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‘Robots Will Curate Our Best Futures’

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Renowned New York-based futurist Faith Popcorn was in South Africa recently when she also spoke to FORBES AFRICA about the trends that will shape the future. Here are some of her mind-boggling predictions.

She is the TREND-SPOTTER who famously coined the word ‘cocooning’ in 1981, and got most of her predictions right. Faith Popcorn was in South Africa in November at a Virgin Atlantic and Investec event titled ‘Business Is An Adventure’. As the founder & CEO of Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve, a future-focused trend consultancy, she applies her foresight to reposition established brands and create the products and services of tomorrow. The best-selling author lives in Manhattan and Wainscott, New York, with her two Chinese daughters. We ask her to tell us more:

What are the Top 5 trends for the future?

Being Alive: We are a wellness-obsessed culture – it’s our way of feeling in control in an out-of-control world. The era of the ‘quantified self’ means we can parse our biometric data to find out exactly what will optimize our health, and emotional and spiritual wellness are becoming critical. Tech and AI – ‘embeddables’, ‘swallowables’ and AI – will anticipate our needs and help us achieve optimal health. A little chip will sense, ‘oh, bad mood coming… let me dose you with CBD or change your brainwaves to get rid of that’.”

Save Our Society and AtmosFear: This pairing of trends recognizes that our planet is in peril – beyond peril, it’s dying – and says we must do anything and everything to save it. Values are the ‘new value’. No person, brand or business can survive in the coming years without a commitment to heal our earth. If that means solving for fossil fuels or building an asparagus farm on Mars – just do it.

EVEolution: I thought this would have accelerated beyond where it is today, but in the years ahead, it will be absolutely primary. The biggest wealth transfer in history – over $20 trillion – will mostly benefit women. Women are earning more degrees than men at every educational level, are starting businesses at two times that of men and refusing to put up with oppression – look at #metoo and #timesup as the seeds of this. In the future, the discussion won’t be about parity and closing the gender gap. It will be about women superseding and leading men.

Vigilante consumer: If you thought the consumer was already at its peak demanding accountability and transparency, brace yourselves. Companies will have to divulge everything. Your consumer will demand to know about your inclusivity policies on staff; what your political values are; they will know your recycling and plant-friendly policies in full detail – and when you’re green-washing. Many conglomerates will flounder and fail due to this… and disruptors will be waiting to dive in and take their business.

What do the terms ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘gender-free’ mean to you?

Gender fluidity means the person, regardless of what gender they were assigned at birth, feels that their identity fluctuates from the old, binary norm. So maybe you are a man who one day feels feminine, wears earrings and nail polish; another day, you feel macho and wear a suit. Or maybe you feel somewhat feminine all the time… but you do not adhere to the old-school gender norms. This is not about sexual orientation, to whom you are attracted. It’s about how you feel in your own skin, relating to the world. Gender-free is the response to gender fluidity. It’s why P&G removed the female Venus symbol from menstrual products to be inclusive of trans-men. It’s why Mr. Smith makes haircare for all; Jecca makes cosmetics for all; and the Phluid Project in New York sells clothing for all. Doesn’t matter what your chromosomes say – express yourself however you like. I think we need to stop thinking of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ product aisles and recognize a third, gender-free aisle will soon rise and take their place.

How will robots evolve?

Right now, robots are fairly limited and clunky. They are not the intuitive, anticipatory, seamless partners, friends, advisors and care-givers they will be soon. Their form will become miniaturized and ultra-mobile, with articulated limbs that can complete all kinds of chores. Thanks to AI and what i call Emo-Surveillance (they will read our expressions and body-language cues), they will be able to comprehend our moods and respond before we articulate our needs. IoT and biometric data will let them know if we are stressed, sad or sleepy, and they will be there with a kind word, an elixir, a pep talk, a nap programmed with a fabulous, uplifting dream. They will become the curator of our best futures.

Entrepreneurs

31% Of Small Businesses Have Stopped Operating Amid Coronavirus: Sheryl Sandberg Shares How Facebook’s Latest Product Aims To Help

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The coronavirus pandemic has continued to take a catastrophic toll on America’s small businesses. According to Facebook’s State of Small Business report, 31% of small businesses and 52% of personal businesses have stopped operating as a result of the crisis. 

“What we know today is pretty sobering,” says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We’re in a really hard economic situation that is hitting all businesses, but particularly, small businesses really hard. We also know how critical small businesses are for jobs—long before coronavirus,” she says. “Two thirds of new jobs in this country happen because of small businesses and so that means what’s happening with small businesses has always been important, but it’s more important than ever.”

Especially concerning is that only 45% of business owners and managers plan to rehire the same number of workers when their businesses reopen. That number is just 32% for personal businesses. 

“If these businesses are letting people go, it’s not that they don’t want to rehire them,” Sandberg says. “It’s because they don’t think they’re going to be able to. That’s a pretty serious thing for us to be facing.”

Businesses that have been able to maintain operations still face significant hurdles, namely access to capital and customers. Some 28% of businesses surveyed say their biggest challenge over the next few months will be cash flow, while 20% say it will be lack of demand. 

The report, conducted in partnership with the Small Business Roundtable, was based on a survey of 86,000 owners, managers and workers at U.S. companies with fewer than 500 employees. It is also a part of the company’s broader data collection initiative with the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the Future of Business.

“We were already in the process of developing this report before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” Sandberg says. “We expected it to be a pretty rosy tale back then of low unemployment, flourishing entrepreneurship, and jobs growing all over the world. Fast forward to today and we’re in a very different position.”

An example of Facebook’s new Shops feature, which creates digital “storefronts” for businesses.
 
FACEBOOK

Now, the company is launching Facebook Shops, an ecommerce product that allows businesses to set up online “storefronts” on Facebook and Instagram. Businesses can customize their digital shops, using cover images to showcase their brands and catalogs to highlight their products. And just as customers can ask for help when shopping in physical stores, they can message business owners directly via WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct to ask questions, track deliveries and more. “Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from a small business owner to a global brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” wrote Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post announcing the new product. As was the case with the survey, the rollout was planned prior to the pandemic, but was accelerated as businesses have turned to online tools to adapt in the face of the ongoing crisis. According to the survey, 51% of small business owners have  increased their online interactions with customers, and 36% of operational businesses are now conducting all sales online. 

“One of the things I find so amazing is how much of the activity has migrated online and that we’re doing things we never thought were possible,” says Sandberg. “If I had asked you or you had asked me, could I work entirely from home? Can my whole company go home? I would have said ‘No way.’ But we did it. Small businesses have even more entrepreneurial spirit.”

There are more than 30 million small businesses in the U.S., many of which are struggling to stay afloat amid forced closures and are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to survive the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.

Employees of these businesses are disproportionately affected, with 74% and 70% reporting not having access to paid sick leave and paid time off, according to Facebook’s survey. For hotel, cafe and restaurant employees, those figures are over 90%.

Facebook, which relies heavily on small businesses for advertising revenue, was among the first major tech companies to provide much-needed aid. On March 17, the company announced $100 million in grants for small businesses, the majority of which will be distributed in cash, with some ad credits for business services. Of those funds, $40 million will be distributed across 34 American cities, with 50% being reserved for women, minority and veteran-owned businesses. The other $60 million will be distributed to small business owners throughout the world. In addition to financial assistance, the company also rolled out various product offerings including digital gift cardsfundraisers and easier ways for businesses to communicate service changes to their customers. 

Small businesses are resilient, even during times of crisis. According to the report, 57% of businesses are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future, with only 11% of operating businesses expecting to fail in the next three months, should current conditions persist. 

“The report raises awareness about the struggles small businesses face from the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Rhett Buttle, founder of Public Private Strategies and co-executive director of the Small Business Roundtable. “But small businesses have brought us out of previous economic downturns and they will do so again.”

Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff, Entrepreneurs

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A Bottom-Up Approach To Cheaper, Next-Gen Electric Vehicles

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REE Automotive thinks the way to get electric vehicles into the mainstream is to flatten things out–by using a skateboard platform that integrates the battery, motors and driving controls into a flush floor and allows for independent steering of wheels. And while this tech startup’s concept is radical, it’s finding support from traditional automotive partners.

The latest to sign on is Tokyo-based KYB Corp., one of the world’s biggest makers of shock absorbers. The companies said today they’ve formed a partnership to develop suspension capabilities for electric vehicles that will be built off of Tel Aviv-based REE’s platform. Financial details of the arrangement, the first EV project for KYB, weren’t disclosed. REE emerged from stealth mode in 2019 and is also working with Toyota-affiliated truckmaker Hino, Mitsubishi Corp. and FiatChrysler.

CEO and cofounder Daniel Barel

REE AUTOMOTIVE

KYB is “excited to partner with REE Automotive and share its revolutionary EV vision by engineering a suspension subsystem that supports the needs of tomorrow’s mobility ecosystem,” Kazunori Masumoto, KYB’s general manager of engineering, said in a statement. 

For more than a decade, many companies have touted the benefits of standardized, flat undercarriages that could support multiple vehicle types, from sedans and crossovers to vans and commercial trucks, to dramatically eliminate costs to create individual platforms for each. Most recently, electric truck startup Rivian, automotive tech firm Canoo and the U.K.’s Arrival have promoted flat platforms for a range of battery-powered vehicles, but REE cofounder and CEO Daniel Barel says his company takes the approach even farther. 

“They’re great, but they are not skateboards. Only the middle is a skateboard,” Barel tells Forbes. The difference is how much battery REE’s design can accommodate and the complete integration of drive controls into the floor, he says. “We hold the most batteries per footprint than anybody else in the industry.” 

Barel says his company, which is not building complete vehicles, intends to have its technology on the road in 2021. One possible version was shown in October at the Tokyo Motor Show by Hino, with its FlatFormer electric concept vehicle riding on an REE-based platform. The Japanese truckmaker showed variations of the concept modified to serve as delivery trucks, food service and sanitation vehicles, mobile offices and salons and even agricultural and sanitation trucks, with different tops riding on the platform.

“KYB’s technology will play a crucial role in the rapid development of our next-generation EV architecture, which reinvents the electric vehicle with a completely flat, scalable and fully modular platform, ready to carry the future of e-mobility,” Barel said.

Along with lowering development costs, electric vehicles using REE’s technology will be lighter and considerably more compact. “We’re not only 33% lighter, but we’re almost 70% smaller in footprint” relative to Tesla Model 3, with the same interior volume, Barel claims. The business plan would rely mainly on supplying its design to different companies, ranging from auto and truck manufacturers to delivery and logistics companies, that he declined to identify. 

To date, REE has raised “about $100 million” from investors and automotive partners, Barel said, without elaborating. That’s more than double the $40.2 million the company had raised through its Series C round in 2018, according to Crunchbase. Additional fundraising is planned for 2020, though he didn’t provide details. 

If REE or other startups can bring viable platforms to market, demand could be strong, says Gartner IT transportation tech analyst Mike Ramsey. “There’s a lot of reasons to think that this would be super appealing. You’ve opened up the world of automakers very large, potentially, you know, with this platform approach,” he said. “But it does still require a lot of additional work–the crash testing, the assembly system and everything needed to support it.”     

Whether REE’s approach works in the real world remains to be seen, but it’s an approach that could help speed the slow shift away from conventional internal combustion engine designs if it helps make EVs easier to build and much cheaper. Barel sees flat platforms as doing just that. 

“To keep on building vehicles the same way we’ve been doing it for a hundred years doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Alan Ohnsman, Forbes Staff, Transportation

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Entrepreneurs

Op-Ed: How Nigerians Can Unlock Their Potential In The Digital Age

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By Uzoma Dozie, Chief Sparkler

Nigerians are some of the world’s most creative, energetic, and entrepreneurial people. We are rich with talent, enthusiasm, and passion.

Nigerians are a global force bursting with potential and an enviable track-record of success. But in a more complex and fast-paced world than ever before, many of us struggle to find the time or have the ability to fulfil their potential.

Ultimately, this comes down to the lack of effective solutions in the market to support the lifestyle and finances of Nigerians and our businesses. For too long, we have been underserved by the traditional physical retail environment, which is limited by bricks and mortar infrastructure and legacy technology – the weaknesses of which have been laid bare by the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Unlocking Nigeria’s digital economy

While Nigerians are being underserved by current circumstances, there is also an exciting opportunity to start filling a gap in the market.

Nigeria’s digital economy is thriving, but it remains informal. Nigeria has a population of 198 million people – 172 million have a mobile phone and 112 million have internet access.

Many of us access social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram through our phones and use them as valuable sales tools, especially female entrepreneurs. Data and digital applications have the potential to revolutionize the daily lives of millions of Nigerians.

Therefore, new digital-only solutions are required. These should not just focus on finances though – they have to be intrinsically linked with everyday lifestyles, rather than thinking about linear processes and transactional outcomes.

Let us take one example. Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence have long been used to provide financial advice. But these chatbots could do so much more and evolve to provide support for more sophisticated usage, such as a personal adviser or lifestyle concierge.

Furthermore, these solutions should not just support Nigerians at home, but the ever-growing diaspora across the world.

Introducing Sparkle

The opportunity to play an integral role in transforming Nigeria’s digital economy and lead the charge in growing the digital economy across Africa inspired the creation of Sparkle.

Sparkle was founded with five core values – freedom, trust, simplicity, inclusivity, and personalization. We are adopting these values and embedding them in everything we do.

We will be leveraging technology and data to create and apply new digital-only solutions which bring more Nigerians into the formal economy thereby benefitting Government, businesses, and individuals.

Starting with the launch of a current account, we will co-create with our customers and collaborate with our partners to improve our services and increase our user base. We embrace collaboration and we are

working with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Google, Microsoft, Visa, and PwC Nigeria, to achieve our vision.

In addition, we want to create a more inclusive economy and break down barriers by accelerating the role and influence of female entrepreneurs, many of whom already operate in the informal economy with the help of Instagram and other social media apps.

At present, we are facing a global crisis in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us that we need a strong digital infrastructure to ensure the economy continues to function. It will likely completely change the way we operate and conduct business in the future.

COVID-19 has only reinforced our belief that new digital solutions like Sparkle are required now more than ever before to serve Nigerians, boost the formal economy, and unlock potential in the digital age.

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