Uber transport opinion Dan Hill

"Can public enterprises adopt the popular dynamics of private enterprises?"

Opinion: in his latest column, Dan Hill examines what services like the Uber taxi app mean for cities and asks whether the designers of public services can learn something from them.

Uber Über Alles. In my previous column, I suggested that the big deal about self-driving cars was not that they could drive themselves but that they could be shared rather than owned. With that in mind, I've been following the apparently unstoppable rise of Uber, though this time with some concern.

With the Uber app, you choose a vehicle to match your need on-demand (SUV, Prius, limo — sadly no ute as yet) and then it finds a nearby driver of said vehicle for you. Payment is cashless and fares are calculated in advance. Maps, apps, credit cards and phones-as-sensors make everything smooth as silk. Thus, it is likely to tear apart the traditional taxi business.

This form of "radical disruption" is now hardly radical at all, but rather obvious. Simply apply the affordances and dynamics of twenty-first century networked business to an existing service. Applying Uber to the taxi business is just the same as applying Amazon to retail, Square to cash, Spotify to music, Taskrabbit to labour, and Foursquare to that most meaningful of all human pursuits, informing your friends that you are in a bar.

We've figured it all out. We know how to make signups, APIs, buttons, lists and responsive layouts. We know how to embed a video, a map, a typeface — it’s all done. We know the business models are free, premium and freemium. The name should be one word, short and easy to type (if it could possibly be less that one word, it would be).

Most importantly, the service should be inconceivable without The Network. It is thus globalised, localised and "user-centred" to the extent that, in the now infamous words of one of Twitter's founders, it suggests that the internet is simply "a giant machine designed to give people what they want."

That solipsistic view of the world is baked into the dynamics of software like Uber. When you try to sign up as an Uber driver — I clicked through, just to see — the last stage involves ticking a box labelled "By signing up, I agree to the Privacy Policy and understand that Uber is a request tool, not a transportation carrier.”

With that one small tick-in-a-box, Uber is deploying what writer Douglas Adams called a Somebody Else's Problem field over the entire regulatory "dark matter" of the taxi business. This means their service glides as smoothly as a Prius with the engine turned off over all that bureaucracy concerning safety, hygiene, insurance and so on. The drivers and their organisations have to deal with that lot, but not Uber. Yet Uber is where the value suddenly lies.

The primary example of such unchecked network logics is of course Amazon, and you only have to read Carole Cadwalladr's recent Guardian article to infer the outcomes of Amazon becoming, as Brad Stone's bestseller critique has it, "The Everything Store". It’s a clear formula: deliver an attractive globalised service while sidestepping as much local regulation and tax as possible.

If, as entrepreneur Marc Andreessen has said, such "software is eating the world", then apps like Uber are just the hors d'oeuvres. The next course contains the more interesting questions: what happens when we apply those affordances and dynamics to the core services of everyday life that are not just serving desires — as Spotify, Vine or Amazon do — but needs, like mobility, health, waste, energy, food, water and education?

Necessarily predicated on rampant growth models, Uber itself is bound to move beyond the high end of the private-hire business into mobility and logistics in general: the Everything Moving Store.

The Uber website is currently more Mr Porter than the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, an embarrassingly aspirational montage of white people in black cars. The styling oozes try-hard tastefulness, leaving a bad taste. It suggests a target market that might just about stretch to the outer orbits of The One Percent. But where next?

Well, Uber plans to add 200,000 vehicles to its fleet in the next two years and move beyond the 60 cities in which it already runs — that is not boutique levels of ambition. CEO and founder Travis Kalanick says "We need to stamp out an urban logistics fabric in every city in the world, then it’s figuring out other things we can do with that fabric."

There’s the rub. So this, as with Amazon (and Starbucks, J Crew and the rest) is another cultural blitzkrieg, obliterating difference and leaving high-quality homogeneity in its wake. With clothes and coffee it’s a shame, but not that big a deal. However, when it ploughs into a core urban service like mobility I have, well, a few issues.

Although taxis are a form of privatised transport, they remain part of the city’s civic infrastructure, part of their character. As architect and teacher Robin Boyd wrote, "taxi-men teach the visitor a lot about their towns, intentionally and unintentionally." Boyd was able to to demarcate Sydney culture from Adelaide culture based on whether the cabbie opens the door for you. I recall scribbling a drawing of a Stephen Holl building I wanted to visit in Beijing, as my only way of communicating my desired destination to the taxi driver. Uber makes transactions easier, but what we gain from a seamless UI, and the convenience of the global currency of apps, we lose from the possibility of understanding a place through a slightly bumpier "seamful" experience.

The broader issue is replacement of public services with private services. Kalanick describes Uber as "the cross between lifestyle and logistics" which, to be fair, is not exactly a "cross" many would have spotted. So Uber is now selling movement; or as they put it, "evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible…"

This is an egregious untruth. Uber is currently a premium car service, which is as far from accessible as one could imagine. It actually falls to the municipality to build a service that is genuinely accessible, that services “citizens” rather than “customers”. Delivering mobility across a city includes the dispersed areas of low or unpredictable demand, the off-peak as well as the predictable peak, with cost of the former offset by the latter. Uber, however, is beginning to nibble away at both ends, yet without the idea of true accessibility in mind.

Who’s to say that similarly shiny networked services won’t also begin to offer privatised coordination of your waste collection, energy and water provision and so on, to match the trends towards private education, private healthcare and private mail delivery to gated communities? Note also Barclays pulling its sponsorship of London’s bike-sharing scheme. Given that the Greater London Authority can hardly let the service lie fallow until market conditions become attractive for a sponsor again, it is left to them to pick up the tab.

Tony Judt's book Ill Fares The Land is just about the most powerful retort to the ideologies that underpin this demise of public service. Coincidentally, mid-diatribe, Judt alights upon the aesthetic of London's taxis:

“Visual representations of collective identity used to matter a lot. Think of the black London taxi, its distinctive monotone emerging by consensus between the wars and serving thereafter to distinguish not only the taxis themselves but something about the austere unity of the city they served. Buses and trains followed suit, their uniformity of colour and design emphasising the role they played as common transporters of a single people."

Uber.com’s equally monochrome visual representation describes exclusive if guileless aspiration rather than common people. That’s Uber’s brand, and fair enough. Emerging amidst another age of austerity for most, though, the counterpoint with Judt’s admittedly nostalgic recall is a little hard to take. But more broadly, as the likes of Uber become more successful, are we inadvertently accelerating the process that has undermined the very ideas of public and civic?

This might seem a little hyperbolic, in a “first they came for the taxis, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a taxi driver” kind of way. I don't mean it like that. I am a technologist as well as a designer and urbanist, and see immense potential in software to improve the urban condition.

But cities are not merely "giant machines for giving people what they want" any more than the internet is. They are more than that. They speak of a higher form of human organisation, of different people living together for mutual benefit rather than simply "individual utility maximisation". That is something worth fighting for.

It may mean that public enterprise has to adopt the popular dynamics, patterns and systems of our age, yet bent into shape for public good. This seems possible, as the GOV.UK project from the UK’s Government Digital Service illustrates. Perhaps by marrying such supremely good interactive work with the ethos and long-term viability of the public sector, services like Uber will be left to play happily in the aspirant niches while high-quality networked public services will be available for all. It is just as viable for public transport systems to apply network logic as it is for Uber to do so, if not easier, as the public sector gets to shape the policy and regulatory environments, as well as the delivery.

Indeed if they don’t, we sleepwalk into an urban future with parts of the city run on privatised globalised apps, parts run by cobbled-together hyperlocal community groups and huge gaping holes in-between, punctuating what remains of a faded and patchy shared public sensibility.

So the design question posed by Uber is: can public enterprises adopt the popular dynamics of private enterprises without also absorbing their underlying ideologies?

Dan Hill is CEO of Fabrica, a communications research centre and design studio based in Treviso, Italy. He is an adjunct professor in the Design, Architecture and Building faculty at University of Technology, Sydney, and his blog City of Sound covers the intersection between cities, design, culture and technology.