Knowledge is power, until it’s an app.

By Dr Paul Redmond, Director of Student Life at The University of Manchester

“Where can I drop you, guvnor?”

TS Eliot once told a story about a taxi ride he’d taken in London. Seconds into the journey, the cab driver, after glancing in his rear view mirror, shouted, “Ere, you’re that poet geezer!”

Taken aback, Eliot asked the driver how he’d recognised him.

“You see, chief, I’ve got an eye for celebrity,” said the cabby. “Only last week, I drove that Bertrand Russell fella. Imagine: the greatest philosopher in the Western world sitting in my cab!”

“So what did you do?” asked Eliot.

“Well, guv,” said the cabby. “As he was getting out, I ses to myself: ‘It’s now or never. If anyone knows what life’s all about, it’s him. So I stuck my head out the window and said, ‘Oi, Bert! What’s it all about?’”

“And what did he say?”

“Twit didn’t have a clue.”

There’s no one quite like a London cabby for bringing the rich and famous down to earth — and that includes philosophers. But it’s not their opinionated banter that makes the plight of London cab drivers suddenly very relevant for you and me, but for what their industry tells us about the changing world of work.

Think of it like this. Becoming a licensed London cab driver takes around five years. During this time, rooky cabbies are required to memorise, in minute detail, every one of the capital’s streets, roads, alley ways and cut-throughs. Cab drivers refer to this as ‘The Knowledge’ — because it’s only when this super-detailed knowledge has been welded firmly into a cabby’s mental hard drive that permission is finally obtained to navigate the byways and bus lanes of the metropolis. No wonder taxi drivers are so good on ‘Mastermind.’ They must have brains the size of cathedrals.

And from this knowledge flows power –and employability. Who knows what Sir Francis Bacon was thinking of when he coined the phrase, ‘knowledge is power’, but my guess is that he was sitting in the back of a Jacobean Hackney carriage worrying about whether he had enough florins to tip the driver.

Anyway, knowledge might have been power in the Sixteenth Century but it isn’t now. As London cabbies are finding out, knowledge is only power if you have a monopoly on it. Once it becomes available to everyone, watch the power evaporate.

That’s why London’s cabbies could soon be collecting their last fares. A new operator is in town called Uber and it operates not by memory, but by a free and ingenious ‘app’ that can be downloaded direct to mobile phones. Uber drivers — all self-employed — have jettisoned The Knowledge for mobile satellite navigation. If the cabbies hate it, customers don’t seem to mind. No more hailing cabs in the street; no more queuing in the rain. Customers are even discouraged from tipping the driver. Meanwhile Uber, like a Christmas waistline, continues on its relentless expansion.

Economists would call Uber a classic example of a ‘disruptive innovator.’ Disruptive Innovators do three things. First, they harness technology. Second, they develop and apply a brand new business model. Third, they make the existing operator look suddenly very old fashioned and out of touch.

Uber’s plan to disrupt the taxi world is simple. In the words of its CEO, the plan is to “get rid of the other dude in the car.” Just so we’re straight, that “other dude” means the driver. Google and Daimler aren’t the only ones who are getting excited about driverless cars. Eventually, Uber aims to make taxi rides so cheap that there will no longer be any point in owning a car.

And here’s the key point for policy makers. Today’s fast-growth industries rely on technology not people. Hiring large workforces and building office blocks is so Twentieth Century. Uber, the world’s biggest taxi firm, doesn’t even own its own vehicles. Instagram, with 30 million customers, employs just 13 staff. WhatsApp has 55 employees and a whopping 450 million customers. It was recently valued at $19 billion.

None of this is coincidental. A similar pattern is transforming lots of other industries. As Havas People’s Tom Goodwin writes, Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content; Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory; and Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.

In the UK, successive governments have yet to catch up with the Uberfication of the workplace and the speed in which so many established sectors and industries are being transformed. Particularly out of touch is UK plc’s approach to employability, which still assumes that the industries and sectors that have been widely tipped to provide this century’s growth will behave like 20th century organisations and employ lots of people in lots of places. As we’ve seen, this is unlikely to be the case. As research by Oxford University and Deloitte predicts, in the next twenty years around 35% of current jobs in the UK are at high-risk of being computerised.

Perhaps it’s time for those responsible for economic policy to park the ministerial limo and take more taxi rides.

This article first appeared in the AGR magazine, ‘Graduate Recruiter’.

© Paul Redmond 2016

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