People-Powered Innovation: Interview with Robin Chase

Each Wednesday, we post an interview with someone who is living, exploring, or championing aspects of thrivability – people at the forefront of cultural, organizational, or individual change.

Robin Chase is founder and CEO of GoLoco, an online ridesharing community.  She also founded and leads Meadow Networks, a consulting firm that advises city, state, and federal government agencies about wireless applications in the transportation sector, and impacts on innovation and economic development.  Robin is also founder and former CEO of Zipcar, the largest carsharing company in the world.  In 2009, she was included in the Time 100 Most Influential People.  Robin lectures widely, has been frequently featured in the major media, and has received many awards in the areas of innovation, design, and environment.

Todd Hoskins:  Robin, you’ve been looking at the possibilities of using excess capacity for quite a number of years now.  What is compelling about excess capacity?

Robin Chase:  Excess capacity lets us tap quickly and cheaply into resources that already exist.  We don’t have to pay for the asset, place it, maintain it.  I think about excess capacity very broadly: assets, physical space, temporal space, experiences, expertise, and networks.

Some obvious examples of making use of excess capacity are Wikipedia (excess mental capacity and expertise), eBay (excess junk), Flickr (other people could use your photos), LinkedIn (ditto for networks), CouchSurfing (beds).

Less common examples are Cyclovia in Bogota, Columbia, where excess road space on Sunday mornings led them to shut down 121 km of roads to car traffic and open it up for pedestrians and bikes.  From 7am to 2pm 1.3 million residents go out and play, dance, exercise, and meetup.  It has been an enormous success.  All for very little money and implemented very quickly.

Todd:  Are we cooperatively enabled to apply this excess capacity?

Robin:  Ah, technology!  I love it.  We may or may not be cooperatively programmed, but that is beside the point.  All of the examples I listed don’t require cooperation in the way we usually think of it.

With Zipcar, for example, 450,000 people are using 7,000 cars.  But it is painless.  No one is waiting for someone else or waiting their turn. Through the miracle of technology the sharing is easy and frictionless.  Of course, there are lots of examples that do require some cooperation.  My point just is that this is not required.

Todd:  You are serving on the National Advisory Committee on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and advising on policy issues.  How can our governments possibly become more adaptive and less rigid?

Robin:  Innovation is a country’s lifeblood.  Imagine if our lives stayed exactly the same.  The 1980s forever! (or choose your decade).  On the other hand, people hate change because they can’t quite see the future so it is unnerving.

Big companies and governments (who occasionally respond to their constituents who like the status quo) are not that easy to change.

By enabling innovation — 1) creating a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship; 2) reducing barriers and costs to experimentation; and 3) reducing the costs of the innovation inputs — government can make it possible for people to do the changing themselves.

This committee is specifically looking at ways to improve K-12 and university education to change the culture and provide more opportunities to innovate, making sure that government-funded research that has the potential for commercialization is easier to get at.  We are looking at reducing the effort and time to participate in the US government small business programs and procurement programs, and changing capital incentives for investing in startups.  Lastly, we are looking at ways of celebrating innovation and entrepreneurship.

I am particularly interested in getting more value out of government technology policy and procurements so that we maximize its potential for repurposing by innovators and businesses.  The government is about to make huge investments in smart transportation, smart health, smart grids, smart education.  We can unlock the excess capacity found in government purchases by making them more open.  Open as the default.  Closed proprietary single-purpose purchases need to be argued for.  Open data, open devices, open spectrum, open radio, open networks should be the norm.

Todd:  If we cannot rely on government or big business to facilitate change quickly enough, who can we turn to?

Robin:  People! I think of it as people-powered innovation: collaboration production, collaborative consumption, collaborative infrastructure, collaborative financing.  The excess capacity of individuals (their expertise, networks, assets, time) beautifully leveraged and joined together on the internet will be the most powerful force for change in the next 20 years.

Together, we get incredible speed and scale, at a fraction of the cost, and using resources of all kinds efficiently.  Beginning examples of this — we are in our infancy of this idea right now — include Airbnb and Etsy.  Smart phone apps are an example too. Based on the excess capacity made available in these devices over the last 2.5 years, we have seen 500,000 applications built — primarily by individuals.  Yes, Apple has made out like a bandit, but Android is surging ahead with its reduced tolls.  And hopefully, some of those innovating engineers are making a living and starting some interesting new companies.

Todd:  You’re currently living in Europe.  What are you seeing and experiencing that you would like to bring home to the US?

Robin:  It is totally intriguing to experience firsthand the differences that result from very different government spending priorities. Both systems are imperfect.  France has really terrific transportation, road, rail, and airport infrastructure compared to the US. My ability to move around this city without a car and having so much choice (walk, bike, metro, bus, high speed train, etc) is a great pleasure.

On the other hand, the amount of duplicate forms to be filled out and mailed places — back and forth — is pretty amazing. The value of some of the bureaucracy around opening a bank account, getting an apartment, signing up for a transit pass eludes me. This frustrates me to no end since I’ve experienced the same transactions so easily and quickly in the US.

Todd:  Robin, thanks for making the world a more thrivable place!

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