Envisioning a distributed ownership model for new urban transport infrastructures.
With the expansive rise of digital — ‘taxi turned logistics’— platforms like: Uber, Didi Xiao, Lyft, Gett & Ola, it is now clear that a new form of transport system is emerging. Systems that are succeeding in organizing the chaotic and mismanaged taxi system under their own logic, using the smartphone boom — in the hands of both drivers and passengers — to do so. It turns passengers and drivers into nodes in a responsive digitized system, making it possible to manage enormous fleet of autonomous drivers with much lower overhead costs and greater efficiency than earlier. But this disruption and the following expansion into our logistical infrastructures could come with huge costs, namely: the exploitation of drivers, the replacement of public transport and automation as exclusion from intervention.
Below I will go through these issues and propose Commune, a distributed ownership model, that can help to solve them.
The exploitation of drivers
Until now the biggest critique of Uber has been its treatment of workers. And not without reason: new rating systems, lack of insurance and greater income uncertainty has put more pressure on drivers. As Uber sees their drivers as entrepreneurs using their software — rather than recognizing them as employees — they intensify their individual responsibility and risk. And while there have been attempts to form unions for Uber drivers leveraging recognized employment status through strikes, these initiatives have been met by Uber with union-busting strategies — preventing growing strategic unity between drivers.
Internet of mobility vs public transport
As the digital logic goes from taxi into other logistical infrastructures like package & food delivery to busses and ride-sharing programs there is an opportunity for merging. The once uncoordinated movement of passengers and packages can now, via digital tracking, be steered into more effective forms. Every journey can be combined(or synchronized) with another one that is going in the same direction, saving energy and labour.
By this logic, geographic density of rides results in exponentially higher efficiency, every added node in the network adding to the value of each other node.
The result is a logistical infrastructure that renders all other obsolete. A flexible logistics system replacing the weakened and outdated public transport systems through strategic appropriation of the taxi system, thus getting a foot in the door and then using the network effect to expand its reach. But when we allow the principles that are disrupting the taxi industry move into the ways we organize our public transport systems, we should be careful.
We want transportation to be as reliable as running water for everyone, in every city in the world.
— Travis Kalanick, UBER CEO,
While we probably all agree with this quote by Travis Kalanick, there is a difference between private and public ownership of public utilities. Mobility should be as much a public utility as running water, and should therefore not be under control of private actors defending the interests of shareholders. Because the investment rounds funding Uber’s expansion will expect a high multiple return on investment, this return will be extracted through local infrastructures. If we see mobility — and the social mobility that comes from it — as fundamental rights for citizens, letting Uber control the internet of mobility becomes directly counterproductive to that cause.
Uber is based on the idea that a network of self organizing individuals acting in their own self interests always being more productive than a network that acts in solidarity. A problematic approach when it comes to the movement of people in our cities.
Self driving cars as exclusion from intervention
In an interview in 2008, when asked to outline the motivation behind the future automation of the London Subway system, the then ruling mayor Boris Johnson stated that it was ‘to prevent transport unions holding the capital to ransom with “pointless” drivers’ strikes.’ This is a remarkable shift in which, even if only symbolically, removal of the worker has more productive potential in disabling the possibility of strikes than gained productivity through efficiency. If automation also has the value of removing the possibility of intervention from the worker, through automation we are in risk of losing our logistical infrastructures as a critical pressure point in the feedback loop between that which governs and those governed.
Therefore — in our logistical infrastructures — we have a closing window of opportunity to establish our own models before drivers are (at least physically) excluded by automation.
Uber has been clear with its intentions to automate the profession of drivers through self-driving cars. And while this is worrying from the standpoint of the drivers who will lose their jobs — often falling into debt through Uber’s own loan programs — it is also worrying that through this removal of the worker from the steering wheel, we lose the possibility to intervene.
An automated system is much less fragile, as it will be hard to get a fleet of centrally controlled self-driving car switch to another model of organization. And as the driver still owns the physical means–his or her body and often ownership over the vehicle–there is also still room for intervention.
Labour strikes and regulative battles should be used as an entry point to install another logic. An alternative that is in line with the interests of modern smart cities where the citizens themselves should be able to govern the algorithms that structure their everyday lives. If there is going to be an ubiquitous system of interconnected but autonomous self-driving cars handling all logistics in our urban environments, we need to ask ourselves how we want this system to be governed and by whom? I argue, as usage is not agency, citizens need to take ownership of these platforms. Uber has proven that these megastructures can be appropriated under other forms of logic.
We need to use the open window caused by the still existence of the working body to instill the values we as citizens find important, linking these values to the commons they constitute before we are expelled. It is critical to understand that these spaces are now being defined.
Platform cooperativism as part of the solution
The ‘sharing economy’ has shown that infrastructure can easily be appropriated by ideological tools through the effectivity brought about by technology. If the infrastructure is collectively provided, shouldn’t the financial income and governance be equally distributed? As it is hard to change what you do not own, why shouldn’t Uber be owned by the people that actually contribute to the platform through their use, labour, property and infrastructure?
But just for one moment imagine that the algorithmic heart of any of these citadels of anti-unionism could be cloned and brought back to life under a different ownership model, with fair working conditions, as a humane alternative to the free market model.
— Trebor Scholz, platform cooperativism vs the sharing economy
It is important that we do not confuse moral logic of self governance and distributed network models with much needed financial support, especially when dealing with already exposed drivers. Because if we can give financial support, the non-employment status of drivers open opportunities for alternate ways of building these networks. As the drivers can ‘freelance’ between different providers, the hurdle to jump to another platform becomes much smaller. Uber did the rough work by convincing drivers to switch from rigid to flexible, and this new flexibility means that they now will go wherever is most profitable for them.
So if we want to have any chance of actually implementing an alternative logic on these new infrastructures, we need to develop a model that can be propelled by regulatory support but not fall flat when unprotected. Instead, if anything, it should use its special qualities to gain advantages on the market and provide extra financial incentives and stability to its drivers. We do not want innovation stifling driver-cooperatives acting in their own self interest controlling our public transport; regressing to a similar situation we had with taxi monopolies but at larger scale. Protectionism alone won’t suffice, especially as this also means that regions that don’t have the privilege of regulatory remnants to cling onto — are left behind.
Driver-blockades in London led to an 850% increase in Uber app downloads during the strikes, as many new passengers simply didn’t identify with the struggles by the drivers. Passengers need to be part of the cooperative ownership structure to identify. And Uber has instrumentalized this disconnect by using passenger as political grassroots movement against its regulators, adding features in the app where passengers directly can send their protest against regulations (in pre-written format) to legislators. This puts passengers in direct opposal to the interests of the driver. Uber is creating a divide between passenger and drivers instead of unity; shared ownership would create a leveled hierarchy and solidarity through mutual interests.
The ubiquitous internet of mobility breaks up the established buyer/seller hierarchy and creates users that through their movement contribute to the system by expanding its network effect. Passengers and drivers expand the reach of the network and add data to improve its functionality, and should therefore also be rewarded with ownership.
Perhaps the most important reason for passenger ownership is that in case of an automated internet of mobility, we want it to be governed by the citizens that use it and who are ultimately influenced by its societal consequences. This means to propose a real third cooperative alternative to tech companies and taxi monopolies, we need to include the passengers in our ownership model. A third alternative that is in line with the interests of modern smart cities where the citizens themselves should be able to govern the algorithms that will impact their everyday.
Sketching out a model for ownership distribution
The emergence of Blockchain technology and its introduction of the distributed ledger gives us the possibility to envision new decentralized models of ownership and transactions. Using the distributed ledger as a backdrop, how could we distribute ownership in this network without third party validation? How do we guarantee use and value contribution for a fair distribution model?
The three concepts below lead to commune, a network that is automatically governed by — and redistributes a percentage of all transactions to — those that use and contribute value to it.
1. Shared movement as model for ownership distribution
When two or more users move together (initially driver and passenger), their location data can be mutually validated. Mutually validated location data and the energy cost associated with movement between points acts as proof of use which is used to distribute non-transferable ownership-shares to both passengers and drivers. This results in a network that will automatically promote shared movement by its contributors and reward them in financial ownership and voting rights. Shared movement becomes a distribution mechanism for a new platform coop, where both the driver and the user are recognized as legitimate contributors. And as the distribution of ownership is based on the movement of its users, it also creates a flat distribution. Because differences in individual movement have a natural cap.
2. Partial ride-fee redistribution
All ride-fees in the network get forked into two parts; one part going directly to the driver and the other distributed to all users through ownership-shares. This means that use of network results in financial kickback, where users effectively ‘mine’ shares of future income through their use (and thereby support) of the service. This gives guaranteed income for taxi drivers and for financial kickback similar to air miles to passengers. For drivers this is a revenue stream that can be used to pay off fixed costs like car insurance and health insurance.
3. Share decay as guarantee of relevant representation
Ownership-shares have a time-based decay mechanism. This is one of the only fixed values that can not be changed by the shareholders (as they would have perverse incentive to extend the lifetime of their own shares). This devaluation is beneficial for the network as it negates the possibility of control by inactive users.
Commune is a logistical network where ownership is distributed to active users mutually validated location data, via their shared movement. The transfer of ownership is validated by using the already spent energy, associated with the shared movement at use, as proof of value.
Through distribution of governance and capital it gives agency and mitigates individual risk. Through this it offers a partial solution to the exploitation of drivers, the replacement of public transport and automation as exclusion from intervention.
Rather than the idea of a predefined grid for movement, commune proposes a space that is fully transparent and allows the users themselves to define it. This proposal accepts the messy reality of the city and the space it wants to inhabit. Above all it proposes an infrastructure where value is distributed to the people that contribute to and take advantage of it by–and through — their shared movement.