Should We Cut Out the ‘Middle Man’ to Develop Our Cities? 4

Monday, April 20th, 2015
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No doubt you are sensing the rapid changes afoot in our Australian cities. 

Post-GFC, we have entered a phase of rediscovery of collective good, peer trust and collaboration, all enabled through technology.

The uptake of this phenomenon is huge in Australia, and perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us given we experienced the highest uptake of mobile phone technology in the 1980s, and have since became famous among many global corporations for being a proving ground for new technology.

Australians now provide 10 per cent of Airbnb’s one million rooms in their rent pool. Meanwhile, we have Uber’s ride-sharing phenomenon down under, fighting against established taxi monopolies that claim the service is unregulated and inherently unsafe.

Rachel Botsman, who coined the term ‘collaborative consumption,’ now believes it is more a matter of ‘what is not being shared’ in Australia. Botsman believes the shared economy will be as big a shift in society as the Industrial Revolution was in the eighteenth century.

Suddenly, we are getting rid of the middle man and, in doing so, we are disrupting industries that have delivered sub-optimal consumer outcomes, many of them for years. This new era can be seen as eliminating waste and making our cities more resilient through a more efficient use of limited resources.  In many ways, we are harking back to times when it was common to share limited resources and barter skills and goods.  These societal changes are exhilarating and provide me with a lot of confidence that the challenges we face in optimising our cities can be met in new innovative ways, many of which have not yet been conceived.

To get us thinking about challenges facing our cities, there is no better source than the recently released Australian Government Intergenerational Report (2015). In reviewing this document, I began to think about how some of the challenges identified for Australia in the coming years could potentially be addressed by the collaborative consumption revolution.

Headline challenges include:

  • the impact of an aging (longer living) population, including declining government income from tax receipts and a doubling in per capita spend on health care.
  • Leveraging the huge capital pool we have accumulated in the form of our compulsory superannuation funds, currently standing at $1.84 trillion or 116 per cent of GDP.
  • Deterioration in fiscal sustainability – under current scenarios and policy settings, Australians are living beyond their means.
  • With the sun now setting on the mining boom, there is a need to deliver new industries and essential infrastructure – better road, rail, technology, and education and health services – to continue to deliver advances in productivity and prosperity.

Of all the challenges, one that stands out for me is the need to invest in a new wave of essential infrastructure, unfortunately without the capacity to fund it in a sustainable way (assuming we consider funding options under the current mechanisms and regulation we have in place).

Faced with this challenge, access to the significant funds accumulated in superannuation accounts stands out as one potential funding solution.  Super is a sector that has evolved; we now can manage our own funds and, speaking from a personal perspective, a further evolution to allow the opportunity to directly connect my funds with country-shaping opportunities is appealing.

In some respects, this approach is disruptive to the financial sector as it has the potential to eliminate the middle man by putting the future of our country directly into our hands. At a smaller scale, disruption in the finance sector is beginning to take hold with start-ups like ZOPA connecting lenders with borrowers, and other crowd-funded initiatives like Kickstarter allowing people to raise funds in ways not previously available. At a country/city scale, of course, it needs regulation and government backing. However, achieving such governance standards and support is not an insurmountable goal. With the number of viable investment opportunities that exist, such a concept could quickly build momentum.

Certain industries have become adept at excluding the middle man and are embarking on a wave of technology-underwritten creative disruption that is challenging preconceived notions of what we call hotels, taxis, financial institutions and even media (have you ever illegally downloaded a movie or TV show? Figures show Australians are some of the worst offenders in the world).

Is it possible the much-needed development of our cities requires a similarly disruptive shot in the arm?

One thing is for sure; if our cities are to receive the essential infrastructure they sorely need, some new thinking is required – with or without the help or hindrance of a middle man.

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  1. Scott Morris

    The case of Uber and the taxi monopolies referred to above is an interesting one. On one hand, sharing rides where possible makes environmental sense. On the other hand, taxi drivers do have to go through the process of getting licences and having the appropriate insurance, and it is understandable they want at least a level playing field compared with those who do not have to go through these checks and balances.

    Super does represent an opportunity to unlock some of the funds needed for infrastructure. Of course, fund managers have obligations primarily to their members, so any investment in Australian infrastructure would have to stack up against other alternative investment opportunities. But no doubt there will be some role for funds to play.

  2. David Baggs

    I like your thinking James. Spot on….I met with Gunter Pauli of Blue Economy fame recently in SouthAfrica and he is developing cities now, cutting out the entire development finance and land speculator sectors with the monumental profits that city development bring, going straight back into developing social and workplace infrastructure. This really is the way of the future…

  3. Tobin in Sydney

    But aren't the Airbnb's and Uber's of the world just new types of middlemen?

    • Kate

      Yes, they are – but while the term 'middleman' has the connotation of someone who inserts himself into the middle of a transaction and takes a cut without adding value, the sharing economy 'middlemen' are what makes this new form of sharing possible.

      Without the app or booking platform or online marketplace of whatever kind these organisations provide, and the insurance, rules and screening/reviewing of the member base that they have in place, sharing wouldn't happen. At least, it wouldn't happen on anything like the scale we're seeing.

      Sharing on a significant scale needs the 'middlemen' to make sharing stuff simple and safe.