Tag Archives: Tyler Brule

When Heroes Go Down: Tyler Brûle and the Fear of the Fictional Other

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It will be no secret to regular readers of this blog that our Creative Director & CSO was and remains a huge fan of Tyler Brûle – the editor-in-chief of what is possibly still the finest magazine in the English language, Monocle – and it was precisely because of this admiration that he was so surprised at the content of one of the iconic Canadian’s more recent Financial Times columns, On the migrant train to Munich (12th-13th September 2015), avidly caught up with over the Christmas and New Year break.

In this late summer piece, Brûle openly questions whether the people of Germany (estimated population: 81,083,600) are as enthused as certain parts of the global news media appeared to suggest by the arrival of a few hundred thousand refugees (a great proportion of whom are likely to be ultimately deported) fleeing the increasingly dystopian military conflict in Syria and Iraq. This could have been exemplary journalism – questioning a seemingly broadly-accepted narrative is rarely a Bad Thing – but then Brûle posited the following:

‘The juxtaposition of kiosks selling lederhosen adjacent to Syrian and Iraqi families boarding buses almost looked like this was part of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fast-track programme to get people integrated into German life as quickly as possible. But I’m not sure Ali and Leila from Aleppo were quite ready for Oktoberfest, let alone knee-skimming deerskin shorts or dresses that magically push cleavage up under the chin. And therein lies one of the main issues that are being whispered by Germany’s middle and upper classes but which isn’t out in the open just yet: how much will a wave of largely Muslim refugees impact German society?’

It is genuinely difficult to know where to begin in analysing this excerpt. For one, Brûle’s choice of the fictional Ali and Leila’s city of origin betrays a basic lack of knowledge about Syria: Aleppo is a city which for most of its >7,000-year history has been a byword for innovation, cosmopolitanism and commerce; its denizens are certainly not known for their insularity and are unlikely to be existentially freaked out by a skirt, particularly given that ‘Eastern’ religions such as Islam, Hinduism and Taoism have traditionally embraced the erotic, notably within the context of mysticism.

But wider questions must be raised, not least about Brûle’s knowledge of contemporary German culture. Is he aware that immigrants from Southern Europe – many of them Muslims from countries such as Turkey, Albania and (ex-)Yugoslavia – are credited with making (West) Germany’s postwar economic miracle possible? Does he know that footballers from the Islamic religious community have been attending Oktoberfest with their wives and girlfriends for many years, sometimes drinking the same alcohol-free brews that constitute one of the few growth spots – 200% in the seven years to 2014 – in Germany’s declining beer industry? (Bottled water overtook beer as Germany’s most popular cold drink back in 2002.)

Perhaps most worryingly, is it not simply a little bit presumptuous to assume – purely from someone’s name, place of birth and stated (non-)religious identity, whether Christian, Atheist, Muslim or Shinto – what they think? Because if the genuinely amazingly amazing Tyler Brûle cannot grasp this point, then one of the great illusions of our strange postmodern times has been shattered: spending hundreds of days a year travelling the world on business is no guarantee against parochialism.

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Mind the C__p: #London’s New Metro Line ‘Lacks Basic Hygiene’!

 

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Monocle Magazine in Spain: Much More Needed to CTRL + ALT + DEL

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The self-styled briefing on global affairs, business, culture and design that is Monocle magazine once again caught the eyes of our CSO for a recent article in the December 12/January 13 issue: Starting Again - Madrid. With Spain in an economic tailspin, Monocle sees a potential trend for salvation in the ‘remaking’ of the country’s capital by a new generation of entrepreneurs. With commercial rental prices in Madrid suddenly within reach of the first-time businessperson, and a supportive mayor – Ana María Botella Serrano, aka Ana Botella – trimming the layers of red tape that typically envelope Spanish enterprises, a veritable commercial renaissance is purportedly underway.

We at Mediolana would love little more than to believe that this is true. But a closer look at the article reveals just how far away Spain is from recasting itself as a place where export-led businesses can lead the way to an economic recovery:

1. Elitist Focus. By the article’s own admission, the entrepreneurs leading this charge are generally those with access to spare cash provided by their families – realistically, only a tiny percentage of people will fall into this category. While Spain’s savings rates accelerated markedly after the intensification of the economic crisis in 2008, these savings are being used for day-to-day living costs, rather than being added to any stocks of pre-existing liquidity.

2. Institutional Sclerosis. Entrepreneurs – even in Madrid – are still confronted with a waiting period of about three months for a simple business registration process – and even this has been possible only after the privatisation of the company registration sector. Given that businesses can be registered electronically or in person within a single day in jurisdictions as diverse as the United Kingdom and Turkey, this would appear to be an indefensible position to sustain; it is profoundly symbolic that despite a change of government in December 2011, this problem has still not been substantively addressed.

3. Glad to be of Service? Assuming that the businesses featured in the Monocle article are representative of this new trend of entrepreneurship – and notwithstanding the fact that we genuinely hate to knock any reasonable business idea – there does  seem to be an overemphasis on price-elastic industries with high overheads. Will a country with an official youth unemployment rate of 55% and rising be in a position to support rafts of new clothing stores or bar-restaurants, however funky?

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Risk-Free Society: Why Struggling Companies Resist Change

Regular readers of this blog will by now be well aware of our fascination with at least some of the work of the impossibly-named Tyler Brûlé, still Editor-in-Chief at the self-styled briefing on global affairs, business, culture and design that is Monocle magazine and with an increasingly intriguing residency at the Financial Times. A recent column of his in the latter publication (Differentiate – or die, published in the print edition of 18th/19th August 2012) laments the lack of differentiation in industries which are under very significant structural commercial pressures such as magazine publishing and air travel. Brûlé avers that ‘any company…with a strong point of view, solid product, good customer service and great branding’ should have more than a fair shot at attaining high levels of business success; to adduce the legendary Swedish academics Jonas Ridderstråle and Kjell A. Nordström, in the domain of commerce, sameness sucks.

Given this, one would think that there would be every incentive for relatively or absolutely unsuccessful companies to change, yet the reality is, for the most part, one of continued inertia. Why is this? We at Mediolana have had more than a few ideas on this subject, but here are three of the most compelling:

1. Risk. As some of the more lucid accounts of recent and ongoing financial crises have illustrated, risk-taking is rarely valued in most organisations when the going gets tough. Individual actors and groups within companies may run their corporations into the ground with risky and even unethical behaviour in an apparently economic benign climate, but few seem to bother with higher-level thinking when the commercial outlook begins to dim; survival rather than innovation is the name of the game, with top talent often pioneering the rush to the exits.

2. Social Distance. In far too many companies – particularly, though certainly not exclusively, those run along Anglo-American lines – the division between management and factory floor has become a dichotomy of phenomenal rigidity, with much of the human capital in organisations being effectively destroyed by the ghastly inequities that exist within them. With CEOs in the United States creaming off millions of dollars for every US$10,000.00 allocated to ‘ordinary’ workers, the reign of the omniscient company boss is turning into an era of micro-level idolatry – but these gods may not hold all the answers to our corporate imprecations.

3. Difficulty. Many consumers will know from experience the difference between, say, travelling by an airline from the Gulf (Emirates Airlines) or ASEAN (Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines) and a national or regional carrier from the USA or Africa. Suppliers of aviation services probably have an even better idea. But to replicate (let alone implement from first principles) the attributes that Brûlé cites as being central to business success is actually extremely difficult for most companies to do in practice. As is increasingly apparent, most countries excel at some things and not at others, particularly at specific points in time. China PR is not the world’s greatest democracy; Mexico will win no prizes for guaranteeing the basic security of its citizens. Yet on many levels these are regarded as great countries which can and perhaps are supplanting their developed world competitors. What chance have mere companies got of possessing optimal product, branding and customer service at the same time, let alone those facing more testing conditions than their industry average?

 

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Greece: Soft Power or Hard Landing?

Monocle magazine – a self-styled briefing on global affairs, business, culture and design – is rarely anything less than a showcase of truly excellent typography and cutting-edge ideas. Yet part of a recent issue (December 11/January 12) devoted to the topic of soft power made our CSO begin to wonder if the editorial team at one of our favourite publications had collectively taken leave of their senses: Greece was a new entry (at number 30) in the magazine’s soft power chart.

Ironically enough, we do not fundamentally disagree with Monocle‘s appraisal of the troubled Mediterranean nation’s excellent beaches, delicious food and rich collection of outstanding historical sites. But the vague dismissal of the eurozone crisis as a mere blip which Greece can somehow transcend by reverting to the drachma (it is not specified how this route can be taken, perhaps owing to considerations of space) left us wondering if many journalists outside of Greece recognise just how serious a situation the country is confronted with.

Recent developments in the nation’s education sector underline just how precarious anything like normality is in today’s Greece. On 28th March 2012, the Athens News reported that no less than six Greek universities claimed they are faced with immediate closure after all but €33m of €120m of monies that were deposited by the country’s higher education institutions in state bank accounts vanished. This reverse alchemy was made possible by the Bank of Greece, the country’s central bank, whose assets were converted to state bonds which were then subject to a ‘haircut’, i.e. a reduction in value during a bond swap transaction owing to the perceived high risk nature of holding the asset.

To recap: redeemable euros belonging to universities were transmogrified by the state into paper with a fraction of the face value of the cash. The missing money has for all intents and purposes vanished, never to return in its original form. Given that Greece is not exactly overflowing with institutions of higher education, the disappearance of six of its HE corpus is hardly a negligible loss.

But this scandal is yet another sign of an economy that is self-destructing: when an estimated 40% of tax fines are embezzled by the very officials that are meant to collect them and when the state coffers are so bare that the sale of islands to erstwhile regional rival Turkey is being contemplated, it is clear that Greece is undergoing a systemic failure of vast proportions in public. To speak of the acquisition of soft power at a time like this is not just erroneous, but illustrative of a basic lack of comprehension as to the reality on the ground.

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Post-Fukushima Japan: A Roadmap for Rehabilitation

The May 2011 issue of Monocle – an increasingly indispensible magazine – has the issue of ‘jump-starting’ post-Fukushima Japan at its heart, with Editor-in-Chief and Chairman Tyler Brûlé mapping out several possible steps to be taken in his thought-provoking piece, New Build – Japan. These include the excellent suggestions of establishing a government and diplomacy school with pan-Asian credentials, and providing support to the specialist, knowledge-rich SMEs which proliferate in the Japanese Archipelago.

However, Japan faces serious structural problems beside which increasing the country’s influence in the domain of international relations or the ability of its smaller corporations to continue to compete in global markets look positively low priority. Addressing the following issues will mean that Japan should continue to be in many respects a model country; conversely the price of leaving these in abeyance will be a high one:

1. Energy. Incredibly, the reactors at Fukushima I represent only the tip of the Japanese nuclear iceberg: one of the most earthquake and tsunami-prone countries on earth has 50 main nuclear reactors which generate around 30% of the nation’s electricity, a figure which was expected to rise to circa 40% in 2017 and 50% by 2030. After Fukushima, this situation is probably no longer tenable; the impact of a second or a third such accident could totally destroy Japan’s image globally and lead to capital flight on an unprecedented scale. A Japanese mobilisation of the country’s tremendous resources in renewable energy – companies such as Sharp and Kyocera are world leaders in solar power, and Japan has more wind and rain than it knows what to do with – should be a matter of the utmost urgency.

2. Immigration. While the Japanese are no longer the legendarily insular creatures of years gone by – indeed, their co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup is regarded as a paradigm of hospitality and generosity – discrimination against even Nikkei, ethnic Japanese who have origins in countries such as Brazil and Peru, is real, let alone towards immigrants from the Korean Peninsula, China, Iran and Indonesia. However, pure demographics amply illustrate that this parochial mentality is no longer feasible: a rapidly ageing and shrinking population needs – according to a UN estimate – an infusion of at least 17m foreign workers by 2050 just to maintain a productive economy. Japan needs to embrace this fact: it represents an incredible opportunity to culturally and economically enrich the country.

3. Post-growth. Japan’s economy has long puzzled global onlookers, many of whom seem mesmerized that a highly-educated, economically egalitarian country which exports some of the finest, most innovative consumer products known to humanity is now synonymous with low growth; others – not least Norohiro Kato, Professor of Japanese Literature at Waseda University – recognise that Japan might well be pioneering a new, steady-state macroeconomy. Low growth has not hindered Japan’s status as the second-largest creditor nation in the world, nor its typical annual current account surplus of 3% of GDP; unlike the United States or Greece, Japan’s public debt of around 200% of GDP is owed to its own private sector rather than foreign institutions. In a era defined by resource crunches, Japan may well find it expedient to elaborate on this new path forward.

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