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Curation: Less, but better

23 October, 2020

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“No one living can give a guess of what is coming along this line, much better than anyone living could conjecture the final outcome of Columbus' experiment . . .”

My Flying Machine Story, Gleanings in Bee Culture, 1 Jan 1905.

Perhaps the most momentous scoop in press history was reported in the apiarists' journal of choice - Gleanings in Bee Culture - in Ohio early in the 20th Century. In 1903 garbled reports had appeared in local newspapers about an event in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, but had garnered little or no attention. It took the restless curiosity and energy of Amos Root, founder of the Gleanings publication, to put that right. On 20 September 1904 Amos travelled to Dayton, Ohio and watched Wilbur Wright fly the first complete circle in an aeroplane. Root wrote an article but delayed it until the following January at Wilbur's request. When it was published this report, and several follow-ups, were the only distributed eyewitness accounts of the flights and it took a considerable amount of time for the wider world to become aware of the achievements of the Wright Brothers.

Since the beginning of the last century, things have changed beyond measure in terms of the level of information available, and the idea that a story as big as this took so long to break now seems absurd. The problem we currently face is actually the reverse of the one that existed before: there is so much information available that in 2011 each American consumed the equivalent of 175 newspapers a day.[1] In December 2016, IBM wrote a report in that offered the fascinating insight that 90% of all the data in the world at that time had been created in the last two years. More recently, the company estimated that the world now produces over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day and that the rates of data growth are in the region of 60% per annum[2].

This problem of data creation and overload is familiar to anyone with a work email account, and the wonderful metaphor 'drinking from the firehose' has been adopted by office workers everywhere to signal their concerns. Rather than being more informed we are finding ourselves on the verge of paralysis.

An online search confirms that there are 848 pages of Jeans available on and a similar search reveals that the average Walmart Supercentre holds over 140,000 SKUs (a type of scannable bar code.) The modern industrial model is built on offering choice and now companies are finding that consumers are unable to make decisions in the face of the tyranny of this choice. This problem of material abundance has perhaps been best described by the writer and forecaster James Wallman who coined the term 'stuffocation'.

For consumers, the antidote to this problem is the development of a more selective model by the corporate sector and this can perhaps be best described as a form of 'curation'. Initially this might sound like it solely belongs in some highbrow sphere like museums or the art world, but the blogger Maria Popova has said that “the art of curation isn't about the individual pieces of content but about how these pieces fit together”. Thought of in this way, curation is a type of filtering that many business models will need to move towards. Luxury companies have understood this for a long time. Ferrari's 2011 decision to cut production numbers of cars was based on an insight of its then CEO, Luca Di Montezemolo, who said, “We don't sell a normal product. We sell a dream”.  For Ferrari scarcity helps build the dream.

Not everything can be premiumised though, and amongst the failures of the big box retail sector, discounters such as Aldi and Lidl have continued to do well, so price continues to be a fundamental driver. Nonetheless we do expect to see both a reduction in SKUs, more refined filtering, and a conversion to what has been termed 'experiential shopping' to be the key themes in the survival of physical retailing.

For digital retailing then it is clear that curation is both a major component of the disease of overload and also its potential cure. The amount of digital data is doubling every three years or so — growing more than four times more quickly than the world economy, and the rate of change is constantly increasing. By the end of 2013 there were 1,200 exabytes (1018 bytes) of stored data in the world[3]. Less than 2% of this was non-digital, whereas in 2000 75% of information was analogue[4]. Eric Schmidt, in his book How Google Works, stated that Google 'curates the internet.' The company is both harbinger of the deluge and an elegant response to the need for it to be managed. Remarkable things can be achieved by big data but only if it is framed and used effectively.[5]  

One of our investments, and an exemplar of a commercial enterprise that offers solutions to the problem of the scale of data, is the Anglo-Dutch publisher Relx. One of the services the company offers is legal, regulatory and business information and analytics, under a product called LexisNexis. The product database contains 119 billion document records to which 1.3 million new legal documents are added every day.[6] The system allows busy lawyers to search and curate the huge wealth of data into something entirely comprehensible and useful.

The company also recently made an acquisition of a fast-growing data analytics business that enables pharmaceutical companies to make better decisions about research and development. This is a classic big data sphere that we expect to undergo radical change. The cost of finding - and then getting - a drug past phase III clinical trials is estimated to be US$2.6bn and the annual research spend for the industry as a whole is over US$100bn. The odds of taking a drug from discovery to marketing are very small; from over 5,000 compounds, fewer than 5% will make it to pre-clinical trials, and for every 10 of those, only one will make it to approval.[7] Greater efficiency is desperately needed and we believe digitisation and a subsequent marshalling of big data will provide the solution to the problem.

When Dieter Rams, the renowned industrial designer - perhaps best known for his work at Braun - was asked for his design philosophy, he replied, 'Weniger, aber besser' or 'Less, but better'. This might well be a good slogan for the growing sustainability movement. However, it also describes how the industrial model is changing in almost every sector, and how digitisation can help, but must also itself be managed. For those who have understood this there will be many investment opportunities along the way.

[1] Daniel Levitin The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, 2014,   
[2] IBM Marketing Cloud, “10 Key Marketing Trends for 2017”, 2016
[3] Big Data, A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, And Think, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, 2013
[4] Science, The World›s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate and Compute Information, 2011
[5] We owe a debt of gratitude to the book Curation by Michael Bhaskar for helping us gain insight into this topic.
[7] The Pharmaceutical Journal, Drug Development: the journey of a medicine from lab to shelf, 2015

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