Why Uber is no longer the poster boy for digital innovation

The UK tribunal’s ruling that Uber’s drivers can’t be classified as ‘self-employed’ is a wakeup call both for our approach to digitalisation and for those who design digital disruptions, says Futurice business director Professor Risto Sarvas.

“How can we design a service like Uber?” and “How would Uber solve this business problem?” are two questions stalking digital innovation teams across the world.

Meanwhile, if I had a dollar for each mention of Uber and ‘digitalisation’ or ‘disruption’, I’d be as rich as Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp. Well, almost.
Uber is an elegant and beautifully crafted service. The way in which the brand has ‘growth hacked’ its popularity through initiatives like UberEats, is text book. Then there’s the company’s jaw dropping $66 billion valuation. Transfixed by the dollar signs, we’ve convinced ourselves that Uber is the poster boy for digital innovation.

But what if we’re wrong?

Reports of driver unhappiness about pay and conditions in different markets around the world came to a head with the UK employment tribunal’s recent ruling that Uber’s drivers are not ‘self-employed’ and should receive holiday pay, plus the national living wage.

Uber has several routes of appeal, but this verdict is still a milestone. A lot has been written about how it threatens the gig economy’s business model whereby workers are classed as self-employed to avoid employment costs.

However, the judgement also marks a step change in society’s approach to digitalisation. Take the start-up community of entrepreneurs, designers and tech evangelists: this group admires Uber. They see digital innovation as being about empowering people and solving big societal problems. Their professional identity hinges on the idea that good design and open source code improve people’s lives. Doctors heal people, teachers educate kids while designers and developers make lives better by building cool technology and delightful services.

The tribunal’s verdict challenges this belief by reinforcing suspicions that Uber’s cool tech and delightful services, not to mention its billion-dollar valuation, are underpinned by an exploitative approach to its workers. How will the innovators deal with these conflicting values going forward? How can they feel good about designing the next digital disruption, if it’s based on taking advantage of people needing work?

And what about the hipster generation of fair trade consumers? How can they enjoy responsibly sourced oat milk latte in recycled cups from the local independent coffee shop while simultaneously using services judged to take unfair advantage of workers? Do they care enough to pressurise their favourite on-demand brands to introduce better workplace practices? And to boycott them if they don’t?

Regardless of whether Uber’s appeal succeeds, the tribunal’s ruling has uncovered a broader truth about cool tech which is while it may disrupt business models and change people’s behaviour and thinking, that doesn’t mean it’s inherently good.

In other words, the judges’ verdict has revealed our myopia towards new tech. We get so excited when we see a well-designed service or an app that challenges conventional thinking, that we forget to probe further and ask awkward questions about how the coolness is possible and crucially, at whose expense?

Uber remains a great example for entrepreneurs, innovators and designers. The question “How can we make this like Uber?” is still valid, but it has changed. Going forward, we need to ask: “how can we create a service like Uber while respecting employment laws and helping people who are unemployed to make a decent living?” Uber has shifted from the poster boy for digital innovation to a canvas for reinvention.

Risto Sarvas is business director at Futurice.

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