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Sleek, polished and sexy

4 October 2010
by Patrick Love

Atomic batteries to power, turbines to speed, underpants over tights.

The grooviest car I ever owned was an Aston Martin DB5, as driven by James Bond. My brother preferred the Batmobile, but for me, machine guns and an ejector seat outweighed the kudos of muttering “atomic batteries to power, turbines to speed” before you zoomed off across the carpet.

So I was pleased to see that Aston Martin has just been voted the coolest brand in Britain, while the Caped Crusader doesn’t get a mention among the 500 names listed, not being sleek, polished and sexy.

The list is interesting for other reasons too. It’s dominated by stuff like watches that are waterproof to a depth where whales implode, expensive ice-cream, fancy phones, and the like. Practically none of the top brands actually make anything you really need. (The Plain People of Blogland, spluttering fair trade coke all over their Facebook wall: Criminey, dude, my iBerry has literally saved my life a million times this week already!)

You could object that the cool list is purely subjective and doesn’t really say much about how important these firms actually are. Another list, drawn up by Forbes magazine, ranks firms by their assets. Unlike the cool brands list, practically none of Forbes’ top 100 companies make anything, apart from money, and some of them, such as RBS,  have failed spectacularly to do even that.

And yet,  nine of the top ten have assets valued at around $2 trillion or more. To put that in perspective, only seven countries in the world had a GDP of $2 trillion or more in 2008 before the worst of the recession hit, including the UK, with a GDP of $2.6 trillion – almost a trillion less than the assets of RBS, the bank British taxpayers bailed out. So most of these assets were probably worthless at best, and some were probably liabilities.

What’s the link between these lists? All the firms featured are highly innovative in one way or another. And they illustrate how increasing wealth means the economy can shift away from supplying the basics to fulfilling desires to fuelling fantasies.

How long can it last though? There are disturbing parallels between what happened in financial markets and what’s happening in the world’s ecosystem. The financial crisis didn’t come out of the blue. There were warnings not to assume that asset values would rise indefinitely. There are warnings that natural resources and the services provided by nature are not infinite.

When the financial system crashed, the living standards of millions of people dropped. But governments stepped in to save the day, and the economy has started to recover. If the natural systems our wellbeing depends on crash, through climate change, biodiversity loss or whatever, nothing will save them.

That’s one reason the OECD has launched a “green growth strategy”. If we want to make sure that the progress in living standards we’ve seen these past fifty years doesn’t grind to a halt, we have to find new ways of producing and consuming things. And even redefining what we mean by progress and how we measure it.

Useful links

OECD work on sustainable development

OECD work on innovation

3 Responses leave one →
  1. October 4, 2010

    I wonder if it is not the other way around: Big firms are considered innovative as “they had to do something right to achieve their current size, didn’t they?”, but that does not necessarily mean that they are currently outstanding innovators.

    • Patrick Love permalink*
      October 4, 2010

      That’s a good point. Some big firms spend more effort on protecting intellectual property than on R&D, and innovation can come through buying innovative smaller firms.

      There’s also the question of whether innovation is necessarily a good thing as such. I’m thinking of some of the more exotic financial market innovations, but many people are worried about what’s happening in science and technology, in biosciences for instance.

  2. October 5, 2010

    I couldn´t agree more with the question you raise: For some time now we have assumed that innovation is a good thing because “innovating is good” and it is not only about the dangerous/harmful innovations but also about the money and effort spent in innovation because it is “what we have to do” or “because everyone is doing it” without any clear goal or strategic focus… But I guess that answering these question could take a PhD Thesis or two ;)

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