Why Would You Wash a Rental Car?
Recently, as I was cleaning my Zipcar just prior to returning it, making it ready for the next person to use, the accepted wisdom of that often-repeated quote attributed to former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers popped into my head, accompanied by a bit of skepticism (a mantra later popularized by NYTimes columnist Tom Friedman):
“In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rental car.”
It’s a pithy statement meant to make the point that self-interest is what fundamentally rules rational economic decision making. It’s a statement meant to reveal certain underlying assumptions about the ownership of property. But undoubtedly, there is an important economic shift underway; a shift that creates incentives for people to clean rental cars.
The so-called sharing economy is demonstrating new models for creatively thinking about how we value property and labor; new modes of production are emerging, and good design — Positive Sum Design — might provide ways forward for the design of socially innovative win/wins.
With the rise of the sharing economy, new opportunities are emerging for entrepreneurial designers to deliver products and services that recalibrate the traditional economic expectations between consumer and producer. The question we can now consider with greater urgency is the question of how we might design in ways that create positive benefits for everyone. We can ask how we might design positive sum games.
When designers speak about Human Centered Design, we rarely stop to ask whom the “human” is that we are referring to. Do we merely mean the end consumer? Too often, we do. But perhaps we need to be more willing to expand this relatively narrow definition of “human”, and design for all the people involved in the production of the goods and services consumed across the world (see Worker Centered Design). We might ask, what is possible when we design affordances for coordination, collaboration, and cooperation, instead of designing merely for strict competition within an already crowded marketplace. What is possible when we design positive sum games that promote mutual assurance and shared abundance in order to produce and exchange new forms of value and meaning with one another?
These are just some of the questions Positive Sum Design attempts to examine. In recent years, design strategies such as Human Centered Design, have popularized a set of tools for cultivating empathic inquiry with stakeholders through an iterative design process. These tools have allowed designers to create better products and services that bring the experience of the user directly into the design process itself. In its most simple formulation, these design strategies can be characterized of as the scientific method applied to the creative process: hypothesize, experiment, and analyze. Now repeat. A process that might otherwise be expressed by the designer as ideation, prototyping, and critique. At each step, the user’s experience is taken into account through the cultivation of empathy. The design process is participatory and collaborative. And as a result, designers now have an excellent set of tools for creating better affordances for communication and trust between all stakeholders.
The new value emerging from the sharing of property is created, in part, because of the affordances for trust and communication that are designed directly into the expectations of both consumer and producer. When we all have more control over the means of production, more ability to exchange the surplus value of our property, and authority over the conditions of our labor, we all have greater agency in how we participate in the marketplace. But this requires the design of infrastructure that allows for coordinating trust and communication (a process yet to be perfected). You are more likely to stay at a stranger’s house on Airbnb if you trust that you’ll be safe. You are less likely to let a stranger into your car if Lyft or Uber didn’t ensure the identity of the passenger, and provide the means by which to share and confirm that information with all parties.
These companies have designed “assurance games” into their products. Assurance games are commonly explained with the story of a stag hunt (whose origins are attributed Jean Jacques Rousseau). Like the more familiar Prisoners’ Dilemma, the Stag Hunt provides a model by which to examine the relative payoffs and risks of coordination and competition. The scenario goes something like this:
You and a fellow hunter are out hunting game. You’re hungry and getting hungrier. A stag is a big prize, and will provide enough meat for both of you to eat well. It will also require both hunters to coordinate their behavior so as not scare off any approaching stags, which may or may not appear. You cannot kill a stag alone. However, there is another option. Rabbits are abundant, and can be hunted alone. They also provide less meat. Furthermore, shooting a rabbit will also scare away the bigger game, and neither party will reap the bounty of a stag.
If you coordinate your actions, based on common assumptions, communicated either explicitly or implicitly, that the other hunter will not defect, you will have a better chance of sharing a stag. However, if you do not trust that the other hunter will restrain themselves from going after rabbits, and defect, thus greatly diminishing your chances to win a stag, you too will be likely to do so.
Of course like all disruptive innovations, the potential these emerging platforms have for producing assurance games may also produce other, unexpected negative externalities. However, we should cautiously, yet optimistically, view these examples as precedents to point to and improve upon, and as part of an ongoing process that is critical and iterative. The designer must continually refine and develop these creative strategies as s/he advances concretely through a process that produces testable models. The entrepreneurial designer is perhaps ideally suited for such a task; to examine and ideate around the set of questions that orient us towards maximizing coordinated value within the given constraints, and create shared value beyond those given constraints.
In short, we all get more through collaboration. Positive Sum Design, at its best, allows for the discovery of abundance where we might otherwise see only scarcity. Positive Sum Design proceeds from the notion that the best solutions to complex problems are rarely to be found in zero sum games. Positive Sum Design reminds us that our ethics are grounded in how we orient ourselves towards the mutability of constraints.
It remains to be seen what these disruptive innovations may generate as new value is produced elsewhere in the marketplace. A critique of the rent seeking in taxi licensing, and the disruption and reshaping of labor markets, are commonly cited examples of how companies like Uber and Lyft, are challenging old models. There is a great deal of anxiety about the emergence of a “gig economy”, where new affordances for coordination and convenience emerge, at the expense of a labor protections and hard distinctions between part time and full time work, as well as other foundational assumptions about shared infrastructure. When I ask Uber or Lyft drivers about the displacement of traditional taxi drivers by the service they provide, more than one driver has nervously joked that it is only a matter of time before we see the rise of the machines, when driverless cars will replace their jobs as well.
We must be careful that as we attempt to design win/wins (positive sum games) we are not producing win/loses (zero sum games) or lose/loses (negative sum games) scenarios elsewhere. Positive Sum Design is capable of producing positive social innovation. However, the creative tensions being worked through dialectically in these early iterations of the sharing economy may yet produce an even richer set of questions for entrepreneurial designers to explore, and give us all the means by which to learn to play — and win — positive sum games.
In the future, we may find ourselves cleaning rental cars more often. We may yet see Taskrabbits cooperating to become Taskstags.