On being … disruptive

By Ingrid Sapona

At the risk of sounding like I’m setting up a joke, I can’t help but begin this column with: I remember when… In this case, I remember when being called disruptive was a bad thing. When I was young, the worst thing a teacher could tell your parents was that you were disruptive.

Well – in case you haven’t noticed – being disruptive has apparently become a virtue. If you need proof, just listen to the admiration in the voices of silicon valley-types who busy themselves coming up with what they see as the next best piece of technology. Chances are they’ll proudly describe it as disruptive – like that’s a good thing. Uber, the “ride sharing app”, is a prime example.

Uber lets folks who have cars (like you and me) become, in effect, taxi drivers. The fact that riders pay a fare for rides kind of undercuts the friendly “sharing” idea, but never mind. Potential riders download the free app. When potential riders sign up to use Uber they provide a credit card that’s charged when they use the service. When they want a lift, the app shows them the location of nearby drivers and they order a ride. The app lets riders know what the rates are for that city, and it will provide a quote if the rider specifies a definite pick up and drop off point. At the end of the ride, the fare is automatically charged to their credit card, so no cash is needed.

Folks interested in providing rides sign up as drivers and, as the Uber website touts, they can then earn money with the tap of a button.  Once they’ve successfully registered under Uberx (which is the version aimed at individuals – there’s also an Uber version for licenced cab drivers), all the driver has to do is turn on the app and start accepting ride requests. Uber even provides drivers with a smartphone if they don’t have one. Drivers have total freedom regarding when they provide rides.

The fare is set by Uber and it can vary based on a number of variables, including distance and time, which makes it pretty darned similar to regular cabs. Uber is touted as cheaper and friendlier than taking a traditional cab. Apparently, however, it isn’t always cheaper. Unlike cab fares, which are regulated, Uber changes its fare structure as it sees fit. There have been reports of Uber implementing “surge pricing”, with rates going up when the weather is bad, or during high-volume times, like Halloween and New Years’ Eve.

Uber earns the mantle of disruptive technology because it has impacted the livery industry on many levels. Uber was in the news here in Toronto last week because the City has gone to court seeking an injunction to stop it from operating in Toronto on the basis that Uber is in violation of a municipal bylaw by operating without a taxi license. Other cities have also taken steps to ban Uber.

After the City filed the injunction, John Tory, our mayor elect who takes office on Monday, went on record as saying he’s opposed to trying to shut it down. As he put it, Uber and services like it are “here to stay”. Tory went on to say, “It is time our regulatory system got in line with evolving consumer demands in the 21st century. As Mayor, I intend to see that it does, while being fair to all parties, respecting the law and public safety.”

On one level, I think Tory’s approach is right – after all, the genie is out of the bottle. But the problem is, the disruptive tech folks don’t buy into Tory’s idea about being fair to all parties and about respecting law and public safety. Uber’s response to the two-year old battle with City Hall (and many other cities that have taken similar steps) has been that it won’t change its operations. It sees the matter as simply the livery industry successfully lobbying to protect its profit margins. Uber doesn’t see any public safety issues and so, as they see it, case closed.  

The folks behind Uber don’t see their intransigence as being an attempt to protect their profit. Though Uber users – riders and drivers – may see the free app as just a cool service that’s making their life easier, let’s not forget that Uber is a business – and a lucrative one at that. Venture capitalists have sunk U.S. $49.5 million into it and a recent Bloomberg story pegs the value of Uber at between $35 and $40 billion. So clearly the owners of Uber have a lot they’re interested in protecting – they’re not in it just to “share” their smarts with us all.

To a large extent, I think my inherent irritation with things like Uber is that the folks who create them are so proud of being “disruptors” that they then adopt an in-your-face attitude of: we’re here – get used to it! That kind of thing just gets peoples’ backs up. Maybe if everyone – including the self-proclaimed disruptors – would just think of what they’re doing as inventing things and innovating processes that are mutually beneficial, we’d all be more inclined to find ways of working together, rather than resisting each other.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


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