Three Longs & Three Shorts

This week’s reads focus on Google’s smart city project, the secret escape of North Korean refugees, the ballooning frontier market-debt, more signs of the bubble in tech, the Indian water crisis and Instagram as a professional networking tool for millennials.

1.        Long read: Future shock: inside Google’s smart city

Author: Anna Nicolaou
Source: FT (https://on.ft.com/2FyD4nD)

Since the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, data privacy and misuse of data are among the key concerns for Government and Legal watchdogs across the world. Critics use the same concerns to red flag Google’s ambitious smart city project in Toronto, Canada. Google thought its subsidiary has won the bid to develop 12 acres stretch of forgotten waterfront land on the outskirts of Toronto into a high-tech city at the expense of USD 1bn. The city will aim to address ubiquitous urban problems – congestion, inefficient services and unaffordable housing as well as try to control the temperature through an innovative ‘raincoat’ technology. However, the downside of the new city is that every move of its residents will be recorded and monitored through hidden cameras across the city.
Despite all the backlash, Canadians do not want to shelve the project immediately. Anna points towards a February poll commissioned by Toronto’s trade board which shows that 55 per cent of Torontonians still support the project and 76 per cent feel it should carry on as long as public interests are safeguarded. Success or failure of Google’s project will have a huge impact on how new cities are developed in the future.

“The former fish processing plant is so unremarkable that, at first, my taxi driver speeds right past it. He shrugs as we come to a stop in an empty parking lot across the street. Along a dreary 12-acre stretch of forgotten waterfront land on the outskirts of Toronto sits a boxy blue building, almost invisible among the factories and highway. The land is neglected now, but that will change if Google has its way. This is the site where the technology company wants to build a city of the future.

One of the project’s main aims is to address ubiquitous urban problems, such as congestion, inefficient services and unaffordable housing. Illustrative plans featuring futuristic, mass-timber buildings were released in February. The structures, some by Thomas Heatherwick’s studio and Snøhetta, an architectural practice based in Norway, were imagined towering over the shoreline of Lake Ontario. Google’s blue building houses the planning operation and exhibition centre, which it has assembled in preparation for a decision — expected within months — by the city’s authorities. Inside, it is more like a science museum than a Google-owned HQ. A model of a “dynamic street” made up of hexagonal wooden blocks, and a prototype of a “raincoat” — transparent, domed plastic awnings that would attach to buildings and cover the areas in front — are on display.

The raincoat’s climate technology, it is claimed, would make residents feel warm in winter and cool in summer for at least 50 days a year. Given the average temperature in Toronto falls to -7C in winter and reaches 27C in July, life could become pretty comfortable…….But what has caused most alarm is that, in this quayside city of the future, residents’ every move would be recorded. Inevitably, anxieties about privacy and covert surveillance have followed. Small hidden cameras would snap low-resolution images of people and cars as they move through the streets. Sidewalk says its systems would blur identifiable information, label pictures either “pedestrian” or “vehicle”, then enter it into a “public data trust”. The data would be used to plan services in real time, in what it calls a “feedback of residents”……..

In many ways, Google’s ambitions are nothing new. Grand attempts at “smart cities” in North America date back to the 1960s, when Walt Disney dreamt up the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow — Epcot for short — a Floridian city of the future underpinned by technology. Disney died before his vision could be realised on the scale he had imagined. Today, a new generation of tech visionaries has taken up the same challenge, seeking to reimagine the spaces in which we live. Apple, Amazon and Google have all bought chunks of land across the US. In 2017, a Bill Gates-run investment company spent $80m on a piece of Arizona desert land to build a “smart city”, tentatively called Belmont.

But the Waterfront Toronto project represents North America’s biggest, most ambitious smart-city test case: up to 350 acres of untouched urban land in one of the continent’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas. At first, Canadians cheered; 18 months on, the project risks generating more resentment than enthusiasm. Sidewalk’s plans have upset many people. Critics include local technologists, property developers, politicians from both the left-leaning NDP and Conservative parties, urbanists, academics, privacy experts, business leaders and the Canadian Civil Liberties Union…….

….With hundreds of smart city pilot projects under way around the world, “this is a cautionary tale”, says Balsillie. “Data spreads seamlessly. These data strategies are not just contained to this piece of land. It’s like somebody is putting a virus in your backyard.” At this point “it’s a real question mark”, says Cavoukian, over whether Google-ification will ever happen. Critics such as Julie DiLorenzo, a prominent Toronto property developer, say Sidewalk has only revealed pie-in-the-sky renderings, and seems unable to answer concrete questions such as how the project will be financed and whether people will be able to opt out of data collection.

“They’ve come in here and made all these assumptions about what the people of Toronto want,” says one local developer. “The raincoat idea to effectively be inside all the time. We want to be outside; the cold is part of our culture and this city.” But despite the backlash, it seems Canadians do not want to say goodbye to Google just yet. A February poll commissioned by Toronto’s trade board showed 55 per cent of Torontonians still support the project and 76 per cent feel it should carry on as long as public interests are safeguarded. “The Board of Trade is glad that Sidewalk Labs is here and glad the company has a shot at bringing innovative development ideas to Quayside, alongside our growing smart cities sector in Toronto,” says Jan De Silva chief executive of Toronto’s trade board. “But our support isn’t unconditional.”

2.        Long read: The Underground Railroad of North Korea

Author: Doug Bock Clark

Source: GQ (https://www.gq.com/story/underground-railroad-of-north-korea)

This is a thrilling read about the secret network of NGOs and brokers rescuing thousands of North Korean refugees through hidden and treacherous routes across China and South East Asia into South Korea. Doug Bock Clark, the author of ‘The Last Whalers’, has written this piece with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The piece builds the narrative around two stories – one of a North Korean woman named Faith who crossed over to China with the help of smugglers who in turn sold her off to a Chinese man (millions of Chinese men left willing to buy wives given the gender imbalance from the one-child policy) then escaped to Vietnam and Cambodia where she sought asylum at the South Korean embassy; and the second about a man named Stephen Kim (called by some as the Oskar Schindler of North Korea) who helped Faith and hundreds of other refugees escape the oppressive North Korean regime. At the end of the riveting read, Doug adds a reality check to the stories highlighting the potential sensationalism to Kim’s narratives and likely swindling of funds from desperate refugees and unassuming NGO’s especially given the secretive nature of the whole operation. Yet, the fact there is an effort to take on the ruthless regime and its friendly super power of a neighbour – China, and save thousands of lives is heart warming nonetheless.

“Normally it would be the responsibility of the United Nations to assist the thousands of North Koreans hiding in China. Instead, because China labels North Koreans “economic migrants” rather than refugees at the behest of its ally North Korea, “it is up to the heroic civilians of the Underground Railroad to risk their lives to do what the international community is prevented from doing by China,” said Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation. Over two decades, Underground Railroad activists have built up a network of secret routes and safe houses to transport refugees across Asia and, in doing so, have managed to fill in where some of the world’s most powerful institutions have failed.

…Stephen Kim is a man whose life has been shrouded in legend. For leading the rescue of over 700 North Koreans, he has been called “the Oskar Schindler of North Korea,” a nickname that he shares with several other humanitarians who do similar work. Associates refer to him by the code name Superman, and he has been called “mythical” by human-rights activists, as reported by The Times of London

….“No one has a perfect bird’s-eye view of the history of the Underground Railroad,” said Tim Peters, the founder and director of Helping Hands Korea, a prominent rescue NGO that has saved more than 1,000 people, “as all rescue organizations silo their information,” given the sensitive nature of the work. That said, after talking to 13 people involved in the Underground Railroad, I think that the following seems clear: The individual efforts of several dozen South Korean, American, Japanese, and Chinese activists in the late 1990s coalesced into several formal organizations by the early 2000s. Some sneaked refugees into South Korean and other sympathetic embassies in China until security became too tight. Others favored the Mongolian route, before China sealed it in the mid-2000s. This meant the primary way out was to cross all of China and then much of Southeast Asia. Although North and South Korea are divided only by the impenetrably fortified 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone, the journey between the nations had become one of about 6,000 miles.

….As the Underground Railroad expanded, the number of North Koreans arriving in Seoul skyrocketed. In 2001, Kang was one of just more than 1,000 arrivals. By 2007, that number rose to over 2,500. So much success, however, prompted China to crack down. The missionaries had little experience running clandestine networks, and many began to be jailed or disappeared. Kim kept his cover as a businessman but increasingly found himself harassed by Chinese police.

….As Faith journeyed across Asia, Kim kept close tabs on her group and steered them via encrypted communications with his agents, doling out payments via wire transfers. (An escape costs about $2,000 to $2,500 per person.) During Faith’s escape attempt, security was tight in the Laos-China region, where today’s standard route has refugees hike through jungles into Laos, cross the Mekong River on fishing boats into Thailand, and then claim asylum at the South Korean embassy. So instead, Kim piloted Faith’s group on a relatively new and risky route, toward Vietnam, planning to extract them through the South Korean embassy in Cambodia.

By then, in 2017, the situation had gotten so critical, with widespread arrests and only 1,127 refugees making it to freedom, that some activists worried about the future of the Underground Railroad. “My fear is that we will continue to see a decline in escapees,” explained Sokeel Park, a director for the NGO Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), which has rescued over 1,000 refugees, “with escapees possibly diminishing to a few hundred annually in the future.” Other activists worried that if the Thailand route closed, there would be no viable backups to handle large numbers of refugees.

The loss of the Underground Railroad would deprive the world of an essential humanitarian institution. By the end of 2018, the seven public rescue organizations had saved at least 5,000 North Koreans, according to numbers provided by them.”

3.        Long read: Frontier market debt at a 15-year high

Author: Steve Johnson

Source: Financial Times (https://on.ft.com/2VK5X5C)
Oxford Economics says that thanks to aggressive bond investments from Chinese investors, public debt in frontier markets is at its highest level since 2004. “  More worrying still, the credit boom largely appears to have been wasted, with the countries that have borrowed the most having the lowest levels of investment, suggesting much of the money has not been put to productive use.”
China’s Belt & Road Initiative seems to be responsible for much of the rise in public debt. “Project finance to the 17 frontier countries examined by Oxford Economics has risen 26-fold since 2009 to $280bn, almost half of which has flowed to just three: Pakistan, Nigeria and Argentina, according to the China Global Investment Tracker…Some $32bn of these deals are already characterised as “troubled transactions” by the CGIT.”
Over and above these bonds, there are also bilateral loans extended by China. However, data on just how much China has lent via bilateral loans is not publicly available.
Overall,

“debt levels have since risen back towards their early 2000s peak…with Costa Rica, Ghana and Ecuador seeing the biggest rises in borrowing and Lebanon, Ukraine and Sri Lanka having the highest absolute levels of debt. Worse still, less of this is in the form of concessional lending from western governments and multinational bodies than was the case earlier this century. As a result, non-concessional debt — whether from China or via the bond markets — has risen to 17 per cent of median GDP, above the early 2000s peak.”
And what is the result of all this lending by China? “Pakistan’s attempts to secure an IMF bailout have already been complicated by the murky nature of Chinese lending, which has rendered it hard to judge whether the country’s debt is sustainable.

In Sri Lanka, China has taken control of Hambantota port and 15,000 acres of adjacent land after the island nation was unable to service a $1.2bn loan used to build the facility…This need to fund larger deficits could be why little of the fresh borrowing appears to be funding productive investment, despite this being the clear objective of China’s BRI-related project financing.”

4. Short read: Money-losing companies that went public in 2018 did better than profitable ones

Author: Rani Molla
Source: Recode (https://www.recode.net/2019/3/21/18274843/unprofitable-tech-unicorn-ipo-stock-market-profit)
In what looks like a classic sign of a “bubble”, public investors are valuing unprofitable companies higher than they are profitable ones that entered public stock exchanges last year. “Those are the findings from a new PitchBook report on the stock performance of US unicorns. The study looked at the median stock-price change for startups valued at more than a billion dollars when they went public.
For the unprofitable ones that went public in 2018, their median stock-price growth has been 120 percent on an annualized basis, from the IPO offering price through March 12 of this year. The median decline for stocks that were profitable has been 57 percent for 2018… In general over the past nine years, profitability has barely made a difference for performance…. “In general, you’re not seeing a huge preference either way in public markets for if a company has been profitable or unprofitable at its IPO,” Cameron Stanfill, an analyst at PitchBook and the report’s author, told Recode…“They believe in the business model and are disregarding the current state of profitability at the IPO,” Stanfill said.”

5. Short read: Can India provide water for all by 2030?

Author: A Narayanamoorthy & P Alli
Source: Hindu Business Line (https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/can-india-provide-water-for-all-by-2030/article26600468.ece)

India draws a third of its water from aquifers. However, these aquifers are depleting at a rapid rate. “Most of the world’s water systems that keep the ecosystems thriving and feed a growing human population are under severe stress.

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in its report, Global Wetland Outlook: State of World’s Wetlands and their Services to People (2018), makes an alarming observation that up to 87 per cent of the global wetland resource has been lost since 1700. The analysis of satellite data of NASA underlines that half of the earth’s 37 largest aquifers are running too fast to be replenished and an additional 13 are declining at a faster rate… The United Nations in its World Water Development Report 2018 has highlighted that the global water use has increased by a factor of six over the past 100 years and continues to grow at a rate of one per cent per year. Competitive demand for water from various sectors has resulted in water scarcity that is affecting almost every part of the world.

The World Bank in its latest report has underlined that the Ganga River Basin could see drinking water shortage go up by as much as 39 per cent in some States by 2040. A recent study (2016) from the University of Twente, Netherlands, warns that two-third of the global population lives with severe water scarcity for at least one month every year and nearly half of those people live in India and China.
With specific reference to India, the situation is more serious than many of us imagine it to be. In fact, 30 years hence India could become an importer of water: “The water crisis in India is more dire than imagined. The annual per capita availability of water continues to decline sharply from about 5,177 cubic metres in 1951 to about 1,720 cubic metres in 2019. The NITI Aayog in its report on Composite Water Management Index (2018) has underlined that currently 600 million people face high to extreme water stress, about two lakh die every year due to inadequate access to safe water, about three-fourths of the household do not get drinking water at their premise and about 70 per cent of water is contaminated.

The rate of groundwater extraction is so severe that NASA’s findings suggest that India’s water table is declining alarmingly at a rate of about 0.3 metres per year. At this rate of depletion, India will have only 22 per cent of the present daily per capita water available in 2050, possibly forcing the country to import water.”
So what is the way forward? What remedies do we have on hand? “The World Bank, in its report India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future (2006), had outlined that dams in India have the capacity to store only about 30 days of rainfall, compared with 900 days in major river basins in arid areas of developed countries. Hence, more efforts need to be taken to develop water infrastructure in a decentralised manner by shifting the focus to cost-effective methods.

Small water bodies (mainly tanks) are less capital-intensive, user-friendly with fewer environmental problems and augment groundwater resources through sub-surface recharge.

However, most small water bodies have been encroached and subject to centuries of neglect and mismanagement. The Standing Committee on Water Resources on “Repair, Renovation and Restoration of Water Bodies” highlighted in its 16th report that out of 5.56 lakh tanks in the country, only 4.71 lakh tanks are in use.”

6. Short read: How Instagram Replaced the Contacts List

Author: Taylor Lorenz

Source: The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/03/why-everyone-gives-out-their-instagram-handle/585916/)

Technology is changing the way we interact and communicate with each other and Instagram is fast becoming the preferred mode for millennials to interact with the world. With over a billion monthly Instagram users, people are preferring to exchange their Instagram handle rather than exchanging their mobile number. Taylor points to various advantages of using and sharing Instagram – access to full name & bio of the user, direct line of contact through Instagram DM, easy to disconnect any follower. The growth of new age technology Instagram, WhatsApp & the likes is resulting in iMessage & SMS getting obsolete very fast.

“When Chris Rackliffe, a motivational speaker in New York, met a potential friend at a bar last weekend, it never occurred to him to exchange phone numbers. Instead, the two swapped Instagram handles, and have been liking each other’s posts. Rackliffe said they’ll probably meet up in person again soon. “It’s so much more casual to give someone your Instagram handle and keep in touch through stories and DMs,” Rackliffe said. “Swapping numbers feels so serious and stiff nowadays.”

As Instagram has grown to more than a billion monthly users, it has also morphed into people’s default public internet profile and communication method. “I cannot imagine preferring phone number to Instagram handle,” said Ziad Ahmed, the founder of Juv, a Generation Z consulting agency. While many people message frequently throughout the day with their closest friends, Instagram is particularly great for connecting with people you don’t know super well, or have just met.

“Usually someone hands you their phone, and you follow yourself on their Instagram,” said Rachel Schultz, who works in the advertising industry. “It’s nice because you can then share things with them like events or funny things or whatever they’re into, which makes nourishing new friendships easy.” Crucially, Instagram provides much more context—and conversation fodder—than a random string of 10 digits. Because iMessage and SMS don’t come with public profiles, when someone texts you from a number outside your contacts, you have little to no information on who that person is or where you met. Sometimes people will provide this information themselves via text, but often you’re left guessing. But adding people on Instagram is like scanning a digital business card into your address book. You get their full name and bio, and a direct line of contact through Instagram DM. Plus, you have the added benefit of scrolling back on their profile for additional context on who they are and what they’re into.

A person’s Instagram posts provide a stream of conversation prompts: Maybe you’ll just reply to a Story, asking about that lunchtime pasta, or notice that the new acquaintance is nearby and ask to meet up for a drink. One of the hardest parts of fostering a new connection is figuring out how to reach out and start a conversation out of thin air. Instagram makes it easy.

John Colucci, a social strategist in Seattle, said he’s even seen the insta swap become more popular in business settings. In fact, he has all but done away with his physical business cards. Instagram is “a less intense, light-touch connection,” he said. It’s notably less uptight than LinkedIn, said Allison Winer, a public-relations strategist in Baltimore. “LinkedIn is so stale when it comes to being interactive, and then exchanging numbers is a little too formal and close for comfort,” she told me. And, of course, because Instagram is such a good way to get a sense of someone’s personality and interests, it’s also a great way to suss out dating opportunities. Winer said that men nearly always ask for her Instagram handle as opposed to her phone number. “To be honest, I always try to look them up that way too,” she said. “It gives you a little insight into their life and, of course, selfies.” Many dating apps, such as Tinder and Bumble, even allow users to sync their Instagram profiles so suitors can browse their recent pics. In 2017, New York magazine coined the term Tindstagramming, for the growing phenomenon of men who slide directly into women’s DMs on Instagram looking for a date. Revealing your phone number to too many people can also be a security concern. Once someone adds your number to a contacts list, finding your profiles on other apps is easy. Given the prevalence of two-factor authentication, keeping your phone number private is an important part of thwarting SIM-card hackers. “I avoid giving my [phone number] out unless I know a person very well,” said Nima Gardideh, a tech worker and entrepreneur, citing security concerns…. Instagram swapping doesn’t work in all contexts. Many users, particularly older ones, still consider the platform personal and are uncomfortable being followed by, for example, more junior members at work. But there are signs the practice is spreading. After I recently posed the question in a Facebook group for Bay Area parents, many moms revealed that they preferred connecting via Instagram before giving away more detailed contact information.

“I asked to exchange phone numbers for texting with another mom, and I felt a weird vibe, like I was being intrusive,” commented Tina Grove. “I think I should have asked for her Instagram handle instead.”

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