Wednesday, 6 October 2021

How Istanbul became the Silicon Valley of the mobile gaming industry


Kaya Genç

In February 18, 2019, just after 9 30 p.m., the Turkish video game giant Peak broadcast a TV ad that felt more like a military recruitment video: bird droppings dapple an unsuspecting driver’s window, and when he brakes and looks ahead, he notices a rhinoceros blocking the road.

“You never know what surprises life will place in your way,” a voice says. The scene cuts to black, and over the next three minutes, a message is slowly typed out across the screen: “Wake up… We’ll change the world. But first, we should introduce ourselves. If you think we’re joking, just change the channel and see how serious we are.”

Anyone who flipped the channel would have realized that the same commercial was playing across all of the national broadcasters simultaneously. For Peak, and by extension Turkey’s gaming sector, it was a bold, and expensive, show of force.

Over the last decade, Peak and other Turkish gaming studios have transformed Istanbul into the world capital of the “casual game” (otherwise known as free-to-play games) industry. Unlike AAA games, like Halo, Assassin’s Creed, or Final Fantasy, casual games are mobile-native, easy to learn, shorter to play and target the broadest audience possible. According to 2020 statistics, around 58.86% of all mobile game players are casual gamers. It’s estimated that the global market for casual gaming is worth more than $8 billion.

In March 2021, six of the Apple App Store’s top ten mobile games in the U.S. came from Turkish studios, including Basketball Arena, which asks players to steal the ball from opponents in head-to-head matches and go for slam dunks; the self-styled “super fun running game” Bounce Big, where players run around, collect items, improve the size of their backsides, and launch off pads (the winning player twerks at the end of each level); Deep Clean Inc. 3D, in which users scrub crusty iPhones and toilets; and Jelly Dye, in which players, well, inject dye into a jelly. And Istanbul has become a magnet for up-and-coming game developers.

Many of the industry’s biggest game studios, including Crytek and Voodoo, rent offices in Istanbul. Last year, gaming giant Zynga bought Peak for $1.8 billion, in its biggest acquisition to date, making Peak Turkey’s first unicorn. “We set out to show everyone that this could be done from Istanbul,” Peak’s co-founder Buğra Koç told Rest of World. “But first, we wanted to prove it to ourselves.”

On June 30, 2021, Istanbul-based Dream Games became a unicorn just four months after releasing its first game, Royal Match. The game has 6 million users, who help generate $20 million for Dream Games each month via in-game-purchases.

For Turkish developers, it’s been a heady time: Job boards in Istanbul are awash with posts for game developers, and top talent is regularly poached. The boom coincided with Turkey’s debt crisis, and the collapse of the Turkish lira. “Developing casual games became the American dream in this economically devastating time,” says Güven Çatak, founder and director of BUG lab, which offers undergraduate and graduate degrees on game design at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University. For some, game development has become a ladder to the middle and upper class.

But for others, the industry represents an empty promise. There’s a dark side to any boom, and developers report scenes of gaming sweatshops run by predatory contracts and worse, with developers expected to churn out multiple games a week, with no money up front. For those who burn out, a line of recruits is ready to take their place.

“After high school, Istanbul’s young game developers are chased and headhunted by vampirish publishers who sign them up on one-year contracts, which allow them to outearn their parents,” said Çatak. “For Turkish teenagers, the appeal of a career in game development is magnetic.”

At the turn of the 21st century, the list of successful video games developed in Turkey was short: the first game coded here was Keloğlan (1989), a Commodore 64 title based on a folk hero named Bald Boy. That was followed by Hançer (1992), an AMOS-coded strategy game focused on the inception of the Ottoman Empire, and the Tulip Warriors (1994), which garnered a small cult status for its recognizable setting (Istanbul) and original premise (players had to rescue the city from ignorance).

But gaming, more broadly, has always been a national pastime. In Istanbul’s many coffeehouses, or kıraathanes, visitors traditionally play backgammon, bezique, checkers, dominoes, board games, and okey, a tile-based game developed in the mid-20th century. In the 1980s, prompted by interest in gaming and the inability to buy consoles at home, entrepreneurs started opening “Atari salons,” essentially, kıraathanes with coin-operated arcade machines.

Indoor smoking was legal at the time, and Atari salons quickly developed a bad reputation for leading youth astray, poisoning them with nicotine, stealing away their pocket money, and making them lazy and academically unsuccessful. As the web took off, internet cafés copied the Atari salon formula. The first Turkish internet café opened in 1995 in Istanbul; around 30,000 other internet cafés followed over the next 17 years.

The real genesis of Turkey’s mobile gaming industry came in 2001, when İhsan Karagülle, then a 28-year-old coding teacher, wrote a simple program that indicated whether dial-up systems were working in the remote eastern region of the country where he was teaching at the time. The program proved popular, and he soon added a chat feature and a digital version of okey to keep users busy as they waited to get online. He hosted everything on his website,

“Our user base grew super fast,” Karagülle told Rest of World. As tens of thousands of people logged on at the same time to play okey from kıraathanes and their homes, Karagülle had to rent servers in Istanbul and Ankara to keep up. “We had to create [digital] salons and organize sitting arrangements.” monetized okey by building a franchise model and renting out these digital salons. Soon, hundreds of people were paying between 800 and 1,000 lira ($92 and $115) to run their own digital salons, where they could advertise companies, products, and services. Karagülle’s program could handle up to 743 salons, and, at the height of’s popularity, from 2010 to 2013, up to 60,000 people played simultaneously.

In a 2010 interview with the BBC, a Turkish farmer compared running a salon to being an Ottoman-era tribal chieftain: “Nobody can disagree with you. Imagine having a hundred subjects, kicking anyone you like out of your town, and making an administrator of anyone of your choosing and endowing them with power.”

Karagülle, meanwhile, saw them as 21st century alternatives to kıraathanes: “We’re good at bringing Turks and Kurds together. … The game smashes their prejudices.”

But soon the disrupter was disrupted. “When mobile gaming boomed, we started to lag behind,” Karagülle said. “In the good old days,” he continued, with a note of defeat in his voice, “more than 50,000 users played simultaneously.” By the fall of 2021, that number had fallen to 21,830. “We’re operating at half capacity,” Karagülle told Rest of World.

Just as Karagülle was launching Hakkarim, Peak’s co-founder Buğra Koç was busy honing his skills in the field of social gaming. Then a product manager at Mynet, a Turkish Yahoo-style web portal, he had noticed that Turks devoted most of their time online to chatting, followed by playing their beloved board games — backgammon, chess, and okey. 

Mynet owed its popularity to its arsenal of services, including email, news, sports, horoscopes, and audio streaming. In 2001, the company “decided to place all those people around tables and make them play board games,” Koç told Rest of World. Mynet’s free games platform, rolled out in the midst of a crushing financial crisis, was a smash hit. By 2012, Mynet’s games reached 12 million monthly active users; that year, Mynet was Turkey’s third most visited website after Google and Facebook.

Koç founded Peak as a mobile gaming company with a group of friends in 2010, with cards and board games as the company’s “starting point.” Peak would develop free-to-play (F2P) social games, and make money by selling cheap ads at scale. “We dreamt of creating a global consumer technology company from Istanbul,” says Koç. “We knew that F2P mobile games are the future of the entire business and a new way of socializing. So, we doubled downed on that idea.” Mynet’s success had shown them that F2P was the right model; globally, retail games were losing market share, especially in the aftermath of FarmVille’s immense success on Facebook. Koç was convinced that it was impossible to convince most Turks to pay to buy a game.

But there was little know-how in Turkey in terms of how to build F2P games. Koç said, “We had to play by ear and educate our team members.”

Koç partnered with Sidar Şahin, a 28-year-old college dropout who had spent a year in China researching in-game purchases and virtual goods — video game development elements he would master at Peak. Koç and Şahin first invested in the development of digital adaptations of okey games. Peak’s selling point, their company decided, would be reliability. “Although more than 99% of our users pay nothing,” Koç said, “we offered a 7/24 customer service line.” They would be the IBM of okey games.

“Our strength was the social nature of our games. They might not have perfect animations and technical qualities but they satisfied the needs of the day.”

The strategy paid off, and the company developed a solid following. When Peak released Komşu Çiftlik (“Neighboring Farm”) in 2010, a sort of Turkish FarmVille developed for Facebook, demand was immense. More than 1 million people followed its Facebook page.

“Our strength was the social nature of our games,” says Koç. “They might not have perfect animations and technical qualities, but they satisfied the needs of the day.” While other developers struggled with mobile, Peak went full throttle.

From there, Peak pivoted to other casual games: Toy Blast, released in 2015, has players match similarly colored cubes; Toon Blast, released a couple of years later and featuring Cooper Cat, Wally Wolf, and Bruno Bear, has players blast cubes and create combos to pass levels and help these characters travel around the world. These games found admirers, and even alleged imitators: in 2016, Peak filed a lawsuit against Hasbro, claiming the company had copied entire levels and design choices from its game Toy Blast. (The lawsuit was settled in 2017, out of court, for an undisclosed figure.)

Peak’s success — by the late 2010s, the company employed around 100 people — popularized the game developer industry in Turkey. The pace and quality of the workday at Peak was different than in traditional Turkish workplaces: developers were welcomed to agile spaces that offered employees self-determination and independence, qualities that many young Turks strive for but can’t find within Turkey’s oppressive political atmosphere. It was an attractive pitch, but it also belied an industry dependent on a brutal pace of work that left many developers overworked and undercompensated.

Güven Çatak, the BUG director, warns that although the current casual game industry in Turkey is thriving, it is also unsustainable and “based on super-fast consumption.”

Each year, BUG welcomes around 70 freshmen who hope to make it big in the gaming industry. “Parents in their 40s who relish games are more enthusiastic about sending their kids to our programs. They even force their children to become gamers,” Çatak told Rest of World. “‘You must enroll in this program, and we’ll have our own company,’ they say.”

At the outset, “everyone wants to do the next Assassin’s Creed,” said Çatak. But after a few months, “they face Turkey’s socioeconomic realities. Especially now, when the times are tough, people have to earn a living.” Students, Çatak says, tell him: “I am studying this thing I love passionately, but I’ve got to earn money for my family.”

While some well-heeled students see gaming as a shortcut to even greater affluence, there are also many who are unable to afford tuition to study gaming at university. Developing cheap games at volume becomes a lifeline. “They set up gaming teams to pay for the school fees,” says Çatak. Legions of young developers who come in hoping to work on top-tier games have to settle for working on F2P games for, in many cases, exploitative wages.

“If you can make a hit game, you earn a huge revenue,” said Çatak. But the odds of making a hit are infinitely slim. He compared the industry to a roulette wheel, with publishers at a distinct advantage. “The teams are the chips. The publisher has so many chips that wherever the ball falls, it ends up earning money.” A hit, Çatak added, can take care of a publisher’s spendings for a year or two. But for individual developers, a big hit may never come.

It’s true that the industry is supporting a growing sector of tech workers in Istanbul. “Thanks to casual gaming, you can now live in Turkey comfortably,” says Çatak. “Global companies pay wages in dollars, and they can spend more because the exchange rate makes manpower cheap.”

“To earn their wages they’re forced to churn out new ideas. They’re being milked. We can think of them like sweat shops.”

He points to the offices of Gram Games (founded in 2012 in Istanbul and acquired by Zynga) and Masomo (founded in 2015, in İzmir) as particularly appealing places to work. “They stream their events and parties on their YouTube channels; they offer holidays, private insurance. Their conditions are so good that, to those looking from outside, their employees seem to live in theme parks.”

But the cadence of working in the F2P industry is grueling, especially at smaller and poorly funded studios. “From casual gaming teams, one game per week is often expected,” Çatak said. “To earn their wages, they’re forced to churn out new ideas. They’re being milked. We can think of them like sweatshops.”

“After a while, this creates burnout,” Çatak says. “You’re consumed. Your creative energy is drained.” He compared these small studios to “mice running in their cycles” and warned that “they’ll be stuck there for a year or so.”

Peak’s co-founder Koç, who now leads Zynga’s Turkish operation, shares these concerns. He says casual games “have become a bread gate” for many people, but that the struggle to stay on top is exhausting. “People are constantly testing gaming metrics: ‘Which prototypes should I produce?’ they ask. ‘If I produce one prototype a week, it would make 52 in a year, which would give me a 5% chance of winning, and so I can make two or three good games a year.’”

A typical contract offered to Turkish game developers by one distributor, seen by Rest of World, offers a glimpse into the conditions of success. “The Parties agree that the CONSULTANT shall be paid 10% of the Net Profit generated by the COMPANY,” it reads. “The Fee that can be paid to the CONSULTANT for a game can be between 20.000,00.-USD and 100.000,00-USD.” For a Turkish games developer, that is the ideal scenario.

But the contract also contains the following clause: “In case Net Profit cannot be generated by the COMPANY or the Net Profit is below the amount of 200.000,00-EUR, the CONSULTANT will not receive any payment.” Meanwhile, peanut-sized fees are wired to Turkish developers to keep them afloat. “In case prototypes of ideas shared by the CONSULTANT are prepared and tested, if (i) the CPI shall be below USD 0.30, or (ii) day one retention value shall exceed 30%, the CONSULTANT shall be paid TRY 1,000 (one thousand Turkish Liras).”

In other words, the game is rigged. If enough users don’t return to the game, and the distributors can’t make a massive profit, the developer earns almost nothing. Devoting all their energies to churning out prospective hits that must prove themselves on first-day metrics, they often end up with the miserly fee of “TRY 1,000,” which, as of mid-September, 2021, equals just over $100.

In a newly published report by the gaming agency Gaming in Turkey, Erdinç İyikul, Riot Games’ country manager, described 2020 as “a year of great progress.” İlkay Tepe, Turkey country manager of Danish gaming peripherals company SteelSeries said it was “the most lucrative year ever” for the gaming sector. Gaming in Turkey’s founder, Ozan Aydemir, said: “We see that the pandemic increased the growth rate of the game industry, and the gameplay times increased by 30% during this period. The number of players in Turkey has reached 36 million. The size of the game industry is over $880 million.”

And investment in Turkish game studios continues to boom. Zynga bought Rollic for $168 million; Index Ventures, Play Ventures, and David Helgason invested $6.6 million in Bigger Games; London Venture Partners invested $4 million in Coda.

“Before Covid, we used to compete with cinemas, theaters, and cafeterias that shared our goal of stealing the maximum amount of people’s free time. Covid worked in our favor,” said Koç. These days he’s pondering how to adapt okey to augmented reality and VR sets.

A few miles away from his studio, just beneath Galata Kulesi, a medieval stone tower in central Istanbul, sits one of the city’s most famous kıraathanes, which has been here since 1891. Bank employees come here, as do lawyers and financiers who play backgammon, 51, king, quay, and other card and board games around the clock. A few hundred meters away, in Cihangir, another kıraathane houses a fountain in its garden, which dates from 1751.

Today, numberless kıraathanes stand on the edge of bankruptcy in Turkey. To survive, kıraathane owners had to sell their chairs and tables; a recent YouTube documentary on an Anatolian kıraathane shows an apocalyptic scene of overturned, dusty okey boards piling up on tables in an otherwise empty coffeehouse. Despite the current era of success, Turkey’s video game development sector remains in a precarious spot. The industry’s constant churn, Koç warns, could backfire, leaving Turkey’s game developers burned out, shortchanged, and at a loss. For F2P developers like Peak, that dilapidated kıraathane in Anatolia is a warning sign: no boom lasts forever.

Friday, 3 September 2021

Status seeking: the game we play at the expense of others

 William Storr

Life is a game. To understand this is to understand why the human world can be so maddening, angry and irrational. The behaviour of racists, transphobes, conspiracy theorists, cult members, religious fundamentalists and online mobbers becomes much more explicable when you realise that humans are programmed by evolution to be obsessively interested in status, and that this obsession is powerful enough to overcome the will to achieve equality, truth or the sense of generous compassion for our rivals.

The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It: Storr,  Will: 9780008354633: Books 

We play games for status incessantly and automatically. We do so because it’s a solution our species has come upon to secure our own survival and reproduction. As a tribal animal, our survival has always depended on our being accepted into a supportive community. But once inside any group, we’re rarely content to flop about on its lower rungs. We’re driven to rise within it. Back in the stone age, increased status meant access to better mates, more food and greater safety for ourselves and our offspring. The more status we earned, the greater our capacity to thrive and produce thriving children. So we’re driven to seek connection and rank, to be accepted into groups and win status within them. This is the game of human life.

No matter where you might travel, from the premodern societies of Papua New Guinea to the skyscraper forests of Tokyo and Manhattan, you’ll find it: humans forming groups and playing for status. In the developed world, we play political games, religious games, corporate games, sports games, cult games, legal games, fashion games, hobby games, video games, charity games, social media games, racial, gender and nationalist games. The variety feels infinite. Within these groups we strive for individual status, for acclaim from our co-players. But our groups also compete with rival groups in status contests: corporation battles corporation, football team battles football team. When our teams win status, we do too. When they lose, so do we. These games form our identity. We become the games we play. They’re built into our brains, part of how we experience reality. It’s simply not possible to opt out of it. But we can decide which games we choose to play.

As a 46-year-old, I’ve often felt self-conscious about my age and its various signs. Since completing my research, I’ve realise these signs are symbols used to measure status in a game I’m no longer required to play. Competing with the young in games of youth is not just hopeless, it’s dull. The trick is to find new games. There are different worlds to explore in the second half of life – most more meaningful than those of the first.

And there are so many to choose from. Humans are extraordinarily imaginary creatures who use almost anything to symbolise status: money, Twitter followers, literary tastes, power, the brand of a watch or the shape of a stomach. In 1948 the anthropologist William Bascom published an account of a status game on the Micronesian island of Pohnpei that was played with yams. The man with the largest yam at a feast would be declared “Number One” and praised by the chief for his generosity. The men of Pohnpei would furiously compete for this position, raising around 50 yams a year in secret, remote, overgrown plots that they’d creep out of bed at two in the morning to tend to. A single yam could take 10 years to grow, reach more than 4m in length, weigh over 90kg and require 12 men to carry into the feast using a stretcher.

Just as yam-growing gave the men of Pohnpei access to a status game and its precious rewards of connection and acclaim, so belief allows access to the games of religion, politics, cults and conspiracies – the more fervently you believe, the higher you rise. Covid-19 has shown the craziness that can erupt out of these dynamics. Against all apparent logic, the pandemic that’s killed more than four million worldwide hasn’t also wiped out belief in anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. By one estimate, more than five million Britons cling to anti-vax beliefs.

Acceptance of a symbolic belief allows access into the anti-vax game, but gaining significant status within it requires active belief – allowing the belief to possess you, and fighting for it out in the world. Such a process overwhelmed a young Pennsylvanian mother, Maranda Dynda, after she joined a social media group. She was 18 and pregnant, and her midwife encouraged her not to vaccinate her child. Concerned and confused, Dynda went to Google and typed in: “Why not vaccinate?” She immediately tumbled into an oubliette of irrationality, finally landing in Facebook.

“Facebook was the big one,” she said. “You find a Facebook group, join it and it sucks you in.” She was impressed by the strong female warriors she found in an anti-vax forum. “I grew up in a family of women. And I thought, look at all these mothers, these experienced women I’m surrounded by! I don’t know what I’m doing and they all know what they’re doing. Imagine you’re a kid who wants to be a firefighter and you visit a fire station and you see all the big, strong firefighters. You think, I want to be just like them. I wanted to be a cool, strong Mom who takes this knowledge I’ve suddenly gained and uses it for my benefit, my child’s benefit, the world’s benefit.”

Her indoctrination was rapid. “You’re socially rewarded for going with the group,” she said. “It’s Facebook likes, it’s comments like, ‘yeah way to go Mom, you’re so strong, you’re so smart, you’re doing the best thing.’” Soon, Dynda was out in the world, playing her new status game with enthusiasm, evangelising. “You want to bring it up with people you can argue with, because you want to be like, I’m smarter than you, I know more than you do.” Was part of the point of this to report back to the group, for status rewards? “That’s absolutely accurate. You were rewarded for that. The louder you were, the more unmovable you were, the higher you moved up socially.”

Dynda has since become a vaccine advocate. A wealth of evidence from psychologists and anthropologists supports her observations of her time playing the anti-vax game. When we join any group, we have an automatic tendency to identify high-status members and copy their beliefs, tastes and behaviours. We do this partly as a gameplay strategy: by blindly adopting the opinions and habits of the successful, we hope to become successful ourselves.

But it would be a mistake to conclude from all this that status pursuit is purely a curse. On the contrary, almost everything we think of as “good” in the world is underpinned by the mechanisms of the game. In the small, mobile bands in which our brains did much of their evolution, we won prestige by showing ourselves to be beneficial to the group. We could do this by demonstrating virtue (being generous, dutiful or courageous) or by being competent (a great hunter, honey finder or storyteller). Still today, we award prestige to those who are conspicuously virtuous or successful. The joy of status is nature’s bribe that tempts us into being useful.

Just as status pursuit drives anti-vax protests, it drives movements that truly change the world. The Industrial Revolution was launched out of thousands of status games. Britain of the time was an “associational world”, according to historian Peter Clark. Ambitious innovators met at clubs, conversation societies and coffee houses and founded learned organisations. The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce began in a London coffee house and gave out cash prizes or medals to its members. It still exists today, better known as the Royal Society of Arts. All these groups were games, motivating their members to reach for ever greater heights of genius with the infinitely precious rewards of connection and acclaim.

Status’s capacity to drive innovation is evident in the story of the iPhone. Former Apple executive Scott Forstall has recalled how Steve Jobs kept meeting a Microsoft executive at social functions. This man boasted Microsoft had “solved computing” with a tablet device that was operated with a special pen. “Any time Steve had any social interaction with that guy, Steve would come back pissed off,” said Forstall. “That guy shoved it in Steve’s face, the way they were going to rule the world with their tablets with pens. Steve came in Monday and there was a set of expletives and then it was like, ‘Let’s show them how it’s really done.’” The device that resulted became the iPhone. “It began because Steve hated this guy. That’s the actual origin of it,” said Forstall. “It was not good for Microsoft that Steve ever met this guy.”

In today’s strange and rageful online-mediated neoliberal world, we’re continually offered new and shifting symbols of what it is to be a winner: thinner, larger, whiter, darker, smarter, happier, brave-and-sadder with this career triumph and that many likes. When it becomes overwhelming, it’s useful to remind ourselves that these symbols we chase are often no less ridiculous than giant yams and that none of us are competing with everyone in the world, no matter how much it can feel that way. The great consolation of the game is that it’s not final victory we should seek in order to be happy, but simple, humble progress: the never-ending pleasure of moving in the right direction. Nobody wins the status game. They’re not supposed to. The meaning of life is not to win, it’s to play.

Monday, 16 August 2021

Singapore's concerted push to shore up its food resilience

Sandy Ong

It was a warm Singapore evening and well-heeled diners at the riverside restaurant 1880 were feasting on intriguing-sounding dishes like "Forest Floor" and "Flooded Future." But the real stars of the show were two less flamboyant-sounding mains: chicken and waffle, and chicken bao.

When served, the pan-fried chicken was firm and pulled apart tenderly at the touch of a fork. This, however, was no ordinary poultry. It was made from stem cells taken from a chicken feather and grown in special bioreactors.

The diners were among the first few paying customers to feast on lab-grown chicken.

Kaimana Chee -- a chef at San Francisco-based food startup Eat Just, which created the chicken -- helped whip up that night's meal. "I cried because I never thought I would see it on a consumer plate within my lifetime," he told Nikkei Asia.

With "so much regulatory red tape" and global caution surrounding lab-grown meat, Chee, 43, was convinced getting the green light would take years. He figured his mission at Eat Just, which he joined in 2016, was to concoct inspiring dishes that would "plant the seed for another generation."

So in December, when Singapore became the only country to approve the sale of such protein, Chee was dumbstruck. Many industry observers were less surprised.

"It's no coincidence that Singapore is the world's first cultivated meat market," said Mirte Gosker of the nonprofit Good Food Institute Asia Pacific (GFI APAC). "The government has invested the resources necessary to create a welcoming ecosystem for food innovation."

Singapore's foray into lab meat and alternative proteins -- those that come from plants, insects, algae and fungi -- is part of a concerted push to shore up its food resilience.

The city-state makes up Asia's vanguard in the battle to ensure reliable access to food. United Nations estimates suggest over 350 million people across the region are undernourished while roughly 1 billion faced moderate or severe food insecurity in 2019 -- either dealing with uncertain access or actually running out of food, sometimes for days. The challenge has become more pressing since COVID-19 hit, worsening acute food insecurity in Asia and giving governments alarming glimpses of how a crisis can affect supplies.

One approach Singapore has taken is to diversify its sources. It now imports food from over 170 countries and regions, about 30 more than in 2004.

It is also striving to become more self-reliant. In March 2019, it announced a "30 by 30" goal -- to produce 30% of its nutritional needs locally by 2030, up from 10%.

"Resilience means having the ability to withstand perturbations to the food supply," said Paul Teng, a food security expert at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

When Teng and his colleagues began studying food resilience around 2005, the focus was on food security. "Nobody listened to us," he said.

It is a subtle but important distinction. Wealthy Singapore ranks fairly high on measures of food security -- 19th on the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2020 global ranking -- but that does not mean it can rest easy.

"The government's strategy was, 'If we increase GDP, and have the means to purchase food, then we don't have to worry because somebody will always have food to sell,'" Teng said. "This is fine and dandy if there is no disruption to [the food] production and supply chain."

But price hikes during the 2008 financial crisis, Malaysia halting fish exports in 2014 and other events have highlighted vulnerabilities. Then came the pandemic.

"Globally, COVID-19 has resulted in some disruption, as some source countries banned exports of certain food items to cater to their domestic needs or went under lockdown," said Melvin Chow, senior director of the Singapore Food Agency's Food Infrastructure Development & Management Division.

He added that increasing production under the 30 by 30 strategy would provide a buffer to mitigate disruptions from abroad. But growing more food is easier said than done in Singapore, which measures 50 km by 27 km. With the world's third-highest population density, it has set aside only 1% of its land for agriculture.

 The city, which has always been deft at working around its space and resource constraints, now intends to "leverage our science and technology capabilities to develop innovative solutions," Chow said.

This is where Eat Just and similar startups come in. "Plant-based and cell-based proteins require far less space and resources to produce the same amount of food as traditional food sources," said Bernice Tay, director of food manufacturing at Enterprise Singapore, a statutory board dedicated to the development of small and mid-size businesses.

Eager to foster food tech, the government has allocated up to 144 million Singapore dollars ($107 million) for food-related R&D programs until 2025. Enterprise Singapore has also partnered with several global accelerators, including Big Idea Ventures, which has a $50 million fund for alternative proteins.

In April, Singapore launched a Future Ready Food Safety Hub to study the safety of novel foods and support companies' research. And in September, NTU will begin offering undergraduates a one-semester course focused on the science and business of producing alternative proteins, in collaboration with GFI APAC.

Andre Menezes, co-founder of Next Gen, a Singapore-headquartered company that introduced soy-based chicken thighs in March, called the city a "complete ecosystem in a very small, concentrated island."

"Singapore is starting to position itself as the Silicon Valley of food tech," said Menezes, whose thigh product is now found in over 45 local restaurants. In February, Next Gen raised $10 million in seed funding from a group of investors including Singapore's state-owned Temasek International -- the largest splash yet by a plant-based food tech venture. The company in June expanded into Hong Kong, Macao and Kuala Lumpur.

More than 15 alternative protein companies have set up shop in Singapore in the past two years. In addition to Eat Just and Next Gen, these include international players such as California dairy-substitute maker Perfect Day as well as homegrown Shiok Meats and Gaia Foods, which are working to produce cultured seafood and red meat, respectively.

Another pillar of Singapore's 30 by 30 goal is high-tech, indoor urban farming. Thirty-one such farms already exist -- 28 for vegetables, three for fish.

The fact that the farms are indoors makes them "resilient against some of the impacts of climate change," Chow said. They employ smart technologies that "allow us to grow more with less," with yields 10 to 15 times higher per hectare compared to traditional vegetable and land-based fish farms.

One farm, Commonwealth Greens, can harvest up to 100 tons of vegetables annually, close to 1% of all leafy greens grown locally. In high-ceilinged rooms of a large industrial building, it grows rows of verdant mustard, chard, sorrel and various lettuces in plastic containers. Each grow rack is roughly 1 meter long and paired with its own strip of LED lights, suspended from the ceiling like a series of bright vertical blinds.

The "brains" of the system lie at the front of each room: two sensors. One controls the air temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide and acidity levels. The other measures the amount and composition of liquid nutrients supplied to the greens.

"Our technology combines the use of the Internet of Things, which enables us to gather very rich amounts of data that is critical for the plants," said Sven Yeo, co-founder and chief technology officer of Archisen, the agritech company that runs the farm.

"When we grow crops, we have something called a crop recipe," he said. This is essentially a list of parameters -- light, pH, temperature, and so on -- that Yeo and his team refine to optimize a plant's growth so that it "maximizes its nutrition and flavor profile."

The hydroponics-based system consumes 95% less water and 85% fewer fertilizers than traditional, soil-based ones.

Proponents say indoor farms and alternative proteins offer better produce and cleaner meats, with minimal or none of the pesticides, antibiotics or hormones commonly found in today's food products.

"Consumers are increasingly more critical of the food they are eating," said Aileen Supriyadi, a research analyst at the market research firm Euromonitor International. "Especially with the recent COVID-19 pandemic and African swine fever cases affecting livestock in the region, consumers have grown more concerned with regard to food safety."

Cultured meat, in particular, has its skeptics. In a YouGov Omnibus survey of 1,068 Singaporeans in December, 42% of the respondents said they would not eat such meat, local media reported. A Euromonitor survey in 2020 found that 36.5% of Asia-Pacific consumers preferred all-natural products, compared with 33.3% in Europe and 28.4% in North America.

Still, for Singapore, the high-tech farms and labs provide plausible solutions for increasing food production.

Some experts believe they can be a way forward for other Asian countries, too. Indoor farms are not new. NTU's Teng said there are more than 400 throughout Asia. But compact, high-yielding ones are especially useful in "highly urbanized cities with higher purchasing power, where real estate cost is high," Archisen's Yeo said.

Jakarta is a good example, according to Christian Prokscha, founder of Eden Towers, which opened a vertical farm there in February. "You can grow things on the hills outside Jakarta," he said, "but the problem is that you have a very long logistics route."

Additionally, Yeo says "the one big challenge" of indoor farms is the cost of facilities and sophisticated equipment. Singapore has provided generous grants over the years, including a SG$60 million fund launched in April that helps would-be farmers defray initial building expenses. But few Southeast Asian countries have pockets as deep as Singapore's.

When it comes to alternative proteins, high selling prices are another tall hurdle.

Nevertheless, Asia is "uniquely primed to capitalize on the shift toward alternative proteins," said GFI APAC's Gosker, citing the region's "rich agricultural landscapes, expansive infrastructure and manufacturing power, world-renowned innovation hubs and unparalleled market size."

She went on: "Local producers now have the ability to source a nearly unlimited range of ingredients, process them in new and innovative ways, and manufacture the next generation of plant-based meat -- all in the same corner of the world."

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Uniqlo jumps into in-house production with new 'made in Tokyo' line

Keiichi Furukawa

Uniqlo is rolling out Friday its first made-in-Tokyo clothing, a limited release heralding a new design process and business model for operator Fast Retailing.

              These 3D knitting machines from Shima Seiki at Uniqlo's Innovation Factory turn out fabric around the clock

The three new items, which include a 2,990 yen ($27) 3D-knit cotton crewneck sweater, will be available at a Uniqlo flagship store in central Tokyo and online.

Fast Retailing plans to produce just enough to meet customer demand -- a model made possible by the first foray into manufacturing by a company that had relied entirely on outside suppliers to make roughly 1.3 billion pieces of clothing a year.

The centerpiece of this strategy is a building in a manufacturing-heavy area of Shinonome on Tokyo Bay, with no signs outside connecting it to Fast Retailing. In this tidy space, machines from Fast Retailing partner Shima Seiki Manufacturing steadily churn out seamless knit fabric. Operating around the clock, this facility produces 1,000 pieces of fabric per day.

The plant, started up in April, is operated by Innovation Factory, a joint venture with Shima Seiki that was a subsidiary of the knitting machine maker before Fast Retailing boosted its stake late last year to 51% from 49%.

"Having a factory that we lead ourselves will enable closer cooperation between our headquarters in Ariake [in Tokyo] and production," Innovation Factory CEO Tomoya Utsuno said.

The usual development cycle for Fast Retailing products has had issues with disconnect between physically distant teams.

It starts off with planning by a team at the Ariake office, which works out numerical specifications for the new item. Once preparations for mass production get underway, the Ariake team then coordinates with the Innovation Factory, which was previously based in Wakayama, about 500 km west of Tokyo.

But such details as texture cannot be quantified, according to Fast Retailing, and changes would sometimes be needed close to the start of the production run if the item turned out differently from what the development team had envisioned.

And because of the long distance between the Ariake headquarters and the Innovation Factory in Wakayama, staff rarely went so far as to travel there to check prototypes and make adjustments in person.

"Fast Retailing wasn't involved enough, and there were issues with product launches and the like being slow to get off the ground, " Utsuno said.

Since the launch of the Shinonome facility in April, product development personnel from Ariake have visited in person once a week, according to Utsuno. The shorter distance makes it easier to coordinate, improving communication between the teams. Fast Retailing looks to cut the time from product design to preparing for mass production from three months to one month or shorter.

The plan is to make new products from the Innovation Factory available at the Tokyo flagship store for limited runs, letting Fast Retailing gauge demand.

"We'll observe consumer trends, then switch to larger-scale production overseas" if products turn out to be hits, Utsuno said. This will help the company cut down on unnecessary production and unsold inventory.

Chairman, President and CEO Tadashi Yanai has said for some time that the Shinonome facility would be a global "mother factory" for 3D-knit products.

By having the facility coordinate with the research and development division at Fast Retailing's headquarters and share information with suppliers in Vietnam and China, the company will be able to roll out products from Shinonome simultaneously outside Japan as well.

Monday, 21 June 2021

Anthropology can help us understand ourselves, our tribes, companies and communities

Margaret Heffernan

As a teenager, one of my most memorable education experiences was reading about a tribe in North America called the Nacirema. They resorted to odd oral rituals and their women baked their heads in ovens.

Most students were appalled by such barbarity, only for our teacher to reveal that the tribal name spells American backwards. We were reading about ourselves — through the eyes of an anthropologist. It was an unforgettable learning experience, leaving me with an abiding respect for outside perspectives.

I did not become an anthropologist, but Gillian Tett did. The skills she acquired studying the marriage rituals of Tajikistan gave her a way of seeing — lateral vision, asking questions, assuming nothing — that notably yielded rewards when she predicted the financial crisis of 2007-08. In her new book, Tett, an FT journalist, makes a compelling case that “anthro-vision” can help us understand ourselves, our tribes, companies and communities, and to reduce our wilful blindness.

 Tett describes how anthropology has fuelled her journalism. Open-ended curiosity, interpreting markets through their symbols and rituals, illuminated early the dangerous isolation of the financial sector and, later, the growth of ESG investing. Another Tett observation — that the tech sector was starting to look like pre-crash finance in its arrogance, wealth and isolation from reality — was just as important.

Engineers are a tribe much like bankers: isolated by power, money and a language no one else understands. They impose their values on products, which forces us to behave in highly constrained ways, undermining our autonomy.

Quoting the anthropologist Jan English-Lueck, Tett concludes that engineers have merged “useful”, “efficient” and “good” into a single moral concept — but that morality is not comprehensively shared. The techlash has been fuelled by assumptions technologists made — about voters, consumers, students and teachers — without any engagement with those communities. Why not, Tett asks, work with these groups, and understand their values and concerns, rather than against them?

We’ve been sold the myth that with enough hard data, we can know everything. But numbers can only show what is, they don’t reveal why. Soft data is what anthropology reveals: the meaning behind behaviours. In Japan, a KitKat isn’t a relaxing snack (“Have a break”), it’s a good-luck charm. In Malaysia and Singapore, a car isn’t just a machine for travelling safely; it’s also a haven of social safety that people treat quite a lot like home.

Anthropological insights don’t come from surveys but from fieldwork: directly observing and talking to people. Without such understanding, we force-fit meaning on to others, make costly mistakes and miss opportunities for knowledge, innovation and legitimacy.

So-called scientific management — using metrics to assess everything from productivity to employee mood — hasn’t prevented numerous business failures. Focus on returns raised no concerns about some reckless banks pre-2007, but the practice of awarding cash or cabbages to high or low performers would have caught an anthropologist’s eye.

After each such fiasco, culture is deemed the culprit, HR deputed to design surveys and the ensuing change programmes, which mostly fail. But companies are communities and anthropologists, whose study is the social systems of meaning, could bring more pragmatic insight. Meetings don’t carry the same expectations to different people, just as the culture on one floor of a building won’t necessarily be the same as on another. Decades of leadership and teamwork consulting have focused on retraining individuals, whereas unpacking webs of collective meaning could untangle knotted collaboration. The recommendation not to hire for cultural fit is just one of several good and possibility-rich suggestions.

With case studies and examples ranging from Google’s errors to pandemic beards, Tett explains anthropological revelations invisible to computers. I found myself thinking of other, unsolved, cases that might be cracked by thinking like an anthropologist: the toxic Home Office, the flailing Church of England or our failure to design really good education systems. Where data scientists and ideologists assert, anthropologists could reveal.

Inventing words in the hope of creating a brand has become a tiresome fad in business publishing, but “anthro-vision” is a useful way to illuminate much that can’t be seen any other way — and so are philosophy, literature and history. 

In an age obsessed with hard science, it’s becoming painfully obvious that the so-called “soft” subjects — social sciences and the humanities — have the power to reveal what otherwise remains obscure. One of the glories of Anthro-Vision is that it never argues (as many do) that its way of seeing is the only way. It’s a timely call for decision-makers to wean themselves off their dependency on big data and embrace the full complexity of human life.