What does the Über ban in London tell us about systems?

by Mike Johnson

As Transport for London’s (TfL) ban on Über comes into effect, there appear to be quite polarised views for and against this somewhat disruptive taxi firm. When reading that Über will contest the ban in the courts, I was left pondering what’s actually unique from a systems perspective between Über and those taxi firms permitted to operate by TfL. If there is nothing unique, then of course Über will have a strong case.

Starting from the functional perspective, there are four main functions required to provide for a taxi system:

  • Transport
  • Payment
  • Communications
  • Marketing

Note: Marketing is required in some form, as otherwise the users will never detect the taxi system.

Interestingly, at this point both Über and their competitors look the same. All taxi systems provide these four key functions (note that clearly their physical architectures (i.e. how they actually implement the key functions) vary significantly). Also, it’s worth noting how innovative solutions to an already existing problem can result from simply returning to the functional domain, whereas trying to innovate within an already existing physical architecture is far more restrictive. Über have shown how innovate physical solutions can be generated by re-addressing the original functions that a physical solution is trying to address. Evidently the solution space is far less constrained in the functional domain and one can effectively return to understanding the actual problem that can be solved with numerous unique solutions.

Let’s now consider the external interfaces to the taxi system:

  • User
  • Transport infrastructure
  • Payment infrastructure
  • Communications infrastructure
  • Marketing infrastructure
  • Environment
  • Other transportation users
  • Regulations

Although the Über taxi system has the same external interfaces as other taxi systems, the physical implementation has enabled – in most cases – a lighter coupling to regulations. Regardless of whether one views this as ethical or not, it certainly is novel and ultimately shows how abstracting a system’s functions and interfaces offers many opportunities for innovation.

When observing the physical characteristics of other taxi systems worldwide, one notices that often cities (such as Barcelona, where I was visiting a few weeks ago whilst pondering this topic) have very highly regulated taxi systems. This can be observed from a user perspective by the standardisation of the vehicles, the low cost variance for similar distance journeys, etc. Talking to taxi drivers reveals even more regulations. For example, the local government even restricts drivers on which days they’re allowed to work.

Personally, I’m not a huge supporter of unbridled and unnecessary regulation. Generally speaking, regulations can restrict engineering development activities and work against innovation, which, in turn, may lead to higher prices and less competition in a market.  However, there are many cases where regulations are absolutely necessary and wholly beneficial, such as in the medical device industry, where an absence of regulation led to many unnecessary deaths.  In the taxi industry it appears that regulations also have critical role to play. In the event that, overnight, an additional ca. 100,000 taxis are added to a market – apart from costs coming down, parts of the market can be driven out of business (excuse the pun) from the sudden increase in competition.

Considering the technology used by Über, is it possible that the company as such is nothing more than an emergent property of today’s highly connected world? If so, will banning Über achieve anything?

In conclusion, the innovative Über taxi system is indeed disruptive, but only in the transient sense as presumably the regulations on the already existing taxi systems are necessary. The lack of uniformity of regulatory rules leads to loopholes that can be exploited.  Innovation – which is essentially change – will always find ways of exploiting loopholes, as quite simply, that’s what change does!

This means that, eventually, it can be expected that the locations where Über operates will update their regulations to include Über-esque taxi systems (or simply ban them, as may be the case in London, depending how Über’s appeal goes)). The optimal systematic solution would be for the regulated markets to compromise, by taking in the “best bits” of this quite innovative business model. In addition, innovation needs to be handled sensitively, it can lead to unnecessary and unjustifiable controversy because the existing ways of doing things are being challenged and undermined, yet without it we’d be permanently constrained within the Status-quo.

Then a second topic came to mind, as I was traveling around the Barcelona with their highly standardised taxi systems, it was clear that the then upcoming referendum was going to be somewhat disruptive. Of course this ended up being the case and unfortunately there could still be additional repercussions until a politically stable agreement is made.

When considering the lengths that people went to in order to vote in the referendum, and the extent to which some of the authorities tried to prevent them from doing so, is it not remarkable that in today’s world – where documents are electronically signed, emails are legitimately used for authorising procurements, significant sums of money are transferred via online banking platforms, etc, etc – that actually the whole voting in the referendum could have been enabled by an online platform?!  A level of IT security provisions could no doubt have been put in place, giving at least the same degree of security and legitimacy as the voting in person. This would have most likely have resulted in a significantly higher turn-out. And indeed, one might expect online voting would result in a higher turnout in almost all elections! One could then also go further and consider why the Catalan Parliament doesn’t meet electronically too, as this would avoid having to circumnavigate anyone trying to stand in their way.

Technology can certainly be disruptive at the best of times, often though for a good cause if properly utilised!

Many thanks to my friends who I discussed these topics with over the past few weeks, I hope we’ve successfully brought the discussion into the systems domain!

8th November 2017
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