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Blog – Uber: Tech Start-ups Should Help Design Regulation, Not Fight It

In the second of a two-part blog series following Transport for London's decision not to renew Uber's licence, Matthew Wood-Hill argues that cities must adapt faster to disruptive technology services.

Much has been made of Transport for London’s decision to refuse to extend Uber’s license to operate in London, with the UK and international press reading deeply into what this means. Is it a hammer blow to London’s approach to innovation and technology? What does it mean for the UK’s place in a post-Brexit world? (Yes, all roads seemingly lead back to Brexit).

Meanwhile, comments coming out of both TfL and Uber risk trivialising the decision into something black and white, rather than the complex picture it actually is. And this approach has done little to quell what will probably be a storm in a teacup.

Essentially, this is the first move in a negotiation that, once resolved, is unlikely to greatly alter the status quo. Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO, has already struck a more conciliatory tone in recent days, diffusing some of the hysteria. Nevertheless, we need to reflect on the challenges of disruptive technologies in cities, and ask ‘what next?’

As my colleague Rushi Rama wrote in an earlier blog, the importance of ‘anticipatory regulation’ from national, regional and city authorities shouldn’t be undervalued. That said, policymakers, regulators, academics and others need to wake up to the drastic pace of change caused by digital disruption in our cities. This change is fast becoming the new ‘business as usual’ and cities need to be ready to adapt to this way of working, as it shows no sign of slowing.

However, it would be equally naïve not to question the approach of platform technologies, inspired by the Silicon Valley ‘move fast and break things’ mantra, which beneath the visionary mission statements, advocate an aggressive approach to market growth that tech companies across the globe are seeking to emulate.

In Uber’s case, the main question is: didn’t they see this coming? And if so, do they have a course correction in their business model up their sleeve?

I can see how anticipatory regulation by city authorities would better set the frame of reference for emerging technologies. But businesses can also take a more proactive approach to help city administrators better understand emerging technologies so they can make wiser and more effective decisions. In doing so, the long terms interests of businesses, cities and citizens, can be equally protected. Future Cities Catapult creates the space for these interactions though the Cities Standards Institute, which brings together private and public-sector stakeholders to share and define best practice.

Citymapper’s recent ‘pop-up’ bus pilot, launched with the approval of TfL, shows that London is not closed off to innovation, and that companies should not be afraid to confront some of their operational realities sooner rather than later. For businesses, shaping the regulation and standards that define the sector will help to overcome potential obstacles rather than having to rail against them. Emerging start-ups and SMEs must take a proactive – or ‘anticipatory’ – approach to the development and deployment of new services that sees regulation not as an afterthought, but as something worth shaping from the outset to reduce risk further down the line.

After all, we’re all in the game of making better places that are more liveable for our citizens – and the majority of us want the best ideas to succeed.

Matthew Wood-Hill is the City Standards Coordinator at Future Cities Catapult.

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