Three things you should be doing right now: Advice from Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar
Robin Chase

Robin Chase, founder and former CEO of Buzzcar and Zipcar, advocates for the PeersIncorporated business model. Photo by Amit Gupta.

As human society faces the massive global challenge of climate change, many of us ask ourselves – do my individual actions really matter? Robin Chase, the founder and former CEO of Buzzcar and Zipcar, thinks they do, and she’s given us a framework to put our ideas into action.

I spoke with Robin last week for a crash course on the carsharing industry, and to learn about a new business model she’s advocating for. PeersIncorporated is a model you’re probably already familiar with – think Facebook, YouTube, Etsy, and Skype. They’re all built on three key components: a platform for participation, collaborating peers, and excess capacity. Robin explained how this model is expanding rapidly in the transport sector, and how in this case, the developed world has a thing or two to learn from developing countries.

A brief introduction to carsharing

Carsharing has been around in the developing world for a long, long time. People used to say it could only work in Europe, and then Robin shocked the world by bringing it to the United States when she launched Zipcar in 2000. So what is carsharing? According to Zipcar, now the world’s largest carsharing service, it’s “an alternative to traditional car rental and car ownership.”

Today, thanks to recent innovation in the transport sector and the application of technology, a suite of shared vehicle services is now available, painless, and more cost effective than traditional car ownership. Buzzcar, a peer to peer carsharing service, BlaBlaCar, a ridesharing service, and Lyft, a taxi service provided by individuals using their own vehicles, are examples of the varied, innovative, and incredibly effective ways to share vehicles. Services like these decrease the amount of trips made by car. By making members acutely aware of the financial cost of each trip, shared vehicle systems encourage people to choose the most cost-effective type of transport for each and every trip. Usually, it’s not traveling by car.

Robin thinks the original shared vehicle systems found in many developing countries offer people access to a range of transport options suitable to varied income levels. Is your desire to travel alone in a new air conditioned taxi, share that taxi, ride in a shared minibus or shared auto rickshaw, or alone in that rickshaw?

The PeersIncorporated framework: Platform, peers, excess capacity

The PeersIncorporated framework allows shared vehicle services to expand rapidly – Buzzcar has grown to over 64,000 users sharing nearly 7,400 cars in just two years. In Robin’s own words, this indicates that shared vehicles are absolutely the future of car mobility. “When you look at these giant megacities and wonder how we can ever address their transport problems quickly enough – a PeersIncorporated structure is the only model that can scale really rapidly.”

The three building blocks of the PeersIncorporated model are leveraging excess capacity, building a platform for aggregating and sharing resources, and collaborating peers who are instrumental in producing the product or service.

Excess capacity is the cornerstone. We are surrounded by inefficiently used, underused, and undervalued resources. In transport, for example, personal cars are parked – taking up space – 95% of the time, yet this asset consumes 15-20% of the average household budget!

The platform for participation taps into excess capacity and makes it available. The platform might make an asset available in smaller pieces (For example, Zipcar lets you rent a car for just an hour, rather than having to own one), or the platform might aggregate lots of small assets together and present them in a useful consistent format (Buzzcar does this by tying together the small availability of thousands of owners into a single consistent offering). Finally, the platform might open up an underused asset and ask participants, “What might you do with this?” A good example of this possibility is Ciclovia, an event that closes underused streets to motorized traffic and welcomes the public to use the space in any way they choose – walking, biking, roller skating, dancing, exercise classes, and community events are popular choices.

Platforms for participation are generally difficult to create. They often require on-going technical investment and a need to make the complex simple enough to invite participation. These tasks are best and naturally done by companies, institutions, and governments who have the resources to accomplish this. But, the really wonderful thing about platforms is that once you do get them right, they scale very quickly as the participants can engage all at once.

The last element is the collaborating peers. They, by participating in the platform, make the whole system come to life. The peers can contribute to or consume the excess capacity. They definitely do what is difficult and expensive for the company creating the platform: they provide localization, customization, and specialization.

Three things you can do right now

The participation of many people in a PeersIncorporated business model boosts resiliency, and helps build what Robin calls “community muscle-memory.” She argues, admirably so, that people everywhere need to work together to create and exercise this community muscle. That way, community action will be our obvious response when the going gets tough. So, everybody should be focused on at least one of three things right now:

  1. Build a platform for participation if you are working on big urgent problems – what can I do that can scale?
  2. Make use of excess capacity – how can I leverage and make more efficient use of existing resources?
  3. Cultivate community engagement as a norm – how can I make my community stronger?

Of course, joining a car sharing service isn’t a bad way to deepen your community ties, decrease your environmental impact, and improve the quality of life in your city all at the same time.

Robin ended our conversation with a quote from the noted climate activist Tim DeChristopher. “We’re on track for such rapid and intense change, we might as well steer towards the world we want to see.”

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