The World is a Supply Chain

Lisa Morales-Hellebo, and Brian Laung Aoaeh. Kicking off #SCIT2019, June 19, 2019 in NYC. Photo Credit: Ray Neutron.

Originally published at on Friday, October 18, 2019.

Note: 3,749 Words, 14 Minutes Reading Time

Authors: Brian Laung Aoaeh, CFA, and Lisa Morales-Hellebo

The world is a supply chain. It’s that simple. 

But what does that really mean?  Whether we like it or not, current economic, political, social, and technology trends will compel more people to think about the implications of that statement more consciously each day.

In this blog post we;

  • Share a definition of supply chain,
  • Put the challenges confronting supply chains in context,
  • Discuss why socio-cultural forces will act as the leading catalyst for the innovations that will define supply chains of the future,
  • Explain why the refashioning of supply chains matters,
  • Explain why the technological transformation of supply chains is an economic issue, as well as one driven by evolving consumer preferences,
  • Describe the role that early stage technology venture capital can play in the transformation of supply chains,
  • Describe how individuals, private sources of capital, and governments can play a role in the transformations that will lead us to the supply chains of the future. 

What Is A Supply Chain?

First, let’s answer the question: What is a supply chain? 

A supply chain is a network of organizations that work collaboratively to move products and services from producers to consumers. At a high level, the business of supply chain can be subdivided into: 

  • Supply chain management;  which is about supply chain network design and management; 
  • Supply chain logistics; which is about the storage, transportation, and movement of physical goods from one place to another;
  • Supply chain finance; which is about ensuring that producers, and other supply chain participants and intermediaries get paid for the value they create and deliver to consumers.

Supply chains play two critical functions: 

  • First, they enable the flow of goods and services from producers to consumers. 
  • Second, they facilitate the transfer of information about the movement of goods and services between every entity that is part of the supply chain network.  

The world we’ve become accustomed to will not exist without supply chains.  And further, the world is a mechanism for providing humanity with the resources we need to survive on Earth.  We know this to be true — “when supply chains function, societies thrive”.

The Challenges Confronting Supply Chains

Today, we face an inflection point as our world confronts some big crises. If current trends hold, between 2015 and 2050 the world’s population is expected to increase by about a third, to roughly 10 billion people. According to Our World in Data, the world’s population stood at about 190 million people in the Year 0, and approximately 4 billion in 1975. In other words, the world’s population will jump by about 6 billion people over the 75 years between 1975 and 2050 after having only climbed to 4 billion people over the previous 1,975 years. This is happening, according to Our World in Data, despite the world’s population growth rate peaking at 2.2% per year in 1962 and 1963, and then declining to its current rate of about 1% per year. 

While this rapid increase in the world’s population is occuring, global supply chains face some big challenges: 

  • An ongoing increase in the frequency of severe weather events that cause large-scale disruptions to local and global supply chains. 
  • Trade disputes threaten to dismember the system of world trade established following the end of World War II. 
  • The growing world population has created a critical need for significantly better dynamic resource allocation throughout supply chain networks in every industry around the world. 
  • Changes in consumer behavior are putting the world’s supply chains under increasing strain and business competitiveness is increasingly tied to supply chain mastery.

Socio-cultural Attitudes Will Be The Catalyst For Supply Chain Innovation

Perhaps counterintuitively, innovation in global trade and supply chains will be driven most immediately by changing social attitudes towards climate change. A recent poll of adults and teenagers in the United States conducted between July 9 and August 5, 2019 by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation offers some early evidence of the changes taking place. 

When asked if human activity is causing climate change, 79% of the adults polled responded yes, while 86% of teenagers responded yes. When asked if reducing the negative effects of global warming and climate change would require major sacrifices, more than 30% of adults, and more than 40% of the teenagers surveyed said yes. Also, at least 70% of adults and nearly 80% of teenagers said that technological advances will be able to reduce most of the negative effects of climate change. 

There are more conversations than ever about decarbonizing supply chains. At about the same time this poll was published, Quartz reported that two states in India have said they will not build new coal power plants. Earlier this year, governments in Europe called on the fashion industry to tackle its waste and pollution problems more aggressively and some are looking at passing legislation to that end. In Asia, more governments are moving to address issues around plastic waste imported from abroad. Starting in January 2020, the International Maritime Organization will begin adopting new regulations to curb harmful emissions from the container shipping industry. 

Another example of the rapidly evolving social and cultural attitudes that will drive innovation in supply chains and global trade is the growing movement led by young people such as Greta Thunberg, Jamie Marglois and others like them. Political, business, and technological leadership is shifting into the hands of a generation of men and women who do not want to leave a more inhospitable planet as their legacy to their children and grandchildren.

What does this mean? 

In the next half-decade or so we will see political and business leaders facing increasing pressure to adopt policies and business practices that reflect how voters and consumers feel about climate change. Those who do not risk losing political power and market share, respectively, to their opponents and competitors who do. As this social and cultural movement gains strength, it will accelerate the economic drivers of innovation, which in turn will propel the drivers of technological innovation in global trade and supply chain. 

In his August 2011 article, Why Software is Eating The World, Marc Andreessen said: “Companies in every industry need to assume that a software revolution is coming.” The process he described has only accelerated over the intervening 8 years, and that statement is more true now than it was then. As information technologies that were pioneered in the 1950s have reached maturity, technology startups around the world are developing new innovations to solve some of the supply chain problems that seemed intractable in the recent past.

Why The Refashioning Of Supply Chains Matters

However, before we can understand why the confluence of software and hardware engineering is going to be transformative to the supply chains on which the world runs, we must understand why that matters.

Supply chains exist to connect producers and consumers in an ongoing exchange of value. As a result, innovations in supply chain drives innovations in the rest of the economy. Given that supply chains are about the back-and-forth movement of physical goods, services, and information, it is easy to understand why advances in information technology must necessarily precede cycles of innovation in supply chain.

Because innovation in supply chain acts as an accelerant for increases in production and consumption, supply chain innovation acts as an economic multiplier. Every dollar of innovation in supply chain innovation leads to more than a dollar of total economic output. It is not a coincidence that countries ranked highest on the Worldbank’s Logistics Performance Index tend to have the most developed economies, while those ranked lowest tend to have the least developed economies. 

Supply chains are to human civilization what oxygen is to life; When they work well, no one notices them. It is only when they start to fail that we realize there’s a problem. It is easy to assume that there’s no room for innovation in global supply chains and trade, but this is simply not true. Here are four examples. 

  • As governments and people around the world awaken to the issues posed by climate change, there’s a growing social, regulatory, and economic push for innovations in supply chain logistics that will significantly reduce the amount of pollution created by the transportation industry. Some of these innovations involve the application of machine learning to the analysis of data obtained from connected devices in transportation and supply chain networks in order to make the operation of such networks more efficient and optimized. This needs to be done in a way that ensures that the transportation of people and merchandise does not destroy the environment. 
  • There is an ongoing shift away from linear supply chains in which the materials that remain after consumption has taken place are discarded, and more towards circular and regenerative supply chains that place an emphasis on using post-consumption waste as raw materials for new products. This shift relies on advances in materials science – both in the creation of new materials that did not exist before, and in the processing of materials that we have become accustomed to, but which we now recognize pose a growing threat to the environment as waste accumulates in quantities that the world can no longer sustain. In order to reduce or eliminate waste and pollution, the focus here is on developing supply chains around the repair, renewal, regeneration, and recycling of materials and products.
  • Manufacturing is undergoing a transformation of its own, one which will make the changes happening in transportation and materials that much more impactful. With the recent shift in political attitudes towards global trade, more companies are beginning to consider regionalized and localized manufacturing as a path towards avoiding costly tariffs. Such a transformation will rely on a mix of emerging and mature manufacturing techniques in order to keep costs within a manageable range. These advances in manufacturing will rely heavily on manufacturing goods to fulfill actual demand, rather than manufacturing goods in anticipation of future demand.
  • Invariably, software is being used more than ever to create new methods of collecting, storing, and analyzing data to augment human decision making in every industry. These technologies are being applied in industrial supply chains as distinct as: Pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals – to simulate new compounds and test them more quickly and inexpensively; They’re also used in agriculture – to manage the production, storage and distribution of food and other agricultural produce in order to minimize food loss and food waste; And in energy – to aid in the production, storage, and distribution of energy from increasingly complex power grids that incorporate renewable and non-renewable sources of electrical power. 

The way we make things, the way we consume things, the way we move things, and the power that is required to make all that possible is changing dramatically thanks to advances in software and hardware technologies. Solving the foundational problems that plague global supply chains is a daunting task. Moreover, global GDP, most recently estimated at about $88 trillion, rests on our ability to solve these problems. 

Technological Transformation of Supply Chains: An Economic Problem, An Economic Opportunity

In our conversations with other people, we are often asked the question; “Wouldn’t this be easier if the transformation of supply chains were driven more by economic forces and consumer needs?”

In The Supply Chain Economy: A New Framework for Understanding Innovation and Services, Mercedes Delgado and Karen Mills state that; “The U.S. supply chain contains 37% of all jobs, employing 44 million people. These jobs have significantly higher than average wages, and account for much of the innovative activity in the economy.” 

Similar conclusions hold true in every other region of the world, and there is ample evidence to support that belief thanks to work by a number of global. Multilateral organizations like the World Economic Forum, The World Bank, The International Monetary Fund, various agencies of the United Nations, and others.

For example;

  • According to Growing Better: Ten Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use, a September 2019 report by the Food and Land Use Coalition;  “The hidden costs of global food and land use systems sum to $12 trillion, compared to a market value of the global food system of $10 trillion.”
  • According to Long-Term Macroeconomic Effects of Climate Change: A Cross-Country Analysis, a July 2019 paper by researchers at the University of Southern California (USA), the University of Cambridge (UK), Trinity College (UK), the International Monetary Fund (Washington DC, USA), and National Tsing Hua University (Taiwan); “Our counterfactual analysis suggests that a persistent increase in average global temperature by 0.04C per year, in the absence of mitigation policies, reduces world real GDP per capita by 7.22 percent by 2100.” Furthermore the authors state; “We also provide supplementary evidence using data on a sample of 48 U.S. states between 1963 and 2016, and show that climate change has a long-lasting adverse impact on real output in various states and economic sectors, and on labour productivity and employment.”
  • According to Impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on Supply Chains, an October 2017 report published by the World Economic Forum; “Disruptive technologies are transforming all end-to-end steps in production and business models in most sectors of the economy. The products that consumers demand, factory processes and footprints, and the management of global supply chains are being re-shaped to an unprecedented degree and at unprecedented pace. Industry leaders who were consulted believe that new technological solutions heralded by the Fourth Industrial Revolution – such as advanced robotics, autonomous systems and additive manufacturing – will revolutionize traditional ways of creating value. As the costs of deploying technology continue to fall, international differentials in labour costs will no longer be a decisive factor in choosing the location of production.” 

Other examples are not difficult to find. 

A company’s supply chain is an integral part of that company’s customer experience, and consumers all over the world will continue to become more demanding, not less. The supply chains of the future will become a reality precisely because the refashioning of global and local trade infrastructure is an economic issue that is driven by consumer preferences.

That being said, it is important to recognize why conversations about the transformation of supply chains are less straightforward than one might hope.

In Disaster Mitigation is Cost Effective, a world development background note by Ilan Kelman, he states that it is easier for politicians who tend to seek visibility for themselves to pursue after-the-fact measures rather than pursue prospective and preventative measures related to disaster risk reduction. After-the-fact measures are more visible, while prevention is intangible and difficult to quantify, resulting in less of a boost for the personal ambitions and ego of individual politicians.

We observe a similar pattern of behavior among corporate executives, who tend to pursue highly visible, customer facing, short-term, tactical initiatives at the expense of long-term strategic initiatives that will help their companies develop and gain mastery over their backend supply chain operations. On the other hand, we observe that the companies that have become globally dominant are also those that have developed superior supply chain mastery within their respective markets and industries. We believe that companies with inferior supply chain operations will continue to fall victim to a degraded customer experience. We also believe that companies with inferior supply chains will lose market share to established, and new, competitors with superior supply chain capabilities.

Early-Stage Technology Venture Capital Will Play An Important Role

Surprisingly, the men and women who set out to tackle these problems usually find a lack of sufficient early-stage venture capital to support their efforts at the earliest and riskiest stages of their work – as they take that work out of academic research labs, or small apartments and houses, and start the often arduous process of commercialization. 

That is when there is the greatest need for venture capitalists who understand the nature of the problems, who recognize the potential commercial opportunities, who have a willingness to do the necessary hard work required to help these entrepreneurs succeed, and who have developed relationships with prospective commercial partners willing to investigate new technological innovations for long-standing supply chain problems.

This is changing, but it is not changing fast enough. The world needs much more risk-seeking capital to fund these entrepreneurs – the market opportunity is enormous. As we have already pointed out, global GDP rests on a foundation built entirely on physical and digital supply chains.

For these innovations to succeed, governments and traditional industry must become more open to partnering with venture capitalists and technology startups. Unlike innovations in information technology, the technological innovations that will transform global supply chains and trade interact with the real world. As a result, it is not enough for policies and regulations to lag innovation by years. Instead, regulators and policy makers must work hard to create regulatory frameworks that help to nurture innovation rather than assist in suffocating it. Correspondingly, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs must partner with community organizations, politicians, and regulators to help them keep up with advances in technology and innovation. 

One might ask: “Are there really enough opportunities for early-stage investments in supply chain?” Yet, once one understands what a supply chain is, a few minutes spent thinking about that question illuminates the misconception. 

The recent success of funds like Lux Capital – which announced that it raised a billion dollars distributed across two funds, and DCVC – which announced a $725 million fund, suggests that there are significant financial returns to be harvested by limited partners who have the foresight to invest in the small handful of venture funds that are now choosing to focus on funding early-stage startups solving the sorts of problems we have already described. 

The longevity of Supply Chain Ventures, established in 2001 by Dave Anderson, also suggests that this is a market that is ready for more early-stage venture capital, not less. This is assertion is based on how many advances in computational and information technologies have occurred since 2001, and how much easier it is now for such technologies to be implemented in physical supply chains. That observation is also based on the rising interest, relatively speaking, in issues surrounding supply chains within the general population.

Our conversations with corporate executives responsible for meeting demand from customers suggests that there is a growing appetite for new technology to enable companies to meet the expectations of an ever more impatient and demanding customer base. Also, our conversations with government officials point to a growing desire by public servants to seek new innovations geared at solving the problems that plague large and growing urban communities, and the suburban communities that surround them. 

What Can You Do?

There is a lot that one can do to participate in the coming transformation of supply chains;

  • Individual Consumers: As individual consumers we can all continue to become more active and engaged about understanding how our consumption affects the finite world around us. Social media and information technology makes it easy for attitudes and beliefs about consumption, production, sustainability, the environment, and climate change to spread. In Consumer attitudes towards sustainability and sustainable business: An exploratory study of New Zealand consumers., a 2015 master’s thesis by David Anthony Thompson at Lincoln University in New Zealand, he states; “From a purely pragmatic perspective, this study has indicated that consumers are generally likely to be supportive of not just purchasing sustainably produced goods and services, but that they feel positively towards companies that demonstrate sustainable social and environmental behaviour. This has implications for reputation building for organisations and in turn hints at benefits when it comes to securing supply contracts, recruiting staff and relationships with their physical communities. The study also suggests that understanding and knowledge play a – 56 – contributory role in forming these attitudes, therefore supporting the value in education and information strategies for sustainably run businesses.”
  • Sources of Private Capital: As we have already discussed previously, investing in early-stage innovations in supply chain transformation is an opportunity that remains largely under-resourced in terms of risk-seeking capital relative to the size of the opportunity. It is an area that is ripe for increased allocations of capital within the private equity asset allocation targets of family offices, endowments, foundations, and pension funds.
  • Governments: During #SCIT2019, The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation’s inaugural global summit on supply chain, innovation, and technology held in NYC on June 19 – 20, 2019, Samuel Chan, Regional Vice President, Americas, at the Singapore Economic Development Board provided attendees with a sense of how the Government of Singapore is thinking about the role that supply chain, innovation, and technology can play in Singapore’s economic development. Supply chain occupies a central position in Smart Nation Singapore, and specifically in its Smart Logistics initiative. As we have stated previously; It is not a coincidence that countries ranked highest on the Worldbank’s Logistics Performance Index tend to have the most developed economies, while those ranked lowest tend to have the least developed economies. Increasingly, the countries and regions of the world that will continue to experience the strongest economic growth will be those that are quickest to embrace and deploy the still nascent and emerging engineered systems that reflect a tight integration of computation and physical supply chains, in every area of economic activity.

If by now, the reader is beginning to conclude that the future of supply chains will be driven largely by supply chain enthusiasts, we agree.

We Will All Be Supply Chain Enthusiasts

So who is today’s supply chain enthusiast? A supply chain enthusiast is;

  • Someone who recognizes that the world is a mechanism for providing humanity with the resources it needs to survive. 
  • Someone who recognizes that each of us has a responsibility for ensuring that this supply chain that we are part of is managed in a way that ensures that humans continue to thrive. 
  • Someone who understands that collectively, we must summon the political will to begin the effort of arresting, and then reversing, the harm that we have caused to the environment. 

We will all become supply chain enthusiasts, not because it is the fashionable thing to do, but because with every year that passes it will become an issue of increasing and critical necessity. As more people become aware of, and start to understand that how we produce, store, transport, and consume things has a profound impact on our environment, enthusiasm about supply chain, innovation, and technology will become more socially and culturally mainstream. 

At that point, “The world is a supply chain.” will become a rallying cry everyone innately understands.

Note: “The world is a supply chain.” is a trademark owned by The New York Supply  Chain Meetup.

About The Authors: Brian Laung Aoaeh (@brianlaungaoaeh) and Lisa Morales-Hellebo (@lisahellebo) are co-founders of REFASHIOND Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund that is being built to invest in startups creating innovations to refashion global supply chain networks. They are also co-founders of The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation, a growing network of grassroots-driven communities focused on supply chain, innovation, and technology.

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