Why is Silicon Valley obsessed with flying cars?

Technology Eye | Jun. 20, 2016

Bemoaning the state of innovativeness, Peter Thiel — don of the PayPal mafia, Silicon Valley VC, and most recently revealed as the nemesis of Gawker — remarked, “We asked for flying cars. Instead, we got a hundred and forty characters." It seems Thiel’s moans have been heard by no less than Google / Alphabet ’s Larry Page , who has quietly been investing in, not one but, two flying car start-ups, Zee Aero and Kitty Hawk. Page, of course, has only taken a page out of the books of other pioneering legends, who have shared this strange obsession. The obsession dates back even to pioneering legends who knew a tad more about cars than Messrs. Page and Thiel; Henry Ford tried his hand at it and even managed to get a person killed in his own pursuit of a flying car . Of course, the industry is far from take-off; the only successful situation involving a flying Ford I am aware of is of Ron Weasly flying a 1962 Ford Angilia to rescue Harry Potter in The Chamber of Secrets. But I digress…

Many readers would be surprised to learn that there is, indeed, a fledgling flying car industry. I visited Terrafugia , based outside Boston, last year and got a look at their product. While impressed by the technology, their vision for where it is going and the passion behind “creating the transportation of the future today,” I was still left asking:

Who asked for flying cars?

Silicon Valley high fliers, of course, are asking for it. They have, after all, been obsessed with cars of many kinds — self-driven, electric, enabled by iPhone commands. Given that so much of Silicon Valley travels in company buses (arguably, a more efficient and greener mode of transport than any of these alternatives) I am a bit alarmed at the prospect of a proliferation of new car options, especially of the flying kind.

If I were Larry Page, I would, first, ask: is there a sufficient and urgent unmet need for it?

Furthermore, are there other needs that are both unmet and urgent and over time will have an effect on Silicon Valley’s bottom line? This may get us about as far as one can think from flying cars.

Let’s talk about flying toilets.

As more people migrate to cities, living conditions are getting more congested around the world. Kibera, East Africa’s largest informal settlement or Kusumpur, a slum in the National Capital Region in India are two classic examples of urban congestion. 20th century sanitation standards have not made it to Kibera or Kusumpur; so, their residents use plastic bags to “do their business” and dispose of them by tossing them – the flying toilet.

Considering that indoor plumbing is taken for granted by residents of the industrialized world since the early 20th century, the persistence of the flying toilet is an abomination. According to a recent report from WaterAid, 650 million people in the world do not have access to clean water, and more than 2.3 billion do not have access to a safe, private toilet. Additional facts on the topic are rather damning:

Sanitation represents only a fifth of the total water, sanitation and hygiene sector expenditure. 1 in 3 women worldwide risk shame, disease and violence because they have nowhere safe to go to the toilet. At least 315,000 children could be saved each year by addressing this problem. It is hard to question the urgency of the need epitomized by the flying toilet.

Why Is This Silicon Valley’s Problem?

Of course, this begs the question: why should Silicon Valley care? After all, lack of modern sanitation has not held up adoption of its products; more people in the world have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet. That said, let’s take the long view. Consider the state of the market for Silicon Valley’s products a few years from now.

Consider, specifically, the case of India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market, with a demographic at its prime for digital readiness, with an average age of 29 by 2020. Online spending is expected to reach $75 billion by 2020, with a billion users online by 2030. What’s more, the country is abuzz with tech startups, with $9 billion of venture capital pouring in over 2015. With the industrialized world maturing and the other mega-market — China — difficult to penetrate for so many tech players, India stands out as a digital market opportunity like no other.

However, India also comes with its parallel reality: over 60 percent of its population lives without access to safe and private toilets, it risks 140,000 children dying each year in India due to diarrhea and 40 percent of stunting among children due to diseases linked to poor sanitation. The value of the missed opportunity with the youthful demographic is enormous. Sanitation also helps educate the future digital consumers. UNICEF, for example, has shown that the WASH project in schools has had a positive impact on school attendance and performance.

Possible Role Models From Other Industries

Outside Silicon Valley, other global players have made the connection between the need to solve the flying toilet crisis and their future growth prospects. I had a chance to speak at length with Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever about this, when he spoke at our conference, Inclusion Inc. “The cost of inaction has exceeded the cost of action,” he said, commenting on the essential role of global businesses in sustainable development. Polman has put his money where his mouth is; Unilever is at the vanguard of companies taking on the flying toilet, committing 100 million euros by 2019 in India alone on clean water and sanitation related programs. Of course, global corporations have the resources, but they need to partner with local partners to make a difference on the ground. An example of a partnership vehicle that Unilever has started is the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC), which facilitates the teaming-up of companies with local partners to accelerate toilet innovations.

These partnerships are, indeed, making a difference. Svadha, a venture in India, works with local entrepreneurs who manufacture toilet components, commercializes them and ensures installation and after-sales service, with investments and partnerships involving Unilever and Kimberly-Clark, as well as other global companies, such as Firmenich and Lafarge-Holcim. Another venture, Clean Team Ghana, operates in a low- income area of Kumasi in South Ghana with a toilet service, including the rental of a toilet unit and waste collection. This venture also involves Unilever and Firmenich as partners.

Navigating Competing Futures

Of course, companies, such as Unilever, begin with a few advantages relative to the Silicon Valley players. Their products are more directly related to the development gap that must be closed. Their employees spend more time directly on the ground. Finally, it is worth emphasizing that history matters. Not only do the Anglo-Dutch origins of a company such as Unilever give its management the benefit of long-standing colonial and post-colonial relationships, background and insights , the company has itself been in operation long enough to have a deeper appreciation for investing in the development of the market context for the long-term.

The first step that the Silicon Valley high fliers can take is learn from the fore-runners, in emerging markets, that recognize the link between sustainable development and sustainability of their business.

The second step is to recognize that they must navigate two competing futures. Technologists and venture money will always have an obsession with flying cars, while the future growth markets must still try to get beyond flying toilets. Without taking care of the latter, growth will stall and the flying cars would run out of fuel. It would be a good idea for some clever business strategist at Peter Thiel’s venture firm or Larry Page’s Alphabet to do the math. Otherwise, they may wake up one day and say: “We asked for the end of flying toilets. Instead, we got flying cars.”

Bhaskar Chakravorti is the Senior Associate Dean of International Business & Finance at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. He is also the founding Executive Director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context and author of the book, “The Slow Pace of Fast Change.”

SOURCE: World Economic Forum

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