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Uber Opens Pandora's Box

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It's all over the news; today London's Black Cabs are staging a protest against the introduction of Uber; a smart phone app that allows you to book private vehicles on-demand to get from A to B across the city. New York, Paris, Berlin, San Francisco, it's a battle that's being played out in cities across the globe. And it's not pretty.

We're hearing more and more about the emergence of the collaborative economy. About how a new generation of app services and social, location based platforms are creating new markets where we can get hold of very familiar things but in new and completely different ways. Instead of booking into a hotel, I can book a room in someone's house. Instead of borrowing money from the bank, I can go to Zopa and borrow money from an individual. I can borrow rather than buy a BBQ on Streetbank or Peerby.

The list is getting much, much longer, and while the idea of using technology to enable people to trade, rent, exchange and share with each other is relatively new (in dog years) it is in transport and accommodation that these new markets are scaling fast enough to irritate and anger the existing incumbents.

These early battles between taxi drivers and 'ride sharing' schemes, and people renting out spare rooms and hotels, are the tip of the iceberg, often fuelled by an existing industry wanting to protect the status quo. And who can blame them? Why wouldn't they want new kinds of providers to be subject to exactly the same rules as they are?

Claims are made that these new kinds of competitors are 'unsafe' and even bad for the economy. But the heart of the problem is that these new kinds of businesses don't fit into the right size or shaped box of existing regulation. The laws were created before the new technologies existed to make the likes of Uber and AirBnb possible.

But within existing and well established businesses and brands there are bound to be some unhappy faces. And they're likely to get unhappier.

Publishing, television, film .... Wherever there has been a possibility to revolutionise business through a digital medium, we have done so. Where the land meets the sea you get waves; and as the digital world extends beyond itself, to exert its influence and control out into the physical world - containing as it does, the power to transform absolutely - we can expect those waves to ride high and the landscape will be re-shaped. Disruption, uncertainty, fluidity, rage... all these come before we collectively absorb and accept these new kinds of operating business models into our world.

For accept them we must. Pandora's box has been opened. The fact that the policy and regulatory world is puffing after the Uber drivers as they race into the distance shows us that - as in so many other industries - creativity, innovation and opportunity exploitation drive faster than anyone else.

But despite the battle lines being drawn and despite appearances, this isn't 'Uber Versus The Cabbies'. The debate will play out, regulation will catch up and evolve to incorporate the presence of a much more diverse set of providers than we have previously known; whether that be in the transport, accommodation, service or retail sectors.

Right now we are at a highly emergent and creative time, where there are as many questions as answers about what is really happening in the world of the collaborative economy.

That's why Nesta is undertaking research to offer a review of the Collaborative Economy as it is today, to contribute greater clarity on what it covers, offer policy recommendations, insight on public perceptions and usage of platforms in the UK, and offer some scenarios of where we may find ourselves in five years time.