HP’s Alex Cho: The PC isn’t dead. It’s essential.


HP Personal Systems had a banner year in 2020, but not for the usual reasons to do with the health of the PC industry. Rather, it was the pandemic that drove people into their homes for work, with the subsequent need for adequate computing technology.

I spoke with Alex Cho, president of HP Personal Systems, about his company’s plans for CES 2021, the annual tech trade show that’s not in Las Vegas this week. He said the pandemic showed that people who worked from home needed to have a hefty machine to do their creative work. They had to transform their homes into protected enterprises that were safe from hackers and fully equipped with the printers and networking gear to support households contending for resources.

Now HP is unveiling a new round of products, and the marketing is all focused around the home workplace, rather than machines for your commute. Cho also thinks gaming will continue to grow in 2021, despite the record year it had in 2020 as people played games to distract themselves from reality.

I talked with Cho about HP’s lineup of new products at CES 2021.  We talked about his expectations for growth in 2021, the future of computing, and the new competition between companies like Advanced Micro Devices in HP’s supplier base. One thing is clear, Cho said. The PC isn’t dead. It’s essential.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Alex Cho is president of HP Personal Systems.

Image Credit: HP

VentureBeat: It’s a very different CES this year with the digital format. I imagine that’s changed up what you’re doing.

Alex Cho: It’s an interesting complement to where we’ve already been innovating. While it’s logistically different for us in terms of how we show up to the show, the fact that we’re remote — it’s like the ultimate background for our announcements because our announcements are all about enabling how people work and learn and play and are cared for in a more remote environment. It’s an interesting play on both the logistical difference, but also the impetus for a lot of the innovations we’re announcing.

VentureBeat: I noticed that all the images in your deck were of individual people working at home in some way. Normally you’d have lots of office settings. That’s totally different. It seems like how you sell has changed, how you market.

Cho: If you take a step back, this category is one where — it wasn’t long ago that people were saying the PC was dead. Then a couple of years ago I was advocating, saying that if anything it’s becoming increasingly relevant. I was sharing some of the first-party data around usage, the ultimate proxy for the relevance of a category. Usage was growing in things like creation on the PC, consuming content, collaborating. Especially among Gen Z and millennials.

2020 happened and now the category is more than relevant. The PC is essential. That’s what you would have heard from us last year. The PC is essential. You’re not working if you don’t have a PC. You’re not learning. You may not be seeing a physician. This whole idea of people connecting. The PC became increasingly essential.

As we head into 2021, we’re in the middle of this incredibly exciting category that’s essential, but we don’t want to just focus on the PC. It’s the people. PCs are essential because people are essential. When you mention that you saw people in our material, it’s because we’re focusing CES 2021 on key people who we spend a lot of time thinking about. What is the experience that they need innovation around?

The four segments for us are the hybrid workforce, the SMB, the IT manager, and the youth who are creating so much. Those are the four segments where we wanted to get to know them holistically and deliver a holistic set of experiences for them. That gives you the context for all our stuff.

Above: HP’s laptops will help fix your home lighting for vlogging calls.

Image Credit: HP

VentureBeat: The HP Enhanced Lighting looks like it’s very timely as well, for people who’ve consistently had problems with webcams. You’re presenting in front of a bunch of people, but your lighting at home is terrible.

Cho: I call it “everyone wants to be a rock star.” This whole growth in video blogging. It’s growing dramatically. Traditionally people have thought that they need to be connected and sharing content. They want to show themselves. And when they show themselves, they want to ensure that they’re showing up well. That’s very important. Lighting is one key part of it.

Again, we’re spending a lot of time looking at, listening to, and thinking through what might be the needs or opportunities for how people are computing. It’s a great time for innovation. I always loved this category, but now it’s never been better.

VentureBeat: Looking back on what kind of year it was, how did your supply chain adjust?

Cho: This past year was definitely a shock to the entire ecosystem, from multiple perspectives. One was, you had geographies like Wuhan and their factories. You had a much larger topic around sudden increases in demand. Companies needed to equip their workers to work from home for business continuity. Schools needed to ensure students had PCs to be able to dial in for class. Huge increase in demand. A huge mix shift as far more mobile devices, notebooks, and laptops, versus desktops. And then you add in that there’s an entire ecosystem that needs to support the increase, the shift in mix, and enabling that in the devices we ship out.

One of the biggest areas of muscle for us to continue to focus on is being agile. This is a huge, complex business. Needing to build agility is one key element of 2021 as we go forward.

Above: Setting up a power office at home.

Image Credit: HP

VentureBeat: I don’t know if this blurs the difference between enterprise and consumer, but the fact that the IT manager has to consider what’s happening in the home … Some companies are definitely ramping up products that get used in the home, like enterprise-secure routers.

Cho: That’s why one of our personas we talked about was the IT manager. The IT or CIO of today — here are the challenges. They are serving employees who are largely remote. Remote has many challenges, including security. They’re not in a corporate environment. But you have a lot of other challenges. They can’t support them when a PC breaks down or needs setup. Second is their own workforce is remote, serving end users that are remote. Third, most of their tools have been grown from manageability and security assets that assume employees, IT employees, are in the office. You have legacy on-premises tools.

If you’re the IT manager of today, how do you support the breadth of needs? People don’t just need a PC to stay connected. They want to be productive. They want to be collaborative. It needs to be secure. Suddenly the needs around enabling a hybrid workforce are significantly higher. Enabling IT managers to have the tools that allow them to be better at meeting the needs of their end users is a key part of what we’re continuing to roll out through technology-based and AI-based services for our customers.

VentureBeat: How have the relationships with suppliers changed? Five years back, you had Intel, AMD, Nvidia, the usual places. This year feels very different. What do you observe about that over multiple years?

Cho: You see more diversity in that space. We have already been enabling customer choice. We probably have one of the most diverse portfolios out there. Another takeaway is that this has been an industry that’s been maybe focused a bit more on CPU or silicon players, different elements of that stack. We’ve been very much on — let’s curate the experience. We joke around about how CES isn’t the Consumer Electronics Show for us. It’s the Consumer Experience Show. Which means that it doesn’t matter what each of the layers is. It’s curating that experience, that stack that meets the use cases for how people increasingly use their compute device.

As much as we enable the diversity and choice, we’re very much investing in the engineering to curate the end-to-end experience, whether it might be around collaboration, creation, video content consumption, gaming. Looking across all of that. You see a difference, but what you don’t see is — even acceleration of really curating across the stack.

VentureBeat: Did gaming change for you this year?

Cho: Gaming was great. First thing, the number of gamers isn’t just growing. The number of types of gamers is growing. We have a segmentation that acknowledges there are different types of gamers. It’s far more diverse than ever. The other thing that’s interesting is that gaming is also part of a much broader secular trend, which is entertainment. The PC is increasingly becoming the entertainment platform in the home.

Think about the fact that you had Marshmello do a concert in Fortnite. A year later, Travis Scott did one. The world of entertainment and content and gaming — I don’t even just mean the engines that create them. I’m talking about the experience. Then you add in the fact that gaming is a space where innovation — it loves innovation. People want more performance, more immersive experience. And they want the ability for gaming to not be individual, but social. That’s the last layer. People socialize through gaming. My extended family didn’t get together for Christmas, like we have done for 22 years. We connected remotely through gaming.

Gaming is great. We have massive secular growth, massive changes in the role of gaming. The need for innovation in that space is big. I’m bullish around what that means for our industry.

Above: HP’s latest Dragonfly laptop.

Image Credit: HP

VentureBeat: Do you wonder whether the boost in gaming that happened this year might subside in 2021? Whether it’s because some other kinds of entertainment and socialization come back or because it’s just hard to beat 2020’s numbers.

Cho: My answer is no. That would be my statement as well for just the broader industry. It’s not a cyclical boost we’re seeing. The behavior shift is more secular here. Even if you could travel — today I can’t travel, but even when I can, because I can remote in with greater innovation and do so with less of a tax, because I can collaborate vividly and so on, then I’ll want to continue to be in a hybrid environment.

Gaming is a great example. Even if people can travel and leave home and so on, their ability to connect with other people, even if they’re not nearby — if you don’t have the resources because you don’t drive, or it takes too long to connect, things like family reunions can be enhanced through gaming. The world of entertainment is rapidly becoming more personalized and gamified. That’s a train that is not dependent on COVID-19. That train was accelerated because of COVID-19, in my mind.

VentureBeat: I see Wi-Fi 6 looks pretty pervasive in your laptops. I wonder about how much people are using that, and whether the optional 5G features are becoming more popular. Is 5G usage something you can see happening?

Cho: At the higher level of connectivity, it’s only more important. What’s interesting is that I remember — this is about 11 months ago. Someone said that if people are sheltered in place, connectivity is less important. This year has proven exactly the opposite. Just because you may not be traveling doesn’t mean — you’re connecting a lot more. We study how people are computing in the home, whether it’s for work or for learning or for play. They’re moving around the home. They’re dealing with challenges of connectivity. They don’t just want to check their email when they’re connected. They want higher-bandwidth computing, whether it’s gaming or movies or videoconferencing.

Security is also becoming a broader issue. There’s a greater need for that. And let me use LTE as a proxy. Our LTE-enabled devices have been steadily growing. I looked at a figure in the middle of last year. We had the highest index of LTE-enabled devices. Whether you’re a hybrid worker, which is our view of the future — even if you’re in the home, though, the ability to not be dependent on traditional infrastructure, which is less secure and has issues with sharing, but to have infrastructure that’s more secure, faster, resilient to wherever you are, ubiquitous ability to stay connected — it’s more than just faster downloads. It’s about doing new things on your devices that you couldn’t because you get to bandwidth, latency, and security that wasn’t there before.

VentureBeat: With 5G, it seems like the use case is you would turn to it when all the people in the household get on a video call or something. Those moments when you have an important call and you risk a hiccup in your connection. That’s where the 5G alternative seems valuable.

Cho: Security as well. There’s still a lot of variability in the security of people’s local networks. If you can make that more secure, that has tremendous value for people, companies, institutions, and so on.

VentureBeat: Privacy cameras and things like that seem pervasive as well. You keep adding that into more and more things.

Cho: We started this. It’s been a multi-year journey as we’ve invested in it and improved it. We’ve had a multi-year journey on security. We expanded, as you know, below the OS at the BIOS level, in the OS, things like secure browsing. Above the OS, related to people visually hacking. We realized that security is part of a broader need and sensitivity around privacy. It’s really security and privacy. Whether it’s in our consumer or commercial lines, having webcams and mikes where you can quickly turn them on or off, ensure it’s off, it can’t be hacked. Screens that people can’t see from the side through our Sure View technology. That increasingly becomes important.

You can take it even further around — in our commercial products we’ve integrated the ability to easily locate and find, through some engineering we’ve done around file integration on the device. We’re thinking holistically around security, privacy, and then asset management. That’s obviously a corporate term, but the ability to make sure this investment is well-managed.

VentureBeat: Circling back to innovation and how the market needs pivoted in 2020, how long before innovative products based on those changes will show up? Are they showing up already?

Cho: I’d say the time is now. The reality is we were already working on this. That’s why, in many ways — COVID-19 has been an incredible catalyst for things we were already working on. In the future, these things were going to be more important, and then bang. We announced Dragonfly Max, the ultimate in collaboration. Significant improvement in webcams so you can be seen better. Multiple mikes so you can be heard better. AI noise reduction so that ambient noise is drowned out. Everything we learned from before, COVID-19 made it an absolute necessity, and at CES in January 2021, we’re there.

Think about all the need and desire to create more on your device. That was there and that was growing, and that was why we were seeing the PC become more relevant. Bam, COVID-19 happens and people’s desire to not only create, but make videos of themselves, video blogging, and do that in all different environments, in your home — you need better lighting. You want to quickly get photos captured on your phone to the PC, which we’re enabling with Quick Draw. You also want to do it not only at your desk, but often on your laptop. We have Intelligent Thermal so it knows how to manage heat more efficiently for different workflows. We announced that in Envy 14.

The other thing is, a lot of people are spending a lot of time on their devices. They’re very sensitive to the well-being elements like eye fatigue. We’re announcing displays in our notebook products with Eye Ease, which has blue light integration, filtering integration, which reduces the strain on your eyes. Again, we were working on it before. It was a nice-to-have future need. COVID-19 happens, you really need it. You’ll see it at CES, and you’ll see a lot more.

Above: HP is following the way we work in the pandemic.

Image Credit: HP

VentureBeat: I noticed this blue light feature. Has that started to become very interesting to people? Is there more demand?

Cho: You see the confluence of multiple things. People are used to not turning on the camera. That’s one big shift in videoconferencing. Second thing is, because they’re doing that when they could have taken it on their phone, they’re doing it through a screen. They’re using their eyes a lot more. Third, they also want bigger real estate, big displays, so they can see many more things. All of that is taxing and creating concerns and sensitivity around eye fatigue.

The response to what we’ve invested in as far as making our notebooks and our displays have integrated blue-light filtering, as well, on our latest Envy 14, it’s our first color-calibrated display with Delta E of less than two. That means the human eye can’t discern the difference between what you would see on the display to how the colors are represented in the real world. You want that. Again, displays are an important part of where we’ve been innovating, and the needs created by COVID-19 are becoming a driver of that innovation we’ve been working on.

VentureBeat: I talk to folks like AppAnnie about mobile gaming. It’s maybe 58% of all gaming now. During the pandemic, they noticed that even though people aren’t traveling, inside the home their usage of mobile increased. Even though they have this option to game on the PC or the console at home, a lot of people are choosing mobile. There is a little threat there to the basic PC business, but it also seems like there’s an opportunity for better integration with mobile.

Cho: The reality is, because gaming is becoming more of a lifestyle, because it’s part of a broader trend, we believe it will continue to be relevant beyond COVID-19, and you’ll also see a lot of relevance even in mobile form factors. You’re absolutely right that mobile will continue to increase, and that’s a great opportunity. That’s why we’ve enabled, through our newly renamed Omen gaming app, our online platform. You can connect from your PC and stream to a mobile device and game. Mobile gaming gets a broader set of people engaged in gaming, and they’ll want to participate in gaming even more. They’ll want to do it in a more immersive PC environment. We think it’s a great onramp, as well as a complement.

We also see that with mobile gaming — with games like Jackbox, just as one example, the game itself is played through a diversity of devices simultaneously connected. Whether you’re on your PC, on the phone, on a tablet, all of them become input devices with individuals participating in the gaming. It’s a real business, and we’re designing for it.

VentureBeat: One example from my use, I started playing Call of Duty: Warzone a lot, and I got a chance to play with some people who were experts at it. They shifted the audio call among the players to Discord on a phone, and that offloaded the audio from the game. The game then runs better. You can hear people more clearly. It’s a combination of mobile and PC that tackles some of the weak points you have to deal with.

Cho: The Discord example is a perfect one. We see that. You want to game with other people, let them see what you’re doing and participate, and you have a lot of issues, particularly with these triple-A games that have a lot of content. You get bandwidth issues. What do you do with the one kid who doesn’t have a fully tricked-out PC? They feel left out. How do we innovate with that? We’re all over that.

Gaming is probably the first example — well, “first” is a strong word. But a game is experienced very differently depending on the hardware. In general, we talk about how software adds so much value to hardware, but here’s a case where hardware adds a lot of difference and value to the game. The immersiveness, the haptics, the AI-based lighting, the ability to quickly trigger things, the feeling of the keyboard. That’s why we focus not on the product, but on the experience, to the earlier point.

Above: HP’s research on home workers.

Image Credit: HP

VentureBeat: We talk about gaming influencing the PC, and then the enterprise influencing what happens in the home. I wonder whether that means some of these things are pushing toward a more common platform of sorts. The consumer market maybe doesn’t necessarily feel so divorced from other categories, like gaming or enterprise.

Cho: That’s definitely a big trend, a significant shift. You would have heard us talking, starting a few years ago, around what we called “One Life.” It was the idea that you don’t just work from nine to five and then move on to your personal life and dealing with personal things. It was about the consumerization of IT and so on. Fast-forward that and now it’s even more the case, especially with hybrid work and learning environments. You work and play and take your breaks on these devices. The platforms you use for one thing — you talked about Discord. I know people who use Zoom while they’re gaming too. You take these platforms that have been thought of as just consumer or just commercial, and you see that they span use cases across both. So how do you bring that together?

I’m happy that we’ve had a very rich consumer and commercial business. We share a lot of technology across them as we think about that. We think about experiences now that span both. Not by customer, but for an individual customer throughout their day. That’s different. It’s a larger trend that is a reason why the assets we have around security are important. The assets we’re building around audio and video that span both areas are important.

Think about Elite Folio. We introduced it in the consumer space and we brought it into commercial, or really SMB. That device — we were following the mantra that a person shouldn’t adapt to their device. The device needs to adapt to the person. When you run an SMB, you’re not just a corporate worker sitting at a desk. You do many things throughout the day. We wanted a device experience that met the diversity of needs. Whether they’re watching video content, because they’re looking at YouTube to figure out how to fix something, or they need to type and stay productive. SMBs aren’t always sitting at a desk. They’re moving around. They can quickly go into tablet mode. It’s always connected.

That’s the type of device that happens when you recognize the commercial and consumer spaces coming together. It’s a profound shift that we believe will drive a wave of innovation going forward.

VentureBeat: If you look out a couple of years, do you think that something will dramatically change the PC or result in a lot of innovation? If you had to predict what that is, what would it be?

Cho: We’re right in the middle of that energy. We’re already seeing some of the benefits from the innovation inspired by COVID-19. The R&D centers at a lot of companies right now are rapidly innovating. You’re going to see that progress not just in January 2021, but over the next few years.

Some of the areas we think will be meaningful — one is far more immersive ambient computing. You’ve seen some of what we’ve done around VR. That’s one example. Computing, what is it today? It’s still a keyboard and a mouse. Now you can touch a screen. We’ve seen some voice through Alexa and devices like that. But it’s going to go through far more diversification and naturalization of input immersiveness.

Second is all the things related to remote computing. You don’t have to be limited by the thing you have at your desk. We’ve been scaling our ZCentral solution. We won an Emmy Award on this. If you’re a design company and you send all your employees home — they have all these big workstations in the office. They’re able to remote in, stay productive, and all that high-performance compute stays secure. The idea that you’re not constrained by just the device sitting next to you, that’s why we won an Emmy this past year.

Third is a lot more AI-based, context-aware, personalized base experiences. We’ve started to do that. At CES, we’ve announced context-based, instant-on cooling just so that it makes things better for all the transitions around your house when you work. I believe that 5G, more than just faster downloads, will truly allow you to do more in more types of form factors. I’m very excited about that.

Above: People are multitasking in the pandemic.

Image Credit: HP

VentureBeat: How many products do you have at CES? Is that number different from past years?

Cho: I’d say we have a lot of products. We have multiple dynamics that are changing the pure count. It goes down because we continue to find more leverage across platforms. It goes up because we’re finding new use cases, all the ones I’ve talked about. The need for a very rich portfolio of peripherals is growing as well. A big display at home was a nice-to-have before, when you were checking in on work once in a while. Fast-forward to working from home all day long, what do you want? You want a real display. We’re constantly managing a broad portfolio and getting more leverage. We have new use cases. That’s expanding into adjacent categories we’re excited about.

Maybe a bit more unique to us, we’ve been on a multi-year journey of building increased sustainability in our products. In some transitions, we add more products because we’re shifting to a far more sustainable portfolio. We announced last year that we have the most sustainable portfolio, but that’s not only on notebooks and desktops. We’re extending that to displays. We’re announcing a sustainable backpack at CES. We’re looking at packaging. As we do some of these transitions, it’s part of a much broader ambition around sustainability for us to grow.

VentureBeat: Now that you’re announcing the products, how do you get the word out? Is that different this year?

Cho: Well, I’m not personally at McCarran Airport, for one. This is probably where the advantage of what we’re learning from COVID-19 is helping. We’re learning how to be digital-first and digital-exclusive in how we make our content available. But as well, it’s not about just doing what we do physically and then putting a camera in front of it. It’s creating optimized for digital. Bite-sized chunks. Video. If it’s an event, active polling. Breaking up into small groups. I’m expanding into more than just how we communicate these devices, but we’re building a lot of learnings around how you communicate something that is new to people.

COVID-19, in many ways, has forced us to learn because we’re restricted from travel. We must be more digitally enabled. Because of that, we can find new ways. I’m not traveling, but in 2020 I talked to more customers and partners than ever. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world. Breadth and democratization in the ways I can reach you have dramatically improved. As we do an announcement like these solutions for CES, being able to reach a broad group of people, wherever they are, in the format that works for them, without having to commit to flights and baggage and TSA, there are lots of advantages.


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New York expands vaccinations to elderly, essential workers – Long Island Business News


Faced with mounting criticism over the slow pace of the coronavirus vaccine rollout, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday that, starting next week, New York would allow a much wider swath of the public to get inoculated, including anyone age 75 or older.

The governor warned that, initially, the supply of vaccines available to people other than health care workers and nursing home patients would be very limited.

Cuomo said a beefed up statewide distribution network will include pharmacies, doctors’ networks and county health departments. The 3.2 million New Yorkers newly eligible for the vaccine includes teachers, first responders and public safety workers.

“Caution, caution, caution, because the supply is a major problem,” Cuomo said at his regular briefing. “You’ll wind up having 3,000 distribution points in a couple of weeks, but none of them will have nearly enough vaccine.”

The announcement came as many local officials argued it was time to distribute the vaccine beyond health care workers. Mayor Bill de Blasio criticized the state government Friday for keeping New York City from immediately vaccinating people older than 75 against the coronavirus, saying the city had 270,000 doses that could be quickly administered.

“The state of New York will not allow us to vaccinate them. This is really dangerous if we can’t vaccinate the people who are most in danger. We’re going to lose lives we did not need to lose. Let’s change that now,” de Blasio said at his regular briefing.

Cuomo had been insisting on focusing on the state’s front-line health care workers as cases and hospitalizations surge this winter.



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How exactly are smart cities built? From facial recognition and 5G networks to cheap sensors — these are the essential components


BARCELONA—Far from the disorderly world of big city streets, Mart Suurkask, the CEO and founder of Bercman Technologies, demonstrates a working prototype of the firm’s “smart pedestrian crosswalk” to a small crowd of onlookers gathered at a trade show booth hosted by the Government of Estonia.

The device looks exactly like crosswalk signs throughout Europe — a post supporting a square sign with the universal symbol of a pedestrian crossing a street. What makes it “smart,” as he explains, is an assembly of digital devices stowed inside the sign: high-tech motion detectors aimed in all directions that are programmed to calculate the velocity of vehicles approaching the crosswalk to determine if vehicles are slowing safely when someone is crossing.

The software includes a “machine-learning” algorithm that allows the detector to learn and then anticipate traffic patterns so it can “optimize” for cars moving through a particular location. Bercman’s smart crosswalk is also fitted with wireless transmission capabilities that will someday automatically send notifications to fast-moving, connected vehicles, alerting them to brake right away. When the crosswalk signal detects danger, it flashes and beeps.

The four-year-old start-up, which is based in Tartu, Estonia’s second largest city and a hub of tech development, wanted to find solutions to rising pedestrian fatality rates, as well as the eventual advent of self-driving cars. “We thought these vehicles might need some help from smart infrastructure,” he says.

Bercman’s smart crosswalk is still in development. Suurkask concedes that in real-world testing, about a third of the warning signals turn out to be false alarms. As it happens, it is also fitted with sensors measuring air quality, traffic flow and pedestrian volumes, as well as digital cameras designed to identify licence plates but not faces. The sign, as he says, “is just one part” of a smart city “ecosystem.”

Inside the sign high-tech motion detectors aimed in all directions are programmed to calculate the velocity of vehicles approaching the crosswalk to determine if vehicles are slowing safely when someone is crossing.

Cities have long been built using well-established technologies: water pumping systems, sewer mains, railways, paved roads, electricity grids and so on. In the 20th century, observes Eric Miller, a professor of civil engineering and director of the University of Toronto’s Transportation Research Institute, the most consequential engineering advances — streetcars and subways, steel-framed construction, internal combustion engines and elevators — gave rise to metropolitan regions that sprawled outward and soared upward.

Since the 1960s, however, the revolution in information and communications technologies (ICT) — from early mainframe computers and cable TV to 5G smart phones and high-bandwidth fibre — have transformed cities into densely networked hubs where digital interactions are woven into virtually every facet of city life.

Smart city technology, a by-product of the ICT revolution, is a very broad and amorphous catch-all category. One common denominator is that these technologies are designed to gather and synthesize digital data generated by all sorts of urban activity — GPS-equipped buses moving through city streets, patterns in digitized building inspection records, power consumption, online resident feedback to planning approvals and so on. The ostensible goal is to put all that data to work, solving a range of urban problems — “optimizing,” as smart city tech insiders say.

One can think of smart city systems as technologies that watch or listen to what’s happening in urban areas, and then transform those observations into action. But while we live in a hyper-accelerated world of high-speed communication, to be effective smart city technologies must overcome the so-called latency problem — the lag between gathering ground-level information and acting on it — and the bugs or viruses that invariably find their way into any computer-driven system.

These technologies, Miller says, “are about creating more and better feedback loops, on the assumption that it will lead to better outcomes.” But, he adds, cities are highly complex “systems of systems” filled with human beings who don’t necessarily respond rationally or predictably to the world around them. “The central question,” Miller says, “is the interaction between technological systems and people systems.”

Think about that cool, hidden-gem of a neighbourhood you heard about on social media. When you show up, the area is overrun, its ambience paradoxically ruined by crowdsourced social media buzz. The feedback loop of digital recommendations left its mark on traffic patterns, local commerce and possibly even rents. Yet that sought-after cool factor is like the light of a distant star — something that existed in the past and is only now reaching your eye.

Smart city systems are built with a diverse and ever-growing range of technological building blocks: hardware, software, cloud-based data warehouses and cellular networks, artificial intelligence algorithms, etc. The components run the gamut from smart phone apps and cheap sensors to multimillion-dollar control hubs. Some have used the term “everyware” to describe their ubiquity.

While a lot of smart city tech is designed for and purchased by local or regional governments, these systems can also be found in health-care settings and utilities, as well as private sector environments, such as ‘smart’ office buildings.

Many are focused on security and urban mobility applications, while others — i.e., mapping, short-term rental or recommender apps — aren’t geared at the municipalities per se but turn out to have far-ranging implications for the ways in which cities actually function. Still others are built using various forms of information released by municipalities through open data portals — everything from zoning bylaws and property lines to the GPS signals on transit vehicles.

Here is an overview of some of the core components:

Sensors

These are the building blocks of smart city systems — inexpensive, compact (fist-sized or smaller) devices that can be installed on all manner of objects ranging from utility poles and buses to water mains and bridges. They can gather readings on air quality, vibrations, passenger loads, traffic volumes, leaking pipes and even the chemical composition of sewage water, where they can detect trace amounts of drugs or explosives that find their way into local drains.

Sensors are fitted with small radio transmitters to send readings wirelessly, with the signals ultimately shunted to control centres that monitor water systems or local utilities and use this real-time data to manage problems.

In Philadelphia, for example, the city a decade ago installed “Big Belly” waste bins equipped with GPS-enabled sensors that detect when the bins need to be emptied. Carlton Williams, Philadelphia’s streets commissioner, says the devices allow the municipality to route garbage trucks more efficiently — i.e., they pick up only from full bins — and the number of crews have been slashed on some routes, with a $600,000 a year savings. The reduction of trucks has also reduced congestion. “We think it’s a huge success,” he says.

What’s evident is that an inexpensive gadget that lives inside municipal trash bins can alter local employment levels and downtown traffic speeds.

Municipalities are giving their waste removal systems a major efficiency upgrade. They’re using trash and recycling bins that send a wireless signal when they are ready for pickup, and trucks are only dispatched when necessary, saving cities millions in operating costs.

Digital video and facial recognition

The presence of tens of thousands of close-circuit television (CCTV) cameras on city streets and on all sorts of buildings or in public spaces is nothing new, but these devices have become smaller, cheaper, less static and more prevalent in a range of settings. For example, digital doorbells with fish-eye camera lenses, some made by Google and Amazon, allow homeowners to use smart phones to watch for porch pirates.

Facial recognition has become increasingly prevalent in some regions. In China, ubiquitous CCTV surveillance and advanced facial recognition software have been deployed as part of the Communist government’s security and intelligence operations. Some systems are developed by private firms such as Clearview, a smart-phone-based facial recognition system, and Sense Time, a Chinese AI company whose investors include Alibaba Group and Qualcomm, a U.S. Chipmaker.

In some jurisdictions, police are equipped with body-worn cameras and police vehicles with dashcams that record interactions and upload video. Drones, increasingly inexpensive and deregulated, are fitted out with high-res video. They can be used for everything from real-estate listings and monitoring cracks or energy losses on the outsides of high buildings to missing person searches. In the U.K., police drones use facial recognition software to assist with the latter.

Specialized cameras are affixed to vehicles for use in mapping applications that go well beyond Google’s Street View. For example, Mobileye, a publicly traded Israeli firm owned by Intel, works with vehicle manufacturers to install specialized cameras on the windshields of trucks or buses. The cameras record whatever is on the street, and the streaming video is continuously uploaded to a cloud-based mapping database. These maps can be accessed wirelessly by autonomous vehicles that need real-time information.

The Internet of Things

The objects that have wireless connections to the internet, and constitute the so-called “Internet of Things” (IoT), include devices that have nothing to do with smart cities: Bluetooth-connected electric toothbrushes with accompanying app, glucose monitors for diabetes patients, smart fridges, etc.

In recent years, tech giants like Cisco and IBM have sought to estimate the number of such devices, which include cellphones. The tallies, according to Barcelona-based IoT privacy and information policy researcher Gilad Rosner, are wild: 20 billion to 50 billion globally, as of 2020, although the numbers vary widely depending on what’s included. The actual figure, he says, “is difficult to pinpoint.”

Smart city systems increasingly rely on the combination of an extensive deployment of sensors connected to the IoT. These networks allow officials to remotely monitor vibrations on bridges or property managers to track mechanical systems in smart office buildings.

According to an August 2020 survey of 50 global cities by IoT Analytics, the most prevalent urban applications include connected public transit, traffic, flood and weather monitoring, video surveillance, street lighting and air quality sensors.

Yet IoT in public space raises critical issues about security — are these tiny and inexpensive devices linked wirelessly to extensive digital networks vulnerable to hacking? — as well as privacy, or what Rosner describes as the “right to obscurity.” “The issue is surveillance. The more sensors, the more surveillance.”

Enterprisewide platforms

Global network and software platform firms, such as Cisco, IBM and SAS, were among the first to use the “smart city” branding as a sales-pitch, notably to local and regional governments (there are almost 600,000 municipalities worldwide).

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While these large firms promised customers more cost effective operations or outsourced technical services like payments processing, their come-on is inflected with the rhetoric of progressive urbanism.

Critics have warned that so-called “vendor lock-in” provisions in service agreements have made the companies’ proprietary systems difficult to remove or, in some cases, to augment with software from other companies.

In some cases, the pitch to municipal IT managers is that it if they have invested heavily in the backbone system, it then makes good sense to get the most out of it by adding functions that cut across a range of city divisions. The return on investment improves if customers invest in multiple applications, such as a smart lighting network and a street parking app, Del White, formerly Cisco’s global director for smart and connected communities, tells a small audience at the firm’s Smart City Expo booth in Barcelona. “Every time you add a use case, you’re ROI (return on investment) gets better.”

Other firms go even further, telling municipalities how these enterprise systems will enable core urban functions, from traffic control and transit to energy consumption and air quality, to operate at peak efficiency. “There are ways we can optimize a city going forward,” says Roland Busch, deputy CEO of Siemens AG, the German engineering giant which promotes the creation of a centralized city “operating system” capable of integrating all sorts of urban infrastructure into a single “ecosystem.”

Some cities have made this leap. The northern English municipality of Hull invested in a AI-driven “smart city platform” that includes parking space detectors, air quality sensors, smart trash bins, traffic counters, and digital video to track road quality, with the data travelling over a 5G network. Furqan Alamgir, CEO of Connexin, which was contracted to install and operate all this technology, describes the firm as an “enabler.” “We’re not data owners. The data belongs to the people and the city.”

High-speed fibre optic cable and 5G wireless networks

Telecommunications giants are installing so-called 5G wireless networks in a growing number of large urban regions. This cellphone tower, used for a 5G network, is seen on a street in Beijing in September 2020.

In big cities around the world, the utility tunnels beneath streets are filled with the kind of broadband fibre optic cable that enables data heavy applications, from multi-player online gaming to real-time streaming video.

As well, telecommunications giants are installing so-called 5G wireless networks in a growing number of large urban regions. The 5G technology — which has produced both geopolitical tensions (over Huawei) and pandemic-fueled conspiracy theories — uses lower radio frequencies, allowing networks to accommodate far higher data volumes than currently possible. The tradeoff is that 5G networks need a much denser concentration of cell towers and transmitters.

For many smart city applications, 5G could be a game-changer because these networks allow huge volumes of data to move rapidly across wireless networks with what’s called “low latency,” meaning very little time elapses between the detection of a signal and the response to it generated in a remote computer system.

A case in point: Verizon and TomTom, the digital mapping and navigation giant, are testing 5G for busy intersections. The idea is for traffic cameras and connected autonomous vehicles to be in constant communication, via 5G, as a means of reducing the risk of collisions. “If each vehicle passing through an intersection is able to relay and receive information from other vehicles and streetlight-mounted cameras, that information can be used to notify connected devices when lights turn red or vehicles ahead come to a sudden stop,” explained Traffic Technology Today, a trade magazine, in Oct. 2019.

Smart energy systems

Smart cities advocates have long argued that one of the key benefits of these technologies involves improving urban sustainability and reducing and shifting energy consumption from carbon-intensive sources to renewables. A growing number of utilities use technologies, such as smart metres, peak-period pricing and load management system, that allow large consumers, such as office buildings, to automatically make slight adjustments to heating and air-conditioning levels as a means of reducing overall energy consumption.

Many municipalities, in turn, are investing in centrally controlled smart street lights. These devices, mounted on utility poles, use low-energy LED instead of conventional bulbs. They have lower maintenance costs because they last longer, and some systems are programmed to adjust automatically to ambient light, which also reduces energy consumption. Some commercial models have other sensors and even video built in, transforming them from static emitters of nighttime illumination to disbursed data gathering tools.

In regions that promote the use of photovoltaic solar panels, two-way metres allow energy generated on a rooftop to flow into the grid. Growing numbers of homeowners are installing smart thermostats that use sensors to continually readjust heating or cooling levels. These devices are Wi-Fi enabled so can be managed from a smart phone app. Smart thermostat firms like Ecobee also allow users to wirelessly “donate” their energy use data to scientists studying building performance.

Smart Transportation Technologies

Kurtis McBride is CEO and co-founder of Miovision, a Waterloo, Ont., firm.

Some of the earliest smart city systems were traffic control centres developed by IBM and other firms for municipal customers. These computer systems combine video, traffic flow readings from weight detection “loops” built into the pavement, and, more recently, GPS information about public transit vehicles to generate a real-time view of road conditions and congestion. These so-called “intelligent transportation systems” — i.e., the “Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System,” which was developed in New South Wales, Australia, in the early 1990s and has since been deployed in gridlocked cities around the world — automatically control traffic signals in a dynamic way that responds to conditions on the road.

Many startups have entered this market. In 2016, Miovision, a Waterloo, Ont., firm, raised $30 million to develop and market automated traffic counters, which are installed in boxes near signalized intersections to measure vehicle movements. Using digital cameras that can interpret road conditions, the devices have AI algorithms designed to automatically adjust signal intervals and co-ordinate with adjacent traffic lights, based on a municipality’s road policies. Founder Kurtis McBride says improved efficiency in traffic flow can cut travel times and reduce idling emissions.

Other transportation themed technologies have proliferated and include transit smart cards (i.e., London’s Oyster travel card) to licence-plate readers, apps showing transit routes and real-time schedules, parking and navigation apps and a range of vehicle-sharing systems for cars, bikes and scooters, all accessible via smart phones.

A 2018 analysis by McKinsey Global Institute concluded that transportation-related smart systems yielded the greatest gains for cities. “We found that these tools could reduce fatalities by eight to 10 per cent, accelerate emergency response times by 20 to 35 per cent, [and] shave the average commute by 15 to 20 per cent.”

Visualization

Augment City, a Norwegian firm, has created a simulator that look at how Alesund, seen in this file photo, can reduce emissions using a range of strategies, from introducing more electric vehicles to altering the mooring practices of the cruise ships in the harbour.

While architects have long used sophisticated modelling software to design buildings and public spaces, urban planners are turning to related applications that use data visualization tools developed by smart city startups. Some firms have created software that aggregate big data sets gathered by sensors and other sources to generate so-called “digital twins” — highly detailed 3-D representations of an urban region that allows users to zoom in and out, pivot images and drill down to find even more detailed data, for example about the zoning rules that apply to a given location.

The simulation tools permit planners, politicians, businesses and residents to visualize various future planning scenarios. For example, Augment City, a 15-year-old Norwegian firm, has created a simulator that look at how Alesund, a city of about 70,000 in the country’s north, can reduce emissions using a range of strategies, from introducing more electric vehicles to altering the mooring practices of the cruise ships in the harbour. The simulator is designed to graphically depict how different planning decisions impact the city’s carbon emissions overall. “Humans understand data in visual formats,” says CEO Joel Alexander Mills. “We need humans to interact with technology to make decisions.”

Shoshanna Saxe is an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto

While some smart technologies solve practical problems, others are still in development or promise tidy solutions that don’t quite fit the untidy reality of cities.

Shoshanna Saxe, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, points to an infrastructure monitoring system developed jointly by NASA and the University of Bath. The idea is to use remote wireless sensing devices on satellite radar to detect subtle structural vibrations on bridges that could indicate worsening weaknesses. Officials and control systems are to monitor the sensors for signs of trouble. But, as she notes, the problem with this idea is its reliance on digital devices, wireless networks and the electrical grid. What could happen, she asks, if the power goes out or the sensors fail to pick up the vibrations created by a potentially catastrophic crack? Other smart city watchers have also warned about the risks of what Anthony Townsend describes as “buggy and brittle” technologies.

Smart cities, Saxe wrote last year in a New York Times column “will be exceedingly complex to manage, with all sorts of unpredictable vulnerabilities. There will always be a place for new technology in our urban infrastructure, but we may find that often, ‘dumb’ cities will do better than smart ones.”

She says that ordinary consumer electronics — i.e., cellphones or kitchen appliances kitted out with some kind of digital functions — become obsolete rapidly, and smart city tech will be no different.

“Rather than chasing the newest shiny smart-city technology,” Saxe warned, “we should redirect some of that energy toward building excellent dumb cities — cities planned and built with best-in-class, durable approaches to infrastructure and the public realm … Tech has a place in cities, but that place is not everywhere.”

This is the second article in the 2019-2020 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy series on the politics and governance of smart city technology. The series, by Toronto journalist and editor John Lorinc, will examine data and privacy, mobility applications, predictive policing, sustainable smart cities, data and planning and smart city megaprojects. It concludes with a discussion about how these systems can fit into accountable, progressive and democratic city-building efforts.

Next, Part 3: Big data, artificial intelligence, and the smart city revolution’s three thorniest dilemmas: security, privacy and ownership.

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Ontario locks down on Boxing Day, but essential workers still work. Without protections like paid sick leave, it just won’t work


When the province-wide lockdown starts on Boxing Day, Ontario’s essential workers will still be going to work. In truth, they will be going into work so the rest of us can stay home. They need to be protected.

But what is abundantly clear is that what we have done in the past to protect essential workers has not been working — a different approach is needed and should be a priority. Thus far, we have failed to use a health equity lens in our key decision making, policies and treatment of front-line workers. This is a mistake we simply cannot repeat.

The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit racialized, precariously-employed and marginalized people the hardest. These are also the communities with high numbers of essential, front-line workers. Here in the Greater Toronto Area, we saw that 83 per cent of cases occurred among racialized communities, which only represent half of Toronto’s population. In Peel, racialized people accounted for 77 per cent of COVID-19 cases.

Ontario data tells us that this higher growth of cases occurs in communities with lower household income, less suitable housing and higher ethnic and racial diversity. These communities are not only the hardest hit with COVID-19, they have poorer health outcomes because of systemic institutionalized racism affecting prevention and care delivery. The impact is twofold.

A ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy and public health approach to curbing the spread in these areas will amplify the current inequities because the needs of racialized communities are distinct and structural. In communities with high numbers of essential workers, for example, stay-at-home orders won’t protect them because if one can’t afford to take a day off for a COVID-19 test or to isolate, the virus spreads regardless of well-intentioned lockdown measures.

So how do we better protect our essential workers? By implementing policies that specifically target better working conditions, access to paid sick leave, moratoriums on evictions and investing in infrastructure to protect workers, like public transit. A response that is anything less than this will fail every single time.

We also need policies that address the actions of employers. A new survey from the Institute for Work and Health shows half of essential workers reported inadequate infection control on the job. More than 7,600 workers have contracted COVID-19 on the job. As per the Ontario Health Coalition December report, workplace outbreaks now far outpace the spread in the general public.

Not surprisingly, the largest increase in cases was in the manufacturing sector, which saw a 77 per cent increase in COVID-19 cases in two weeks. In hard hit areas like Peel, 31 per cent of the COVID-19 cases in the region were attributed to those working in trades, transport, manufacturing and utilities and these numbers are overrepresented compared to their share of the Peel labour workforce.

Amazon fulfilment centres alone have reportedly had nearly 400 cases of COVID-19. However, the Ministry of Labour has issued just one fine to an employer.

Many higher risk jobs employ temporary or seasonal workers and offer low wages. In 2018, Ontario’s workforce included 13 per cent temporary workers and Peel saw a 1.4 per cent increase in temporary employment to a total of 94,500 positions. These workers lack access to safe working conditions and paid sick leave, and there are drastic consequences when one needs to call in sick. We need changes in policy and frankly, we needed these implemented yesterday.

Policies that protect a worker’s right to be sick must be implemented. Paid sick leave provides an opportunity for front-line essential workers to take time off for testing, to isolate and even stay home.

Enforcing occupational health and safety policies must also ramp up. Workplace inspections must occur with greater frequency and a clear, anonymous method to report infractions should be encouraged and employees made aware that there will be no ramifications on them if they report.

Given that many front-line essential workers also experience housing insecurity, direct policies that place a moratorium on evictions will signal to workers that they are allowed to be sick and won’t become homeless as a result.

Ontario is currently sitting on hundreds of thousands of rapid testing kits. These tests must be disseminated to the hardest hit neighbourhoods so that community health workers can administer them. The ongoing development and funding of testing centres, especially in hot spots, should be prioritized. Mobile testing units and walk-in testing centres centred around trauma-informed, culturally-safe care should continue to be supported to make testing accessible for those at highest risk.

Finally, there is a dire need for the development of tailored, culturally safe communications that leverage community organizations and ambassadors and empower the voices of racialized leaders, so people are reached by sources they know and trust.

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Our misguided focus on the individual actions of our citizens over the actions of employers and corporations is fuelling the spread of infection. If our governments won’t enforce safe conditions on employers, who else will? The lives of front-line workers will continue to be put at risk as they have been since the start of this pandemic.

This virus has the potential to impact us all equally, but it doesn’t. This is because we don’t live in a society where we are all equal. If we want lockdowns to work, we must acknowledge these inequities exist and protect front-line essential workers now. Lucky for us, the provincial government is currently sitting on $12 billion they can spend to implement these policies. Anything less is simply not enough.

Sabina Vohra-Miller is the co-founder of the Toronto-based Vohra Miller Foundation, which aims to improve the health of the planet and its people. Follow her at @SabiVM.
Dr. Naheed Dosani is a Palliative Care Physician and Health Justice Activist who serves as Lecturer for the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto and Assistant Clinical Professor for the Department of Family Medicine at McMaster University. Follow him at @NaheedD.
Dr. Seema Marwaha is an internal medicine physician and editor-in-chief of Healthydebate.ca. Follow her @seemamarwahaMD.
Semir Bulle is the outgoing co-president of the Black Medical Students Association at the University of Toronto and co-founder of Doctors for Defunding Police. Follow him at @SemirBulle.





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Essential poll: two-thirds of Australians think Canberra is victim in trade war with Beijing | Essential poll


Almost half of the respondents in the Guardian Essential poll think Australia needs to back away from its close relationship with China, and a majority thinks Canberra is an innocent victim of trade sanctions from Beijing, rather than inviting aggression.

In the final Guardian Essential poll for 2020, 49% of the sample of 1,071 respondents thinks Australia needs to become less close to China after months of escalating rhetorical and economic disputation, and 62% believe Australia is a victim in the trade war rather than making itself a target by the government publicly criticising the Chinese regime (38%).

A majority (56%) also backs Scott Morrison for publicly demanding an apology from Beijing after an official Chinese social media account posted a fake image of an Australian soldier threatening to kill a child – a reference to the Brereton review which unearthed credible evidence of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

But the Guardian Essential sample is split – with 44% of respondents thinking Morrison should have let that issue be handled through diplomatic channels.

The final voter survey for the year also indicates Morrison suffered a four-point drop in approval (down to 62%) and a three-point increase in voter disapproval (up to 28%) during the period where the diplomatic dispute between Canberra and Beijing intensified and the Coalition unveiled controversial industrial relations changes.

The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, who signalled plans to block any move by the government to allow workers wages to be cut, recorded a three-point rise in his personal approval (up to 43%) and a four drop in his disapproval (down to 29%) between November and December.

Morrison ends 2020 comfortably ahead of his opponent as better prime minister 50% to 24%, but the prime minister’s standing on that measure dropped three points in a month, with more voters moving to the “don’t know” column (26%). The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus three points.

Voters in the survey were asked to reflect on the tumultuous events of the past 12 months, and the results suggest that people think 2020 has been a negative year for the economy, for small business, and for average Australians. The only experiences tabulated in the positive column were people’s workplaces and their families.

Voters gave a negative rating to the Australian government and to politics in general, but compared to viscerally negative sentiment tracked in previous years, voters were comparatively more positive about both the government and politics in general.

Australians continue to be worried about the state of the economy, with just 18% of the sample predicting that conditions will pick up within two to three months and things will return to how they were pre-Covid.

While the latest data suggests Australia has clambered out of recession, just under half the respondents (43%) predict the economy will remain in the doldrums for six to 12 months and then economic growth will be slow or stagnant, while 22% fear there will be a lengthy recession and the pandemic will create long-lasting economic scars.

While people are clearly pessimistic, the responses are marginally more upbeat than they were when the questions were last put in April, which was during the peak of the first wave of infections. Coalition voters are more inclined to be optimistic than other voting cohorts.

But there is more uncertainty now about the trajectory of the economy than there was back in April. Now 17% of the sample say they are unsure how the economy will rebound following Covid-19, up from 10%.

The survey also suggests vaccine hesitancy might have increased as the early candidates are rolled out in the United Kingdom and the US. Compared with responses earlier in the year, 43% of respondents say they would get a vaccine as soon as possible, down from 56% in August.

Under half the sample (46%) say they will get a vaccination but not straight away (35% said this in August) and 10% say they would never get vaccinated. Men and voters aged over 55 are more likely to say they will get a vaccination quickly after it is made available.

Voters were also asked what they thought of industrial relations reforms pursued by Coalition governments. More than half the sample thinks the Liberals pursue reforms that favour businesses and employers (52%), while only 17% think they favour employees.

A majority in the sample thinks the government proposal to require employers to offer permanency to their long-term casuals would be beneficial to workers, with 57% endorsing the statement: “The law should be changed now to make it easier for casual workers to become permanent employees if they want to, so they have greater certainty in their lives.”

But there is a sizeable minority of voters in the sample (43%) who believe now is not the right time to make these changes. That group agreed with the statement: “Now is not the right time to make changes to the rules for casual workers, because economic uncertainty means there needs to be as much flexibility in the workplace as possible.”



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Why compostable packaging is not just a trend but essential for your business


Whilst COVID-19 has temporarily shifted the attention away from climate change, the issue has by no means disappeared. The fight against waste continues, with businesses considering how they can operate more sustainably and analysing their environmental stance. One of the key areas where businesses can make a tangible difference is through evaluating the impact of the materials they use, including packaging, have on the environment.

The pandemic has led to a significant increase in online shopping. Customers are receiving more packages at their front door, logistics managers are seeing orders piling up, and business owners are considering how to continue to get their products to customers without impacting the environment. There is a need, now more than ever, for businesses to consider compostable packaging solutions as the best environmental fit. Consumers are increasingly questioning the ethics of the brands they buy from and demanding a change in business practices.

With a range of alternative packaging materials entering the market, it can be confusing to work through which solutions are the best fit for your business. Compostable packaging is different to traditional plastic packaging as it is made to break down naturally and return nutrients to the soil under specific composting conditions. Here are some reasons why you should be embracing compostable packaging within your business.

  • Compostable packaging is sustainable: Compostable packaging is made from renewable resources such as plant fibres. These include corn starch and cassava root. This means that products, such as Hero packaging compostable mailers that are used for e-commerce businesses globally, do not leave a negative footprint on the environment.  
  • Circular economy: The packaging is made to be returned to nature after its use. Disposing of compostable packaging is as easy as home composting or placing it with your green waste. Customers can dispose of your packaging without guilt, and the use of compostable packaging and taking an environmentally friendly stance generates consumer goodwill. 
  • Reduces waste: Compostable products, such as compostable mailers,  completely break down in 90-120 days in a home composting environment, with no materials or toxins left behind, thus reducing waste and any harmful environmental impacts. You reduce waste by using products that reduce waste. 

Compostable packaging is more than a “greenwashing” term a business can use for marketing purposes. Companies such as ours are providing Australian-certified home compostable solutions for the e-commerce space so that businesses can contribute to the fight against plastic in an effective way that creates a more sustainable business. With legislation changing all over Australia as the government and councils focus on reducing waste, it is important for businesses to keep up to date and stay ahead of legislative developments. States and local councils are quickly looking to ban single-use plastics and encourage the use of more sustainable materials in business. By choosing better alternatives now, you are not only protecting the environment, but you are also setting your business up for success when these changes are implemented. 

Anaita Sarkar, Co-Founder, Hero Packaging





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Observability and Artificial Intelligence Have Become Essential to Managing Modern IT Environments


If you lead an IT, DevOps, or business operations team, you’re probably working on a digital transformation and cloud migration strategy. You’re also likely doing it with scarce resources under the strain of shifting market needs and accelerated customer demands.

Your organization’s success hinges on delivering differentiated, high-value digital experiences to customers and internal users. The applications and services that enable these experiences are built on multicloud environments that promise faster innovation and better business outcomes. But these dynamic environments also bring a scale, complexity, and frequency of change that have grown beyond humans’ capacity to manage.

The common approaches to monitoring these environments to build applications, optimize performance, and run operations are no longer effective. Just capturing data to display on a dashboard without providing automatic root-cause analysis or prioritizing discoveries by business impact just creates more noise than value.

Likewise, traditional tools and approaches are unable to automatically discover all services, processes, and interdependencies within a modern IT environment in real time, which results in blind spots. They also require manual configuration and instrumentation. Manual configurations may have worked in the era of on-premises data centers, but in the multicloud era, when applications and microservices come and go in seconds, manual efforts simply don’t scale and instead steal time from innovation.

AI and automation: the case for AIOps

To manage these complex, cloud-native environments and to save time and resources for developing new innovations that deliver business impact, teams need solutions that rely on artificial intelligence (AI) and continuous automation to provide precise and intelligent answers.

A recent global survey of CIOs from large enterprises details why observability and AI for IT operations (AIOps) have become essential to managing modern IT environments:

  • Despite the challenges of 2020, or perhaps because of them, 89% of CIOs said their digital transformation has accelerated in the past 12 months, and 58% said this will speed up in the next year.
  • Seventy-four percent of surveyed CIOs reported they are already using cloud-native technologies, including microservices, containers, and Kubernetes, and 61% said these environments change every minute or less.
  • Even after investing in 10 different monitoring tools on average, IT teams have full observability into just 11% of their environments. And most often, the people who need access to these tools don’t have it.

AI and automation streamline processes and speed innovation

According to the same survey, 70% of CIOs said their teams spend too much time doing manual tasks that could be automated, yet only 19% of all repeatable IT processes have been automated. CIOs view AI assistance as a solution—93% said AI will be critical to their teams’ ability to cope with increasing workloads and deliver maximum value to the business.

To make the leap forward, companies are embracing AIOps. One example is ERT, a developer of the software and devices used by medical researchers in 75% of Food and Drug Administration-approved clinical trials in 2019. As the company adopted a cloud-native architecture running on Kubernetes, the IT team realized it needed to automate its software development processes.

ERT’s teams now use one observability solution to monitor and automate DevOps processes and application delivery pipelines and to continuously watch for errors and degradation. Their AIOps solution automatically prioritizes any issues based on impact, saving developers time and ensuring they can find, understand, and resolve issues before they impact clinical trials. These processes have reduced from six to four weeks the time it takes ERT to deliver new applications, which means the company can help researchers get new, potentially lifesaving treatments out of the laboratory and into hospitals and pharmacies faster.

A single source of truth can drive cross-team collaboration and optimize user experience

To understand the impact of IT on business outcomes—including the significance of an outage, the value of a software update, or the level of customer engagement with a new feature or release—IT, DevOps, and business operations teams need a single source of intelligence that provides precise answers prioritized by business impact and with root-cause determination.

“As the pace of transformation accelerates, there’s no time for silos, guessing, or finger-pointing,” says Steve Tack, SVP product management at software intelligence company Dynatrace. “Imagine having all teams in your organization on the same page all the time, with everyone using a common language, collaborating across teams, and speeding toward better business outcomes. This is possible with a platform that provides automatic and intelligent observability.”

Tack pointed to footwear retailer Rack Room Shoes as one example of a company that transformed how its teams work by using a single source of software intelligence. As the company increased its investments in improving user experiences, its teams realized they needed to improve their understanding of how the performance of their new digital services impacted business key performance indicators, including e-commerce conversion rates and revenue. Their IT, developer, and business teams now rely on a single software intelligence platform to tie together data about their customers’ behavior with the applications they use and the cloud infrastructure on. As a result, the teams collaborate more effectively and optimize user experience more quickly, leaving 30% more time to focus on innovation, which has driven up their e-commerce conversions by 25%.

Automatic and intelligent observability transforms how digital teams work

Regardless of your industry, success depends on accelerating digital transformation to drive new revenue streams, manage customer relationships, and keep employees productive. To achieve this, organizations are investing in multicloud platforms and cloud-native technologies. To maximize the benefits of these investments and to eliminate silos separating teams, organizations are increasingly looking to observability, automation, and AI-powered insights to automate IT operations so they can innovate faster and deliver better results.

Click here to learn how Dynatrace simplifies cloud complexity and accelerates digital transformation.



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Essential ways to ensure your business idea is profitable


The excitement has passed and the reality is dawning that even with the wished-for amount of investment, there will still be a niggling feeling that the plan could do with a little more work. Specifically, the part about profitability.

Addressing this hidden reality is something that all businesses must sooner or later face: When will the idea outlined in the business plan be profitable? This five-step checklist is a tried and tested tool for helping to determine when – and if – a business idea is profitable.

Understand the purpose of a business

Investopedia defines a business as “an organisation [sic] or enterprising entity engaged in commercial, industrial, or professional activities…the term ‘business’ also refers to the organised efforts and activities of individuals to produce and sell goods and services for profit”.

Conversely, a business is not a hobby or an activity to pass the
time. Keep this definition in mind, and let it guide your decision-making.

Understand what counts in the business plan

A business plan, as defined by Your Dictionary, is “a
comprehensive plan written by a potential or current small-business owner who
is attempting to obtain venture capital financing, a bank loan, or other
financing. The business plan is a blueprint for how the company intends to
perform”.

It continues, “It must spell out the company’s product or service, give a synopsis of its history, explain how the company is superior to its competition, and outline how it intends to be successful in its target market. Sales projections must be included in the business plan, along with financial performance statistics and future projections”.

So,
if your plan doesn’t include all of these aspects, it may technically not be a
business plan at all.

No more Captain Charming

Investors are ruthless when it comes to reviewing business plans. And you should be too with your own. Think like an investor, along the lines of the famed Gerry Maguire quote “Show me the money!” (which, it’s worth noting, was based on the real person – successful sports agent Leigh Steinberg – who uttered that well-known line well before the movie made it legendary).

Don’t leave any doubt about where the money is
coming from, or when.

Know your cashflow

When it comes to “show me the money”, the real answer for a start-up comes down to cashflow. Cash will only ever flow one of two directions: in or out. In is good, out is necessary. The goal is to ensure the cash coming in is greater than the cash going out.

Sounds simple enough, but in practice, the reasons/excuses for more cash going out always seem to far outnumber the methods of getting cash in. This is where an entrepreneur’s real skills are honed. Guarding cash is not just good business practice, it’s vital. The most ruthless or most likely to succeed entrepreneurs understand this.

Get lucky

Business always involves an element of luck. But successful entrepreneurs know or learn how to make their own luck. Famed Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn is quoted as saying “the harder I work, the luckier I get”.

Creating luck isn’t about having blind faith though.
It’s about being realistic.

As Sir Richard Branson noted, “business
opportunities are like buses – there’s always another one coming”. If your
numbers simply don’t add up, they could be telling you something: that you may
need to hop off this bus and wait for the next one.

Alan Manly, Founder, Group Colleges Australia and author of “The Unlikely Entrepreneur” 





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Affordable housing essential for key workers


Housing affordability is a major political issue at a national and inter-generational level. This is particularly evident in the UK. Between 2001 and 2004, a range of programs directed specifically at key workers were put in place, which included both ownership and rental options.

The government’s current home ownership policies share some features with the earlier key worker schemes, but are open to anyone, subject to income tests. Key worker-specific programs tend to be localised and ad hoc, and are often more focused on rental than on home ownership.

In many cities, key workers occupy a housing affordability gap.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Aware Super (formerly First State Super) announced early this year that it is investing in 55 new key worker affordable rental units six kilometres from Melbourne’s CBD. The rental properties will be available for healthcare, aged care, disability services, teachers, law enforcement, emergency services, childcare and associated industries personnel to rent at 80 per cent of the market rate for the area. This is following Aware Super’s first pilot investment in key worker affordable rental housing in Epping, NSW, in mid-2019. While such investments are positive and welcomed, more policy focus and investment is required to ensure that home ownership in our cities is possible for key workers.

One lesson from the pandemic is that cities should maintain a deployable, scalable, locally based pandemic workforce. Priority roles include nurses (especially ICU-capable nurses), paramedics, medical technicians and contact tracers. Housing or tax incentives, or cash stipends, could be made available to suitably skilled individuals who maintain pandemic training and can be deployed if required, similar to the army reserve.

While a ‘pandemic reserve’ is not directly aimed at addressing affordability, by giving these workers extra income or other incentives, their buying power is improved. In this way, the community can maintain as-needed access to workers who choose to pursue higher incomes.

Another likely post-pandemic trend is ‘decasualisation’ of healthcare workforces. Predominantly casual workforces have been problematic during the pandemic, including due to increased risk where people work at two or more facilities. Healthcare workers are facing significant risks, and demands for greater employment stability – and higher wages – should be expected as a result. In turn, this improves buying power.

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Compared to other occupation categories, key workers are more likely to maintain stable employment during a pandemic. The safe investment features of key worker housing are amplified when the economy is disrupted. If pandemic lockdowns become semi-regular events, the investment characteristics of key worker housing will diverge from other housing development projects, for example student housing. There are a number of existing and emerging models which seek to address housing affordability for key workers.

Despite the current focus on our key workers, it seems unlikely that housing affordability policies at a central government level will shift from affordability generally to key worker housing affordability specifically. This is partly because key workers haven’t suffered the same economic distress as workers in other occupations during the pandemic.

If cities want to localise and future-proof their most essential workforce, innovative local solutions will be key. Governments and developers should work together to support transaction structures which will encourage development of affordable key worker housing in appropriate areas. For developers and investors, key worker focused developments may be among the safest, most bankable projects as we head into the new normal.

Natalie Bryce and Julie Jankowski are partners at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.



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Nanoleaf’s New Affordable Essential Line Launches Exclusively at Apple – Review Geek


Nanoleaf

Not that long ago, Nanoleaf announced a more affordable (for the company anyway) take on its lighting products featuring a new smart bulb and LED strip. Now those products are here—or at least they’re at the Apple Store anyway. That’s where you’ll need to go to pick them up.

In case you missed it, Nanoleaf Essentials is, as the name implies, less about super-premium (and expensive) lighting, and more about the “essentials.”

A closeup of the Nanoleaf bulb.
Nanoleaf

To start, the company unveiled a $20 color smart bulb that takes on a unique rhombicosidodecahedronshape. It also showed off a $50 two-meter LED strip and a one-meter expansion strip. All three work with Nanoleaf’s app, naturally, but they also pack a unique connection scheme—Thread.

Thread resembles Z-wave and Zigbee in that it joins devices together to create a mesh network to connect all your ZigBee devices. But unlike Z-Wave, you don’t need a specific Z-wave hub device, instead, another smart device, like the HomePod Mini, can act as an “edge router” to connect all the thread devices in your home.

Two Nanoleaf smart bulbs.
Nanoleaf

That’s the promise of Nanoleaf’s essentials, a lower power mesh network with a wide range. And it works with Homekit as well, so you can keep everything locally controlled. Nanoleaf also promises Circadian rhythms that adjust the lights throughout the day for a more pleasant experience.

A Nanoleaf LED strip on a tv media center.
Nanoleaf

It’s similar to Apple’s HomeKit Adaptive Lighting feature, which Nanoleaf plans to support in full in a later update. Nanoleaf’s Essential line is one of the first (if not the first) consumer products to support Thread out of the box.

You can buy Nanoleaf Essentials right now from the Apple store online and in-store, or through Nanoleaf’s site. The smart bulb is $20, and the LED start strip is $50.





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