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Future-proofing the workforce

Published: 
Sunday, December 17, 2017

MIT was incorporated in 1861. Its motto is—Mens et Manus (mind and hand). The seal displays a craftsman at the anvil and a scholar with a book. The mission is to make cutting edge ideas useful to industry. Today, angel-backed start-ups touting innovative materials and patented designs resemble technology firms in Silicon Valley. Headhunters scouring for fresh talent and ideas inside local universities describe companies like Away, a luggage firm featured in Vogue, Tommy John, a boxer brief outfit, and Native, a deodorant manufacturer, as disruptive and revolutionary. Direct to customer (D2C) companies like these along with Casper, a mattress maker, and Warby Parker, a glasses designer, have attracted over US $3bn in venture capital. But it’s not just the upstarts—Bugatti compares the master-craftsmanship of its Chiron to haute couture. Hidden in the Vosges Mountains, the €2.4m Chiron brings the luxury and creative industries into contact with pioneering research from outstanding French engineering schools. France has become a venture capital attractor for start-ups since 2014. Facebook has its only European artificial intelligence lab in Paris because of schools like École 42. In a former railway depot, Xavier Niel, the “enfant terrible” of French telecoms, has invested €250m in Paris’ fast-growing 13th arrondissement, to create Station F, a 34,000 sq m campus for 1,000 technology companies from around the world. The ‘new alchemy’ in France has caused upstarts like Hugo Mercier, a 25-year-old engineer graduate, to launch Dreem, a neurotechnology sleep company and Frédréric Mazzella to start the ride sharing company—BlaBlaCar that is now valued €1.4 b. Even Unilever and Mars have joined the D2C bandwagon. This trend could cut grocery bills by 30 per cent. Luxury brands have also decided to block retailers from selling their products on Amazon and eBay. Coty, a US brand, argued that German retailer Parfümerie Akzente sold its goods on sites against Coty’s wishes. The European Court of Justice ruled that online marketplaces detracted from the image of luxury brands and that luxury brands have no contractual relationship with online marketplaces, which in turn are not required to comply with brands’ quality criteria. Such criteria are imposed on all authorised distributors, under the terms of their selective distribution agreements. Online marketplaces are now required to have direct contractual relationships with luxury brands. Luxury shops like Harrods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Liberty—and luxury brands that have D2C sales points would see a boost in revenue as customers would need to revert to these as authorised distributors. On the other end of the consumption continuum, Amazon is clearly an unstoppable mega ‘freight train’ heading for any business. The Bezos mantra—“Your margin is my opportunity” allows Amazon to introduce private-label products from start-ups willing to repackage and reprice bespoke merchandise. On November 11, 2016, Alibaba rang up sales of $18 b; the most ever spent in one day on Earth. In 2016, e-commerce sales in China hit $366 b—almost as much as England and the US combined. As you walk pass a clothing store in China, you may receive a personalised coupon on your phone from Alipay as they reach into traditional retail. Bezos has started a $5 b Amazon investment in India. Jack Ma of Alibaba is following Bezos with a larger capital outlay. The two giants seem set for a clash to reconquer India that hearkens back to the 1600 East India Company of Elizabeth I that culminated in deindustrialisation, taxation, extraction and a landless peasantry. In education settings, a basic tenet is to move from the known to the unknown. Sebastien Szczepaniak of Nestlé is reversing this by matching Amazon’s data with Nestlé’s to target individuals rather than broad bands of consumers. He has moved from marketing to the unknown to marketing to the known. It is here that CAPE entrepreneurship and ICT converge and where subject silos dissolve in Finland allowing the text to rest on the anvil. The flat world is future-proofing its workforce with the next wave of thinkers, upstarts, versatilists and entrepreneurs. What futures are we educating for in the West Indies?

Dr Fazal Ali