Kamis, 29 Mei 2014

The human side of disruptive innovation

In the blue corner - Uber, the taxi app that puts a customer in touch with the nearest driver willing to drive you to wherever. In the red corner is the traditional licensed cab. An almighty fight beckons in most cities in the world.

Nowhere is this contrast starker than in London - the home of the black cab. Any visitor to London knows the unique black cabs that are ubiquitous all over the city. I know Londoners complain about them, just as people in any other city do of their own cabbies, but having seen a fair bit of the world, I can testify that London cabs are amongst the best. The cabs are spacious, they are almost always available, they go wherever you want, the drivers are usually good, they rarely cheat you and because of "The Knowledge" they know the way to where you want to go. The only drawback is that they are outrageously expensive ! Anybody who say "Bah" at my description of the London cabbie is welcome to meet his close cousin in New York  or a more distant cousin , the Chennai autowallah who are incidentally of exactly the same rudeness quotient.

"The Knowledge" is a unique feature of qualifying as a London cabbie. To get your license you have to master the roads and routes of the city intimately. During the test, you will be asked to go to odd places chosen at random and you have to know the exact route - no referring to maps, no asking anybody, no taking any help at all.  It has been this way historically. No London cabbie would say he didn't know the place you wanted to go to. That was great..... until the GPS came. In one stroke, all that  "knowledge" has become useless.  Its easy to say that is progress, but put yourself in the shoes of the cabbie who has spent 4 or 5 years slogging away at the routes, only to find the rug whisked from underneath him in an instant.

Uber, compounds this problem. One of the great advantages of the London cabbie was that he was (mostly) available anywhere. But it came at a price. Uber changes all that. A cheaper mini cab can be put in touch with a prospective customer in a jiffy.

Predictably the London cabbies are trying to protect their monopoly. They are launching court cases, they will go on a strike and disrupt London, etc etc.  But it is a losing battle. They don't stand a chance in the long run. London is not Paris where they will protect the surly, unavailable, rude driver as an essential part of Parisian culture !

I know this is all great for the customer, this is technology at its best offering a  real value to the customer, this has happened to so many industries and will no doubt happen again etc etc. And yet I can't but help feel a bit for the cabbie.

The cabbie is often a poor guy. He knows no other trade. He doesn't have a huge education. He slogged his butt to pass "The Knowledge", and works hard to make a living. In just a couple of years, through changes he doesn't comprehend, he may be out of a job. And what does he then do ? Not many options other than to get on the dole. The "society" that benefited from the technological change, now picks up the cost through the social welfare system.

I've often felt uncomfortable when change leads to unemployment of those who aren't easily employable elsewhere. Shareholders, companies and consumers benefit. That is good. But  some workers suffer and their costs are picked up by governments, and therefore societies. I can't but help feel a little pang of regret. Yes, they should adapt. Yes, they should retrain to find another job. Yes, that is the price of progress. I understand all that. But if I am a 50 something , with a couple of kids, trying to pay off a mortgage and I am thrown out into the streets for reasons I can't really comprehend , then its tough to appreciate logic and rationale.

Yes, I know its not new. Millions of factory workers have been through this. And yet, despite all the logic, I feel just a tad sorry for the London cabbie.

PS: I write this post under extreme stress. My good friend Sriram has turned into a grammar Nazi. I know my posts might cause the Queen to raise her upper lip at the English.  But to be caught out by an American    - that will deeply hurt my pride :):)

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