My favourite books of 2020

It was an odd year but I really enjoyed reading. I made it through a book every couple of weeks – 26 in total – and these were my favourites. Maybe this year I’ll make it to a book a week.

Non-fiction

  • Wilding by Isabella Tree – my review here. This genuinely changed the way I think about nature and the countryside.
  • The Man Who Solved the Market by Gregory Zuckerman. A brilliantly written story of Renaissance, the incredibly successful investment firm created by Jim Simons. The problem was it didn’t have a purpose other than making money and that eventually made monsters or bitter men of its senior staff – including one of them becoming the biggest backer of Donald Trump’s election 2016 campaign.
  • Eat a Peach by David Chang – a great book about business and mental health with the odd bit of cooking thrown in.

Fiction

  • Exhalation by Ted Chiang – Chiang is the author of the piece that became the movie Arrival. This collection of short stories is a great selection of new writing.
  • The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It won the US National Book Award in 2004 and is set in the aftermath of the Second World War in Asia and Europe.
  • Agency by William Gibson. He’s still cyberpunk and still great. His new novel is set in near-future/current San Francisco and a future London. I loved it.

Electric dreams

Earlier this week the UK Government brought forward the deadline for a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040 to 2030. This is a jolly good thing.

The resulting media coverage has mainly been about whether or not it’s possible. My recent experience makes me think it is. We switched from a plug-in hybrid (Audi e-tron) to a full electric (Tesla Model 3) about three months ago. We don’t have a charging point at home for complicated reasons (the freehold of our building is currently being sold) but it’s been very easy to keep it charged up via local public charging points (often free) and the brilliant Tesla superchargers for long distance trips.

I will also say that full electric is a better experience than a hybrid. I’m no Elon Musk fanboy but Tesla are way ahead of their legacy auto sector rivals. The whole experience and business model is just better thought out than any car I’ve had previously. I’m not sure the difference can justify the market cap without them selling many millions more cars but I pity the short-sellers on that one.

It’s also made me think that the transition to zero carbon transport is going to be a lot faster than people currently imagine. When people try this generation of electric cars, they won’t go back. The uptake will also drive a huge amount of change in the wider energy system. With millions of batteries around, flexibility in the grid becomes a much greater possibility and renewables become even cheaper.

As a side note, I also think the market for electrified classics is going to grow quickly as the price of components comes down. It’s going to be much cheaper and easier to maintain an old car once you rip out the internal combustion engine and associated gubbins and replace them with the simplicity of batteries and a motor. Just check out this video on Fully Charged of a converted Ferrari.

Underland by Robert Macfarlane

I really enjoyed Underland by Robert Macfarlane. It’s an account of his journeys to places that could be thought of as underworlds – entrances to hell – or at least places hidden from human eyes. Macfarlane is a naturalist and environmentalist. He’s also not afraid of caving or climbing which helps. But he’s also one of my favourite writers – I love his tone and turn of phrase.

The book starts in a mine in North Yorkshire where in one direction the tunnel heads under the Yorkshire Moors but in the other, it disappears underneath the North Sea.

One of the most interesting chapters for me is set a few miles from our home – in Epping Forest. It explores an underground world that isn’t as inaccessible as caves on the Norwegian coast but is nonetheless hidden from most of us – the underfloor of the forest. It turns out that scientists are now starting to realise that trees are societies too. They are able to communicate and transfer water and nutrients to one another underground over large distances. Roots are amazing things.

He also visits caves that have been scarred by war as well as caves that have hidden burial sites and art for millennia. Glaciers that are deep under the ocean and hold ice that is hundreds of thousands of years old. Caves in Somerset that were settlements well before Stonehenge was built. And modern caves that are being built to hide some of the most dangerous things we’ve been responsible for – particularly nuclear waste.

He mentions a project to warn future (potentially non-human) generations about sites that hide deadly nuclear waste. Some people think that generating stories and myths about the sites might be better than any sign or warning ‘sculpture’ you could create. His guide tells him the workmen on the project joked when they first started digging they’d find the nuclear waste of some previous civilisation that we had no idea ever existed.

This was my first book by Robert Macfarlane and I loved it – I’ve read several others since.

Wilding by Isabella Tree

Rewilding has been in the news this week with the UK government’s commitment to protect 30% of the country to increase biodiversity. Wilding is a fantastic place to start for people wanting to understand the theory and practice of helping nature thrive.

Back in the 1980s, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell inherited a large farm and house in Sussex. They carried on working the farm until the late 1990s but it was becoming increasingly hard. The land was marginal – it was only really half meant for agriculture. It had thick clay and was pretty hilly and part of the land around the house was protected because of its ‘look’ as parkland, which indeed it had been for generations.

The thing that got them thinking though was a visit from a specialist to look at their oak trees. He told them the oaks were suffering. The land near them was being ploughed too often and he started to explain how they were part of a much wider ecosystem that was being disrupted by the agriculture on the farm. They started to think about what the land had been like before modern agriculture and realised that actually the ‘farm’ had only been that way since the second world war when Charlie’s grandfather had ploughed it up to produce food for the war effort. Before that as they delved into the history books, much of it had been scrubland or small fields. They also discovered accounts of much wider range of species on the land than was present in the 1990s.

As they started to research how they could attempt to return some of these species they came across a project in the Netherlands that was started in the 1970s. It wasn’t ‘rewilding’ as such because the land was newly reclaimed from the sea but the group had managed to create incredible biodiversity just a half hour drive from Amsterdam airport. The secret was understanding the role of large browsing animals in moving the earth and vegetation in order to get symbiosis between different species to start. If you just ‘left’ land it would gradually revert to full canopy woodland. You need large animals to keep some of the saplings in check in order to have grasslands and meadows and all the other types of ecosystem that biodiversity needs.

Back at Knepp, they sold all the farm machinery and animals and brought in a few long horn cattle and ponies and tamworth pigs and waited to see what would happen. Over the following 15 years (20 now I guess) they had huge outbloomings of all kinds of plants and insects and birds. It’s now one of the most biodiverse places in the UK and they’re justifiably proud of their ‘lack of work’. It’s perhaps a blueprint for how part of the UK should be managed in the future.

I’ve written here before about how I think biodiversity and rewilding could be a big movement in the future (and tech for good could play a part). Isabella Tree’s book is both a fantastic read and a wonderful contribution of lessons learned as that movement gathers pace.

The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel

I really enjoyed Morgan Housel’s new book The Psychology of Money. I’ve read his articles and blog posts for several years and the book is a rounded summary of his approach.

His starting point is that money is a very odd thing. While we try to make it ‘scientific’ in the investment world and in mainstream economics, it’s really much more complex than any one theory or model can cope with. There’s a lot of Daniel Kahneman’s influence in the book as well as nuggets from the most prominent proponents of value investing.

For me the best chapter is “When You’ll Believe Anything” about the hold that stories have on the way we think about economic decisions.

“When we think about the growth of economies, businesses, investments and careers, we tend to think about tangible things – how much stuff do we have and what are we capable of? But stories are, by far, the most powerful force in the economy. They are the fuel that can let the tangible parts of the economy work and the brake that holds our capabilities back.”

I’d like to see him go more into the psychology of impact investing – how does the social or environmental impact of the money you invest make a difference to decision making. He’s very well positioned to do that as his day job these days is with Collaborative Fund.

I think it does make a difference. My experience is that impact investors tend to be more long term and less shaken by short term shocks. There’s less gambling in the impact investment world and I think that’s partly to do with the aims of the investors.

Impact by Sir Ronald Cohen

Every now and then a book comes along at just the right time. Impact by Sir Ronald Cohen is one of those books. It was written before Covid (there’s an inserted page at the beginning that references as much) but everything that has happened in 2020 just goes to strengthen the argument.

Ronnie starts by telling a little of the history of impact investing – how it had many beginnings but really gathered momentum after the term was coined at a meeting in 2008. But part of the story is also about ‘social investing’ – a term that goes back to the 90s – and ‘ESG investing’ which really started back in the 80s with activist investors attempting to get funds to divest from stocks that they felt were harmful to the planet or whose ethics they disagreed with. Sir Ronnie has been involved in many aspects of this history from helping to create the first social impact bond to chairing government task forces on the topic and as founding chair of Big Society Capital. He’s certainly made his mark on many of the important building blocks of the impact investing world.

But I think it’s the logic and argument of the book that really resonates right now. Lots of people feel that our current form of capitalism is destroying itself and that the relationship between government, finance and social and environmental progress needs to change.

For investors the idea of measuring returns is obvious. From ancient times, the idea of lending or investing capital in order to gain a return has been one of the foundations of our economic system. Businesses raise money, put it to work, and then pay back their investors with a return. 

In the 20th century, the concept of risk became much better understood – how can we measure the risk to the return that is being promised by taking into account volatility, political issues and so on. The financial services industry got better and better at measuring the risks of various types of investment so helping them to make better decisions.

In the 21st century, Cohen argues, impact will be added to the equation. All investment decisions will take into account return, risk and impact. He argues that technology has enabled us to calculate and assess all of these much more accurately and impact is in many ways easier to measure than risk. 

I was lucky enough to interview Ronnie a couple of weeks ago for our Practical Optimist newsletter. You can see that interview below.

BGV 2019 Impact Report

We’ve just published our annual impact and learning report for 2019. Some highlights include:

  • The portfolio achieved significant financial growth and scale of impact. Combined, our portfolio companies saw a 54% increase in revenues to £29.5m, and doubled their number of users to 12m. 
  • We made our highest number of follow-on investments in 2019 and supported our ventures in raising finance from both impact-focused and traditional firms. BGV ventures raised a further £16 million in 2019, bringing the total amount of additional investment raised by our portfolio to over £80m. 
  • In our team, 68.8% of employees identify as female (more than double the London VC industry average) and 31.3% of our team are from ethnic minority backgrounds.
  • BGV companies also exceed the UK tech sector average with regards to gender diversity. 46.5% of portfolio company employees identify as female, compared to the industry average of 19%. 
  • This year we aligned our impact methodology and portfolio reporting with the Impact Management Project (IMP), placing us in C6 of the Impact Management Matrix. 49% of our portfolio actively assess potential unintended consequences arising from their products, and  75% of those have developed ways to mitigate them. 

The report is based on data up to 31st December 2019 which seems like a long time ago now. But while things have changed radically because of coronavirus, they also haven’t changed at all. The social and environmental problems we’ve been trying to address are if anything more important and more evident. The megatrends that BGV is based on still stand:

  • More and more talented people will want to build products, services and companies to solve important social and environmental challenges.
  • More and more investors will want to put their money to work in line with their values.

GoodGym during coronavirus

The GoodGym team has done amazing things over the last few weeks. I’m chair of trustees at the charity and it’s been fantastic to see them quickly adapt their activities to meet the challenge of operating to support vulnerable people during the coronavirus outbreak.

Instead of the usual group runs and coach visits, runners have been helping people who are self-isolating with shopping and other tasks through missions. This is mainly being done in partnership with the British Red Cross who are identifying tasks but other frontline organisations can now also make requests. We’ve also had a group of volunteers sign up to help with the logistical co-ordination which is only possible because of the hard work that went into the technology to make it all work.

As a small charity we don’t have much in the way of reserves and it seems that we’re unlikely to get much from government schemes that are more geared towards companies at the moment.

If you’d like to make a donation to GoodGym you can do so here via Paypal (Gift Aid is added and there are no fees) or if you’d like to make a larger donation please drop me a line and I can put you in touch with the team.

Healthcare and tech for good startups

The FT has a piece today about how tech for good startups are working with the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic. There are a bunch of BGV portfolio companies mentioned as well as a few quotes from me. It’s been amazing to watch the DrDoctor story play out:

“DrDoctor automates appointment bookings, cancellations and referrals for more than 30 NHS hospitals across 20 trusts. Within hours, the team had started building digital tools that would allow hospitals to broadcast in large volumes about changed and cancelled clinics as all non-essential appointments were put on hold. At the same time, they started working on a series of remote consultation tools to allow people to reach their doctors by video or phone.  Three days later, the broadcasting function had been used to reach 150,000 patients. A week later, the remote consultation tools were rolled out to hospitals. “

It’s been a phenomenal period of innovation for healthcare. Hats off also to all those people who’ve been pushing this agenda for years. Frontline staff deserve all the support and love they’re getting of course, but it’s times like these that the technical plumbing gets really tested and if it weren’t for all the voices making the NHS more open to innovation it would have been much harder to adapt at such speed.

Moving my blog back from Medium to WordPress

I got a bit fed up of Medium. There’s something about the format that encourages long articles structured in a particular way. I found it very limiting and realised it was stopping me from writing anything at all. It also started to feel very click-baity to get people to pay the monthly subscription and I wasn’t finding anything worth reading. So I’ve moved everything back to WordPress.

In case you’re thinking of doing the same, I found that the best way of migrating all my posts was to open a free account on WordPress.com and use their Medium importer. I then exported everything from there in WordPress format (actually in two goes because the maximum file size is 2Mb) and then used the WordPress importer on my own installation of WordPress here. Took me a while to work out but I think everything has moved successfully.