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It happened again. A domestic helper in our neighborhood here in Singapore, an Indonesian woman, asked the helper next door for food and clothes. Your occasional correspondent is trying to imagine her desperation. This woman lives and works in a house that’s worth well over a million US dollars, but she is neither fed nor clothed. I will not dwell on the personal characteristics of people who treat other human beings this way, but I will dwell on the phenomenon of migrant labor, and the winners and losers of this global trend. Because she is a case in point – migrant labor is on the up, and an increasing proportion of them are women.

Anyone who takes up some kind of paid employment outside their home country is considered a migrant worker, including well-off ‘expats.’ However, the topic here is migrant workers from developing countries, those who cross a national border in search of a better life, for themselves and for their families back home.

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In recent years the possibilities of the Arctic have hit the news now and again. Mostly it goes unnoticed. For many people the Arctic is still just a big chunk of very cold, inaccessible and uninhabitable land. The Arctic region covers more than 30 million square kilometers or 18 million square miles. However, since 1979 the extent of Arctic sea ice has decreased rapidly and according to a UN climate report Arctic summer ice is set to be gone in less than 40 years, much faster than anticipated. While this present huge opportunities for developing the Arctic region, scientists also worry that the melting of the Arctic permafrost could be a “economic time bomb” as it releases unusually large amounts of methane (potent greenhouse gasses) that could potentially cause significant climate changes.

The Arctic actually isn’t just a piece of uninhabitable land. It is to home to about 4 million people from 40 ethnic groups and an economy of US$230 billion. While it is a region ripe with opportunities, it is also one of the last true wildernesses on earth and an extremely challenging environment. According to the United States Geological Survey about 13% of undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered gas reserves are in the Arctic. In a world facing rising oil prices, countries as well as international oil corporations have shown much interest in recovering these vast reserves. However, it is widely believed that the potential oil and gas fields are out at sea, far from land as well as infrastructure and in extreme climatic conditions, making production far too expensive. Exploring other and cheaper options such as shale gas in North America and conventional gas production in in the Middle East could be better and more viable options! The Arctic as the new energy source should not go completely unquestioned.

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Have you ever found a science experiment – or rather some badly rotten food – in your child’s school bag, because nobody checked it for a few days? Ever found clothes on a laundry rack in exactly the same position you put them days ago? Any similar experiences? Then, you must be a working Mum, who now and then goes on a business trip and leaves family tasks to your cherished male partner. Sorry, partners, the above mentioned examples are too common to have been made up by me and, of course, I have some statistics to support my case.

A study done by the Institute for Public Policy Research shows that in the UK eight out of 10 married women do more household chores than the men they are married to, while just one in 10 married men does an equal amount of cleaning and washing as his wife. The shift towards women bearing the burden of household tasks increases when they have children. These numbers vary only slightly from country to country in the developed world and haven’t changed a lot over the last decades. Really, we live like our parents? Just for the record: It’s the year 2013 right now and we are re-living the domestic patterns of the last millennium?

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Picture a world of bright green cities – not just in terms of being eco-friendly, but bright green as in color! My research for the May Global Trends Briefing on Securing Resources (register here to receive it when it comes out) threw up an interesting article about the world’s first algae powered building in Germany. It’s an apartment complex with a bright green façade thanks to its covering of biofuel-producing algae, and will be the first building in the world to fully integrate algae into the building’s construction. While it’s an exciting – as well as aesthetically pleasing – development, it will no doubt take time to spread. However, the article made me think about how our next generation of cities will be different from the ones we know today.

Cities are magnets for people with hopes for a better and more prosperous life. Around the world urbanization is rapidly increasing: today half of humanity – some 3.5 billion people – lives in cities and by 2025 that number will increase to 60%. No question that the future presents huge challenges for city planners and local governments.  It’s not just about building enough living space for the urbanizing crowd, but also about creating a functional infrastructure while reducing the environmental footprint of every single citizen. Fortunately numerous cities have already taken up the challenge of realizing the living spaces of the 21st century. A couple of years ago climate strategist Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., LEED AP, developed what may have been the first ever global ranking of smart cities. As I found, some of the cities on the list might surprise you!

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My 16-year-old son has been home with the ‘flu, so we watched the movie "In Time." A sci-fi thriller, the movie imagines a future where time is – literally – money. You work today to earn time to live tomorrow. Interesting concept. I work part-time, so in relation to the movie, my time would run out a bit early I guess. However, sitting there as a working mother, watching a movie in the late morning with my son made me reflect on my job situation. Working from home can be long and lonely at times, but I have to say the flexibility it gives is fabulous, and for that I'm grateful.

When we hear the word "job," most of us think about a worker with an employer and a regular paycheck. In reality, according to the "World Development Report on Jobs" from the World Bank, the majority of workers in some of the poorest countries are completely outside the scope of an employer-employee relationship. Worldwide, more than 3 billion people are working, but their jobs vary greatly. Some 1.65 billion are employed and receive regular wages or salaries. Another 1.5 billion work in farming and small household enterprises, or in casual or seasonal day labor. Across the world, the nature of work varies hugely as statistics from the report show:

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Many thanks to former UN colleagues Todd Smith and Odkhoi Bold for your up-to-date perspectives from Mongolia! 

I will never forget what economist Jeffrey Sachs said in 2002 about Mongolia’s prospects for development: “Half of the people live in yurts. Their connectivity is low. They have no viable industry right now […]. The real economic answer for Mongolians is to leave. But that's not the answer for Mongolia” (my italics). Looking up my Mongolian friends on Facebook, most of them are still there, and one Canadian friend, Todd Smith, has even stayed on in Ulaan Baatar and started a family.

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The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization through its YaleGlobal online service has just launched an ebook A World Connected: Globalization in the 21st Century which is well worth the read for anyone interested in how globalization has – and will in future – impact our world, lives and work.  It’s a seminal collection of essays collated from over ten years of work by scholars, practitioners, politicians, and experts in the study of globalization. 

One of its most compelling points is its broad scope, covering the complex array of ways in which globalization is changing our world – often discussions of globalization narrow in to areas of economics and trade, or to the global capital markets which have had such an impact in recent years, or to the geopolitics of a new world order. With the notions of interconnectedness and interdependence as its lenses, the book not only explores these topics, but also the many ways in which globalization touches all of our lives and interweaves communities, countries and continents – including how cultures and societies develop, how we seek security, how ideas moving around the world are impacting creativity, how rising inequalities are changing societies, how China’s rise is impacting the world, and how we as people interact around the world.

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The winds of reform are blowing in Asia at the moment. Or so it seems when one reads the headlines. Are the loosening of the authoritarian regime in Burma (sometimes called Myanmar) and the recent protests by Chinese journalists really manifestations of openness in these countries? 

To first check out the longer term trends, your occasional correspondent turned to the internationally recognized indices relevant for political governance. It turned out to be depressing reading. In terms of press freedom, both Burma and China score in the bottom five percent of the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index over the past decade. The Freedom House Index, measuring political rights and civil liberties, shows similar results. In terms of corruption, represented by Transparency International’s corruption perception index, China’s result is near the middle among the world’s countries, whereas Burma is consistently cited as one of the three most corrupt countries in the index since 2004.

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The news from the latest Consumer Electronics Show(CES) 2013 in Las Vegas got me thinking how much life has changed since I was a kid back in the seventies and early eighties. It doesn’t feel like that long ago, but maybe it is. At least that’s what technological developments are telling me. Like many other parents I am hugely concerned about my kids and their friends spending too much time on the iPad, computer, television and every other electronic device you can name – but in reality they are just doing the same things that I do and, for that matter, the rest of the world. Born in the early 2000s they are typical of generation Z or C – the connected generation. Technology and connectedness is in their DNA and being tech-savvy is critical for our future generation, as technology changes ever faster than before.

The internet is probably the most beloved invention since the car. More than 2.4 billion or 34.3% of the world’s population is online and Facebook, the world’s biggest social network with 1 billion users, just confirms the fact that we love being online, connected and living our life in real-time.  However, the internet is not only used as tool to connect people. Increasingly it is also used to fight inefficient transport services, outdated water and waste networks, rising pollution levels and increased demands for energy and housing in our ever more urban communities. Today cities are becoming more intelligent as high technology firms, including IBM and Cisco, cross industry boundaries to take on the challenge of city management. In many different forms, they offer highly efficient, next-generation computerized planning, information and control systems. For example, IBM has worked with Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro to use technology to better handle the challenges of running the city, from managing traffic flow, or coordinating public works crews to anticipating disruptive storms. Another smart new technology making a difference to city planning is Urban OS from Living PlanIT, which works like a PC operating system, monitoring buildings, traffic and services in order to help a city to run smoothly. Test beds for the Urban OS are currently being built in Portugal as well as London’s Greenwich peninsula, while Living PlanIT was selected as one of the World Economic Forum's Technology Pioneers of 2012 for its work in developing smart cities. Another interesting Internet-led development is connectedness in manufacturing. According to the recent report “Industrial Internet: Pushing the Boundaries of Minds and Machines” from  General Electric, the Internet of Things has the potential to add US$10-15 trillion to global GDP by 2030 and reduce billions of dollars’ worth of waste across major industries such as healthcare, energy and transportation.

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Your occasional correspondent is tuktuking south on Chamkardoung boulevard on a steamy hot October day. Red dust and nauseating diesel fumes fill my lungs and eyes as we approach the infamous Khmer Rouge killing field outside Phnom Penh. The nausea is exacerbated by seeing the physical remnants and listening to vivid accounts of a horrendous time in Cambodia’s history in what is nowadays an open air museum.  Historical images of forced labor and starvation in the rice paddies, torture and execution in the killing fields fill my head. Later, returning northwards, zigzagging through the sprawling urban landscape, history fades and today’s reality grabs my attention and fills me with a glimmer of hope. The small independent businesses along the road are seemingly thriving: bakeries, furniture-, hardware- and appliance-stores, delivery companies, the larger beer breweries and garment industries. Only a few decades after Pol Pot and his regime were forced out of power in 1979, Phnom Penh has gone from ghost-town to this dynamic hustle and bustle. 

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Here's another quick preview from The Global Trends Report 2013, due out in just 2 days on November 14th. Look out for it soon.

Social needs, mobility, communities, societal impact and connectedness are at the heart of the business environment of the future. In this world the consumer can no longer be regarded solely as an individual, self-determining entity. They are connected, for better or worse, and that means the impact of the business-consumer relationship extends beyond the “target” of the relationship, i.e. the consumer, out to the extended networks and communities of which that individual is a part. This is a world where word of mouth and, increasingly, word of mouse dominate. There is nothing new about using our friends as source of best advice. What is relatively new is the way more and more people do it. We are moving away from “wisdom of crowds” to the “wisdom of friends.” Trust is the currency of the connected world.

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The last two weeks have seen unprecedented social unrest around the world – the democratization of everything is spreading but frankly it’s not a pretty sight.  Just think back on the headlines:

  • China and Japan facing off over disputed ownership of islands in the East China Sea – with demonstrations and violence against Japanese businesses in China as nationalist sentiment rises, compounded by the anniversary of a politically sensitive incident.
  • Demonstrations, violence and deaths across the world from North Africa and the Middle East to Indonesia and Pakistan as Muslims protest over a cheap and nasty film ridiculing Islam, clearly produced by less than a handful of bigots to incite religious turmoil.
  • Ongoing strikes and renewed violence as South African miners demand higher wages and clash with security forces, even as some returned to work.
  • Massive demonstrations in Portugal and Spain against austerity measures as standards of living fall and unemployment soars – plus renewed demonstrations by Catalan separatists.
  • In India, tens of thousands protest against government plans to open the retail trade to foreign investors, as well as rising fuel prices.
  • Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, re-elected this year, targeted by up to 50,000 demonstrators in Moscow, calling for an end to his rule.
  • In Argentina, President Cristina Kirchner’s government facing the largest pot-banging protest ("cacerolazos") since taking office as people protested over corruption scandals, crime and management of the economy.
  • Occupy Wall Street protesters back to mark the anniversary of the movement, although with fewer feet on the street and continued tensions with police.
  • Continuing protests over natural resources in Peru, particularly directed at the mining sector, leaving one more person dead this week.
  • Ongoing protests over the July election of President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico, amid accusations of vote-rigging and media collusion, including a cyber-attack this week on government, political and media websites.
  • The threat of renewed protests in the Chinese village of Wukan, as elections have not brought the desired changes in government control nor the return of land sold illegally.  

The list could go on – frustration and anger is boiling in societies around the world over: their own government’s management of economy and society; perceived threats to livelihoods; inequality; religious insults and intolerance; crime and corruption; and natural resource ownership.  It’s a potent cocktail of grievances. The cost to societies in terms of driving divisions and damaging livelihoods and economies is massive. What’s causing the unrest? And what can we do about it?

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Natasha Deonarain, MD, MBA is a board-certified family practice and urgent care physician with 20 years of experience in both Canada and the United States. In her upcoming book, The 7 Principles of Health: Your Call to Health Consciousness, she talks about a new paradigm for optimal health that’s based on a different paradigm than that used in Western medicine. Natasha kindly shares her thoughts on how the US healthcare system needs to – and can become – more patient-centric.

To see where America’s healthcare future lies, we should take a few lessons from the book and music industries.

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Ashley Halligan, of Software Advice, recently reported on innovative sustainability efforts across the globe – in some surprising places.  But perhaps we should not be so surprised. Making the best of our environment and the resources we have available is a critical need everywhere – and even more so for communities facing challenges such as health hazards from waste and violence.  Ashley kindly shares a summary of four innovative efforts in this guest blog, in Medellin (Colombia), Naples (Italy), Songdo (South Korea), and Philadelphia.

Medellin, historically-labeled as a violent, drug-ridden mecca, has made incredible progress in developing public transport systems, including the installation of an innovative series of escalators connecting its poorest neighborhood to the city center, which has been credited with helping to reduce crime in the area.

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Is the potential of distributed energy on your radar yet?  If it isn’t, it probably should be.  Energy transforms economies and lives, so it should demand the attention of politicians, thought leaders, industry and, hopefully, the consumer.  And it does, but not necessarily with an eye to the future.  The potential of distributed energy hasn’t really been recognized yet.  The question is why?

Distributed energy (also known as distributed generation) is electricity generated from small-scale power generation technologies, which when combined with load management and energy storage improve the amount, quality and reliability of electricity supplies.  Typically, such technologies focus on renewable sources. Most importantly, however, because distributed generation projects are small in scale and more numerous, they move supply closer to the consumer thereby lowering environmental impacts and improving security of supply.  It also avoids the enormous cost of energy wastage which – if we could figure out how – could cut your bills in half!  For example, in 2009 about 58% of energy generated was wasted. (Source: Good Infographics)

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It did not escape the notice of my partner as we walked down Nathan Road in Hong Kong that the local couple ahead of us were carrying a plethora of bags from Gucci, Chanel and a host other top designers, while our bag bore the Chinese logo of one of the local emporiums. Having sought out in vain the great local goods and technology deals we used to find here just a few years ago, we had reluctantly came to the conclusion that we were standing in the next great bastion of high end consumerism.  Gone are many local shops and outlets, replaced by designer names on every corner and giant shopping malls that offer soft music, stores-in-stores and richly designed aesthetics.  Just like you would find in New York, Paris, London or Tokyo – only more expensive in many cases! With 10 Gucci stores/stores-in-stores in Hong Kong (home to 7 million people), the density of stores per capita is already higher than in London or Tokyo.  

gucci queue hk

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In my last blog post, I talked about the phenomenal rise and opportunities in Vietnam, but there are also challenges ahead.  Some thoughts from discussions while there…

While the streets of Hanoi and Saigon (as locals still call Ho Chi Minh City) are vibrant, they also testify to the growing pains of this rapidly emerging nation, which only started international reintegration in 1986 after prolonged military engagement.  In 1975, when the country reunified under a communist government, it was isolated and devastated from military action. Even today, younger generations of Vietnamese entrepreneurs talk from personal experience about how they and their families suffered during this period and the disastrous post-war collectivization of farms and factories which led to massive inflation and economic collapse. The shift in leadership and policies in 1985 heralded a new start for the nation, with free market reforms – known as Đổi Mới (Renovation) – starting the transition from a planned economy towards a socialist-oriented market economy.  Private ownership, economic deregulation, foreign investment and newly resumed trade links with the world restarted the engine of growth.

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Happy New Year!  Just back from a fascinating trip to Vietnam and Hong Kong, so a few reflections to share…

vietnam motos

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The headlines have been full of numbers recently, particularly as we have just passed a milestone where the 7 billionth person has now joined the world’s population (give or take a few million and a few months either way).  So let’s start there in terms of looking at some important numbers that will impact the world in the next decades.

1.  7 billion: The world’s (estimated) population at the end of 2011

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Large parts of the world are this week operating on a wing and a prayer: With high levels of damage, low levels of preparation and many unknown factors, desperate people are relying mainly on hope to avert potential disaster.  Japan is racing to avert a nuclear catastrophe in the aftermath of the massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which killed thousands, made almost half a million homeless and has significantly damaged the economy.  The Libyan war has started, as UN-backed forces begin their mission to drive regime change in support of the Libyan rebel forces.  Egypt is at a critical point in its transition, as people embrace their freedom in voting on constitutional reforms which will shape the country’s future.   These events will reshape our world in ways we do not yet know: Our thoughts and hopes should be with those in the front line.

In Japan, the earthquake was not the issue, but rather the devastating tsunami waves that utterly destroyed towns and knocked out power at the Fukushima nuclear reactor complex. Since then, the hundreds of thousands displaced by the tsunami and radiation fears have been battling freezing weather, even as food, water, power and shelter run short.  At Fukishima, desperate measures to cool the reactors have been taken all week, with hopes for stabilization by restoring power supplies today again knocked back as pressure rises in Unit 3.  Radioactive gas will once again be released into the air to relieve pressure and try to bring the unit back under control.  Radiation has already found its way into the food chain, with spinach and milk up to 120 kilometres from the plant showing iodine levels above safety limits. Tokyo, some 240 kilometres away, has seen miniscule amounts of radiation in tap water, while Taiwanese officials have reported higher than permitted levels of radiation on fava beans imported from Japan. While officials maintain that the amounts of iodine detected pose no threat to human health, the public is shunning potentially contaminated food and water – concerns are high and prices of basic necessities will rise.

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