The full interview transcript of the conversation between Robin Chase and Peter Leyden is available below. The transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Peter Leyden: Welcome to The Future of Sharing. This is a series where we’re going to be exploring the question, “How can we make the sharing economy work for everyone?” I’m Peter Leyden. I’m the Founder of Reinvent. We’re here with an interview with Robin Chase. Robin is the co-founder of Zipcar. She was banging around the sharing economy before anyone even knew what it was. She’s been involved since then in a variety of other entrepreneurial ventures and she’s tracked it from the beginning and she has also come out recently with a book. Here it is, “Peers Inc.” The subtitle, “How People and Platforms Are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism.”
She’s got a big picture perspective on the sharing economy and also some real thoughts on how do we regulate it and think about it and normalize it and move it into the regular flowing systems of cities; which is rather a lot about what this series is going to be about. So Robin, thanks for coming with us and looking forward to talking with you.
Given that Zipcar was really an early pioneer in this, why don’t you just give us a little by way of your background to the early stages there of when you came up with the idea. What were you seeing there, this kind of idea of excess capacity, maybe introduce that concept too and when you started to think about it.
Robin Chase: I’m laughing that this was so early that I actually forbid my staff from calling it car sharing, because the word sharing was such a terrifying name that no one wanted to… I didn’t want to use that word. So what I really saw when I did Zipcar was that we had the internet, which enabled us to share an asset among lots of people really easily, and we had wireless, which let us get reservations very quickly to the car so we could organize and manage small parts going between that person and the asset. This idea of excess capacity was really important that the way people drove cars prior to Zipcar was they had to own them or rent them. In both cases they always had to consume more than they wanted.
So people own their own cars. It’s the second most expensive thing they have but they only use it 5% of the time. Or they rent a car in these 25 hour bundles or they rent it for two hours of 26 hours. So I knew that we had this huge economic upside of when we let people just pay for what they wanted because there was so much excess capacity in the system that they’re always forced to buy more than they wanted but if we let them pay just for what they wanted, we had the economic win. That was a kind of key piece. The other piece I think that we did really successfully was—this is way back in the day, in 2000—that we had to create what I would now term a platform. We had to create this piece of software where people could interact with the car directly without us being involved and so we gave people the power of the corporation. That you didn’t have to talk to someone from Avis to tell you which car. You would say I want it this time, and this car and this location that you would see personally. So we really gave people the power of the corporation and empowered them with this platform.
So clearly this couldn’t have happened a decade before, before the Internet was ubiquitous, before the wireless, so there was clearly a technological moment that was opening up and has only gotten more since then, really. When people think of the sharing economy, would you say Zipcar is one of the first, or the earliest?
You’re one who is supposed to say this Pete, not me. But I think Zipcar really was the cornerstone for the sharing economy. We were the first ones to make a mainstream brand that was successful, that we raised money. We created something was profitable and mainstream and it really was the locus for people, for entrepreneurs and for venture capitalists to see that, “Wow, this is a thing that people actually are willing to share these vehicles, that you don’t have to own your own and that technology makes the sharing really, really fast.” And I know that we were a reference case for Airbnb and Lyft, which invented peer-to-peer taxi driving, really we were a foundation for them as well.
When you say reference point, meaning they were going to be the Zipcar of X? Is that how you think?
Lyft started with ride-sharing, real ride-sharing, like I’m going from San Diego to L.A. in my own car and I want to sell that seat. And yes, Zipcar was definitely a fundamental cornerstone of how they raised their capital.
And you made reference to Airbnb. What was the reference there, exactly?
Brian Chesky called me up when Airbnb was a twinkle in his eye and was wanting to partner with me because I was also doing a ride-sharing company. He and I were chatting way back in the day on these topics.
Fantastic. So give us a real quick overview then. So you started in the early 2000s. Now a lot of people start dating 2008 as the real critical mass of when some people say the sharing economy as more of a bigger phenom starts around then. If you had do an overview history of the sharing economy to get us to now, how would you describe it the last 15 years?
That’s an interesting thing, and of course I’m the founder of Zipcar so I really do see that Zipcar was absolutely the ground zero. We had this huge amount of press, everyone was talking about us. We were in all those cities: Boston, New York, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, and we were the reference point you know so startups were saying, “we’re going to be the Zipcar of..” So when was that? That was before Uber and Airbnb. Everyone would talk about, “we’re going to be the Zipcar of.” Then those companies became the reference points.
Starting around…those were kind of born out of 2008ish…
Yeah, but they…what are we, 2016? Airbnb was around 2008 but they were really a nothing. Brian reached out to me because of my Zipcar experience and Uber… I think Uber started in 2010 and they were really a taxi App. They were profoundly a taxi app. Then Lyft came up with its great idea and Uber copied it.
A lot of people think, “Okay, Airbnb, Zipcar.” They know some of these famous ones but you talk in the book of just this incredible profusion of companies that really go far beyond transportation and lodging. Give us a sense of what that is and how crazy that is.
I’ll tell you this great anecdote. I was in China doing a T.V. show and they had brought in a studio audience and the anchor was trying to warm them up and he was saying. “Who among you would share a car?” You know people are saying, “Yeah, yeah,” and, “Who would share your house?” “Yeah, yeah,” then he said, “Who would share your smartphone?” Silence. Then I came up and I said, “Who here has an app on their smartphone?” and I said that, “Every one of you are sharing your phone because you’re sharing your data, your asset, with companies in an Internet way that you never used to share.”
We use what is known, right? And so people hear the term sharing economy, they’re saying the word sharing economy, but for me the problem is when people say sharing economy, I think in the mainstream common person’s mind they think person-to-person sharing of a hard asset, and there’s so much more that’s going on. So as I said, all of your apps on your smartphone are very fundamentally sharing, because you are giving up your assets and your thing that you bought that now Whatsapp is getting to use, and Airbnb is getting to use, but you paid for that and you’re letting this big business use your app and you’re giving them your contacts and your friends and this mix of stuff.
If we think about Massive Online Open courses, those are a platform on which a fabulous teacher, speaker is putting his course. He’s already giving his course to one audience and he has this excess capacity to how many people he could be teaching and so the Massive Online Open courses are all, for me, this new collaboration that I call Peers Inc. Platforms harnessing and unleashing the power of excess capacity and inviting in a diversity of peers.
So if we think of the impending 3D printing that’s going to be the same idea, that I have my printer and your recipe but I’m reprinting it on my computer with my own stuff. Let me think of other examples: Skype. So Skype, which we’re not using, but Skype built a telecommunications company on the back of the excess capacity to be found in my internet connection, my laptop I already paid for, my video camera and they harnessed all that on their very clever piece of software to create this platform that enables them to build a telecommunications company.
But each of these examples is as I say these three components: excess capacity being harnessed, platform for participation, and the collaboration of a diversity of peers. If we go back to Lyft and Uber when they started, no one was buying a new taxi, a new car to start that, right? They were all doing it on their free time. They didn’t quit their day jobs, they definitely didn’t buy a car, because it was this new noble thing. Is going to work? Is it not going to work? But they could try it because they were using the car they already owned and doing it in their free time. So that’s the way it got off the ground.
All the social media takes this shape, this form of collaboration. When we talk about crowd sourcing and crowd financing and crowd innovation, it all is harnessing stuff that existed that they don’t have to pay more for on these platforms. One more of these I’ll just throw out is the whole open data movement. So here was data that was collected by governments and by transit agencies that was sitting in a file drawer or a server that by opening it up on a platform of open APIs, suddenly there’s trillions of dollars worth of value that can be brought out of this. As entrepreneurs, we’re always looking out for excess capacity.
Let me do one more example just to broaden this. An example I really love is something called Ciclovía in Bogota, Colombia, where the city shuts down a hundred miles of roadway every Sunday morning from 7:30 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. I’d say this is excess capacity. These roads are empty on Sundays, like we all know. They shut down a hundred miles of these roads and 1.2 million people come and take walks, ride bikes, have fun and so the city has created this amazingly powerful asset of these Sunday mornings called Ciclovía, but it didn’t have to build any roads, buy any park space. It just shut down assets that it already had that were being idly used on Sundays. So it’s these idea of looking at your excess capacity and tapping it and inviting others.
So you do you have a very broad sense of what some people call the sharing economy. It’s also called the collaborative economy. You’ve got this peer economy, people call it circular economy. Could give us a little sense of the confusion out there? So if we’re talking to people and to city governments and others, is there a way that you kind of make sense of it all?
You’ve named a lot of them. So is it the sharing economy, the gig economy, the collaborative economy, the platform economy, and I think, you know what? All of those terms are good. I call it Peers Inc. The reason I was calling it Peers Inc is I want it to be very thoughtful and call out the fact that there’s two sides to this. When you say platform economy, you are underselling and denigrating the participation of millions of people who are coming to that.
Or if you call it the gig economy, you are focused on the people participating and you are totally undervaluing the fact that there are these platforms by big companies that are making that gig economy viable. So for me the reason I called it Peers Inc is because I wanted to call out that there are two really important structural parts to all of this and it’s this brand new collaboration. I don’t really care what you call it, but you should fundamentally understand that there are these two halves to this equation.
There’s the platform that’s the enabler, that organizes all the small parts, that makes a very complicated thing simple and gives the power of this big entity to the small guys. So if you think about Zipcar, we built this platform that let people by themselves reserve a very specific car, by themselves open it, and the whole payment is all done simply. If we think about Uber and Lyft, they are giving the power of big companies to individuals who can become micro-entrepreneurs. They don’t have to be good at making fancy apps; they don’t have to be good at marketing; they don’t have to be good at billing. They don’t have to do insurance negotiation. All of that is done by the platform. But the platform without the collaboration of the peers is nothing. So it really is a two-part collaboration, and without the other side you’ve got nothing.
And so you have to decide whether as a player, you want to be the creator of the platform, the one that does the things that only a big company can do and leave on the table for the smaller entity other things that the big side can’t and doesn’t like to do, which I think of as localization, customization, and specialization. So when you separate these two things we get the best of both worlds. Airbnb is able to have a million offerings that are incredibly diverse in very specific diverse locations around the world, because it’s engaging with and collaborating with people who have assets around the world and that is the only reason that they could grow so quickly. They fundamentally understood it’s a collaboration and it’s all these people around us that are co-creating with us.
When I think about cities, the question at hand is, “What kind of assets do you have that you have made open and available for others?” So the city of San Francisco a couple years ago did this really nice survey and looked at its public assets and put them in this special place and said, “Here’s assets that we think are underused. Tell us what good ideas you have for working on top of them.” So they could have been, you know, a public building that is kind of run down. It could be office space in City Hall, which is what they ended up doing, taking on entrepreneurs to work in City Hall. It could be squares that have lots of people that are underutilized certain times of day. It could be the power of innovation. A silly one was library cards. They tapped schools and they did two levels I think, maybe three levels: elementary students, college students, and high school students. They each designed three library cards.
They made a platform that engaged the creativity and talent of its populace to come up with new ways to participate, new ways to feel engaged, new ways to express their creativity. So cities are the ones that should really think hard about the assets that they have or the assets that are outside that they want to harness and take advantage of it. I guess this word “exploit” is kind of a negative word but it shouldn’t be negative, because people want to be engaged and they want to participate. So what are ways that we can unlock that creativity and that desire and get more value out of stuff that already exists?
You’re talking about what does the city have access to: their own data, their own assets, and how do they open it up and get that sharing. That’s one way to think about it. The other way to think about it is they’re kind of the referees. You’ve kind of described this incredibly explosive growth in the sharing economy: these platforms, these peers, and there is a ton of energy around it, very positive things going on.
But there have also been issues that have arisen around this and there’s been some frictions and there’s been some backlash and there’s been some sense of like these two sides that you’ve described might not be as balanced. How are you thinking about that? It brings up some issues here.
One of the things I want to get across as we go into this discussion is that everything that can become a platform is going to become a platform, and it’s going to become a platform because the economic benefits are so advantageous. So we discussed that platforms can grow at exponential speeds, which we saw with Airbnb and Lyft and Uber. They can learn at exponential pace so because they can see all of those transactions and if they’re paying attention they can really learn from those transactions and have a learning curve that is way faster than anyone else.
They have this ability to be hyper local and hyper adaptive and be incredibly creative because they’re tapping into the power of diversity. So I look at this and I think, wow those are so compelling that every private sector company is going to want to build a platform, and going to want to engage in that way because they grow faster, they learn faster, and they adapt and innovate faster. That is without question.
On the downside, the person who finances the platform creates the rules of engagement. So if I’m a worker on this platform, they are deciding how I can work and what are the times, what are the rules. How many stars do I have to have? When do I show up? Yet we’re not calling them employees, and I actually don’t think they are employees, because it’s an opt-in. The company, the platform is not choosing me, I’m choosing the platform. I’m saying, “Here’s what I can do. I’m going to do it and if I’m good at it I can work when I want and I can do whatever I want.”
So if we go back to when industrialization began, children worked seven days a week and 24 hours a day and we after too many years decided, you know what, child labor is bad. Then we said you know what seven-day workweeks are bad, and we should add vacation time and then maternity leave. All of those things are important and so I think we are in the beginning of the sharing economy and this new way of work and there are absolutely things that are broken but what I want to be clear about is that the solution is not, “Let me crush that down,” because it’s going to keep popping up, because it is so economically desirable.
Instead we have to say, “Okay, let’s look at it honestly and see where are the real problems.” So if we if we come back to Uber again, just because it’s such a nice example that people been reading about, in cities around the world they’re being shut down or being rioted against or they’re being argued with. I look at that and I think, “I want to know, when cities do that, I want to know precisely what are they arguing for? What are they protecting?” Are they protecting status quo companies, which I think is an uninteresting thing to protect.
We as a planet and we as economies need to evolve incredibly quickly away from the status quo to a new sustainable, equitable planet. The government should think about its regulations as, lots of the regulations were invented for good reasons a long time ago and those reasons don’t make sense now.
Let me just step away from the US for a minute, as a quick example. In London when the taxi drivers, the black car drivers, were demonstrating against Uber, I thought, “Wow, you’re fighting the wrong person or wrong entity. You should be fighting your own taxi licensing commission that’s making it a requirement that you spend three years and 12 tries trying to memorize every single street name in the city of London.” Now that we have G.P.S, why would you make people spend spend years memorizing all the streets and having the knowledge? That was a rule that made great sense back in, I think this started like 1890 were the first hackneys.
It doesn’t make sense today but that rule is still on the books. If we’re talking about a rule, should these people who are driving their own cars, should they have background criminal checks? Yes, they should. Should those vehicles be appropriately insured? Yes, they should. Let’s break it down. We would need to be much more nuanced What are we protecting? I think governments should be protecting workers’ rights, safety, and public assets. Those are all really worth protecting, but protecting status quo industries, that’s not interesting.
I think you’re right in that. Let’s tease this out a little bit more, because this is really where the crux of the matter is. From your point of view, there are these companies that are innovating, that are creating these platforms, and that without them you essentially can’t connect up the people and kind of exploit those excess capacities, the extra rooms, the extra cars, the extra everything. You’ve got all the different things up there.
Clearly there is a benefit there. But what you’re also saying is that the people who are choosing to get involved in this from the worker point of view, there’s a lot of positive incentive of why they want that. The flexibility, they’re being their own boss, there’s the different things in there that are actually also positive or they wouldn’t be doing this.
And then there’s a benefit, maybe let’s rough out the benefits a little bit more, because there’s other benefits I think that people under-appreciate. I know a lot of the drive in your point of view has been your concern about climate change, and that a lot of the kind of impetus towards a sharing economy could be driven by, it’s a great way to respond to climate change and to actually make the most of the resources we have and shift the kind of onus of the economy. Talk to us a little bit about that dimension of it, the sustainability piece of it.
From a sustainability perspective, there are two issues. One, whenever we share physical assets, clearly there’s a huge advantage to use every single physical asset efficiently and effectively. That is a big plus. But if we think about the scale of the change required, and the speed of change required, governments and companies are not going to be able to do it at the pace necessary. We really have to enlist the collaboration of people around the world. We can’t build the infrastructure ourselves fast enough. We need to think of ways to invite people to collaborate.
Then the last point is we talk often about smart cities and smart transportation and smart energy. Whenever we’re talking about that we’re fundamentally talking about this Peers Inc collaboration of big data contributed by us, a platform that’s going to do the fancy analysis and is going to tell us how to behave differently. It’s going to be this kind of collaboration. So I look at it as indeed fundamental to how we go from where we are today to the future.
I’m really interested in enabling fast transitions because we need to move quickly. This collaborative paradigm is one that I know moves fast. Distributed energy is going to be built with a lot of participation by other people’s rules and other people’s investment dollars, just as an example.
If we think about labor—I have this funny slide when I give these talks of the mom who’s nagging. I feel like when I got out of college, what does every parent say to their child? “Oh, go get a job with benefits.” It’s like the number one golden thing. “I don’t care if that job is boring. I don’t care if you hate it. Wow, it’s a job with benefits, fantastic. And you know, you can’t quit it too soon because you’ll look bad.”
We have put this idea of security above every other benefit. We know from the people who are doing the driving and Task Rabbit, flexibility is this incredibly important thing. People adore flexibility, which is why they’re choosing these jobs. The ability to have economic agency, for me to hire myself. I don’t have to wait for the boss man to hire me, I can hire myself. I can do things to make as much money as I want.
These are really really important attributes. When we say all of our labor desires should be around full-time employment with all the benefits attached—that might have suited back in some false 1950s, 60s idea world, but the reality of today is that only 25% of working-age Americans actually have a full-time job with benefits.
There are estimates that between 25 million and 50 million people right now are working in non-full-time labor activities to earn an income. So we have to shift the broken thinking that everyone is going to have full-time jobs with benefits. The new reality is that instead of me thinking of a monthly salary, I think of a monthly income stream. I’m managing a portfolio of jobs.
My benefits and my workplace rules need to follow this new reality of people doing many jobs at the same time, or doing lots of work for four weeks with one company and then down and off. The idea of full-time benefited employment is really a thing of the past. I care about workers and what it’s like to work this way. They definitely need protections and we need to create rules that match this new way of working.
So what you’re kind of saying is that there are clear benefits in this new world for the workers who voluntarily want to be part of a more flexible schedule, want to be their own person, maybe want to supplement their income in these sharing economy companies with their own entrepreneurial venture or art project or whatever else they want to do, traveling or whatever it is.
So there are advantages to it, but I think a lot of times it is framed as the only choice, or it’s where all the economy is going to go. You are kind of saying it’s not necessarily the case, and what we’ve got to do is figure out a different system to deal with that new economic reality at some level.
I think in your future shows you will have people who are really focused on labor and I know that they will have at their fingertips all the statistics that show that while a small fraction of people are working at this because they have no choice, a larger fraction of people are choosing to work at this because that’s the way they prefer to work.
One more point, to be very clear, is if we think about being a government or if we think about being a company we have been taught to diversify our revenue stream. To be really, really sure that you aren’t a one economy city or you aren’t a one revenue source company. That is too nerve-wracking, so we have to diversify our revenue streams. What’s incredible is that for individuals, which is the smallest possible economic unit, we are told that you are only allowed to have one employer.
So for the smallest, most fragile economic unit, the individual, we should in fact be promoting this idea of diversity, so they’re not beholden to one job in that old way and either employed or unemployed. That’s a really nerve-wracking way to be. If I’m doing many things at the same time, I’m much more diversified and much more resilient as an individual and as a household, and I think we want to encourage that that’s what should be happening.
Well, would you go even further? You talk about the future challenge of climate change and how the sharing economy can be seen a way to quickly adapt to that or share resources instead of producing more resources that everyone has to individually own. Could you say that this evolving way of dealing with the economy actually could counter increasing inequality or do you think it’s exacerbating it?
Some people say, “Hey, this is a way that you can take advantage of your big asset and actually make some money on the side. It’s supplemental income. You can do different things that actually are positive.” I’m just curious if you think of it that way or if you think it is too much.
I guess there’s two things here. One is if we look at the pace of growth in these labor platforms, we can know that there is a huge demand and yearning to have labor platforms, and I would say low-skill labor platforms. That is how Uber can have 500,000 jobs or drivers around the world, because people are yearning to be in these low skill-platforms. So I think that’s part one, but part two, and this is perhaps not for the sharing economy Reinvent discussion is we are going into an era of automation. They call it deep learning and big data. I see particularly in my own field of transportation, we’re about to automate away millions of jobs with the autonomous vehicle.
Income inequality is bad now and it’s about to get way worse. There’s this lovely graph that will be easy for you to find and throw up, about when productivity gains stopped being shared with labor, like 1970. So when people talk about the sharing economy as being this terrible creator of inequality, I think, you are crazy. This is been happening since 1970. Since it ever was, companies been trying not to pay benefits, not to pay sick leave, vacation, whatever. They have been trying to outsource workers for a very long time. So it’s not the sharing economy that is the creator of this income inequality but it definitely exists. We have incredible inequality in United States today. But this new automation wave is going to make it even worse.
One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is if we think about in the old economy, we were always chasing productivity. We would say we were chasing productivity gains because then all the boats will lif. This is how we brought millions and millions of people out of poverty over the last 40 years, was the idea, we had productivity gains. But this automation is productivity gains without labor.
So I look at it and I think it’s like making honey without the worker bees. Who gets that honey? I feel like we really need to have some profound redistribution going on here and I have been recently engaged with this discussions around universal basic income and I think that is one solution. It’s one part of a much larger whole. We still need to have universal healthcare and I think universal childcare. These are really expensive things that basic income is not going to cover.
But we are on the edge of an era of extreme automation and those companies will get incredibly wealthy and have huge productivity gains without any labor to whom it’s being distributed. So we need to be taxing at the platform level, not at the worker level, and we need of course to be taxing wealth and going back to climate pollution. We need to transform how we think about taxation. We need to incentivize different kinds of behavior, and we need to look at where the money is going to be and it is not in labor. Because we’re going to have fewer and fewer jobs.
Totally hear you. I guess from the point of view of this discussion the sharing economy clearly is a piece of a much bigger whole that’s happening here, but given this transition point we’re in, towards more and more automation, how will the sharing economy fit in there? Is it a patch? Is it one way to put that off for a while or is that going to take up excess capacity of people working?
Let’s talk just a minute more about the basic income. I’ve heard some studies that say 40% of the people who work are doing kind of useless jobs. How would I define a useless job? The person who is guarding the exit at the airport so that I don’t go back in. Imagine sitting at that seat all day long making sure people don’t go back into that door. Then I also heard this number—this was a Gallup poll that was international—that 85% of the workforce don’t care about their work. They have no interest in it. That’s an incredibly amazingly depressing and rotten statistic.
So if we had a basic income, it enables two things: freedom to say no to terrible jobs, so, “I don’t want to work with these chemicals.” “I don’t want to be sexually harassed at night as a nighttime cleaner.” “I don’t want to work those terrible hours, or you need to pay me more.” And the other piece is that it gives me a platform on which I can exercise things I’m interested in.
I do a lot of talking to people. I met a taxi driver whose passion and night job is that he’s a musician and he created music that somehow or other transforms the way autistic children experience life. He said, “Oh man, if I didn’t have to work, I’d be doing that all the time, that’s what I really love.” And I talked to this person who was a consultant at the World Bank and she said, “Oh you know I’m really interested in food waste. In Washington D.C., 126 schools are going to adopt the cafeteria food waste program that I instituted in my son’s elementary school, and if I could do that full time I would do that full time.”
Then I talked to another person who was coaching after school and he said, “I’d love to be doing this but I don’t make any money coaching,” and I think there are so many passion jobs that today in our current system are unvalued, that are unmonetized. People could be doing those jobs and would see more innovation and more creativity and a better quality of life. More children would be better tended, more old people would have people paying attention to them, and we would have all sorts of great things that could be enabled if we had that universal basic income.
Coming to this sharing economy piece, it is the ability to be able to do many different jobs at the same time. I would be able to do some passion jobs and some I’m seeing what I’m good at jobs and some jobs that I’m going to make money, but it enables me to exercise more facets of my personality, tap into more aspects of the diversity of me and of our populations. We can extract more upside value than forcing everyone to be doing things for the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. We’re all the people who are slaving away to have rent and food which we are about to make incredibly hard, they won’t be able to do that. If they didn’t have to spend time paying rent, not everyone, but a much larger fraction of people would be doing really creative, innovative, socially valuable things.
You’re not the only one talking about this universal basic income; it’s crazy within the last few years how that’s gone into a really mainstream conversation, particularly in Silicon Valley and around tech circles. It’s something that five years ago or 10 years ago you would thought it was just insane is now a pretty common kind of—
I’m telling you though, autonomous vehicles are going to be when this is a mainstream America conversation. If I think about what I want governments to do right now, it’s to come ahead of that curve and right this very minute think, “What are we doing to enable the diversification of jobs? What are we doing to enable portable benefits?” The number one job description in two-thirds of the states is truck driver. There are three and a half million people who do that job, and it is going to be taken out in a very short period of time. So all of these concerns that people have around the sharing economy and what they don’t like about it—I think those are good concerns and let’s address them.
Totally hear you. Now let’s bring it a little more down to Earth too though in just thinking about for the purview of this series. In these cities, there’s a lot of friction now as this maturing sharing economy has come up against disrupting these industries. That’s one key piece of it. But there’s other things too of just figuring out how do we make this work for everybody? I’m just interested in you talking a little bit more about it because you’ve thought about this, your book talked about it more. Why don’t you give us some thoughts and maybe a more generic approach to how would you think of the next five years here or two to three years.
As we’re talking what I think that policymakers should be looking at and thinking about is when they’re up against this fight and this friction as we politely call it, they should look at it as an early warning signal. It’s like a canary in the coal mine. They should look at it as an opportunity to pilot and hone what are the laws that we’re going to want in place for this future. So yes, primary is to make workplace rules applicable whether you’re working there for 20 hours, 10 hours or you’re an outside contractor. Those things should still apply whether I’m working with unsafe conditions and whether I have background driving checks.
Those rules around workplace safety and public safety should apply regardless of the number of hours. We need to we need to look through regulations and laws and with a mind to, what laws in our books might have made sense before, but definitely are completely outdated? Which laws prevent us from sharing assets, which wasn’t even a thought before but now is a thought? When I say sharing assets, it’s also spatial.
I’m sitting here in Cambridge Massachusetts. I bet my house is zoned residential and in theory I’m not allowed to work from it. Well, that might have made sense back in 1910 when I was doing some crazy thing with fumes and scary products, but that doesn’t make sense today. Rethinking zoning and rethinking insurance and demanding more of insurance companies. There’s a whole bunch of insurance where the owner is assumed to be the user of an asset and that’s not the case in the future; the owner isn’t always the one who’s using it.
When I was doing Zipcar, insurance was a fundamental and very difficult hurdle. It kind of reminds me of ramps for wheelchairs on sidewalks that all of us use, but we thought it was put in just for this one group, but we all really benefit from it. I think about the idea that the person who owns the car isn’t the one who drives it. That actually has been around forever if you think of buses and trucks, all of those utility vehicles have been driven by people who didn’t own the vehicle. Yet there was no insurance product for that. We really need to rethink the way we use assets, and where we’re allowed to work, and just to look at these regulations quite cleanly and take out and undo the ones that are there just to protect incumbents.
Did you come across any cities that have really been ahead of the game in this and could be looked to for—
Now you’re making me feel guilty and I’ll have to send you the URL, but I was meeting the Minister of Transport for New Zealand, and he said that six years ago, they had, through crazy foresight, went through and totally redid all their taxi rules to make it more rational, get rid of the medallions that were being hoarded and provide a better service. They undid all that stuff and he said because they had done that work six years ago when he sent me this link, the whole Uber coming to New Zealand was not a thing. They already had gotten the right rules in place and so it didn’t cause this giant struggle of protecting status quo or not protecting status quo, and what were the rules for individuals to be able to become licensed drivers. So I was really struck that they had fortuitously thought ahead and corrected it.
Any thoughts on any cities in the United States that you think are better than others?
I think that’s hard. I know that San Francisco, where you’re sitting, is under huge pressure because it’s got so many startups doing so many crazy things. They’re having to think harder and longer, and trying to make different compromises. I think as a city, for the most part, they’ve been good about having an open mind and really trying to see what are the pluses and minuses. As I think about this conversation, I know that there’s a whole bunch of people who think that we haven’t touched on the inequality of people who don’t have assets. They don’t have a house to rent out, or a room, or a car to share, or that hotel worker who’s been put out of a job.
I think those are those are good concerns, but I keep coming back to the fact that I think the sharing economy and what’s happening is kind of a symptom; it’s not the root cause. The root cause is that our taxation methods are broken and there’s a lot more inequality and it’s very deep-seated and has roots way beyond this. I think we should be getting at the roots around more distribution of income and better education and better housing and all of those things. It’s not the sharing economy that’s the source of it.
I hear you. So just as we’re turning the corner and getting towards the end of the conversation, looking at the future, you’ve had probably the longest view on what people would think of as the sharing economy, but there does seem to be a lot of energy from the younger generation, Millennials. They’re the biggest generation now, they’re coming to the cities, they’re driving a lot of these new companies, they’re clearly driving a lot of the usage of these things.
You mentioned a lot of middle class families who are using the sharing economy. I’m just curious if you were thinking of the politics of this a little bit. Any advice on going forward? I mean made an allusion that from a business point of view, this is such a no-brainer that you’ll see much more on the economic side of this, but also from the political side, do you feel people are like, it’s here to stay in a way, and that’s going to keep only getting more and more and more integrated?
I think there are some fundamental generational differences. Before everything was physical, now we have virtual things. People can gain status in ways that weren’t possible before. Before, I had to have my fancy car. I had to have my apartment. I had to have my fancy handbag. Now I can gain status and signal status in ways that weren’t possible before and they’re meaningful. How many followers do I have on something? Am I the first person to adopt some cool thing or spy some cool trend? We have these new ways of creating status, and I think that is a fundamentally new reality that’s never going to go away. Before there were only physical things now, there are physical and virtual things and all of the virtual status and all my status symbols are here forever.
The second thing is we are definitely having an urbanization trend. As people are moving into cities, that also changes what we want to buy and how we expect to use cities. So we know that the cities that are the most desirable ones are the ones where that are dense, mixed-use and walkable. If we want to have a city that is chosen over other cities or we want a city that is a liberal one, we need to really focus on this fact that people don’t want to own cars. They don’t need to own cars. They’re never going to want to own cars because what they want to do is they want to be able to see their friends and go out and enjoy people on short notice in a very comfortable and safe way and that includes improving bicycle and walking infrastructure and not being so car-focused. I think that is here to stay. Particularly when we go to this changed environment where we might have shared autonomous vehicles, profoundly here to stay. I don’t see that as changing.
The last piece is that these Millennials for sure understand that they don’t have a future without it becoming a sustainable planet, and that we have to address greenhouse gas emissions. Again, anything that contributes to that path is one that they’ll want to follow, rather than ones that hold us back and as I say protect status quo. They are deeply committed to this transition and I think there’s a lot of malaise and unhappiness with the old guard that is holding that transition back.
In your book I know you have given some statistics that are quite striking. Isn’t it something like, the percentage of greenhouse gases that are emitted by cars is something like 25% of the U.S.—
Twenty-five percent of U.S. emissions are personal cars. A mind-boggling number. Just in general I think people are wanting to lead more authentic—meaning where things came from, people are caring about, and being with their community, people are caring about, and being able to have a livable high-quality. People really do want to work on jobs that are passion jobs that have meaning. I really hear that over and over and over. People don’t want to be doing dumb jobs. They will if they have to, of course, but if we want to think to our best selves and think of the future that we want to have, people would prefer to be doing meaningful work in a pleasant environment. Which is kind of saying obvious things.
I think we can actually enable that, but we have to realize that the status quo has a lot that’s broken. We have to enable transformation from that old status quo as fast as possible. I want to tell you an anecdote as we come down this home stretch.
I give probably 200 talks in a year, honestly, and recently I have been asking at the end of my talks—which are touching all the topics we’ve talked about—and I want this question for policymakers and people who work in cities and you and your staff and entrepreneurs. Here’s the question, “Do you think that existing companies and existing governments will evolve to address climate change and income inequality in time to prevent people rising up and revolting?”
So, the question is, “Will we see evolution in our future or will we see revolution in our future?” I’ve asked that vote of thousands of people now and what is incredibly striking is about three weeks ago, I started to get people to shut their eyes when they gave the vote, and now that I have them shutting their eyes so it’s an anonymous vote, 95% of the people are saying revolution. And the reason they’re saying revolution I believe is because they do not see their governments evolving quickly enough. They do not see status quo businesses evolving quickly enough to address these issues.
My mission for myself, my job right now, is to speed the pace of evolution to avoid revolution. I think policymakers should be looking at themselves and saying their jobs are to speed the pace of evolution to avoid revolution. If you look at the elections we’re having right now between Trump and Bernie and Hillary, it is all about this unhappiness, deep unhappiness, with the status quo and what is the way to solve it. So I just can’t iterate enough times that we really have to stop protecting the status quo and we really have to move and address these issues of inequality and climate change, because they have to be solved and people are feeling very angry and powerless and frustrated with what’s happening now.
Wow, that is a powerful way to end. I would just say to put the last question to you though is are you optimistic or pessimistic about what lies ahead? Just curious about your own kind of attitude towards what’s happening here.
I’m optimistic in that we have this brand new tool of the Internet that’s transformed connectivity and access. So because we have this tool we can find amazing innovation out there. We can collaborate and solve problems at a fast scale. That is a brand new opportunity that we didn’t have before. So that’s what I’m hanging my optimism on. If we can put that power in people’s hands and engage them, I think we’ll make it.
But if we hold back and imagine that no, no, government’s going to do this alone in its own path, and big companies will solve the problems, we will not make it. We really need to engage and empower people. And if we do that, I think we will solve it because there’s an incredible will and creativity.
You know what I think is interesting, is my guess is as you talk to people you will see this conversation, the same conversation, repeated because I feel like this is absolutely in the air, and that everyone is feeling the need to change and that people need to be empowered and are going to be empowered by these new platforms and the issue around automation and income inequality.
In the air amongst entrepreneurs or in politics?
I’d say going into these talks, the audience going in, I bet none of them thought that, none of them were talking about inequality overtly, none of them are talking about climate change out loud. None of them are talking about the anxiety around the future of work and capitalism. But when you raise those issues they all nod and say, “Yeah, totally, it’s the broad thing that’s happening.” So it’s funny, I thought there’s this undercurrent of malaise around those topics and the thought leaders are all talking about platforms and people in this shifting power structure and are we going to be able to provide balance on the two sides.
We didn’t talk about Elinor Ostrom, my favorite. Ostrom’s principles around how you build a sustainable commons—and these platforms are commons—for sustainable commons you have to have a balance of power. You have to let the people who are working on the platform create their own rules of engagement. That’s what we saw with Uber’s recent lawsuits and agreements settlements. In Massachusetts, California, New York they’re going to now have drivers’ unions. We’re not calling them unions. Drivers’ collections, where they’re going to be discussing the rules of engagement. We need to do that. This whole new collaboration is going to require this rebalancing of power. If I look to the future I see it as a bifurcation: either we’re going to have the 99.99% of us working for the very, very few elite or we’re going to have this much greater leveling where we’re going to appreciate that all of us have this amazing thing to bring. That all of us have this diversity of assets and interests and skills, that we’re in this together and that we have to work on it together.
I think we are at this moment where we’re choosing one of the two paths. Trump’s solution is, we’re closing it down. We’re going to hunker down and it’s going to be an elite set that wins. He would say the common man, but I would say from a nationalist perspective, he’s saying white people in America win and the rest lose. Or we would have I would say what Bernie is suggesting, “No, let’s have an open playing field. Everyone has a role to play. Let’s provide these social safety nets. Let’s raise the whole group together, and that’s how we’re going to go forward.” But for me it’s interesting to see it play out in this realm right now exactly as I would predict through my book, that we’re at this fork, and are we going to go one way or the other? And my hope is that we go up.
Where do you put Hillary in that kind of bifurcation?
I think she is very much status quo. So I think Hillary is a protector of the status quo power, which includes, “Yes I care about children. Yes I care about women, but I care about fitting them into the economic structure that we have today,” and I think the economic structure we have today has profound issues with it which we see because of income inequality. We talk about the reading of the rules that rich people keep getting richer and poor people keep falling further behind, because that’s the way we have set it up. That’s where taxes go, that’s where money goes, that’s where the tax laws go. So it’s always favoring the opposite of redistribution.
The sharing economy platforms, which also you know are part of the skyrocketing valuations and stuff, because of their nature though, I’m just trying to roughly—
They’re going to become monopolists. They’re going to become monopolies.
But on the other hand you see them as kind of good monopolies at some level, because they’re actually empowering millions and millions of people, as opposed to Exxon or Mobil you know for that matter Amazon.
I think it depends on how they’re going to play it out. So first off I think it’s going to happen, and the question is can we over the next few years balance that power? And so Airbnb as it’s gotten bigger has I think done a better job of sharing power with its hosts and saying, “We’re going to ask you and you’re going to weigh in on everything that has to do with hosts.” Lyft has done a good job talking to its drivers about what are the rules of engagement that they’re interested in.
If you think about monopolies, monopolies aren’t a problem if they don’t exert monopoly power, right? Their problem is when they start exerting their monopoly power. Either the monopolies act nicely and they treat the people who are on their monopoly well and listen to them, or we’ll have to have government intervention to say, “Well you’re a monopoly and you’re acting like a monopoly. We’re going to force you to do all these things.”
I do look at the situation that Uber is in with these three settlements and I think if they had treated their drivers well from the first day none of this would have happened, because it’s pretty much basic respect. Do you change rates overnight? No. Do you give people warning? Yes. I think that the sharing economy and these platforms are neither good nor bad. They’re amoral. And it’s how we execute on them that could prove to be empowering and delightful in the long run or could deliver us a worst state of the world than we are in today.
That’s a great way to finish. Your gut feeling, having been in that space for many years and you know all these people, do you feel that they’re going to do the right thing, or do you feel it’s going to be a government push?
My gut feeling is that most people—most workers, most citizens, most government officials—are asleep at the wheel and don’t see what’s going on. They need to wake up and realize the pace of this transition that’s happening and realize how it has very, very big implications for the future. So I think if people understood what was going on, I think we could definitely shift it. But it’s being faster to react and seeing how it plays out in the long term.
But do you think that companies themselves in the sector—
The whole problem with Uber and Lyft is that they are going to become autonomous vehicles anyway so it’s kind of moot. Correcting that that sector of the economy for me right now is—I realize it’s impacting people’s lives right now but in 10 years there will be no drivers. In five years there will start to be fewer drivers. So it’s a very short term problem.
Well, okay, so there’s that but there is Etsy and there is you know TaskRabbit, there’s-
Etsy is doing a really fantastic job and so I love Etsy. Etsy has gone public with their values on their sleeve. And so people who invested in Etsy have understood where their values are and Etsy has become this B Corp has to do well by a whole range of stakeholders. I think Etsy will persevere. And what I really like about companies like Etsy is that they serve as great role models. That you can go public and be a B Corp. That was an amazing, amazing thing to have happen.
I know that Meetup would like to become a B Corp, it’s not. I’d like to think that Airbnb, if they thought into their souls, they would like to become a B Corp, which protects all the sides. So I think it’s possible. What we need are more role models and we need people in government and beyond to stop doing knee jerk reactions, but to be more thoughtful. As I keep coming back to, not protecting the status quo but to be thoughtfully interjecting what is it that they’re trying to accomplish. How are they going to protect people’s safety and livelihoods?
Well I think that’s a perfect place to end. Thank you so much, Robin. I want to say this has been a complete and really stimulating conversation at the beginning of this project on the future of sharing, and we hope that others will keep up to this standard as we continue throughout the year. Thanks again Robin and see you next time.