The Coffee Shop Paradox

Over the last thirty years we’ve seen a revolution in efficiency as a combination of technology and process has transformed our economy. Between them, lean thinking and technology enabled globalisaton has totally reconfigured supply chains and sourcing strategies.

Here in the UK, as in most Western economies, what could be transferred to lower cost areas of the world has been, hollowing out our high value activities in manufacturing and engineering and replacing them with low value service sector jobs. David Graeber wrote about it eloquently, if uncomfortably in “Bullshit Jobs“.

The Froth Economy.

The challenge of course is that bullshit jobs, from coffee shop Baristas to swathes of finance, law , retail and consulting are essentially parasitic – they depend on others to generate value which they can then extract and recycle. These are skilled people, with good qualifications and when things are good, they are very very good, but right now it’s like having too many midwives and far too few creative preganancies. I suspect the waste level of capability versus application is embarrasingly high. A look at many of the online conferences happening during lockdown has shown big echo chambers of advisers talking to other advisers in the hope that somehere business might be done.

Meanwhile, those on whom we depend for the source of value – manufacturers, entrepreneurs, engineers, designers – are underutilised in an economy where short terms returns are required by those who have the resources we need.

It will of course change. Even insolvency practitioners will eventually run out of clients to put into administration.

So here we have the challenge. Mountains of talent who have become dependent on the economic equivalent of passing trade, rather than applying their skills and talents to the generation of original value.

Creating original value means bringing something into being. Originality, creativity, risk, skin in the game. It’s a mindset and an attitude.

The Caffeine Economy.

The answer is not to onshore what we’ve offshored. What’s gone is gone and well down its own redundancy curve. It’s to bring the new, the necessary and the beautiful into being. To create new ecosystems of collaboration and in many ways, evoke the spirit of the London coffee shops of the 17th and 18th centuries which created wealth not from formulaic skinny lattes, but from the businesses that were created during the discussions as people drank them.

The games industry – forecast to triple in size this decade, and where we are a leader is one example. Clean energy another. Farming and food distribution, where we incur abominable levels of waste (we currently grow enough food for ten billion people right now, and waste over a third of it) are all grist to a creative mill.

The New Baristas

The impetus is unlikely to come from those who benefit from the current skewed system. They are dependent on an expectation from shareholders of the continuation in growth of historic profits, which in current conditions makes their value as substantial as that Capuccino froth. They will make noises, and acquire, and lobby but the gravitational force of the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet will have its way.

The new Baristas are already here. People wih a passion for what they do and a commitment to craft borne of effort, experience and persistence rather than a training course. Soul, as well as skin in the game.

As we change the way we work, away from the latter day mills of large offices to the the new cottage industries enabled by technology, we will grow a whole new ecosystem, an undergound mycelium of connection, out of sight of the corner office.

Repurposing talent from compliance to creativity.

We already have the talent, we just need different conversations.

Conversations not about efficiency, but about originality. Not about resilience, but about exploration and adventure. The creation of projects and businesses we can take pride in. That make money not by extraction from existing systems and resources, but the creation of new sources.

Less of better. The taming of pointless scale and the creation of communities of practice.

Stop waiting to be chosen. Choose yourself.

Seth Godin.

Start a conversation about what you imagine might be, with people you trust, about something to be proud of.

See what happens.

2 responses to “The Coffee Shop Paradox”

  1. Coffeehouses first appeared in England during the time of Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan dictator of England. Because Cromwell discouraged the consumption of alcohol, coffee was celebrated as a viable alternative to alcohol—not sinful, but still delicious, bitter, and somewhat intoxicating. The first “coffeehouse” in England was tended by Pasqua Rosee, an Armenian servant who’d tasted coffee during his travels through the Middle East. Rosee worked for Daniel Edwards, a wealthy merchant who would invite his friends to discuss politics and religion in the building. The establishment was so successful that many other coffeehouses opened in London—within half a century there were at least 3,000.

    Within less than a century, coffeehouses had become a central part of social and political life in England. While some disapproved of coffeehouses for provoking intoxication (the effects of coffee on the nervous system weren’t well understood at the time), triviality, and time-wasting, for the most part men enjoyed coffeehouses immensely.

    Through the 17th and 18th centuries, Arabia was the only supplier of coffee beans for England. This changed as England, along with Holland and France, became an imperial power. Holland established coffee plantations in its new colonies in Java (a name still associated with coffee), and later France and England established similar plantations, so that Arabia was no longer necessary to provide Europe with its coffee. European colonists spread coffee to Brazil, Suriname, Guatemala, Santo Domingo, and dozens of other colonies in the New World.


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