Friday, 23 June 2017

Marketers have been misinterpreting consumer behaviour

The supermarket chiller offers 174 varieties of bacon. How does a shopper choose which one to buy?
New research shows many marketing beliefs about how consumers decide between brands are wrong - and have been for decades, according to DDB New Zealand chief executive officer Justin Mowday and chief strategy officer Rupert Price.

Price says, in 40-year-old thinking, there have been three golden rules to grow business: 1. Win your category. 2. Win the mind of your consumer and 3. Win today.

Based on the research of academics, including New Zealander Byron Sharp, Professor of Marketing Science at the University of South Australia, DDB has come up with three new rules, described as "unreasonable thinking" - because that's how modern science shows people make decisions.

Price says research shows that rather than making reasonable, logical choices, consumers are driven by more deeply rooted and unchanging emotions. Consequently, many notions marketers have long held to be true are unfounded and contrary to how consumers behave.

"As the data shows, the old 80:20 rule - that 80 per cent of your sales come from 20 per cent of your customers - is just not true," says Mowday. "The idea that the Unique Selling Proposition gives you an advantage, finding a unique space in your market that differentiates you from your competitor, is just not true."

Even for rock-star brands like Apple, the research shows people are as likely to buy from a different manufacturer each time they choose a product, challenging the long-held perception that consumers stick with preferred brands.

So the first new rule is: Culture dwarfs category, defined as making a brand distinctive and making it stand for something bigger than its products.

Price explains: "Make your brand more famous than the others. The first way is getting into conversations more often and being more obvious - a good example is the Westpac chopper.
"How many times does it get mentioned on the 6 o'clock news? Those things build memories and the more top-of-mind a brand is, the more likely you are to choose it.

"But it's not just fame. In addition, it's building a point of view on the world. Consumers are more attracted to brands that have a point of view bigger than just the product or service they provide."
Mowday says while there have been missteps, "brands that don't take a stance are at risk of being tarnished with a negative point of view. One side of a debate will say, 'That brand hasn't taken a stand for us, we are therefore against it,' and with social media, within a day you're in the news for all the wrong reasons."

New rule 2: Feelings conquer thinking: "We are an irrational species, and so our emotive brain controls 95 per cent of what we do. Most of the choices we make are subconscious," Price explains. "When you choose from your 174 varieties of bacon in the supermarket, you don't weigh up the benefits and attributes of each one. We have short-cuts that allow our brain to say, 'I just like that brand' or whatever.

"Those are down to likes and preferences and those are shaped by memory. Memory is shaped by emotion, so if you can create an emotional connection, it's a far more powerful and compelling way to draw people towards your product or brand.

"Emotions drive all the decisions we make and our subconscious brain is shaped by our emotions. Most of the brand choices we make are based on intuitive gut feeling."

Mowday: "If we look at one ad break, a whole heap of the content is based on rational reasons why I should buy something - yet we know from science 95 per cent of our decisions are made by emotion. This is where the advertising and marketing industry hasn't caught up with science."

Rule 3: Long-term beats short-term. "We live in the tyranny of short-termism," Price says. "Organisations like Unilever no longer report quarterly because they believe it's forcing them to make short-term decisions not necessarily in the best interests of growing their businesses.

"What a lot of evidence is showing us now is that if you can invest in brand-building long-term, you won't necessarily see a lift in your sales short-term, but if you can stick it out for 12 months, 24 months, 36 months, then you'll see a phenomenal payback.

"That's because (a) these things take time to build (b) it's those long-term emotional associations that dictate brand behaviour over time rather than short-term deals designed to entice people to buy things immediately."

Mowday advocates a balance, citing Specsavers, which has been using "Should have gone to Specsavers" to build its brand for 33 years and running offers like "Get two pairs from $199".
"McDonald's, a client of ours, is a perfect example with their 'I'm Loving' It' slogan and jingle."

Price says empirical evidence supports a split of 60 per cent long-term brand-building against 40 per cent short-term sales tactics.

"In the modern world, every product and service gets copied within minutes or maybe months. You don't have a competitive advantage for years. Brand is therefore even more important.

"We know these rules provide a simple, measurable and actionable approach to drive exponential business growth."

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Gaping inequality: GINI coefficient per se does not lead to effective policies

Christopher Hoy is an international development consultant
Which matters more: actual levels of inequality, or the levels that people perceive to exist? There is now clear evidence that perceptions of inequality have a profound impact on societies all over the world – and that people aren’t very good at judging the reality for themselves.

The trouble is, almost all research on inequality focuses on actual levels, which means our understanding of how people respond to inequality has been based on the assumption that people’s perceptions align with reality. And this, according to a unique survey of Indonesian people by the World Bank, is just not true.
Which matters more: actual levels of inequality, or the levels that people perceive to exist? There is now clear evidence that perceptions of inequality have a profound impact on societies all over the world – and that people aren’t very good at judging the reality for themselves.

The trouble is, almost all research on inequality focuses on actual levels, which means our understanding of how people respond to inequality has been based on the assumption that people’s perceptions align with reality. And this, according to a unique survey of Indonesian people by the World Bank, is just not true.

The lack of credibility of this assumption suggests a range of research on inequality needs to be revisited, including Thomas Piketty’s famous theory that the actual level of social mobility in a country is related to people’s support for redistribution; the Indonesia results imply it should in fact be the perceived level of social mobility.

The World Bank’s nationally representative survey of more than 3,000 Indonesian households came about in 2014 because a range of stakeholders wanted to understand how Indonesians perceived their country’s deepening levels of inequality. There is literately no other survey like it for any country in the world, as it captures both people’s perceptions of inequality, and their levels of support for redistribution to make Indonesia a more equal society.

As such, it provides the best insight currently available as to whether misperceptions of inequality reduce a society’s support for redistribution. And this is significant for people wherever they live, in this “post-truth” era of Trump, Brexit and fake news, where misperceptions are seen to play a strong role in the way people vote.

The reality of inequality in Indonesia is eye-watering: according to Oxfam’s latest report, four men are estimated to be worth the same amount as the poorest 100 million people, and the richest 1% now owns half the country’s wealth.

Yet the World Bank survey reveals that Indonesians dramatically underestimate the extent of inequality in their country. Nine in every 10 adults there believe they are located around the middle of the country’s income distribution – which means rich and poor alike tend to think they experience the “average” standard of living. They also typically believe people can do more to improve their standard of living than is actually the case; that is, they overestimate the level of social mobility in Indonesian society.

Politically, these three widespread misperceptions about Indonesian inequality are significant. Collectively, they appear to be limiting public support for redistribution through policies such as increasing social protection. Now let’s look at their likely individual impacts on society there – and, indeed, everywhere.

1. People underestimate the level of inequality

People’s estimates of the overall distribution of income in Indonesia were elicited using a state-of-the-art approach developed by Harvard professor Michael Norton and co-authors in their studies on perceptions of inequality in the US.

On average, Indonesians believed the country’s Gini coefficient of income inequality to be around 0.3, which is more equal than most countries in the world. In reality, Indonesia is about as unequal as the United States, with a Gini coefficient of around 0.4 – higher than most countries.
Furthermore, when asked what they would prefer inequality to be, respondents’ answers implied an average “ideal Gini coefficient” of 0.15 – lower than any country has ever achieved. (Currently, Ukraine is said to have the lowest coefficient at 0.24, closely followed by Slovenia and Norway.)
Respondents were asked what they thought the Gini coefficient of income inequality for Indonesia was. In reality it is 0.4, higher than most countries.
Not surprisingly, the Indonesian survey found that people’s “inequality preferences” were closely linked to the policy priorities they wanted the country’s president to focus on. A preference for lower levels of inequality was associated with support for increasing social protection, while a preference for higher levels of inequality was related to supporting job creation as the number one policy priority.

Thus policymakers –not just in Indonesia – who are trying to address inequality should be aware that people may be less supportive of redistributive policies because they are unaware of just how unequal their society is.

The first step in trying to reduce inequality would appear to be communicating to the public just how unequal their society is and then what can be done to address it. Otherwise policymakers risk having limited public support for redistributive policies as people may believe they are trying to fix a smaller problem than actually exists.

2. People think they are in the middle of the income distribution

Respondents to the Indonesian survey were roughly equally spread across the distribution – but they often did not perceive this to be the case. Indeed, almost 90% of respondents perceived they were located in the middle 60% of the income distribution – between the 20th and 80th percentile.
Remarkably, there was only a weak correlation between people’s actual place in the income distribution, and where they perceived themselves to be. In other words, on average, poor people overestimated and rich people underestimated their place in the distribution.
In fact, only one respondent out of 3,000 households thought they were located within the richest 20% of the distribution, even though around 600 respondents actually were.
Survey respondents were fairly equally spread across the income spectrum, but almost 90% of them believed themselves to be in the middle 60% of the distribution.
Again, levels of support for different policies to address inequality varied significantly, depending on where people perceived themselves to be in the distribution. However, levels of support for the most popular policy priorities – social protection and job creation – did not differ much across the actual distribution. It’s only people’s perceptions of where they stand relative to others in society that really affect their support for different policies.

A further conclusion is that people’s own belief about whether they would benefit from a policy appears to be more important than ideology. This would imply that public support is likely to be higher for programmes which benefit everyone, such as universal healthcare provision, compared to those that target beneficiaries, such as tax credits for a select group.

Also, poorer people who overestimate their place in the distribution are likely to be missing out on social protection programs where people need to self-identify as poor to benefit. This appears to be an issue in the United States as well as Indonesia, where only 35% of eligible elderly people identify as poor and sign up to receive food stamps.

3. People are over-optimistic about levels of upward social mobility

The survey captures two main aspects of how people see social mobility: perception of their own experience and beliefs about whether people are rich or poor due to factors within their control.
Perception of own experience: Around two thirds of the people surveyed thought they would move up the income distribution from their current place by at least 20 percentage points within five years. So while people tend to perceive they are around the middle of the income distribution today, most people believe they will be well above average in the future.

Perceiving that one has experienced upward mobility in the past is associated with lower support for redistribution. In other words, it appears many people who believe they have moved up the distribution think that others can do the same – and are therefore less inclined to believe government intervention is required.

This finding is almost identical to Thomas Piketty’s famous theoretical economic model published in 1995 – the key difference being that Piketty’s model was based upon how actual mobility, not perceived mobility, affects support for redistribution. The results of this survey would suggest his theory should be modified to capture perceptions of mobility, instead of what is actually the case.

Belief about why some people are rich and some are poor: almost half of respondents thought people were poor due to “internal” reasons such as being lazy, and believed that rich people gained their wealth through hard work. Perceiving that effort is the key determinant of a person’s standard of living was related to support for job creation as the best policy to reduce inequality. This overly optimistic belief in the causal link between effort and standard of living erodes support for redistribution.

Analysis of one of the largest panel datasets in a developing country, the Indonesian Family Life Survey – an ongoing longitudinal survey conducted by Rand Corporation, a well-respected research institution based in California – suggests upward mobility is much less common than the respondents in the 2014 survey believe.

In fact, it is likely that the most important drivers of one’s living standard are determined at birth. This is the case globally, where around 80% of an individual’s income level is determined by their country of birth and the income of their parents.

Conclusion: measuring actual inequality is not enough

The findings of the World Bank’s pioneering survey of Indonesian (mis)perceptions of inequality provide a first step in better understanding how support for wealth and income redistribution in a society is likely to be subdued by misperceptions of inequality.

Above all, it suggests we should not blithely assume that monitoring changes in the actual levels of inequality is enough. A key takeaway from this survey is that perceptions of inequality deserve greater attention, as they appear to underpin people’s political preferences.

However, this survey is also only a first step in developing our understanding of inequality in societies. We cannot be certain whether these findings hold across all countries, or even in Indonesia over time. An important next step must be to look for opportunities to conduct similar surveys in other countries.

The few studies that have been done that try to correct people’s misperceptions of inequality have shown this leads to greater support for redistribution among poorer people, and increases support for taxing the richest in society.

In this era of rising conservatism (often based upon misinformation), developing a greater understanding of the nature of people’s misperceptions about inequality, and what leads them to change their minds, could have a significant impact on politics around the world. It is a logical next step for those concerned about the decline of evidence-based policy decisions.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Ghana and Ivory Coast want you to buy their chocolate, not just their beans

Akinyi Ochieng
When Mamey Kamara attended the opening of Ivorian chocolatier Instant Chocolat, she instantly fell in love. Born and raised in Abidjan, Kamara grew up exposed to European chocolate brands Cote d’Or and Milka. But through the Ivorian-made treats, she satisfied both her sweet tooth and patriotism.
“To see young, ambitious Ivoirians makes me dream. There’s a certain national pride in consuming chocolate from home. To me, it’s important to encourage our local craftsmen, but I also enjoy the fresh blend of familiar flavors like hibiscus and ginger,” says Kamara, a communications manager at a small NGO in Abidjan.

Africa consumes fewer than 4% of chocolate sold globally, but the region’s consumption patterns may soon change due to the rising middle class. After a decade of conflict, Ivory Coast is on its way back to being one of West Africa’s biggest success stories. Likewise, Ghana attracts more investor dollars per capita than regional giant Nigeria.

In Abidjan and Accra, the signs of new wealth are everywhere from the shopping malls to the luxury apartments rising in the skyline. For an emerging middle class with money to spend, chocolate presents one of the most affordable and accessible forms of luxury.

Handmade, artisanal chocolate brands in both cities are now emerging to cater to this growing market with 100% Ghanaian and Ivorian chocolate. According to Yorm Ackuaku, the “gastro guru” behind esSense13 and chair of Ghana’s Accra Food Hack, “there has been a general resurgence in exploring local food and marketing it to the world. Chocolate is a natural extension of that… there’s pride in seeing quality products come from the country.”

Launched in 2015, Instant Chocolat has experienced tremendous growth within its first year. The small chocolatier, founded by a trio of former Ivorian bankers and marketing executives, went from selling 3.5 tons of chocolate sales in its first year to averaging nearly 50 tons a month in sales in 2016. The small company produces a range of “Made in Ivory Coast” chocolate from pralines to bars, and sells them to individuals and corporate clients including Air France and Citibank.

In Ghana, the waning dominance of the state-owned Cocoa Processing Company and its signature Golden Tree Chocolate has opened the door to new brands like ’57 Chocolate. Unlike Golden Tree, which is often sold by hawkers at Accra’s busy junctions, ‘57 Chocolate aims to cultivate the concept of “Ghanaian luxury.”

Co-founder Priscilla Addison believes that the brand is in keeping with the global trend towards small-batch manufacturing in products like craft beer, ice cream, and, of course, chocolate. “It’s a phenomenon happening world-wide and we believe Ghana has caught on, and we are excited to be part of this narrative,” Addison said. “‘57 Chocolate aims to challenge the status quo of luxury chocolate being only a product of Europe.”

In a bid to meet the budget shortfall of their struggling economies, Ivory Coast and Ghana have accelerated efforts to support local grinders and producers of finished producers. Instead of selling raw materials for export, both countries now hope to make their chocolate just as iconic as its cocoa. New policies and initiatives aimed at local entrepreneurs may help them move up the value chain.
But it’s a difficult time to diversify production. While cocoa was one of the best performing commodities as recently as 2015, in the last two years the crop ranks among the worst in the world.

After a six-year high, cocoa prices have fallen by more than 30% due to a surplus in top-producing countries. For the world’s top producers, Ivory Coast and Ghana, the declining prices are leaving a bitter taste. Ivory Coast recently cut the price paid to cocoa farmers by 36% while Ghana is reportedly considering a similar move. As the commodity-dependent countries brace for a hit to their economies, both Ivory Coast and Ghana are hoping to reap more benefits from their beans through increased local processing.

Shifting Policy
Over 2 million small-scale farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana produce nearly 60% of the world’s supply of cocoa. But despite exporting almost 3 million tons to support the multibillion dollar industry, farmers earn an average of 67 cents per day—just 6.6% of the final sale price. According to the World Bank, Ivory Coast and Ghana have a combined GDP of $69.3 billion, a figure dwarfed by Nestle’s $90 billion in annual sales or a market cap of around $250 billion.

While demand for chocolate may be rising worldwide, some cocoa farmers are abandoning the crop in favor of more lucrative rubber. In a bid to encourage more interest in the cocoa industry, the cornerstone of their economies, the Ivorian and Ghanaian governments have both launched initiatives to guarantee increased levels of local processing and finished products.

By 2020, Ivory Coast aims to process at least half of its raw cocoa locally—up from a third currently. With newly introduced tax breaks for cocoa grinders and chocolate producers, the country may soon reach its goals. Increased local processing will meet the growing demand for the West African market. In 2015, Olam International, the world’s third largest grinder, opened a $75 million factory in San Pedro, the nation’s second largest port.

With a production capacity of 75,000 tons, the factory has helped catapult Ivory Coast to the top as the world’s leading processor. During the same year, French chocolatier Cemoi opened Ivory Coast’s first major chocolate factory in 2015 in a bid to supply the region with the capacity to produce over 10,000 tons of chocolate per year. With improvements in production capacity, the government is determined to ensure that Ivory Coast is as well known for its chocolate, as it is for its cocoa.
Across the border, Ghana has taken measures to liberalize the purchase of cocoa beans. Although the sector was partially liberalized in 2003 to improve prices for farmers and boost productivity, the Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD) still enjoys export monopoly power. Because of COCOBOD’s dominance, the state-owned Cocoa Processing Company has historically been the primary producer of local chocolate.

But that may be changing as the Ghanaian government shifts its approach to finished products and highlighting cocoa-based products as a national product with economic and health benefits. Moreover, with the election of Nana Akufo-Addo, Ghana is now considering the full liberalization of the cocoa sector, which may further boost production and diversification of cocoa exporters as well as the local chocolate industry.

Local chocolatiers like Midunu Chocolates, the brainchild of Ghanaian chef Selassie Atadika, are hoping to inspire what she calls a “delicate” way of looking at chocolate. With a box of truffles retailing for 40 cedis (about $9), Midunu caters largely to the native-born and “returnee” Ghanaian middle class as well as expatriates and tourists.

Atadika is keen on using chocolate as a means to highlight Africa’s different flavor profiles by incorporating Ethiopia’s berbere spice or South African rooibois tea. “I think we owe our country a chance to develop and be self-sufficient. I think by supporting things that are locally grown, we support the country and those around us.”

Friday, 19 May 2017

Radiohead’s angst-ridden OK Computer was also eerily prescient

Dorian Linskey

Among the titles Radiohead reportedly considered for their third album before settling on OK Computer were Ones and Zeroes and, less plausibly, Your Home May Be at Risk if You Do Not Keep Up Repayments.

A more apt choice, if Blur hadn’t got there first, would have been Modern Life Is Rubbish. Blur meant “rubbish” as a noun, not an adjective: clutter, detritus, white noise, waste. The idea of too much information was a key ‘90s trope, from the data blitz of U2’s Zoo TV to the brain-scrambling hyper-prose of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

OK Computer channelled that sensory overload into the last archetypal rock masterpiece: progressive, relevant, profound and genuinely popular. “A lot of the album was about background noise and everything moving too fast and not being able to keep up,” Thom Yorke explained at the time. Keen to move on from the introspection of The Bends, he said, he felt that “the outside world became all there was”.

OK Computer is routinely described as ‘dystopian’ but that’s not quite right. A dystopia is a nightmare of the future and there is almost nothing on OK Computer that wasn’t true in 1997. Planes sometimes crash. So do cars. An airbag could save your life. People work jobs that slowly kill them. Ambition makes you look pretty ugly. Admittedly, aliens aren’t really filming earthlings to entertain the folks back home but everything else is an accurate, if gloomy, reflection of how we lived then.

OK Computer also reflected how Radiohead lived then. Specifically, it documented how Yorke saw the world during the year that Radiohead were touring The Bends, hence the frequent references to modes of transport. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood said that Let Down was “about that feeling that you get when you’re in transit but you're not in control of it — you just go past thousands of places and thousands of people and you're completely removed from it.” Perhaps being in a touring band was, to Yorke, a synecdoche for the modern condition: disorientation, alienation, rootlessness, exhaustion, lack of control, occasional derangement, constant motion. By backgrounding his own identity, he avoided the tedious trap of moaning about success (at least until the claustrophobic 1998 tour documentary Meeting People Is Easy) and made those sensations universal.

Talking about his lyrical influences, Yorke cited John Lennon’s fractured newsreel verses in A Day in the Life and Elvis Costello’s ability to be “very emotional without being personal”. Both are evident in Yorke’s determination to be, as Christopher Isherwood said, “a camera”. OK Computer is more reportage than commentary. “Stuff that meant anything to me came in the form of what I call Polaroids in my head,” he told Vox. “The immediate external world became very bright and powerful, like it was on fire, and that was when I wrote stuff.” Yorke’s flight from autobiography led him to inhabit other voices, other lives. The images he wrote down manifested in the form of dreams, mantras, lullabies, litanies, curses, rants and panic attacks.

OK Computer’s central axis is the contrast between noise and quiet, velocity and stability — an ambiguity illustrated by Stanley Donwood’s half-obscured artwork, which represents a partially successful attempt to erase the clutter. “Please could you stop the noise?” Yorke begs at the start of Paranoid Android, the album’s most crammed song. “Hey man, slow down,” he warns on The Tourist, its most benign. The people he meets squeal like pigs and buzz like fridges. He’s uptight, uptight. But peace and stasis are no remedy. No Surprises is a lullaby that sounds suspiciously like a suicide note and the computer-voiced interlude Fitter Happier makes slogans and self-help bromides about a well-balanced life resemble a prison sentence.
Struck by writer’s block, Yorke was reduced to writing lists. He composed Fitter Happier in a fit of “incredible hysteria and panic”, then fed it through a machine until it was chillingly neutral. As for the possibility of physical escape, we know where Romeo and Juliet end up in Exit Music (For a Film), and being abducted by a benevolent UFO on Subterranean Homesick Alien — a religious fantasy for the X-Files era — ends with the prospect of being disbelieved and institutionalised.

‘Concerned but powerless’
One solution that certainly isn’t available is a political one. In his book Capitalist Realism, the late critic Mark Fisher addressed “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”. It is hard to even picture a form of escape. Yorke’s various narrators represent what Fisher called “the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and relics”.

Simply by holding up a black mirror to the world, OK Computer qualifies as political but its protest is fundamentally impotent: “Concerned but powerless,” to quote Fitter Happier. Never has a revolutionary cry sounded as hopeless as “Bring down the government/They don’t speak for us” does on No Surprises. The more overtly political lyrics of Lucky were scrapped because they were pages and pages of ‘bollocks’, while Electioneering, the album’s stroppy black sheep, reduces Yorke’s Chomsky studies to a violent blurt: “Riot shields, voodoo economics/It’s just business/Cattle prods and the IMF.” No prospect of change is offered nor predicted. No Surprises was written when John Major was prime minister and released five weeks into the Blair years but the transition affects its message not one jot. "We live under a world banking system and media that make it almost irrelevant who is in power,” said Yorke.

That was a dissonant, though not unique, sentiment in Britain in June 1997, when optimism was in the air. It’s foolish to assign a single mood to any era. The mid-‘90s were not all about feeling supersonic, things only getting better and football coming home. Tricky called an album Pre-Millennium Tension; even some Britpop albums had a subtext of anxiety and fragility. Still, it was a relatively peaceful, prosperous, upbeat time, when Britain’s booming pop culture and the rise of New Labour mirrored and enhanced one another to forge a seductive narrative of progress. OK Computer rang the death knell for that optimism — indeed its final sound is a chime that might mean that time’s up.

OK Computer is part of the shadow history of the ‘90s. In 1989, when everyone else was celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Cohen began writing a brutally bleak prophecy that he eventually christened ‘The Future’; its working title was If You Could See What’s Coming Next. OK Computer played a similarly sobering role in 1997 with Yorke, like Cohen, the buzzkill at the feast. History, sadly, has proven the buzzkills right.

In his book The Age of Extremes, which influenced OK Computer in general and Climbing Up the Walls in particular, the historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote: “As the citizens of the fin de si├Ęcle tapped their way through the global fog that surrounded them, into the third millennium, all they knew for certain was that an era of history had ended. They knew very little else.” What a perfect way to describe OK Computer — tapping its way through the global fog.

‘The eeriness of the everyday’
For all its grim preoccupations, however, OK Computer is not a depressing record. The music is more often than not exceedingly beautiful, even if the beauty often carries sinister undertones. Its emotional range extends to moments of temporary elation such as the back-from-the-dead triumphalism of Lucky and Airbag. And there’s a considerable amount of humour. The band have described aspects of Karma Police, Paranoid Android and Subterranean Homesick Alien as jokes — quoting Douglas Adams and punning on Bob Dylan is one way to puncture the darkness. The forthcoming reissue includes the first studio recording of fan favourite Lift, in which Yorke, rescued from an elevator, tells himself to “Lighten up, squirt”. Like the coda of Karma Police (“Phew, for a minute there I lost myself”) it shows that Yorke wasn’t above making fun of his own pessimism.

Most importantly, OK Computer has a bedrock of compassion. When bass-player Colin Greenwood said that it “encourages you to try find your own space mentally in the contemporary world,” he may have made it a sound a little too much like a meditation app, but he wasn’t wrong. It is on the listener’s side. Talking to Pitchfork recently, Jana Hunter of Baltimore band Lower Dens summed up many fans’ intense affection for the record: “OK Computer delivered a sense of companionship in understanding what an insane world we lived in, and I was desperate for that company.” In that solidarity there is a strange kind of consolation.

Twenty years on, it’s still a valuable companion. Despite its reputation, OK Computer is not a very hi-tech record. It mentions motorways and tramlines but not mobile phones, nor, in fact, computers. Electronics are less prominent than guitars; Neil Young and The Beatles loom as large as Miles Davis and DJ Shadow. Perhaps that’s why things that didn’t exist when it came out feel like they could be part of its landscape: smartphones, social media, Google, YouTube, automated tills, self-driving cars, airport full-body scanners, AI voice assistants, metadata collection, fake news, trolling, drones.

There are of course extremists when it comes to pondering the impact of technology on human beings, from Silicon Valley accelerationists to neo-Luddite refuseniks, but for everyone else ambivalence is a natural state. We constantly allow technology to bend the shape of our lives while wondering what exactly we’ve signed up for. The result is a vague, insoluble unease. We have to run in order to stand still. That feeling is at the heart of the record.

Notwithstanding occasional eruptions of extreme drama, OK Computer specialises in the eeriness of the everyday. It creeps up on me in moments of mundane dislocation: jetlagged on a travelator, scrolling mindlessly through Twitter in a hotel room far from home, flinching when an algorithm knows more about me than it should, hearing recorded voices tell me that there is an unexpected item in the bagging area or that my call is important to them. A more explicitly zeitgeist-chasing record would have dated badly — many have — but Radiohead concentrated on evoking a mood rather than delivering a message, and that decision made it both of its time and future-proof. OK Computer allowed us to see, and feel, what was coming next.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Breakthrough farming technology using polymer film to grow food

Melinda Joe

In a tiny room inside the Mebiol Research and Development Center, a little over an hour outside of Tokyo, baby Kos lettuce leaves are growing in a tray under magenta-coloured lights. On another shelf, a miniature garden of microgreens is blooming across the surface of a salad dish. The seedlings have been cultivated without soil – atop a thin, transparent polymer film.

“Can you see the roots?” asks Hiroshi Yoshioka, Mebiol’s vice-president, lifting the edge of the plant-covered film to reveal a tangle of fine, pale filaments. He pulls the sheet off the plate and holds it in front of him like a leafy green carpet.

The polymer film is the key to a cutting-edge farming method that makes it possible to grow fruits and vegetables on practically any flat exterior. Made of hydrogel – a super absorbent material typically used in household products such as disposable diapers – the film works by soaking up water and nutrients through a multitude of nano-sized pores measuring one millionth of a millimetre in diameter. Plants grow on top of the film, but instead of digging into the ground, the roots spread across the surface of the membrane in wispy, fan-like formations.

A spry 75-year-old in a crisp blue-and-white striped shirt and navy blazer, Mori spent the majority of his career developing polymer technologies for the medical industry. However, he had long been fascinated by plant biology and found inspiration in the adaptability of the vegetable kingdom.

“In many ways, plants are more remarkable than humans,” he observes, pointing out that they sustain life on earth by providing a source of food for animals and removing excess CO2 from the air. “I was always thinking of how to maximise the power of plants.”

The idea of applying polymer technology to agriculture that came to him as he was building an artificial kidney nearly 20 years ago. He wondered if the same mechanisms used to construct synthetic blood vessels and membrane filters could be used as a growth medium for vegetables.
“Plants can solve many of society’s problems – from lifestyle diseases to environmental issues,” he explains. “I envisioned a world where we could take plants everywhere.”

He began by growing a small patch of grass on hydrogel film under LED lights. After more than a decade of experimentation, Mori and his colleagues developed a soil-free farming system that could be used to cultivate crops in greenhouses on a large scale.

According to a 2015 study by the University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre, the planet has lost a third of its arable land due to pollution and erosion in the past 40 years. The combined effects of over-cultivation and heavy fertiliser use have depleted soil at a rate that far outpaces the earth’s natural ability to recover. Climate change and extreme weather events have accelerated erosion, exacerbating the situation. The dramatic loss of fertile land comes at a time when the demand for food is rising: by 2050, food production will need to increase by 50 per cent to feed the world’s projected population of 9 billion.

Water shortages pose further risks to food security. The availability of fresh water has plummeted along with the decline in soil – shrinking by nearly two-thirds over the past four decades in regions such as the Near East and Africa.

Film farming can help by offering an alternative to resource-intensive agriculture. The Mebiol system uses 90 per cent less water than conventional farming.

The polymer membrane’s microscopic pores also block bacteria and viruses, eliminating the need for harmful pesticides. Since soil is not necessary, sustainable farms can be established virtually anywhere – in the desert, on city rooftops, and even on top of contaminated land. The method is being used in 150 locations around Japan and one in China – as well as on a farm in the middle of the desert in the United Arab Emirates. Mebiol plans to export its technology to Europe and other countries in the Middle East later this year.

Initially, farmers were sceptical, but the method is catching on among younger producers such as Ayaka Miura, the president of Drop Farm, which grows boutique tomatoes in Ibaraki Prefecture. Because the polymer film holds on to water molecules, the plants on top have to work hard to absorb water and nutrients. The stress causes them to develop higher levels of sugars, amino acids and phytochemicals. In much the same way that growing wine grapes in poor soil produces concentrated fruit.

Drop Farm grows boutique tomatoes in Ibaraki Prefecture, using polymer film farming technique. In Japan, the products are mainly sold at high-end department stores, but film-farmed tomatoes have also started showing up on menus at restaurants such as Tokyo’s Celeb de Tomato, while upscale eateries like Dubai’s Le Petit Maison will begin using the ingredients in spring.Drop Farm grows boutique tomatoes in Ibaraki Prefecture, using polymer film farming technique.

When I meet Mori on an unseasonably warm day, he offers me a bowl of cherry tomatoes grown on Mebiol’s test farm. Biting into the bright-red fruit, I feel as though I’m tasting in surround-sound; the flavours vibrate with treble notes of sweetness and base chords of mouth-filling umami. Mori gives me a knowing look.

He has seen the future of farming – and the future is sweet.