Cars, Homes, Skills, Worker Classification

Retail Isn’t Dying, It’s Being Revolutionized

By Kish Rajan

There’s almost nothing more depressing than the sight of a dying mall. If you’ve ever walked through one of these places, you know the sadness of the empty store fronts, the echoing atriums and the going out of business sales at the few remaining shops.

It’s enough to make anyone think that we’re witnessing the end of in-person shopping as we transition to online purchasing. But don’t let those sad malls fool you. Retail is far from dead — but it is evolving in ways that could benefit both shoppers and workers.

First, it’s worth noting that the death of brick and mortar shopping has been greatly exaggerated. E-commerce only accounts for 10% of retail overall. According to NPD, 95% of Americans shop at Wal-Mart while only 42% shop at Amazon. And those dying malls? They’re more a sign of overdevelopment than a harbinger of the obsolescence of retail. The number of malls in the U.S. grew more than twice as fast as the population between 1970 and 2015 according to research from Cowen & Co. What we’re seeing now is more of a rightsizing than a decline.

And many malls are reinventing themselves. Take the Westfield Mall outside of Los Angeles. Located in the heavily Asian San Gabriel Valley, it’s often almost impossible to find parking there on the weekends. Once a sleepy shopping center stocked with the usual suspects, the mall is now home to outposts of hot Asian retailers like SST&C out of Taiwan and Muji, a Japanese lifestyle store.

You see this kind of rethinking of retail everywhere you go. Online stores like Warby Parker and Modcloth are popping up in real life around the country. At the same time classic brick and mortar shops, like Nordstromand Best Buy, are using their physical stores to help drives sales online and vice versa.

This kind of creativity is exciting but it is just part of the overall evolution in retail. As more shopping moves online, it’s inevitable that we’ll see a change in the overall demand for different kinds of workers. Just look at Amazon Go, the online retailer’s latest foray into the real world. The Settle-based supermarket will work completely by automation. You just take what you need and leave and Amazon charges your account without requiring any human interaction at all. It’s a delight for shoppers but could dramatically reshape the number and types of jobs in future grocery stores.

As low-paid jobs fade, they’ll be replaced by higher-paying jobs in both physical and online retail. A recent study by the Progressive Policy Instituteshows that while retail saw a gain of 27,000 jobs last year, ecommerce jobs climbed by 97,000. Those ecommerce jobs pay an average $21.13 compared to an average $16.65 per hour in general retail.

But the trick will be moving displaced workers into better jobs that will pay more. It’s naïve to think that a laid-off cashier in a small town in Alabama can just pick up and move to a higher paying ecommerce job that might be located in Washington state.

In order for the new economy to benefit everyone, we have to make sure these new jobs are available to everyone. We can do that by ensuring technology jobs are spread throughout the country, not just concentrated in places like Silicon Valley and Boston. Smaller towns can become tech hubs. Just look at what’s happening in Augusta, Ga., where a group of entrepreneurs are building incubators and helping to create a tech-friendly environment.

We also need to laser focus on retraining workers. That means tech companies and government working together to come up with smart new ways to train people. One good example of this is TechHire Eastern Kentucky. Launched by Ankur Gopal, the CEO of Interapt out of Louisville, Ky., with support from the local government, the program trains people through class study and apprenticeships to move into tech jobs.

If we are to successfully move to the next phase of retail, which will be a mix of brick-and-mortar and ecommerce, we need to make sure there are new and better opportunities for workers. Those opportunities will come from creative new shops as well as good-paying tech and warehouse jobs. It’s a mix that will be good for customers, and good for employees.

Kish Rajan is Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates.

SB 182 Will Help Move California’s Economy Into The 21st Century

By Kish Rajan

If you live in any big city in California, chances are you’ve used a rideshare service to go to or from the airport. It’s become such an easy option that most of us take it for granted.

But a lot of effort goes into making that ride so easy for you. And much of that effort comes from the drivers — independent entrepreneurs who have turned their cars in to rolling small businesses.   These small business owners enjoy the freedom, flexibility and rewards of being their own bosses — even if just for a few hours per week.

And while they are experts in navigating the streets of their communities where they drive, they can often be challenged by all the government regulations they have to navigate. Los Angeles County, for example, is made up of 88 different municipalities and each of those municipalities has its own business license standards for drivers. As they drive through different towns, drivers are subject to different licenses, fees and requirements.

Driving from San Jose to Oakland a driver goes through 5 different cities. All over the state, drivers are moving through different cities every day — and running the risk of getting fined for not having the right business license.

But to expect drivers to obtain licenses from every municipality they might go through is unreasonable. Most licenses cost around $100 each and those fees start to add up creating a serious barrier to entry for new drivers who are really entrepreneurs (87% of Uber drivers, for example, say they drive because they want to be their own boss). As a state, we want to do everything we can to encourage entrepreneurship and to help give people the freedom to change jobs and build new businesses. We don’t want to burden people with unnecessary regulations.

This is as perfect example of a modern industry operating under outdated regulations. Of course it’s important that people feel like they are in the hands of licensed professional whether they’re getting a massage, hiring a plumber or getting a ride. But forcing those businesspeople to get often redundant business licenses just because they cross a municipal line is old-fashioned thinking. In today’s economy, people need to be able to go where their customers are and that’s not always in the same town.

That’s why we support SB 182. The bill would allow drivers to obtain one business license that could be used across municipal lines. Drivers would be able to move freely around the state knowing they are licensed to operate everywhere; and passengers would get the assurance that they are in a car with a driver who has a business license in addition to the stamp of approval from the rideshare company.

The bill also stands to benefit the many different municipalities of California. Instead of having the state issue the business license, it could be issued by the driver’s home town. That way, if a driver is based in Livermore but mostly picks up riders in San Francisco, Livermore would get the benefit of the licensing revenue.

SB 182 also helps protect drivers’ privacy. Some jurisdictions publicly post addresses of people who apply for business licenses. Because drivers essentially work out of their cars, their home addresses have been made public. SB 182 would ensure that when drivers apply for licenses, their addresses remain private.

This bill should be seen as a model for legislation going forward. The sharing economy (or as I prefer to call it, the personal enterprise economy) is going to continue to be an important part of our economic mix. We need to make sure our laws and regulations are updated to protect workers as well as customers. SB 182 acknowledges that the world is changing and creates smart regulations that make sense in today’s world.

Kish Rajan is chief evangelist at CALinnovates and former director of Gov. Jerry Brown’s GOBiz initiative. He can be contacted at kish@CALinnovates.org.

Technology Hits The Fields

By Mike Montgomery

During a recent blizzard in Massachusetts, Sonia Lo, CEO of FreshBox Farms, was in a grocery store suggesting to skeptical patrons that they sample her leafy greens. “They were picked yesterday,” is what she told tasters. She also told them no, they weren’t picked elsewhere and flown in that morning. Lo’s greens — over 30 different types — grow year-round in an airtight modular box in Millis, Massachusetts. Every plant’s tray is attached to a sensor to determine just the right amount of water, nutrients and LED lighting the plant needs.

“We have an algorithm for every plant variety,” says Lo. They measure around 10,000 data points per plant for factors such as environment, nutrients, plant stress and LED light. “We have our own software intended to identify if the plants are unhappy. We don’t use chemical controls — we rely on these digital points to pre-empt plant stress and allow for extraordinary things like faster grow times.”

As corporate investors start putting their money into agriculture technology (ag tech) startups, shoppers might just start seeing a lot more fresh crops at their local stores, even in the dead of winter.

Ag tech — from hobbyist to huge commercial farms — is taking off. CB Insights defines ag tech as “technology that increases the efficiency of farms (in the form of software), sensors, aerial-based data, internet-based distribution channels (marketplaces) and tools for technology-enabled farming.”

A recent report from Boston Consulting Group says that “new technologies are revolutionizing agriculture.” In fact, according to this report, venture capital firms have upped their ag tech investments by 80% since 2012 — even though commodity prices remain volatile.

Cleveland Justis, the executive director of the Mike and Renee Child Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at University of California, Davis says his campus is seeing a lot of traffic from venture capitalists as well as big industry companies who are looking for fresh agricultural technologies. Researchers at UC Davis are working on food growth technologies such as gut microbiome innovations, precision farming and drought-friendly cultivation.

“Companies are seeing this as a hub of science around how we feed people and make more resilient crops with less,” Justis says. “How are we going to feed 9 billion people in the future? Not with a simple software program. We’re going to have to use really deep, cutting-edge research to inform these processes.”

The software market for precision farming (such as yield monitoring, field mapping, crop scouting and weather forecasting) is expected to grow 14% between 2016 and 2022 in the United States. Dale Jefferson, president and COO of CropZilla Software Inc., says that in less than two years, his precision farming startup’s software has been installed in farms across the U.S. and Canada, and it is even being tested in Italy. His software takes into account every aspect of a farm, from the types of seeds planted to the number of workers and combines in use.

“We create a digital model,” he says. Farmers can use the software to play with variables and see how potential changes — such as an expensive combine purchase or hiring 10 new field hands — can affect their forecast. For instance, a Midwestern farmer recently used CropZilla to see what would happen if he took his soybean planting schedule from one 12-hour shift to two 10-hour shifts. “The numbers worked out to a five bushel-per-acre increase,” Jefferson says. The farmer made an additional $170,000 from his soybean yield after making this change.

“With corn and bean prices down, farmers are turning to technology to help them survive,” Jefferson says.

This piece was originally published in Forbes. 

Staying In A D.C. Hotel For Inauguration Weekend? Prepare To Be Gouged

By Mike Montgomery

This weekend will be a historically busy one for Washington D.C. Today, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States in front of the U.S. Capitol, where his fans were out en masse to watch. Saturday, hundreds of thousands will flood the streets of the city to protest his presidency.

No matter which side of the fence they’re on, every D.C. visitor staying in a hotel had one thing in common: They all paid an insane amount for lodging.

We did some research into rooms this coming weekend and found that hotels are jacking up their prices by more than 800%. Book a room at the Fairmont in Georgetown earlier in January and you would have paid $190 per night for a room with a king bed. The weekend of the inauguration? That same room will cost you $1,600 per night (and you’ll have to book for at least three nights.)

Prices won’t be any better in Dupont Circle. A room at the Kimpton Carlyle Hotel, which would typically go for $99 per night, will cost you $899 per night the weekend of the inauguration.

It is a shame that these absurd rates put hotel rooms out of reach for most Americans who might want to either see democracy in action or protest the people who are soon to be running the country.

Read the full article here.

The Cautionary Tale Of George Hotz And The Self-Driving Car

by Mike Montgomery

George Hotz is one of the best-known hackers in America. At just 17 years old, he was the first person to unlock an iPhone so it could be used by multiple carriers. He cracked the security on the PS3 and was sued by Sony. The two settled out of court with Hotz promising he would never again tinker with Sony security.

After years of angering corporations, Hotz decided to go legit, trading in his black hat for a white one, signifying his status as a newly minted good guy. He worked for both Facebook and Google before starting his own company Comma.ai, last year. At this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, he unveiled the company’s first product — the Comma One, a $999 box that could help make Honda Civics and some Acuras almost self-driving cars.

But then, last week, any excitement Hotz’s announcement had created disappeared because of some regulatory intervention. All it took was one sharply worded letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for Hotz to pack up his toys and go home. The letter, which Hotz posted here, said that the NHTSA needed to ensure that the device didn’t have a “safety-related defect” that might put drivers in danger.

In a series of tweets, Hotz said: “Would much rather spend my life building amazing technology than dealing with regulators and lawyers. It isn’t worth it. The comma one [sic] is canceled. Comma.ai will be exploring other markets and products. Hello from Shenzhen, China.”

But Hotz’s story isn’t about a new product being regulated to death; it’s about entrepreneurs who fail to take the realities of our government into account when they start to build their companies. Certainly, the NHTSA was simply doing its job ensuring public safety, and perhaps the agency could have communicated its concerns in gentler way rather than Napstering the potentially revolutionary device. But had Hotz gone into this with a team that understood the regulatory environment, this axle-breaking speed bump could have been avoided.

Read the full article here.

Palm Springs Airport Faces Growing Pains: Modernize or Marginalize

by Mike Montgomery

Tonight, the Palm Springs City Council will make a decision about the future of the region’s airport that will move the Coachella Valley into the modern era, or leave it behind in the dusty past.

At issue is a vote to allow city staffers to consider regulations to let rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft pick up passengers at the airport. This matter should have been settled last month but instead of making a decision, the five members of the City Council kicked the can down the road, without even laying the groundwork for their staffers to begin the process of ushering in modern policies for Palm Springs International Airport (PSP).

It’s never an easy road for rideshare companies. The taxi lobby is deeply entrenched, moneyed and willing to fight for its dwindling market share rather than modernize and upgrade its offering. That fight is in conflict with consumer demand, which is clearly and quickly moving to rideshare companies.  Other major airports across the state, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose already allow Uber to pick up passengers. By keeping rideshare companies away from the airport, the City Council is turning the Palm Springs International Airport into a second-class transportation hub and marginalizing the area’s residents and tourists in the process.

Unfortunately, a cursory reading of the tealeaves indicates a disappointing outcome for rideshare companies. Currently, the City Council would likely vote against advancing this conversation. Never mind that this means rideshares can drop people off at the airport but not pick them up, a scheme that makes no sense to average people who are just looking for a ride. But such is the strength of the taxi lobby.  Common sense would lead one to believe that there is in fact no difference between allowing platform companies like Uber to drop off passengers (which is currently allowed) and pick them up, but the taxi lobby has done a phenomenal job of warding off competition and will continue doing so until the threat passes.

Taxi officials have raised the false specter of alcohol and drug testing as an excuse to keep rideshare companies away from the airport. But if you think drug and alcohol testing do anything to make rides safer, think again. Study after study has shown that these tests are wildly inaccurate, easy to manipulate, and provide no additional safety.

Similarly, the taxi industry is trying to force ridesharing to use their antiquated system of fingerprint-based background checks. Again, rideshare companies have already found more effective methods for making sure their drivers are being safe. They do comprehensive background checks, monitor rides in real-time and encourage riders to rate drivers and file complaints (again in real-time) if necessary. The taxi companies cannot offer this level of service to their customers.

But my voice doesn’t count in this vote and neither do the voices of elected officials and residents of Cathedral City, Coachella, Desert Hot Springs, Indian Wells, Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage. The only people who matter are those five members of the City Council.

Uber recently circulated a petition in Palm Springs asking residents to voice their support for the continuation of the airport discussion — 3,000 people signed in one week. A taxi-led petition to stop the furtherance of Uber pickups at the airport garnered a mere 300 signatures. It’s clear that the people of Palm Springs, and its 1.5 million airport passengers, deserve to move into the future when it comes to their transportation choices.

The City Council should reconsider its stance in favor of pro-consumer policies rather than pro-incumbent protectionism and give the people what they want: an airport offering modern services for the modern era.

Why Clinton And Trump Need To Talk About Technology At The Next Debate

Technology is central to our lives. But you wouldn’t know it by listening to the candidates.

By Kish Rajan

This week’s debate between vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine was the second time we’ve seen candidates come together on the national stage to discuss the issues. For the second time, technology was basically left out of the conversation.

I guess that shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise. This year’s election, more than any other I can remember, has been more about emotion than substance. The most important issues seem to be getting pushed to the sidelines in favor of personal jabs.

But I can’t help feeling disappointed. These debates have been a real missed opportunity. Tech is quickly becoming the driver of our economy. According to the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM jobs are growing at 13% per year, faster than any other sector. Tech jobs pay some of the highest wages, and for every new tech job, 4.3 more jobs are created in other fields thanks to the multiplier effect, according to the Bay Area Council.

At the same time, tech is decimating some industries and forever changing the nature of work. As technology makes everything from buying our groceries to writing news stories easier, traditional jobs are being lost and they’re not coming back. This is something our leaders need to face head on.

In the first debate, Hillary Clinton made a glancing reference to the power of innovation to create new jobs, but it was far from enough.

There’s a lot at stake in this election. In order to help grow the technology industry and protect workers, we need to modernize tax policies, come up with new strategies for education and workforce development, increase access to capital to start new businesses and reform regulations. These issues need to become part of the conversation.

Immigration is top of mind for many tech entrepreneurs but not in the way the candidates talk about it. Silicon Valley doesn’t want to keep immigrants out; it wants to let them in. The leaders in the Bay Area want to make it easier for entrepreneurs and engineers to cross our borders so new companies can be founded and others can hire the best and the brightest, no matter what country they’re from.

Then there is the sharing economy — I call it the Personal Enterprise Economy — which is growing in leaps and bounds. Companies such as Uber, Airbnb and Task Rabbit are remaking the economy in incredibly fundamental ways. A job is no longer for life; that’s just reality. These new companies are opening up new opportunities for people who may be underemployed or who just want more flexibility to control their own work life.

That doesn’t mean we don’t need regulations here to protect both workers and consumers. The choices the government makes about those regulations will have an enormous impact on whether or not this industry and its workers thrive.

And this new, tech-driven, future of work means that we need to rethink things such as tax breaks and benefits. Obamacare was a good start in that it gave everyone the chance to get health care without having to stay beholden to a specific employer. But we need to go further. More benefits need to be portable, sticking to the worker not the employer. We need to talk about things like wage insurance and evolving our tax code to reflect the changing nature of work.

There’s also the digital divide, a serious problem that is rarely publicly discussed among elite politicians. While at the top end of the economic scale people have access to iPhones, lightning-fast broadband and the newest whiz-bang wearables, too often people at the bottom are struggling with dial-up service if they have any access to the internet at all.

In order for this lower-income group to thrive, they need to be able to have steady broadband access, not just to be able to keep in touch with loved ones and take advantage of growing entertainment opportunities. This is much-needed technology that will allow them to apply for jobs, get online training and access benefits that are increasingly going digital.

Closing this divide needs to be a priority for our government. It would be great if our next president acknowledged this and talked about ways to fix the problem.

Technology can help create new jobs and move the economy forward but it can also leave people behind in its wake. We need to be dealing with both sides of the issue.

There are two more debates on the schedule. I’ll be watching next Sunday’s town hall closely to see if the candidates talk more about technology. I hope they will. Personal insults and clever one-liners are great for reality TV. But they don’t help much when it comes to leadership.

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