April 2013] The article reports:

"In a discovery suggesting that odors may have a far more important role in life than previously believed, scientists have found that heart, blood, lung and other cells in the body have the same receptors for sensing odors that exist in the nose. It opens the door to questions about whether the heart, for instance, 'smells' that fresh-brewed cup of coffee or cinnamon bun, according to the research leader, ... Peter Schieberle, Ph.D., an international authority on food chemistry and technology."

I'll return to Dr. Schieberle's work later in this post. The next sense I'd like to discuss is sight.

Sight and Taste

Most of us are aware that food presentation is important. Debra Zellner, a professor of psychology at Montclair State University, believes that how a food looks can affect its taste. ["Professor Talk: What Attracts Us To Certain Foods?" by Mike D'Onofrio, Montclair Patch, 17 February 2013] Dr. Zellner states:

"Colored beverages are perceived to smell stronger. But when people drink it, it tastes weaker. It is what is called a contrast effect, where people are expecting something that is stronger than what they get. ... How a food is prepared on a plate can [also] have an effect on a food’s taste. We did an experiment where we used the same chicken salad but prepared one neatly on a plate, and the other unbalanced and messy. People tasted both plates said the chicken salad on the neatly prepared plate tasted better, so presentation also matters."

Terry E. Acree, Ph.D, agrees with Professor Zellner, he claims, "The eyes sometimes have it, beating out the tongue, nose and brain in the emotional and biochemical balloting that determines the taste and allure of food." ["Biochemical Balloting: 'Seeing' The Flavor Of Food," Science 2.0, 20 April 2013] "Years ago," he states, "taste was a table with two legs—taste and odor. Now we are beginning to understand that flavor depends on parts of the brain that involve taste, odor, touch and vision. The sum total of these signals, plus our emotions and past experiences, result in perception of flavors, and determine whether we like or dislike specific foods." The one sense that Acree didn't mention was hearing.

Hearing and Taste

The page states, "Sounds affect the interpretation our mind gets, but not as much as smells and sight." We're all familiar with certain sounds associated with food, like sizzling bacon, popping corn, or percolating coffee. Nevertheless, the folks at conclude, "Sounds do not really affect the way food tastes. Taste and sound are brought together in the mind, but do not have a whole lot of meaning together." A mother and blogger who goes by the nom de plume "mealtimehostage" isn't so sure. She writes:

"Back in January, my friend came down with a doozy of a cold, the kind that finds its way into every sinus nook and cranny. Excessive mucous accumulating in the back of her nose prevented retronasal airflow into her nasal cavity. I found it intriguing how congestion had altered her senses, and changed her preferences and perceptions of food. ... The congestion also affected my friend’s hearing, creating intermittent periods of muffled sounds, followed by periodic crackling and popping. Not uncommon with a cold, but I’m sure you're asking. What on earth do ears have to do with our sense of taste? My knowledge of ear anatomy is limited at best, but I do know the ear canals and sinus cavities are all somehow connected. Interestingly, the ear is where we find one particular nerve that has a profound effect on taste nerves and the pain fibers on the tongue."

Although mealtimehostage makes it perfectly clear that she has no scientific or medical background, she found studies that linked childhood middle ear infections and "selective eaters." The nerve she talks about is the chorda tympani. She found the following description of that nerve:

"The chorda tympani is responsible for the taste perception on the front of the tongue. If that nerve becomes damaged, tastes at the back of the tongue actually get enhanced to preserve overall 'taste constancy.' But other cues that go into our sensory experience of flavor, including texture, smells and chemical sensitivity, are also enhanced." ~ Derek Snyder, Yale University neuroscience graduate student

She discusses a couple of other studies she found of interest including one that reported "when a small sample of adult selective eaters were asked if they had middle ear issues, 27 out of 34 respondents reported they had suffered from some form of middle ear issue in early childhood." Mealtimehostage may just be on to something.

Touch and Taste

Whether you've consciously thought about the relationship between touch and taste, you have subconsciously made the connection. Mushy cereal, soggy potato chips, and other not-so-appetizing foods may still be nutritionally valuable; but, because of how they feel, they become unpalatable for most of us. There is probably an evolutionary explanation for why the feel of some foods repels us. A mushy apple, for example, may indicate that it has gone rotten and could be dangerous to eat. John S. Allen, a neuroanthropologist, wrote a book entitled "The Omnivorous Mind," in which he "explores our biological equipment for taste and the ways in which each culture builds a unique cuisine upon a shared cognitive blueprint." ["An Accounting For Taste,"by Leo Coleman, Wall Street Journal, 20 May 2012] In a review of the book, Coleman writes:

"[Allen] observes ... that crispness seems to be a desirable quality of foods, whether in the crunchy crickets treated as a delicacy by some cultures or in Kentucky Fried Chicken. Such universals suggest that a deeply ingrained culinary capacity is an essential part of every human's 'biocultural' equipment, comparable to the cognitive capacities for language and empathy that indisputably marked important frontiers in human evolution."

In other words, touch may have a more profound effect on our sense of taste than we may have imagined. Earlier, I wrote that I would return to the work being done by Dr. Schieberle. I wanted to end this post discussing his work because it involves how the senses affect taste. The Medical News Today article reports, "Schieberle's group and colleagues at the Technical University of Munich work in a field termed 'sensomics,' which focuses on understanding exactly how the mouth and the nose sense key aroma, taste and texture compounds in foods, especially comfort foods like chocolate and roasted coffee." The article continues:

"For example, baked beans and beans in foods like chili provide a 'full,' rich mouth-feel. Adding the component of beans responsible for this texture to another food could give it the same sensation in the mouth, he explained. Natural components also can interact with substances in foods to create new sensations. The researchers use sensomics to better understand why foods taste, feel and smell appetizing or unappetizing. They use laboratory instruments to pick apart the chemical components. They then put those components together in different combinations and give these versions to human taste-testers who evaluate the foods. In this way, they discovered that although coffee contains 1,000 potential odor components, only 25 actually interact with an odor receptor in the nose and are smelled. 'Receptors help us sense flavors and aromas in the mouth and nose,' said Schieberle. 'These receptors are called G-protein-coupled receptors, and they were the topic of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012. They translate these sensations into a perception in the brain telling us about the qualities of a food.' Odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system also were the topic of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Of the total of around 1,000 receptors in the human body, about 800 of these are G-protein-coupled receptors, he said. Half of these G-protein-coupled receptors sense and translate aromas. But only 27 taste receptors exist. And although much research in the food industry has gone into identifying food components, little effort has focused on the tying those components to flavor perceptions until now, he said."

Undoubtedly, a lot more research is going to be conducted about relationships between our senses and how they can affect our perception of flavors.

May 06, 2013

Food Security Requires Implementing Complementary Strategies

Mankind has been trying to control the weather since the dawn of time. Historically, this intervention has taken the form of sacrifices, offerings, dances, and prayers to the gods who supposedly control such matters. There have also been more scientifically-based attempts to make rain, such as cloud seeding. Needless to say, these attempts have generally fallen short of the desired goal. Yet, as Keith A. Wheeler, chairman and CEO at ZedX Inc., reports, "All farmers, no matter their size, depend on the weather to the grow crops that feed the world, while providing a livelihood for their families and communities. This makes them among the most vulnerable to the changing climate. By 2050, if farmers are not assisted to meet these changes, agriculture yields will decrease with impacts projected to be the most severe in Africa and South Asia, with productivity decreasing by 15% and 18% respectively. Therefore, strategies to adapt to the significant shifts in weather patterns are greatly needed." ["Building resilient food systems in a world of climate uncertainty," The Guardian, 21 December 2012]

Food security clearIn other words, if we can't change the weather then the weather needs to change us. The irony of this situation is that "agriculture today accounts for 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions, with another 17% attributed to land use change linked to deforestation." That means that farmers are in some measure contributing to the climate variability with which they must contend. So one of the first strategies recommended to help shore-up food security involves empowering "farmers with the knowledge, practices and technologies needed to adapt and reduce agriculture's contribution to global warming." Fortunately, Wheeler reports, "Amidst these colossal challenges there is hope." He explains:

"Technological innovations are at the forefront of meeting the world's growing food demands, while reducing carbon emissions. High tech methods such as Precision Agriculture, for example, calculate the exact amount of fertilizer required by the soil on your farm, preventing over application and the release of unnecessary greenhouse gases, while simultaneously improving yields. Other practices, such as integrated pest management and pest information systems, improved training for farmers at all levels and new finance and risk management tools for smallholder farmers will all go a long way to building more resilient food systems. The thread that ties all of these innovations together is greater access for farmers to research, information and extension."

The need for better food security is becoming increasingly evident. "Pressure on the world’s resources is intensifying," writes Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. "Increased competition for these resources has been compounded by the effects of severe weather conditions." ["Now is the time for action," Financial Times, 21 November 2013] He explains:

"Since 2000, food prices have more than doubled because of soaring demand, with desertification, floods and drought adding significant volatility to the trend of food price inflation. To make matters worse, it is countries with already high rates of malnutrition that tend to be worst hit. People in Chad, Ethiopia and Angola spend up to 60 per cent of their weekly budget on food – much of it imported. The most vulnerable are hit the hardest by price rises."

Polman admits there are no silver bullet solutions to the food security challenge. But he offers three strategies that he believes should be taken immediately. "First, we should eliminate the use of unsustainable biofuels." By "unsustainable" he means biofuels derived from food crops (such as corn) or feedstock that is grown on ground that could be used to produce food crops. "Second, we need increased investment in those parts of Africa and Latin America where the last remaining serious agricultural expansion potential lies, or wherever current yields are threatened." On this point, he agrees with Wheeler. Finally, he asserts that "developing country governments need to create long-term partnerships with the private sector, donors and civil society, to stimulate investment in commercial agriculture. The Copenhagen Consensus concluded that an investment in fighting malnutrition would benefit people more than any other type of investment – with a return of $30 for every $1 invested. And the World Bank found that an investment in nutrition can translate to a 2-3 per cent increase in a nation's GDP each year, breaking the cycle of poverty that traps families and nations."

Another recommended strategy for creating better food security is reducing food waste. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers asserts "the world wastes from one-third to one-half of the four billion metric tons of food it produces each year." ["The World Wastes As Much As Half Its Food, New Study Finds," by Jeff Spross, Climate Progress, 14 January 2013] If the waste itself is not bad enough, Spross reminds us, "Because any item of food also represents an entire chain of production, wasted food also translates into wasted fresh water, wasted energy, wasted cropland, and further contributions to global warming with no discernible counter-balancing benefit." And one shouldn't forget the amount of wasted money represented by wasted food. With the global population continuing to swell, wasted food puts greater pressure on rising food prices. Although the causes of wasted food are different in the developing and developed worlds, the problem is global. The report explains:

"In less-developed countries, such as those of sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, wastage tends to occur primarily at the farmer-producer end of the supply chain. Inefficient harvesting, inadequate local transportation and poor infrastructure mean that produce is frequently handled inappropriately and stored under unsuitable farm site conditions. As the development level of a country increases, so the food loss problem generally moves further up the supply chain with deficiencies in regional and national infrastructure having the largest impact. […] In mature, fully developed countries such as the UK, more-efficient farming practices and better transport, storage and processing facilities ensure that a larger proportion of the food produced reaches markets and consumers. However, characteristics associated with modern consumer culture mean produce is often wasted through retail and customer behavior."

Since the causes of food waste are different, the strategies for reducing such waste must adapt to the situation. The report points out that controlling waste is beyond the capability of any single stakeholder (i.e., farmer, distributor, retailer, or consumer). Fortunately, it reports, "In most cases the sustainable solutions needed to reduce waste are well known. The challenge is transferring this know-how to where it is needed, and creating the political and social environment which encourages both transfer and adoption of these ideas to take place." Brad Plumer reviews a few of the solutions that could be implemented. ["How the world manages to waste half its food," Washington Post, 12 January 2013] He writes:

"For poorer countries, simply building better food-storage buildings could cut down massively on waste in places like Pakistan or Ghana (which lost 50 percent of its stored maize in 2008). Better harvesting technology and techniques could also help, although the report suggests that some nations like India will need more sweeping societal and political changes to cut down on waste. Meanwhile, wealthier regions like the United States and Europe will need to think harder about not throwing out so much perfectly good food. ... One small step, which Britain has been exploring of late, is to rethink their use of food labels, which often encourage supermarkets to toss out food long before it actually goes bad."

Another irony that we confront when discussing food security involves dietary habits. As food security improves so does the economic condition of impoverished people. As their wealth increases, their eating habits change and that can have a profound effect on food production. For one thing, studies have shown that as people scratch their way out of poverty their taste for meat grows. Raising livestock, however, is not the most efficient way to provide the protein that we need to be healthy. It takes a lot of land, feed, and water to raise livestock. Livestock, particularly cattle, also produce a lot of methane gas. You can't blame (or prevent) those who have struggled to survive from wanting a more varied and enriched diet; but, we need to realize that our dietary choices have an impact. In the end, changing human behavior may be the most difficult challenge we face in striving for better food security.

For an excellent discussion on the challenges that lie ahead and some of the strategies that can be used to meet them, watch the video of a panel discussion held at The Aspen Institute last year. The first speaker, Jon Foley, Director, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota, stated that if we don't get agriculture right nothing else really matters. Foley offers five recommendations for improving global food security. The first recommendation he offered is to stop deforestation and halt agricultural expansion. This would help reduce agriculture's carbon emission footprint. Second, he recommended closing "yield gaps" on underperforming lands. There are huge opportunities in Eastern Europe where farms are producing only 20 percent of what could be produced. Third, he recommended improving cropping efficiency. That is, ensure that resources like water and fertilizers are being used to maximum efficiency. Israel, for example, uses water 100 times more efficiently than Pakistan. Fourth, he says we need to shift dietary preferences. Finally, as discussed above, we need to reduce waste. Polman concludes, "Securing the future of agricultural development needs individual commitment and action on the ground. All of us, individuals, companies, policy makers and consumers, have a responsibility to act together, and the time to act is now."