It’d be easy to distance ourselves from Uber’s many problems, but given that Uber is currently one of the most highly valued and influential tech companies we need to ask ourselves what Uber’s problems are reflecting back to us about what we incentivise as a society. Brhmie Balaram argues that Uber is a product of an unhealthy ecosystem and we all have a part to play in restoring a sense of balance.
When did it all start to go wrong for Uber? 2017 seemed to mark the beginning of the end for a company once presumed to be an unstoppable maverick in Silicon Valley.
First, the #DeleteUber campaign went viral; half a million users purged their accounts after Uber appeared to break a strike being held by taxi drivers against Trump’s travel ban. CEO, Travis Kalanick, also came under fire at the time for his ties to the Trump administration, and in particular, his role on Trump’s advisory council. Soon after, a former Uber engineer, Susan Fowler, came forward with her experience of sexual harassment and discrimination at the company, inspiring others to share similar stories and sparking an investigation of the company’s culture. As if this wasn’t all calamitous enough, Kalanick was shortly caught on tape shouting at an Uber driver who raised concerns about making ends meet as the company cut its rates of pay.
Then there are the company’s many legal woes. In addition to the lawsuits brought by gig workers in the US, Uber must now battle Waymo, another division of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, in court after it was claimed Uber stole their technology for driverless cars.
The top team has been decimated in recent months as if the COO, CFO, CMO, and CEO were all dominoes, toppling over one-by-one as each new scandal has leaked to the press.
Of course, most of these problems began long ago and were only exposed (in rather quick succession) this year. Uber’s shiny veneer as an ‘edgy, disruptive’ platform may be valued at $70 billion, but revelations that the company is rotting at its core could deteriorate its worth. It is this risk that ultimately roused the board to take action and force out its founder and CEO, Kalanick.
Yet, the blame doesn’t fall squarely on Kalanick’s shoulders. While he does bear responsibility as the boss, and rightly should have resigned for the chaos he has presided over (and condoned), we’ve all been aware to some degree that Uber is akin to a ‘problematic fave’. Consumers, investors, and regulators have all egged Uber on.
But it’s not as simple as deleting Uber, divesting, or banning the company as some European countries, such as Italy, have done. Yes, these are egregious examples of misconduct, but it’d be a mistake to assume that by ridding ourselves of Uber we’ve contained, or in any way taken care of, the problems. Uber’s problems are fundamentally problems with our ecosystem that can be repeated or prolonged by other ridesharing apps like Lyft, gig economy veterans like TaskRabbit, or any tech start-up to be seeded in future.
Our system incentivises the pursuit of growth over the good.
Growth over the good
In Uber’s case, chasing growth takes the form of promoting a free market on steroids, which, at its most innocuous, is embodied by surge-pricing and, at its nastiest, by flouting local laws to globally expand. It cosies up to whomever it needs to in order to get ahead politically, whether that’s David Cameron or Donald Trump, coaxing government to puts its needs ahead of citizens’. It allows a toxic culture to breed at the expense of women and minorities by retaining the worst offenders, trading off collective wellbeing to advance company profits. It treats the majority of its own workers – its drivers – with utter contempt, laying blame with individuals rather than responding with empathy when they voice anxieties about how the company is changing. But, nevertheless, it is continuously rewarded by consumers who prize cheapness and convenience above all else; investors who delight in the company’s billion-dollar ‘Unicorn’ status, and the regulators that are willing to overlook its shortcomings in the name of encouraging innovation.
The good over growth
While Uber has since made efforts to strengthen its offer for workers, at least here in the UK, the company is accused of being a drag on employment rights and inspiring others to deploy a similar model, moving away from hiring employees to relying on independent contractors. The grey area of how to classify gig workers under the law will hopefully be cleared up by the upcoming publication of the government-commissioned Taylor Review on Employment Practices in the Modern Economy.
At the RSA, we’ve also been championing greater exploration of what good means and how we can realise it together. For example, we launched a ‘Good Work’ campaign and recommended in our report on the gig economy that different stakeholders, including government, business, civil society, and gig workers, collaborate on a Charter for Good Work. We encouraged taking a principles-based approach that would help establish a vision for what good, quality work in the sector actually means in practice.
However, in addition to good work for gig workers, we need to rethink our approach to encouraging good companies, including how to diversify and enrich workplace culture; channel funds into businesses that have more than the potential to be cash cows, but are also ethical and sustainable; and ensure that the interests of businesses don’t conflict with the interests of society (and that when they do, society prevails). By now, we must also recognise we can’t be led by one man as if a founder of a promising company is a messiah we must blindly follow.
Companies can, and will, try to get away with whatever they can in the pursuit of growth, but as a society we should take ownership of this problem now and hold these companies to account. There is also more we can do to sway companies like Uber to aspire to the good as well. The ecosystem is currently off-kilter, tilted in favour of growth over the good, but there is an opportunity here to better balance the two. Consumers, investors, and regulators have a great deal of power over these companies, and thus have a responsibility to reward only those that play fair.
Read our report on the gig economy online: Good Gigs – A fairer future for the UK’s gig economy
Download the report: Good Gigs (PDF, 2MB)
Listen to the RSA Radio podcast on the gig economy with Brhmie, Trebor Scholz (The New School, NY) and Olivia Sibony (Co-Founder, Grub Club):
Brhmie Balaram offers 3 points to keep in mind as we work to ensure a level playing field for both workers and businesses while also serving the public's best interests.
The Taylor Review calls on the Government to adopt the ambition that all work should be fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development. Matthew Taylor's full speech from the launch event.
There are now an estimated 1.1 million people in Britain’s gig economy, which is nearly as many workers as in the National Health Service (NHS) England. Brhmie Balaram introduces our latest report into the gig economy.