Early into the Net
My background is television production. In 1994 I convinced Britain’s ITV network we should do a weekly late-night show about the emerging Internet. I produced and hosted cyber.cafe for the next 5 years. Sex was the key driver of online take up then. But I became convinced the Net’s more weighty impact would be on how it could foster irregular economic activity.
I believed, with the right technology, vast markets for fragmented earning opportunities would be possible, making these openings precise, informed and diverse in ways never seen before. That would probably require some government action; so did a lot of other early stage technologies that became everyday utilities.
I was a member of Demos and approached them about my idea which I called “Public Benefit Computer Trading”. They published a brief paper about it in 1994. That led to workshops with experts and a Demos book. Charles Handy, the UK’s leading expert on futurology of work lent his support and a second book was published in Europe in 1999 then in the US and Asia in 2000.
By 2000 the Internet was mainstream: cyber.cafe was displaced by big budget, peak time, shows. I focused on making my idea real.
Government buys in – sort of
By 2005 Britain’s Office of the Deputy Prime Minister had funded build of the core technology. The tech. required was incredibly complex in its inner workings. Some very talented technologists built it entirely in the UK, working painstakingly through the challenges.
Many central government departments and local governments came on board with funding and plans for pilots. A lot of talented and influential people gave freely of their time, skills and contacts. Press coverage spanned specialist publications, national press and broadcasts.
But the DWP (Britain’s ministry of labor) resisted, pointing out we didn’t create jobs and, anyway, sophisticated tech. like ours couldn’t work with their systems. Their resistance – eventually overturned in 2011, kept us in the margins: an interesting fringe concept for government bodies, but not meriting serious commitment or resources.
Despite this, I oversaw many launches with names like Worklink, WorkYourWay, Guaranteed Markets, Online Overtime, Neighbourhood E-Markets, Workcafe, Slivers of time, WorkForYou and WorkYourWay. None worked as expected. It was frustrating. The need was there, we were swamped by candidates. Many had harrowing stories of economic and social exclusion because they could only be available to work sporadically.
Demand for ad-hoc work was palpable: lines in shops, unserved customers walking out of cafes, rigid – dehumanizing – homecare arrangements and budgeted but undone work, stymied by labor market inflexibility. These years were frustrating for me, the implementation team and so many people who wanted us to succeed.
The tech. turned out to have been just challenge #1. Aligning supply and demand for an early stage market in any area was the bigger hill to climb. Small-scale launches couldn’t be sustainable. A new approach was needed to identify the kind of immediate demand advanced markets in other parts of the economy had needed. That could be anywhere in the world.
As we travelled this journey, “The Sharing Economy” hit. Silicon Valley millions were pouring into unsophisticated websites for niche sectors that allowed people and their possessions to be traded by the hour. I was bemused initially. I had been asking: “why can’t you hire out your lawnmower?” since the 1990’s. Isn’t it obvious? The challenge is creating a real state-of-the-art market for this vast array of resources, not moving individual sections of the classified adverts into a website. However, low-tech, tight-focus, is where the exponential returns are right now.
But I still believe. It’s unlikely politicians will forever be too cautious to effectively leverage public facilities to shape an alternative choice for irregular workers/volunteers. And governments are fast followers: once one “gets it” penetration can be swift.
Our key challenge continues to be getting mindshare from the people who can make a market in their area. We are a minnow against two huge forces: the billions spent on “job creation” by governments and hundreds of millions pushing short-term “Sharing Economy” sites. But advanced markets for irregular work would deliver extraordinary social and economic benefits.
They will come.