nafta-crossingAnyone who was around in the early 1990’s may remember the mantra of modern globalization was that centralized markets were bad and decentralized markets were good. Fast forward to 2016 and blockchain technology: centralized ledgers are bad decentralized ledgers are good.  Does this sound familiar?  Blockchain and NAFTA may have a lot in common. The good news is that perhaps this new world is not quite as uncharted as it now appears.

Coinciding with the end of the Cold War, we can now look back at NAFTA as the Big Bang of modern globalization.  The supporting calculus is credited largely to the ‘theory’ of Comparative Advantage;  an economic thesis referring to the ability of any given economic actor to produce goods and services at a lower opportunity cost than other economic actors. The idea first appeared in 1817 in a book by English economist David Ricardo, “Principles of Political Economy and Taxation”  David Recardo’s ideas still serve as the logical basis of international trade. The efficiency of this economic model were at the time, and still are, indisputable.

Further back, the 15th Century concept of Laissez-Faire is an economic system in which transactions between private parties are free from government interference.  Meanwhile, the “invisible hand” was a term first used by Adam Smith to describe the unintended social benefits of individual actions.  These ideas formed the cornerstones of modern Capitalism – the decentralization movement of a prior era.  Indeed, Capitalism solved a great many human problems while arguably ushering into existence new, and possibly more perilous problems such mass political instability, financial crises, and even climate change.  Now, the advent of bitcoin claims to solve many of these problems.  This begs the question, what new problems will be created after 25 years of blockchain technology?

More importantly, perhaps this connection to a large body of precedence (if we are clever) can guide us to a different set of outcomes than prior decentralization technologies.  This is an important and timely question given the blockchain technology, due to the Network Effect, is exponentially more powerful than the relatively linear Law of Comparative Advantage.

Lessons Learned

I was involved with developing standards for the mutual recognition of engineering professionals between US, Canada, and Mexico back in 1993-1996.  What made NAFTA different, and hence “modern”, was an inclusion of free trade in services sector.  These included financial services like banking and insurance as well as professional service providers from engineers to librarians.  Essentially NAFTA attempted to treat intangible value directly as a tangible object for international trade.  Still a problem yet to be solved.

At the time however, the mutual recognition of professional engineers was controversial and divisive. The US engineers were fearful that they would lose their high paying jobs to cheap Mexican engineers, whose salaries were about 1/10 the US engineering salary.   A “giant sucking sound” was the popular phrase coined by a billionaire presidential candidate at the time.  The fear was made very real for many people, not unlike the immigration debate that continues to rage today.

I saw something different.

In Mexico, I saw an entire nation – an entire continent – that needed everything that US engineers create. Mexico, Central America, and South America needed roads, bridges, structures, water, energy, and every manner of infrastructure upon which free markets utterly depend.  Since NAFTA also liberalized trade in financial services, that meant that economic development could be financed at low cost of capital.  In my youthful idealism, I felt that the opportunities for engineers from all countries was beyond extraordinary – to me, it was specifically the rising tide of basic infrastructure that would float all boats.  Unfortunately, this opportunity was woefully squandered.   Let me explain.

In the US, and many developed countries, the professional engineering licensure laws assure transparency, consensus, and economic incentives that rewards high integrity rather than low integrity among engineers and contractors who carry such licensure.  When the PE stamp is indelibly attached to the project plans, the asset that is described by those plans is held in suspension on the balance sheet during the design and construction phase. This span of time is when the highest monetary risks and technical risks occurs.  Insurance companies depend heavily on engineers to verify the design, materials, processes, components, chronological order and performance of all components of the systems that they insure.  Where risk can be transferred to insurance, the cost of capital can be minimized.

The problem with the NAFTA Mutual Recognition Standards for engineers was that the three negotiating bodies for the US, Canada, and Mexico failed to reach an agreement over reciprocity of the other member’s licensure model and instead defaulted to the highest common denominator which fell far short of practicality while also failing to meet the conditions of insurability, especially for Mexico.  As such, infrastructure projects could not be financed for lack of licensed engineers in the relevant NAFTA jurisdictions. This was not for lack of money because NAFTA also liberated access to financial services – but for lack of insurance. Without a tip-to-toe insurance presence, Latin American economies continue to experience difficulties in bridging the capitalization gap.  Innocent people suffer.

Many trade agreement that followed NAFTA would go on to include free trade in services, and also inherit this flaw capitalization of infrastructure for lack of Global Engineers.  Unfortunately, mutual recognition of engineers would be stopped cold at the borders for lack of insurance.   Many of the problems associated with globalization today, in my opinion, can be attributed to the failure of the NAFTA Mutual Recognition Document for Professional Engineers.  We have an opportunity to correct this flaw and it is imperative that we do so.

To centralize, decentralize, or re-centralize. 

While the economic theories of decentralization are sound, the intended outcome has been elusive.  Instead of converting from centralized serfdom to the invisible hand of freedom, we keep inventing new forms of re-centralization where one centralized system is traded for another under the auspice of decentralization!  The danger is that blockchain technology will not reach its potential of economic freedom for all, rather, it will simply become another form of mechanization that replaces people with machines.  A decentralized solution will require the integration of machines with people.  That means we need to augment human capacity not “surplus” it.

Blockchain technology replaces some – but not all – of the decisions that a human administrator makes.  It will be important to look at bureaucratic processes and accurately discern what can go to a blockchain and what must remain in human judgement.  The current markers of re-centralization include so-called permissioned ledgers to replace back office workers.  Permissioned by whom? A centralized authority? The running joke in the cryptocurrency space is that any effort to control a decentralized system quickly cancels out the advantages of having one in the first place.  Re-centralization is dangerous.

Instead, the integration of humans and blockchains should take a hybrid approach where humans serve as adjudicators to the blockchain machinery pointing smart contracts toward the intended outcome at specific points of risk transfer.  Eventually, a means to decentralize the human adjudicators will be required so that they cannot be corrupted.  One such solution is proposed by The Ingenesist Project.  It is called Curiosumé and it converts a CV to cryptography so that holders can lock contracts to a blockchain quasi-anonymously.

The consortium between engineering and insurance is a critical development in the current evolution in blockchain technology and is required to break the cycle of recentralization by expanding the insurance capacity of our financial system to a fundamental storage of value – public infrastructure.  We need to learn how to convert existing engineering and construction contracts into blockchain adjudicated smart contracts. We need to figure out how to decentralize the adjudicators in a fault tolerant system that cannot be easily corrupted, thus providing for optimal allocation of public and natural resources.  Then we need to expand the adjudication system to all other service professionals who also serve the needs of our human markets.  The resulting cryptocurrency will have intrinsic properties that people will be willing to trade. In this manner, the cost of capital will be lowest for the most proper allocation of resources required by an increasingly crowded planet.

(Adapted from; Insurance: The Highest and Best Use of Blockchain Technology, D.Robles, July 2016 National Center for Insurance Policy and Research / National Association of Insurance Commissioners Newsletter:


Tijauna_slums_against_the_fence_largeThe early 1990’s saw the end of the Cold War,  spectacular advances in computers, the Evolution of the Internet, and a new world order fueled by commerce instead of warfare. Upon this landscape,  NAFTA is considered to be the Big Bang of modern Globalization. What is not often considered is how NAFTA, for better or worse, was to influence every free trade agreement that followed.  The Secret of NAFTA was the failure of engineering mobility and therefore the failure of real economic development.

What made NAFTA unique was the provision for the trade of services specifically, financial services and professional engineering services.  The former succeeded while the latter largely failed.  Herein lies the flaw that needs to be corrected.

Many people remember NAFTA as that giant sucking sound of US jobs going South of the Boarder. When I was a young and idealistic engineer I saw NAFTA as Mexico needing everything that US engineers provided. With the free trade of financial services, engineering projects could be capitalized – this had to be huge.

Intangible Assets are the REAL tangible assets

I found myself in Mexico in 1994 taking what was supposed to be a temporary assignment in a small engineering department of a private university right over the California border – I ended up staying 3 years.  This turned out to be the most profound experience of my professional career.

What struck me the hardest was how intelligent, resourceful, and creative the Mexican engineering students were.  By contrast, I saw the general stage of development of Mexico – at the time it was still being described by the Cold War label as a “Third World Country”.   Soon after, I witnessed a tragic devaluation of the Mexican Peso, where the local currency lost about 1/2 of it’s value against the dollar seemingly overnight.  To observe the reaction of the Mexican citizens, was simply indescribable.  I wondered how could money and jobs just disappear when there was so much work to do and so many people who could do it?

I decided that I’d like to test the Mexican engineering students against a known standard.  I developed a program that prepared a select group of 12 students to take the NCEES EIT examination (The Board Exams for US Engineers).  Their success rate was exceptional; 11 out of 12 passed.   Over the next two years we sent a random sample of over 250 Mexican engineers to the US Exams with a success rate comparable to the US engineers pass ratio.  If the engineers were equally intelligent and equally educated as US Engineers, then something else must be happening here.

Cause and Effect

I would later learn that economic development is a hugely complex subject.  However, at the time, I was deeply intrigued by the following idea:

If you throw economic growth (money) at a country are you guaranteed increased productivity?

The answer is NO. 

However, if you throw productivity at a country, are you guaranteed economic growth?  

The answer is YES.

Herein lays a tiny and nearly imperceptible flaw in NAFTA that needs to be corrected.

Technological change MUST precede economic growth. Economic Growth cannot precede technological change. 

We have gotten it backwards

Banks and and associated securities exists for the sole purpose of creating money to fund innovation. The REAL economy lives where the fact of innovation creates the REAL money.  This is the domain of Engineering, therefore, this is the direction that The Ingenesist Project has and will continue to focus on.


I published the following paper in 1996 as part of my participation in the negotiations for mutual recognition of Engineering Professionals under NAFTA.  We had just completed a program that ultimately sent close to 200 Mexican Engineers to the U.S. NCEES Engineering Board Exams with the support of CETYS Universidad and The State of California BOPELS.  In short, the performance of Mexican Engineers on this exam was extraordinary.  Their pass ratio was comparable in every way (especially when language disparity was removed), to US engineers who took the same exams.

Model For The Mobility of Engineering Professionals Under NAFTA – Please follow this link for PDF: INCNE596

This work is highly significant because it represents original research toward what was likely one of the first modern attempts to trade ‘human knowledge’ like a financial instrument.  The idea was that Mexican, American, and Canadian Engineers would be allowed to practice engineering in the exchange of services across all three borders.  The hope was that the financial structure that supported the American and Canadian engineering profession as a vetting mechanism [for the technical risks details associated with major infrastructure projects] would transfer into Mexico.

Comparative Education

It is also significant because this may be one of the largest comparative education projects between the Mexican Education system in Engineering and the US engineering education system as measured by an established standard examination.  For example, data clearly showed an advantage in Mathematics for the Mexican engineers but a disadvantage in physics and chemistry – likely correlating to the cost of producing such education (labs and equipment) between the two systems.

Relative States of Development

It is abundantly conclusive that Mexican Engineers, and therefore the Country of Mexico, is highly capable of development and technology enterprise based on the education criteria in which America measures itself.    So when looking at the relative states of development between the two countries, the question arises; if the difference is not in the quality of engineers, then where is it? Of course, the answer does not surprise us when we see political turmoil as the source of most wealth disparity metrics.

Language Disparity

Finally, on a relatively minor discovery, this research measured a language disparity of approximately 15% in the speed that the engineer from Northern Mexico can accurately interpret an engineering problem expressed in technical English.  This is useful when planning timed exercises such as examinations where language differences are difficult to remove from the sample set.

Epic Value Game FAIL

As it turned out, the Mexican Negotiators did not accept the author’s recommendations presented here in stead adopting an MRD strategy that was highly restrictive to both the mobility of engineers and the vetting requirements of financial institutions. America literally handed Mexico the Knowledge Economy on a silver platter and Mexico refused.

This author argued in 1996 that Mexico would compete in the future with emerging economies such as China and Vietnam in the the low-value labor market rather than competing with, say, India for the highly valued knowledge market.   It is unfortunate that they chose the former.  I’ll leave my opinions as to why, for a future post.

Model For The Mobility of Engineering Professionals Under NAFTA

This year, I send my Christmas greetings from Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico.

Besides seeing all of my wonderful in-laws and cousins, I had the opportunity to meet with a couple of my students from many years ago.  They are now entrepreneurs, business owners, and influential leaders in the complex web of Mexican and International society.

I knew them when they were just kids struggling through engineering school – I saw them as gems in the rough, now I get to marvel at the diamonds.  Wow, what an incredible experience.   Of course, they can’t see how I view them nor can I see how they view me.  One thing is certain, these are very special relationships.  I managed to hold back tears of joy.

The trust is instantaneous and profound.  We hang on each other’s words as incalculable truths pour from our experiences.  We cite each other’s nuances and we recall quotes long ago lost.  I remember the extraordinary challenges of getting 250 of them through the US Engineering Board exams.  We spoke of the early days of NAFTA and the oppression of the Maquiladora Industry.  We spoke with the wisdom that we wished we had 17 long years ago.

I wonder what happened to the others.  I know a few that have also become quite successful.  The only thing I gave them was proof that they were equal in every way to any engineer on earth.  As such, they managed their careers with that single data point lodged in the back of their mind.  Now they are proving to me what I had only suspected then.

In return, they gave me everything that I am thankful for today as I celebrate Christmas with my wonderful family.  I met my wife while working with these kids.  I found my own ethnic identity working with these kids.  I learned Spanish working with these kids.  I earned the wisdom to represent a fortune 100 company around the World after working with my kids. In fact, my blog and all supporting research is a direct result of a flaw I observed in market capitalism while working with my kids and their interaction with NAFTA. The courage to leave corporate life and take a leadership role in an hugely disruptive start-up company is a direct result of working with these kids.

These kids (men and woman) are among the greatest gift I could have ever imagined receiving.  My advice to others is to always have students.  Always teach people what you know.  Always elevate others and you will find yourself elevated to astonishing heights. Be a student and provide this joy to those who wish share themselves deeply with you.  This is where true happiness is found.  This is the gift that Christmas celebrates – be a teacher

Merry Christmas.

Please Support The Symbionomics Project on Kickstarter

Leading into 2010, The Ingenesist Project will release a series of videos that specify the construct of the Next Economic Paradigm.  We begin at the beginning.

The following video discusses the flaw in modern globalization market economics that started with the failure of an obscure sub section of NAFTA – the free trade of services. The objective of the Ingenesist Project is to correct a tiny little flaw in market economics. This simple adjustment will result in dramatic change.

juarez2bI taught an undergraduate class in International Business this weekend in Mexicali, Mexico as part of an international assignment as Associate Faculty for City University of Seattle.  I first taught in Mexico 15 years ago as visiting faculty during the NAFTA era where I spent 3 years conducting research which eventually lead to  The Ingenesist Project.

My first year in Mexico back in 1994, I thought to myself, “Wow, I can change everything”.  The next year, I thought to myself, “Wow, I can’t change anything”.  The third year, I thought to myself, “Wow, why would I want to change anything, Mexico is doing just fine the way it is”.

At that time, I was referring to the cohesiveness of community, family values, complex social structure, community interdependence, generosity, empathy and personal warmth – despite their “Cold War” classification as a “Third World” country – that the Mexican people held forward to each other as well as visitors.

I also remember the huge city-wide parties (imagine a million person party) after the country won a big soccer match, or after a popular political candidate won and election, or during New Years, Christmas, and Easter, etc.  Wow – what a magnificent place.

Fast forward to this past weekend; I was explaining the implications of the financial crisis relative to the changes that have taken place since NAFTA.  Today, thousands of Global Corporations now surround the city like an advancing army, proud people are now working for wages, Euro/America centric textbooks chart their course into modernization, and pending currency shifts loom unpredictable in their speed and scope – the effects will likely not be in the best interest of the people who actually produce things.  So, I deviated from the course material – If I didn’t do it, nobody else would.  I included material on how to use Social Media.

Mexico still has it, but they are losing it – often in spectacular ways.  It seems so natural that Social Media can have a tremendous impact in countries where the fabric of community is still essentially intact.  Unfortunately, when people are held below a certain economic threshold, they simply do not have the time or the energy to organize as a community to impact social change.  This is the greatest threat to the great promise of social media in Mexico … and the United States.

The following video, A nine-minute history of corporatism, articulates the conflict that I felt when teaching the courses on International Business in Mexico.   Please watch – it is that important.

Life Inc. The Movie from Douglas Rushkoff on Vimeo.

Image credit

dev-oClear and Present Value

The value of conversations is real, clear and present – especially in the actions of those who profit wildly from them. I saw this in the negotiations of NAFTA when it was clearly in the best interest of the some negotiators to keep engineers poor weak and disorganized.

I saw it again in corporate America.  Imagine if Boeing was to publish a complete accounting of the incredible intellect, ingenuity, talent, and creativity that roams their hallowed halls – the world would dismantle them piece by piece.  The “knowledge inventory” is a company’s most closely held secret.

Keeping secrets from the secret:

Sometimes it seems that the biggest secrets are held from those who represent the greatest real value. Corporations pay their engineers the minimum amount of money required to get them to their desk in the morning.  Then they resist organization of engineering professionals, and they give them little or no power over marketing, human resources, accounting, and sales promises related to the engineering outcome.

The problems get worse when this big “secret” becomes public. For example: Steve Jobs has now been identified as trying to collude with Ed Colligan, the CEO of Palm, to not poach each other’s employees.

A Currency Collusion Collision Conversation

“Your proposal that we agree that neither company will hire the other’s employees, regardless of the individual’s desires, is not only wrong, it is likely illegal,” Colligan said to Jobs last August, according to an article Bloomberg reported.  Jobs succeeded in making such an arrangement with Google, according to published reports. The feds are investigating and the Palm allegations only make Apple look worse.

It is quite amazing that companies would expose them selves to such risk if conversations among engineers were NOT in fact extremely valuable.  Why else would Apple engage in such disrespect to engineers and others who actually create the products Mr. Jobs gets credit for?

The liberation of Knowledge Assets

The IPhone that rolls off the assembly line is not an innovation.  Rather, the millions upon millions of tiny incremental ideas, conversations, and shared thought are assembled into what does eventually roll off the assembly line.  The role of the CEO is significant, but still a minority task in the larger picture.

More than ever, social media is empowering people to hold equally productive and focused conversations outside the construct of corporation.  With the ability to measure and track impressions comes the ability to pay royalties to those that produce, direct, and sustain conversations.

With the Obama justice department and other federal regulators already looking closely at Apple over the iPhone and handset exclusivity and the sharing of board members, Jobs’ alleged anti-poaching efforts only add to the fire that is growing around him. If social media continues to integrate at a rapid pace, the biggest fire that Mr. Jobs and other CEOs may have growing around them is the autonomy of creative, social, and intellectual staff.

Special thanks to a post written by: Veteran industry-watcher David Coursey who tweets as @techinciter and can be contacted via his Web site.

In the early 1990’s, the NAFTA Mutual Recognition Document (MRD) for engineering professionals was the first modern attempt to treat knowledge like a financial instrument. Unfortunately it failed because of a tiny little flaw that I call ‘social clipping’.

Most trade agreements that followed were modeled after NAFTA and, as such, inherited the clipping flaw.  The flaw is that ‘products’, but not the knowledge assets that created them, are mobile in a global economy.

The MRD handed the knowledge economy to Mexico on a silver platter; but they turned it down.  The government did not want to give their engineers “wings” because they were afraid that they would fly away.  Instead, Mexico chose to sell their extraordinary young engineering talent off cheap to meet quotas promised to Asian, European, and American companies to relocate huge manufacturing plants to the country. Today, Mexico competes with China in a race to the bottom of a manufacturing economy and almost no indigenous design industries.

Two-way street:

Back then, the protesters raged about an influx of cheap foreign engineers to the US.  But many US engineers saw that Mexico needed everything that engineers make – roads, bridges, infrastructure, etc. The needs were endless and the objective was clear; to increase human productivity in Mexico was to create real and sustainable wealth.  Maybe then, the citizens would not need to fly away.

These infrastructure projects could have been funded because the Professional Engineering License behaves like a financial instrument mitigating project risks (so that nothing “disappears”). Only then banks would lend and insurers would insure.  The transfer of knowledge and accountability to Mexico would have been extraordinary; the relationships, profound; their development progress, astonishing.

The Disappearing Economy

But the MRD died by clipping.  Mexican Engineers would have been required to take the same engineering examinations as US engineer.  The government refused citing concern that they could not pass. So, in 1994-1997, this author directed a large comparative education project sending over 250 engineers to the US professional engineering examination (EIT).  The Mexican Pass rate was extraordinary – they were easily comparable to the US pass rate in most subjects and flat-out superior in mathematics.  There was nothing wrong with Mexican engineers, or the culture; there was something wrong with the financial system that keeps them invisible.

Knowledge is Power

As the story goes, Mexico has a family oriented culture where hierarchy is often based on seniority; a common examination may favor recent graduates.  It would be inappropriate for a young engineer to have authority over a more senior engineer.  Dig a little deeper and the real problem was power. In Mexico, power is concentrated among very few people.  It would have been unacceptable for transparency to exist.

We are facing a similar situation in America today.  Power has been steadily consolidating over the years.  A huge and fast stimulus package will enter a financial system with a shortage of vetting institutions. There is a strong pull toward ‘business as usual’ – creating J-O-B-S; not necessarily more entrepreneurs, engineers, or mentors, and certainly not empowering whistle blowers.  In the knowledge economy, Americans salaries are pegged to off-shore outsourcing. This is a game that we can no longer win playing by the rules.

Social clipping

As we have seen with less developed nations; when people are held below a certain economic level, they fail to organize for innovation, social change, entrepreneurship, and value creation because they are too busy trying to pay off debt and feed their families.  Social capital, creative capital, and intellectual capital are muted; that’s when the magic of innovation disappears. That’s social clipping.

America must move on to the next level of economic growth.  The Innovation economy is a game we can win playing by new rules. Government must trust the people, empower social media, and not clip our wings with an outdated economic model.

Fifteen years ago, I found myself at a remarkable crossroad of social networking.  I had just delivered a paper on the NAFTA Mutual Recognition Document (MRD) for Engineering Professionals at an academic conference at a University in Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico.  Those were exciting times; the MRD was the first modern attempt to treat knowledge like a tangible financial instrument.

My paper was well received and after so much preparation, I decided to take a walk to unwind.  It was a warm evening and I hiked briskly down a side street drifting deep into contemplation about the possibility of a great new international social network.  Engineers from both developed and less-developed countries could build the infrastructure for real economic growth against the forces of oppression and cheap labor.

Soon, the pavement turned to dirt and I realized that I was very lost.  I looked up through the haze of smoke and dust casting awkward shadows from a lonely street lamp through the tangle of power lines. Nearby, a group of Cholos sipped their Caguamas from various crouch positions.  In the distance the sound of Mariachi music, dogs barking, a televised soccer match, and a crying baby droned on in a muted cacophony. The smell of Carne Asada combined oddly with musty earth, car exhaust, and a distant sewer vent. The world suddenly became surreal as my enthusiasm for social networking gave way to foreboding anxiety.

In the corner of my eye, I caught the shadow of a figure limping toward me from behind a brick wall long under construction.  Old, torn and stained ranchero style clothing hung from the frame of the dark figure that approached.  His boot heals were worn to the ground and his broad dark bandito mustache hung low contrasting with groomed hair.  His weathered face, expressionless, relayed his many years of life in the parched desert.

My anxiety turned to terror as my worst fear appeared before my eyes. This dark stranger raised his hand to reveal the shiny barrel of a very large handgun.  I was too scared to move.  My mind raced as my heart screamed out “DEAR GOD, PLEASE DON’T LET IT END LIKE THIS”.  Then, in a smooth reverent motion, the dark stranger held the pistol flat with both hands as if presenting a gift.

He calmly spoke in simple Spanish, “Would you like to buy my pistol?” After an long pause, I found myself stuttering back in my broken Spanish “You have a very nice gun sir, but I am not in the market for one today, thank you”.  He returned the weapon to his pocket and offered a sincere salutation of good health to me and my family before walking back into the darkness.  At that moment, he reminded me more of my late grandfather who I missed dearly rather than evil presence I so feared a mere 20 seconds earlier.

My heart raced as I retraced my steps back to Campus.  Suddenly it occurred to me:  If this old man thought that I had enough money to buy his gun, why didn’t he use the gun to take my money?  I asked a local colleague about my experience to which his response was, “The old man saw that you looked respectable.  He knew that you could be trusted with the responsibility of owning the weapon and not present a threat to his family, children or community (i.e., HIS social network)”

I realized that this poor dark stranger of the night paid me the highest professional compliment I have ever received.  I can only hope to find in myself the humility to live up to his prejudice and to live down to my own.