[Peer economy] The home stretch! | MIT Center for Civic Media

[Peer economy] The home stretch!

The radio silence is over; the last time I posted specifically for the Civic blog was fall 2013. I'm not continuing onto a Ph.D. after June, so before I leave my post as an academic who researches the peer economy, I'm going to report what I'm seeing and sensing as I see and sense it.


20-20! Get it?! This will also be the last semester of bad puns.

To keep myself accountable, here's a smattering of what I'll dive into this semester:

  • The peer economy business model is built on an inventory that is inherently inefficient (there's a limit to how much you can optimize human performance, and both physical constraints and social values play into that). This means that the ability to scale inventory is lopsided; companies can onboard more providers, but providers can only improve efficacy to an extent, and then they are at risk of having to hustle. Company survival and growth is predicated on market forces, so how do businesses:
  1. walk the precarious line of growing their operations while also covering their providers needs,
  2. figure out how to grow wealth for both the company and providers
  3. preserve and honor their "inventory's" humanity?
  • I will detail the similarities between peer economy providers and domestic workers as excluded and vulnerable workforces. I will also highlight some of the domestic workers movement's successful tactics and approaches that apply to provider advocacy.
  • I will present a case study that teases out the thin line between an independent contractor and a misclassified employee, and whether to approach this case as a precedent. Peer economy providers file taxes under a 1099 status, and technically as independent contractors, they must have a certain degree of discretion in completing services. If not, then companies that manage very actively are at risk of having misclassified employees, which has its own consequences.
  • The recent sector buzz is about how similar peer-to-peer marketplaces are to co-ops and could give rise to unions. I will page through each of these possibilities and then suggest that more fitting models for comparison are actually franchiser-franchisee models and the open source movement.
  • Given the rise of new work models and their effects on geographic populations, I will suggest how to practically plan workforce development programs and curricula.
  • Besides operating licenses, how do regulations and policies hamper peer economy providers? Stumbling blocks include intellectual property and materials regulation.
  • This January, I have been leading focus group research with Peers.org, currently the only organization in the sector dedicated to provider advocacy. These needs assessments will show us unacknowledged needs and gaps for peer economy providers. My February is devoted to data processing, and I will share some of the findings through my Civic outpost.
  • I will propose the concept of data philanthropy, where private companies and city departments could collaborate to address operational pain points and fill in urban planning gaps. The data that peer economy companies collect have a latent civic capacity (using Nick Grossman's term). City departments lament how operations burn up capacity, so what is an untaxing framework to matchmake city pain points with peer economy data resources? I’ll be collaborating with some very thoughtful go-getters on what this could look like.
  • I’ll also share other ruminations that are too far off in the data future and sector maturity to plumb now (take note if you’re in need of thesis or dissertation ideas). One that I’m especially curious about stems from how the U.S. social welfare system has mostly been supplemented by corporations till the early 1980s, when there was a mass corporate migration away from defined benefits, comprehensive pensions, and human capital investment in employees. Europe, on the other hand, has strong social welfare states, some of which are overburdened. Do European peer economy providers in countries with strong federal social welfare feel more economically secure and freer in pursuing peer economy opportunities? Since European denizens don’t have to worry as much about social welfare coverage, does that help build the professional legitimacy of the peer economy?
  • I want to at least call out the GDP spector lurking on the edges of market sizing and economic impact. Despite lots of economic literature reviewing its inadequacies as well as addendums and proposals for new standards, GDP seems to have an undying role in valuing American productivity.
  • What are effective data collection questions that organizations such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics could deploy to get a fuller and nuanced understanding of what meaningful compensation looks like? This would be on top of the tunnel vision focus on professional income.

Part of the urgency I feel comes from the logistics of completing a thesis: I must have a laser sharp focus to do justice to at least one major issue in my research area, and the narrowed scope also makes for a coherent document. My research question is: What do providers need in order to have a meaningful and sustained work lifestyle in the peer economy? Several of the listed topics are part of my thesis output, but that won't come till the end of May, and it'll be written to meet academic requirements. It's much more important to get this info out while it's fresh.

Second, it's impossible not to think deeply and research all of the other issues on the fringe of that scope, and I've been swimming around in this for two years now. Since the thesis is not the place to deposit all of the knowledges, my Civic outpost will become that repository.