Jan 15, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Future. Thanks to everyone who has sent ideas about what we should cover this year! I've heard China, AI, blockchain and climate. Keep them coming this week.

Thoughts on today's issue? Reply to this email or reach me at erica@axios.com.

Today's edition is 1,101 words — a 4-minute read. To begin...

1 big thing: The future of firefighting

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The world is entering the age of extreme fire — and we're increasingly unprepared for it.

The big picture: As we've seen in Australia, California and the Amazon, fires are burning hotter, longer and more frequently around the world. Our resources to suppress them are stretched dangerously thin. And even though the wildfires are getting worse, the way we fight them hasn't changed in a century.

"There's no such thing as a fire season anymore," says Fernanda Santos, a former New York Times reporter and author of "The Fire Line." "There has to be a rethinking of the way we fight fires."

What's happening: Even with help from seasonal workers, student volunteers, inmates and more, the crews that fight wildfires are often understaffed, says Don Whittemore, former assistant chief of the Rocky Mountain fire department.

  • And as the fires intensify, there are more and more job openings to fight them. Fire-related job searches are surging in Australia, per a Hiring Lab analysis — meaning there are people who are looking to join the firefighting forces.
  • Still, firefighting is "more of a guild than a profession," says Stephen Pyne, a fire historian. It requires intensive training — and even apprenticeships — that soak up time and money.
  • The scarcity of fire crews is also giving rise to private firefighting teams for hire for the wealthy, reports the New York Times.

What's next: In the face of bigger fires and labor shortages, firefighters are turning to technology to help. They now use 747s and air tankers, which help give firefighters a break, "but at the end of the day all fires need to stopped on the ground," says Whittemore.

  • Experts say one new tool that would make a big difference is GPS locators for fighters (they currently use radios to communicate, but often run into dead zones while on the job). If commanders in control centers could track exactly where crew members are, they could keep them safer and get smarter about fighting fires.
  • Crews have also gotten better at mapping the fires themselves and predicting their paths. That's been helpful for planning how to attack the blazes.
  • And some researchers haven't given up on moonshot ideas. XPRIZE, a California company, has teamed up with the state to solicit proposals and award multimillion-dollar grants to researchers who want to develop a system to detect and suppress a wildfire within five minutes, Whittemore tells Axios.

But fire equipment has hardly evolved because there isn't much that these new technologies and techniques can do in the face of extreme fire. "We won't win an arms race with fire," says Pyne.

  • There's too much money going toward fighting the fires and not enough toward educating communities on how to prepare their families and their houses for the blazes, Santos says.
  • According to Pyne, over half of all mega-fires are started by humans — and those can be prevented.

The bottom line: The stakes of complacency in firefighting and prevention can't be overstated, experts tell us. "Our combustion practices are adding up to create the fire equivalent of the ice age," Pyne says. "Australia may be the first continent to feel it at scale."

Go deeper: U.S. wildfires scorched 4.6 million acres of land in 2019

2. Venture money trickles out of the Valley
Expand chart
Adapted from Pitchbook; Chart: Axios Visuals

Venture capital investment is seeping out from Silicon Valley to the rest of the country, but the West Coast still dominates the market by a wide margin, Kim Hart writes in her Axios Cities newsletter.

Why it matters: Venture capital investment can play a crucial role in building fast-growing, tech-based economies like those of the Bay Area, Seattle, Austin, New York and Boston. But VC investors don't typically stray outside those markets to look for the next big thing.

By the numbers: Last year, the Bay Area's proportion of overall U.S. venture capital investment fell to the lowest point since 2013, according to year-end data from Pitchbook and the National Venture Capital Association.

  • The proportion of West Coast deal value also slipped to around 50% of the country's total, down from 62.3% in 2018.
  • Meanwhile, deal counts and values crept up or stayed steady in every other region between 2018 and 2019.

The big picture: The majority of U.S. venture capital funding goes to California, New York and Massachusetts — and 2019 was no different.

  • "[O]ne of my predictions last year — that we’d see an increase of VC going to 'rising' states — proved to be wrong," AOL co-founder and Revolution CEO Steve Case wrote in a recent Medium post.
  • The amount of VC investment going to California, New York and Massachusetts actually increased from 75% in 2018 to 78% in 2019.
  • Case says he's sticking with his prediction for the coming year, based on the rising cost of Silicon Valley (as well as the start of the backlash against it) and the multibillion-dollar exits in "rising cities."
3. Amazon's India bet

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With a new $1 billion investment, Amazon is doubling down on its India bet.

The big picture: India has the world's fastest growing e-commerce market, and retail giants from America and China are battling each other as well as homegrown Indian rivals to dominate it.

This week, Jeff Bezos donned traditional garb and visited Delhi for a two-day event with Amazon India and local sellers. He announced a $1 billion investment toward digitizing small businesses in India and bringing 10 million of them online by 2025, per Quartz.

  • Add that to the nearly $6 billion Amazon has already poured into India.

The backdrop: As we've reported, Amazon has become a target for activists and regulators alike, and that turbulence followed Bezos to India. People gathered near where Bezos was speaking to protest the investment, saying Amazon's discounts will put smaller retailers out of business. At the same time, India's antitrust regulator has opened an investigation into the e-commerce behemoth.

Go deeper: Amazon hits a speed bump with India's new e-commerce rules

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The earthly limit on satellite ambitions (Miriam Kramer, Alison Snyder — Axios)

How China obtains American trade secrets (Keith Bradsher — NYT)

Money alone can't fix Seattle's housing mess (Noah Buhayar — Bloomberg)

Continents of the underworld come into focus (Joshua Sokol — Quanta)

America's favorite restaurants are convenience stores (Nathaniel Meyersohn — CNN)

5. 1 fun thing: We're drinking less — and cheaper — wine

A wine cellar in Champagne, France. Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images

The volume of wine Americans purchased fell 1% last year — the first time it has dropped in 25 years, reports WSJ.

The big picture: The U.S. is drinking less overall (Americans will drink 1.2% less alcohol in 2023 than in 2018, per IWSR, a global database that tracks alcohol trends). Wine and beer are getting hit particularly hard as younger drinkers opt for spiked seltzers like White Claw and Truly over the classics.

  • The wine that is selling is the cheap stuff. Bottles under $10 make up the bulk of sales in the category, per the Journal.

Go deeper: Big Beer faces a risky future

Bryan Walsh

Thanks for reading!