Technology and trade have been connected – and shaken up – since the days of the Vikings. After all, that group was best known for brute force and ships, but Vikings were also innovators: producing tools like the potter’s wheel at scale.
Fast forward one thousand years or so to twenty years ago, and an admittedly more modern disruptor began influencing trade. In September 1995, a guy called Pierre Omidyar decided to see what would happen if he auctioned off a broken laser pointer on a global marketplace available to all consumers. The result – a sale of about $14 – may not have initially seemed like something that would change the face of retail; but at eBay’s first IPO three years later, Pierre Omidyar became a billionaire.
It turns out that the site which turned much of the world’s excess stuff into a virtual garage sale was just the start of a series of modern disruptors giving the consumer the upper hand in all sorts of industries.
Mostly, these shifts have been technology enabled. And as the tools move from our desktops and tablets to our phones and now watches, it’s a fair bet that no industry will remain unscathed.
Take holiday accommodation: in 2008, we saw the start of Airbnb, which quickly led to millions of consumer shunning hotel rooms for people’s apartments, not to mention rethinking what to do with that spare room. (It’s also meant the company is worth more than the Hilton Hotel chain.)
But disruption isn’t limited to pleasurable pastimes like shopping or holidaying. What about those lists of chores that suck up our spare time, or just never get done? Today, apps like TaskRabbit and Airtasker mean consumers no longer have to weed their own gardens, or wait in queues for the latest iPhone release. Instead, for a small fee, a stranger recruited via the site will wait for us.
There’s also transport. For the last couple of years, Uber has been attracting headlines in its (successful) efforts to shake up the personal transport industry. Strikes by taxi drivers in France, England and Australia certainly haven’t fazed the company (which is known to simply pay any fines faced by drivers coming a cropper with local laws), and passengers appear happy – they say their Uber experience is better, arrives quicker, and of course, is cheaper.
But Uber is not the only company disrupting car travel. Car share companies have been around well before Uber (including in Australia, where Go Get was the first and is still the largest). In Europe, the experience is now taken to a whole new level. DriveNow promotes premium carsharing, so renters wanting a day in the country or a trip around town doing chores can choose from a BMW or a MINI to do it in. When they’re done? They park anywhere they like, and move on with their day.
While some panic when their industry is being disrupted, others use it as a chance to think laterally. Take Audi. Last Christmas it launched a new program in Stockholm, Sweden, allowing four households to ‘share’ the same car for two years. Sure, it’s sharing without the personal touch – access to Audi Unite’s vehicles is controlled through an app – but it’s a shift away from Audi’s traditional business, selling cars.
Once today’s commuters step outside their vehicles, they are increasingly walking into an environment where residents have an ever-increasing voice. A few years ago, a program called Brickstarter proposed we outsource urban design to the crowd. It was much acclaimed, however, it didn’t take (the concept has now been gifted to creative commons). Still, it’s part of the global move for locals to be ever more engaged in urban improvements, rather than just grumble about their local council never doing anything.
Take this working example from the United States: the app SeeClickFix is putting new pressure on councils to respond to issues like broken streetlights or unwanted graffiti. Users walking past say, a damaged park bench, log in and report the issue on the spot, uploading photos, sharing the complaint on social media and checking in to see if it has been solved.
SeeClickFix hasn’t exactly taken Australia by storm – yet. But increasingly, we are being asked to contribute to our public spaces. A public competition by Australia’s Urban Land Institute is calling for ideas on how to improve Sydney’s George Street, once the new light rail system is factored in. Should some of the winner’s suggestions come to fruition, we’ll really know things are changing.
While it’s easy to focus on what many of companies like eBay, Airbnb and Uber do for consumers, it’s also important to realise one key fact: almost all new industries have removed the need for cold hard cash to be exchanged at the point of sale.
So is even cash finally about to be disrupted? Some think so. Long before technology brought about Bitcoin we’ve had people wanting to give cash the flick. Programs like community exchange systems (formerly known as LETS) have long allowed community members to swap skills, with ‘credit’ going into a pool to be used on any other services (rather than a direct swap between two community members). It may sound like fringe stuff, but the business version – Bartercard – says that 24,000 businesses use it.
Over in Demark, the whole country is considering outlawing cash, with it’s government recently announcing it’s thinking of making cash payments obsolete, in an attempt to save money. Over in Africa – the same thing is happening, but for different reasons. Online payments are booming, because it’s hard for the poor to open bank accounts or physically get to places to pay for goods.
It’s just one twist which adds to the many questions widespread disruption starts to bring up. For example, is the share economy really about sharing, or simply making some spare cash? And given that the consumer benefits so much in the short term, where’s the impetus to stop and ask: “Where is this all going?”