Uber is now the third-largest employer in the world. In less than a decade, more than half a billion people will be using on-demand platforms to try to earn a living. It's an ideal moment, then, to try to figure out how to make those platforms work well for workers. If a gig with Uber has some advantages—a flexible schedule, a stopgap for someone between regular jobs—it can also be challenging to actually make enough money driving to pay the bills.
"If you look back at the 20th century, we industrialized and then we kind of thought about 'how to industrialize' afterward," says Devin Fidler, research director at Institute for the Future. "It caused some big fights at both the national and the international level. It would be great if we could learn from that and not repeat that whole mess again; we've been through some of this. If we're smart about how we rethink this, we might be able to shave decades off of the rebound pain."
In a report, the researchers detailed what's working, and not working, in the gig economy now. "Platforms can help create employment," Fidler says. "They can help increase access to some kinds of work because you no longer have to be somebody who can go to a building downtown for a set 40 hours per week."
Someone who's unemployed could use a platform to find work quickly until they can find something permanent; someone with a disability or an erratic schedule can take advantage of flexible hours. There's some evidence that there's a positive bias towards women in on-demand platforms, unlike in regular work.
On the other hand, work schedules can be unstable, so workers might not earn as much as they need. Workers have less access to benefits. In some cases, they might face new forms of discrimination; one study found that black hosts on Airbnb earned less.
In a design session in December 2016, the organization invited global teams to brainstorm ways to address the challenges and create "positive platforms" that can provide equitable livelihoods. Now, four teams have been awarded fellowships to further develop their suggestions.
One team, from Barcelona, Spain, saw the biggest challenges of the platform economy as a concentration of power and dependence on investors looking for short-term profits. They're working on a new governance model that combines principles of a coop, and shared ownership, with ideas from open participatory networks.
Inspired in part by Loconomics—a startup that created a worker-owned alternative to Taskrabbit—a team from the U.S. is researching why workers are skeptical about joining co-ops, and will test a new marketing campaign to recruit workers, using Loconomics as a benchmark.
A third team, based in Dublin, is testing the idea of a platform created specifically for people with disabilities, making it easier for someone to find a relevant job, and providing support for particular challenges such as poor memory or difficulty processing information.
A fourth team, from Milan, is studying the language about "positive" platforms, and trying to better define what a positive platform should mean.
Over the next three months, each team will use a $9,000 fellowship to develop the ideas further.