Dire Data, the 2018 Economics Nobel Prize, and Making a Dent in Climate Change

It has been a great week for advancing the climate change mitigation and adaptation agenda. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) just released its latest report asserting that the world has just 12 years to get climate change under control or face the rather dire consequences of a 2-degree celsius rise in temperatures. It conveys a rather scary and bleak message, but also has a hopeful connotation – if economies get a grip on climate change (yes, a big “if”), rising temperatures can be stemmed at 1.5 degrees. According to the Washington Post article on the latest report,

Most strikingly, the document says the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, which amount to more than 40 billion tons per year, would have to be on an extremely steep downward path by 2030 to either hold the world entirely below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or allow only a brief “overshoot” in temperatures. As of 2018, emissions appeared to be still rising, not yet showing the clear peak that would need to occur before any decline. Overall reductions in emissions in the next decade would probably need to be more than 1 billion tons per year, larger than the current emissions of all but a few of the very largest emitting countries. By 2050, the report calls for a total or near-total phaseout of the burning of coal.

Alongside the release of this incisive and alarming report, was the announcement of this year’s winners of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize – more often known as the ‘Nobel Prize in Economics’ – was won by two economists who have done much to demonstrate to the world the link between economic growth and climate change and also the power of technological advancements to do something about the challenges emanating from global climate change. This year’s winners are William Nordhaus of Yale University and Paul Romer of NY Stern School of Business and former World Bank Chief Economist. Nordhaus is widely acknowledged as the first person to create an economic model that described the interplay between the economy and the climate. Romer, meanwhile, has shown how economic forces govern the willingness of firms to produce new ideas and innovations – an area I am personally very passionate about. I am particularly excited that Romer is one of two winners. His work has focussed on the positive side-effects of technological progress and has often argued that market economies left to their own devices tend not generate enough new ideas and that there is a role for well-designed government action to stimulate more innovation. This echoes the views and work of Marianna Mazzucato, among others.

I was in the North Central Province this week, and saw the power of technological advancements and economic incentives to promote a more climate-friendly trajectory. Jetwing Lake, a mid-sized hotel located in the Dambulla area owned by local tourism giant Jetwing Hotels, has moved wholeheartedly intro green initiatives. And they are being rewarded for it. Earlier this year the international travel body PATA awarded a ‘Gold’ award to Jetwing Lake for their sustainable operations.


As I turned off into the dirt road leading to the property, you suddenly come across a solar farm (pictured above). I later learned that Jetwing Lake hosts one of the largest solar installations in a Sri Lankan hotel, generating 300kW. Moreover, their solar installation features ‘bifacial panels’ which generates electricity from both sides of the panel increasing yield by 15%. Apparently its the first commercial project in the country to have these bifacial panels. The solar plant generates over 40% of the hotels daily energy needs.

They’ve also installed solar as the roof for hotel’s guest and staff car park (pictured below).


They also have an biomass boiler onsite that generates steam using over 2,000kg of cinnamon wood, that is otherwise thrown away by cinnamon peelers. This steam powers  a vapour absorption chiller which generates 100% of the hotel’s air conditioning needs.


Pictured above is their effluent treatment plant where waste water is treated on-site and reused to irrigate the gardens, as flushing water in toilets, and for the cooling towers.

The circular economy truly at work, right here in Sri Lanka.

Linking back to the Nobel winners – Romer’s work on the potential of technological progress to drive a new growth trajectory is at play here, where with the advancements made in pollution abatement technologies, photovoltaic panels, etc., are being deployed to show how a sustainable growth path can be forged and can also garner valuable global recognition. Imagine initiatives like this multiplied across the tourism sector in Sri Lanka, and multiplied across more sectors in Sri Lanka, and multiplied globally – we can make a dent in global climate change, and hopefully avoid the dangerous 2-degree celcius tipping point.


(All images copyright Anushka Wijesinha.)


The Curionomist Podcasts | A Chat with David Irwin on Supporting SMEs

When David Irwin joined the UK Small Business Service as its first Chief Executive he had an uphill task – getting civil servants to understand enterprise promotion. One of the first things he did was to get all the bureaucrats in the agency to visit small businesses across the UK for several days each year to better understand their needs, their concerns, and their pains. In just two years, the Small Business Service had emerged as a strong voice for small business at the heart of government, and was at the forefront of advocating the case for an improved regulatory environment. In recognition of his continued efforts to support SMEs, David was awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion in 2009.

I was privileged to have spoken with him on the sidelines of a recent workshop. We talked about how a public agency can support enterprise development and what the role of government is in helping SMEs. Our chat is captured in this latest edition of ‘The Curionomist Podcasts’, embedded below. Just click to listen, for about 12 minutes.

The Curionomist Podcasts | A Chat with AirBnB’s Mike Orgill

UPDATE: Here’s an article that interviews Mike, along with AirBnB’s India chief, on why millennials are looking for authentic experiences, and also on how AirBnB is dealing with regulatory barriers as well as the rise of opposition from hotel associations.



My first experience with AirBnB was on a trip to Europe last year – couldn’t have afforded France if not for it, and got insider tips, driving cheats, and great eats because of it.  A year later, it was great to catch up with a top AirBnB official and chat about the platform. Mike Orgill, head of Public Policy for AirBnB Asia-Pacific, was in town for the Sri Lanka Economic Summit 2016 and we did this podcast on the sidelines of the event. We talked about AirBnB and its role in global travel, the public policy tensions the platform has to contend with, whether the sharing economy has led to the emergence of ‘crowd regulation’, and how AirBnB is growing in Sri Lanka. I last met him when he visited Colombo in his previous role at Google and it was a pleasure catching up with him again.

(Skip to the podcast here)

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‘Intrapreneurs’ and human-centred innovation

They call themselves ‘The Berlin Consulting Dudes’, and they are making waves in how German businesses engage with people in the process of innovation. The focus of this Berlin-based startup, Intraprenör, is on helping companies do ‘human-centred innovation’.I was fortunate to catch up with one of the company’s co-founders, Gregor Kalchthaler. He says they have found a small but growing niche. “Old economy businesses want to know how to become new economy businesses. They are struggling to do it alone, and they come to startups like us, to help them think differently”. We both agreed that most businesses looking at innovation tend to focus on the tech angle, but do little on the human or people angle. Given that innovation is not just about devices and tech, but also necessarily must engage people, the human-centered approach is gaining a lot of traction.


Gregor gave me an example of one of their clients, a budget supermarket chain that was focussing on sustainability and wanted to convey that to its customers. Unlike premium stores who’s customers may understand ‘sustainability’ and value it, a budget store doesn’t have that luxury. So instead of trying to push sustainability down the throats of the customer in a clinical way – the only way they knew how, the company hired Intraprenör. The guys at Intraprenör immediately took a human-centred approach to the challenge. They followed some of the customers of the budget supermarket store, engaged with them, embedded themselves in their daily lives for a few days. They explored their motivations, attitudes, aspirations, behaviour – to understand what makes them tick . They didn’t just call a focus group and ask a set of questions – in the usual market research way. As a result they found a clever and relatable way to explain the fair trade and sustainability approaches of the supermarket chain without using those very words.

They work very closely to build a team in a client company that can become champions for innovation inside the organisation – thus creating “intrapreneurs” within the firm to drive innovation continuously.

I also found Intraprenör’s approach to how they work and organise the business very interesting. Gregor tells me that they recently shifted to a 4-day work week Why? “Most of our clients can’t take decisions after 1pm on Friday, so why would we work? Instead, we give one day to work for our team to work on something for themselves and maybe bring that to the business”. They also don’t have dedicated finance or other support teams. Each founder works on each assignment from end-to end, from drawing up the contracts to invoicing. “That instils a sense of ownership for each client. Each person is very independent from one another.”


The facility used to be a massive coin factory, and is now a hub for creativity.

As we wrapped up our meeting and I walked out, I was fascinated by the space that Intraprenör occupies. And as it turns out, the space has a remarkable story. The entire building complex used to be a massive coin factory from 1930s to 2003. It was then suddenly abandoned a few years after the Euro was minted here. The visionary Berlin city government decided that they didn’t want to give it to the highest investor but to the best concept. The legendary supporter of the Berlin startup ecosystem, realtor Andreas Kruger (who connected me to Gregor and this meeting) helped push the project, and now, the facility is home to several startups and creative economy businesses.

Which Institutions Have The Most Sci & Eng Researchers in Sri Lanka?

For some innovation eco-system work I have been doing, I came across some startling numbers that give us a sense of the narrow pool of researchers in science and engineering subjects. According to data available on the new Sri Lanka Innovation Dashboard, an initiative by COSTI, University of Moratuwa leads the way as the leading institution with science and engineering researchers, University Peradeniya is a distant second, and the other universities trail behind.

Meanwhile, public R&D institutions (PRIs) like the NERD-Centre (located in the Ekala Industrial Zone) ranks quite high. The Industrial Technology Institute, which is a key focal point for private sector industries seeking S&T solutions to their problems, ranks surprisingly low. Meanwhile, I need to find out by SLINTEC (Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology) doesn’t come up in the top 10, given there success at attracting many nanotech scientists into their PPP-structured outfit.

What I’m probably most surprised about, though, is that there are only 4 universities in this top 10, even though universities probably get much more funding, overall, than these other institutions.

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Innovation as Interaction

In the course of some innovation policy work that I’ve been doing over the past year, I’ve noticed that the public policy conversations around innovation are dominated by a focus on knowledge creation, so stuff like R&D spend, putting money into government labs, research institutes, etc. Thercsm_Casti-interactions_52b6f2d9e5e is much less focus on the interactions between knowledge creators and industry actors/entrepreneurs. For the latter, we need to consider things like firm level adoption of technology, firm level readiness, access to technology from within or outside the country, technology commercialisation, technology transfer/transmission, and the overall ability for the country to be innovative, that goes beyond just knowledge creation and innovation inputs and outputs. This conceptual issue around innovation policy is important to consider, and has implications for how government’s support innovation. We seriously need to shift the debate beyond the narrow focus on knowledge creation alone, and towards fostering dynamic interaction among different players in the innovation eco0system.

Can a robot create IP and own it?

Sounds like a silly question right? But a new paper by WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) on ‘Robotics, innovation and intellectual property’ argues that it is one of the fundamental questions thrown up by the emergence of robotics innovation. As the paper notes,

A question that cannot yet be considered settled law in any nation, but for which IP practitioners around the globe may soon face, is whether IP can be created by a robot, and if so, who owns IP created by a robot?

While there’s a lot of work out there on the Intellectual Property (IP) issues related to biotech, nanotech, pharma, etc., this is probably the first report that looks at robotics innovation and IP. I met one of the co-authors of the paper, Sacha, during a recent visit to WIPO last month, and found him to be an extremely interesting economist looking at innovation – there aren’t many of them around yet.

 In other insights contained in the report, something that jumps out strongly is the extent to which East Asian countries are leading the robotics space. Just look at the Top 10 patent filers in robotics globally – ALL are from East Asia – predominantly China. If you exclude China, still, 8 out of 10 institutions are from East Asia (the other two are German). Strikingly, of those 8, 6 are from South Korea.

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Robotic Cleaning Help

These robotic vacuum cleaners seem to be growing in popularity, particularly in East and South East Asia. Spotted these displayed in the electronics and home section of a mall in Bangkok. The most popular seem to be the Samsung and the LG ones, pictured here. 

Dyson, the legendary vacuum manufacturer, is reportedly coming up with its own robotic cleaner – 360 Eye – at $1,200 a pop. 

Robotic cleaners, like other home automation devices, are now a growing segment of the consumer tech market.How long before you sit on the couch and watch a robotic vacuum clean around the house?