The top news in tech: the November digest
In October the topic that everyone was talking about was Facebook (sorry – Meta). Last month, it was COP26. A record number of delegates and world leaders gathered in Glasgow to discuss strategies to slow the rapid pace of climate change. We’ll withhold comment on the number of private jets ‘needed’ to get them there…
When considering November’s top tech news stories, it would be remiss of me to not talk about COP26. With so much coverage in the media, what was the key takeaway from the conference?
For me, it was the ‘Breakthrough Agenda’ which pledges to make clean technology and sustainable solutions ‘the most affordable, accessible, and attractive option’ across all sectors. While the agenda was vague and did not specify how these lofty aims would be achieved, we can certainly expect greater investment into the cleantech space.
For more on the role of technology in mitigating climate change, and how greentech companies can grow their brands, read our whitepaper here.
What else caught the media’s interest last month?
From predictions that electric vehicles (EVs) will overtake the petrol and diesel car market in 2022, to new UK regulation mandating that all new buildings and houses must include charger points, the volume of news coverage around the EV market skyrocketed in November. One of the most notable stories came from a Reuters analysis, which found that automakers are expected to spend $515 billion on EVs and batteries over the next decade. This is intended to make EVs more accessible and affordable, thus making them a viable alternative to cars powered by fossil fuels. Previous estimates about the growth of the industry predicted lower rates of investment, but zero-carbon mandates, coupled with the resolutions made at COP26, have lent additional urgency to EV-related commitments.
If we are to decarbonise and meet net-zero targets, investment in the EV industry is vital. Indeed, one of the key components of the Breakthrough Agenda was for zero-emission vehicles to be ‘the new normal’. But, will this investment pay off? With an ongoing chip shortage, we need to focus investment not just on the vehicles, charging infrastructure and grid capacity, but also on building out the capabilities of chip manufacturers to respond adequately to the increased demand. Crucially, these investments do not address all the gaps in the ecosystem. While it is certainly encouraging to see financial backing of the industry, we are still a long way away from making their production and use the ‘new normal’.
After months of delay and deliberation, Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill was finally passed in November, facilitating greater investment and funding into US public infrastructure. So, what does this mean for tech? Biden hopes the bill will address the digital divide: the chasm between those who have access to affordable, high-speed broadband and mobile internet, and those who don’t. This new law includes $65 billion dedicated to deploying and developing broadband, with a proportion of this is specifically committed to addressing digital equity and inclusion.
By expanding internet access to more people, it is hoped that rural or poorer areas will no longer be disadvantaged by a lack of connectivity. I also hope that the playing field will be levelled so that more people will be exposed to a career in tech. One of the problems with the industry at the moment is that it lacks diversity – not only do big players like Google and Microsoft dominate the market, but talent so often goes unnoticed and unharnessed. If we are to increase diversity in tech, we need to ensure everyone has equal access and opportunity – and the passing of Biden’s infrastructure bill is a step in the right direction.
Cryptocurrency got a massive boost last month. More than 40 UK retailers, including Homebase, Ocado and Boots, plan to give online shoppers cashback in Bitcoin. This crypto rewards scheme is expected to launch in 2022, and will be powered by fintech Mode. When customers make purchases at the participating retailers (which are yet to be confirmed), their Mode wallet will be credited with Bitcoin cashback through the company’s app.
Over the past year, there has been growing interest in OpenBanking solutions. Mode CEO Ryan Moore explained this latest move will ‘provide a lower-risk entry point to crypto by giving customers the opportunity to passively earn Bitcoin without taking on the individual risk of investing’. I wonder how popular this scheme will be. While it’s claimed to be a risk-free way to get involved with cryptocurrency, is there any point in earning cashback in Bitcoin if there are no signs that it will become legal tender any time soon?
One of the key achievements at COP26 was the pact between nations, including the UK, US, China, and India, to accelerate the development and deployment of clean hydrogen, and ensure that ‘affordable renewable and low-carbon hydrogen is globally available by 2030’.
While these resolutions appear promising, Leigh Collins, managing editor at Recharge, criticised the pact, asserting that ‘beyond these one-line aims, there were no details provided on how this would be met in practice’. This resolution was vague, and crucially, did not specify which colour of ‘low-carbon hydrogen’ they were striving for (blue or green?). Green hydrogen is the only type of hydrogen that is carbon-free – all other colours of hydrogen are produced from fossil fuels. This vagueness has implications. If the hydrogen strategy isn’t clearly defined, Collins raises the concern that fossil fuel companies will adopt hydrogen as a ‘lifeline for their existing operations’. This is an interesting point. Since every colour of hydrogen apart from green requires carbon, fossil-fuel-led groups will likely co-opt hydrogen if the strategy is not clearly defined.
Amazon’s announcement that, from January, it will stop accepting payment from UK Visa credit cards sent shockwaves through the finance industry. Amazon cited the steep rise in ‘interchange fees’ (additional cross-border costs that are payable by Amazon or merchants on its platform) which have risen five-fold since Brexit, forcing customers to use alternative payment methods.
This story reflects the broader impact that Brexit has had on all industries, including retail and fintech. According to a recent report by the British Retail Association, European retailers are enduring an extra £150 million annual increase in card fees – with some rising by almost 500%. The report calculated a £36.5 million burden in the UK alone. For merchants operating on the platform, this will lower their profit margins. Amazon claimed these additional fees, particularly those by Visa, are burdensome and harm diversity on the platform. One can’t help but think pot kettle black. The platform is known to have an algorithm that boosts the visibility of its own products and by removing the option to pay on credit with Visa, perhaps Amazon is trying to encourage shoppers to use its own Mastercard?
While this is not a tech story per se, it caught my eye this month. Online provider Atom Bank has announced that it will be introducing a four-day work week for its staff. Employees will now work 34 hours over four days and get either Monday or Friday off, without cutting their pay. Why? CEO of Atom Mark Mullen said that this new change was inspired by the pandemic and reflects employee preferences for a more flexible style of work. It aims to improve wellbeing and work-life balance, and retain staff.
This is a trend to watch. Over the past year, several companies have introduced a four-day week. But will it really help to reduce stress and burnout? While a nine-to-five is the typical working day for many, more often than not, employees work beyond these expected hours. The four-day work week at Atom requires that employees work longer hours Monday to Thursday (or Tuesday to Friday). If workers are already going over their expected hours, will they be working for even longer days with just four to work with? While the prospect of a four day working week may be tempting for many, workers in hospitality or public services for example, faced by worker shortages and requiring 24/7 operations, do not have this same luxury.