Friday, May 11, 2012

The business of organizing civil society

The German ride-sharing service ”Mitfahrzentrale” turns out to be a really good example of how a little bit of commercial organization can mobilize resources in civil society that would otherwise be wasted.

I used to hitchhike quite a bit. You would find a good place to stand, maybe hold a sign with your destination, stick out your thumb and hope for a ride. It’s a cheap way to get around, it makes better use of all those empty car seats on the highways – and it allows for all kinds of great meetings and conversations among strangers.
But it’s pretty unpredictable for both riders and drivers. You may end up with a jerk beside you. You never know how long the journey will take, and as a driver, it’s not likely that the rider will offer any payment. Should anything happen, you probably will have no idea what the identity of the other person is.

A ride-sharing service takes a lot of the uncertainty out of this. You go online, post where and when you are going (e.g. Hamburg to Kolding, Thursday afternoon) or you browse the list of rides that are offered by drivers who will take riders.
There’s a set price, so the driver can recover some of the costs (and the ride-sharing services gets a cut of that), and the users of the service are registered. In some cases there are reputation systems, so you can asses the person you will be riding with beforehand.

The point here is that by adding a minimal level of commercial activity, you can make the sharing of resources much more attractive and easy. There are great resources that can be mobilized in the non-commercial realm of civil society, but a lot of the potential is never realized, because of uncertainty, inconvenience, opaque circumstances etc.

This points to a very interesting area of new businesses: providing the framework to harness the potential and resources of civil society.
Generally, I believe we will see a lot more hybrid organizations in the future, where commercial and non-commercial players interact, resulting in the creation of a lot more value than if the game was only pure commercial or pure non-commercial. 

There is a lot of discussion about "gov 2.0" and what the appropriate role of government should be. One of the slogans is to move "from provider to enabler" - in other words, that the government should focus on creating the necessary conditions, infrastructure and framework for productive interaction among companies and citizens. 
That is exactly what the ride-sharing service does. It doesn't deliver the driving, but enables people to get around in a more efficient way. 

What should we tag this with? Collaborative consumption, mesh economy, social networks, enabler/provider, frugal solutions. There is a lot going on. 

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