Going Full Uber

Today, something a little different, but not too different — it’s about one of the public policy implications of an important change in the economy that technology has enabled.

As we all know, the freelance and gig economy has been growing. According to a report this year from Upwork and the Freelancers Union, more than a third of the workforce is freelancing. Many of us make at least part of our living in the gig economy and most of the rest of us depend at least part of the time on people who are gig workers.

In California, there has been a movement to apply to gig workers some of the protections that were put in place for the fast-growing number of American industrial workers 80 to 100 years ago — minimum wage, a fixed work week, unemployment insurance, assistance due to workplace accidents and the like.

In response to California’s law that requires Uber and Lyft to reclassify its contractors as employees who are provided with employee benefits, the company proposed its own reform plan for the gig economy. Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on August 10, 2020, titled “I Am the C.E.O. of Uber. Gig Workers Deserve Better. Gig workers want both flexibility and benefits — we support laws that could make  that possible.”

In it, he proposed:

“that gig economy companies be required to establish benefits funds which give workers cash that they can use for the benefits they want, like health insurance or paid time off. Independent workers in any state that passes this law could take money out for every hour of work they put in. All gig companies would be required to participate, so that workers can build up benefits even if they switch between apps.”

The New York Times columnist Shira Ovide followed up with a story titled “Uber’s Next Idea: A New Labor Law …Uber’s “third way” would offer its drivers flexibility plus some benefits. It’s not totally crazy.” Hmm, not totally crazy? That doesn’t sound like an endorsement, but it’s also not dismissive. Something has to be done to equalize the protections for them with employees, while giving them the flexibility that Uber advocates.

In line with their approach, Uber and similar companies are supporting California’s Proposition 22 on the ballot this November to get them out from under the State government’s push to treat their drivers as employees. Not surprisingly, many progressive and labor groups oppose Prop 22. This picture illustrates the concerns of the opponents:

But there is a larger question here beyond benefits and rights for gig workers because the change in the nature of employee-employer relationships has been as significant as the growth of the gig economy. With increasing automation and more coming with AI, de-unionization and frequent layoffs among other trends, frankly, a job is not what it used to be. Moreover, the situation is not likely to improve since the long-term loyalty between employer and employee that was common decades ago is generally rare now.

It’s time to realize that the economy – not just for freelancers and gig workers – has changed a lot since the Progressive and New Deal reaction to the excesses of corporations a hundred years ago. The gig rights debate seems to be too limited and too much based on last century thinking which is increasingly inappropriate for our technology-based economy. 

Putting aside the limitations of Proposition 22, why not take the general proposal for gig contractors that Khosrowshahi described in his NY Times piece and expand it?

Why not go full Uber! (Something Uber itself may not like, after all.)

What does that mean? Gig workers need a better contract and so do “employees”.

Any individual — whatever the label — who is providing a service to a company would have a contract with that company which clearly states adherence to government laws and regulations on: minimum payment per hour, extra payment for more than a certain number of hours of work per week, expenses incurred performing duties on behalf of the company, safety, discrimination, normal workers compensation for accidents that occur while working on behalf of the company, and the right to form any association (union) they wish.

Khosrowshahi emphasizes the freedom and control over their lives that gig workers have. OK, maybe it is time to give employees that same freedom.

That brings up the other current disparities between gig workers and employees, especially health insurance, sick/family/vacation leave and unemployment insurance which are tied to employment status. Gig/freelance workers need this as well, but it is also time to disassociate these benefits from the companies where people work — all in the cause of the freedom that Khosrowshahi promotes.

For example, the money companies used to spend on health insurance premiums and the like would now be paid directly to the employees. The employees would get their own health insurance and not be limited to the third insurance plans their company has pre-selected. Government options could also be offered for health insurance. (Similarly, gig or freelance workers could have those premiums built in to their contracts, at a minimum being the percentage of a full work week that they devote to the company.)

In this way, there would be no windfall for corporations after they would be relieved of paying benefits to employees. The shift can be done in a revenue/cost neutral way, leaving employers, companies and governments financially where they were before the shift.

Providing protections for everyone who works for someone else, no matter whether that’s on a gig/freelance basis or “permanently”, will help everyone get some more freedom from the fear of economic dislocation. Also, they will finally have the freedom to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams as well, which could help grow the economy more than forcing them to be locked into jobs that don’t fulfill their potential.

Finally, governments will, in the process, have to adjust their understanding of the nature of work in this century, which is no longer what it was when most current laws and policies were put in place.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

Older Suburban Cities: The New Startups Of Metro Regions

Last week, I was in Ridgeland, Mississippi, a suburban city of 25,000 outside of Jackson.  It is the second city in the state to adopt high speed broadband Internet in response to the challenge by the regional communications company, C-Spire.  For most of the day, I met with city aldermen and other public officials to discuss the various ways that broadband provides the foundation for economic development, learning, healthcare, even quality of life and tourism.

C-Spire also has its headquarters in Ridgeland, so you’d think that adoption would be widespread.  But the pattern of adoption in Ridgeland is similar to elsewhere.  It often is picked up by the more educated and affluent section of the town and slower to be adopted by others – including those who would most benefit from expanded opportunity.


It was very encouraging to see the public officials focusing on broadband.  With the local public leadership strongly behind this effort to position Ridgeland for the 21st century, the likelihood that all will benefit will be much greater than in other cities I’ve seen where the local leaders do not seem to understand.

Public officials are critical in creating a 21st century intelligent community because they have the necessary political skills.  While nothing is ever easy in public affairs, it is relatively easier to build a highway – the organizations and companies, who are the usual participants in civic discussions, grew up with older infrastructure investments.  

Broadband-based community building is new and may deliver benefits after the leaders of those organizations have retired.

So, public leaders need to widen the circle of people involved in envisioning the future of their communities.  For an intelligent community initiative to succeed, it needs to include the newer, growing parts of the economy – entrepreneurs, young people, tech businesses, artists, freelancers of all kinds, as well as the many others whose earnings depend on their knowledge.  

Ridgeland also fits into another pattern I’ve observed over the last couple of years – in cities as far apart and different culturally from it as New Westminster in British Columbia, Canada and Dublin, Ohio and Yonkers, New York.

Older, small cities in what is now a suburban ring are often the places where the most interesting adoption of technology is occurring.  These cities are the most far-sighted and devote the most effort to planning their futures.

And it’s not just a matter of having money.  Some are relatively affluent, but these cities are generally in the mid-range of income or even below the mid-range.
Much more than other places, they act as if they are in startup mode – and their leaders are, in a sense, public entrepreneurs.  Of course, like startups in the private sector, a few will fail in their efforts, many will achieve reasonable, if not spectacular, success and a few will achieve legendary status.


By contrast, big cities often seem to sit on their laurels.  Besides, with big established interests and big bureaucracies, they are very hard to change and to achieve dramatic transformation.

Unfortunately, not all small cities are jumping on the opportunities presented by a globally connected world.  Too many smaller cities have suffered too long from the loss of their industrial base and population.  They have yet to overcome their despondency about the present, never mind their fear of a worse future.  

They should look to these similar-sized “startup” cities as examples to emulate.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

New Soft Cities

Carl Skelton is my colleague and co-founder of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse and former director of the Experimental Media Center at NYU/Polytechnic Institute.

He has written a book about the Betaville open source project that enables residents of a city to collaborate and participate in urban design and planning.  But it’s more than just about the history and role of the Betaville project.

The book provides context for urban design in an Internet-enabled era.  As the publisher’s (Springer) summary states:

“the reader can gain a deeper understanding of the potential socio-technical forms of the New Soft Cities: blended virtual-physical worlds, whose public works must ultimately serve and succeed as massively collaborative works of art and infrastructure.”

Hence the title of Carl’s book: “Soft City Culture and Technology”, which will be officially published at the end of this month.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


What Does Resilience Mean For New York?

The Gotham Innovation Greenhouse met last week at the Municipal Arts Society (MAS)  in New York.  In response to the problems caused by Hurricane Sandy in the New York metropolitan area, MAS is holding a series of forums to design a plan that will improve the resilience of the region.

To get the thought process initiated, MAS asked the GIG collaborators to start addressing the issue of resilience.  The room was filled with a diverse group – scientists, artists, architects, designers, technologists, public policy, etc.  Here is a summary of the key take-aways.

  • With remediation plans in New York and New Jersey costing upwards of $80 billion dollars, it does not make sense to just spend money to recreate the situation as it was before the storm.  Instead, the group focused on what needs to be done with that money to make the area more resilient in the face of the well documented threats of rising seas.  (This attitude is in marked contrast with the position taken by many others who have spoken on the issue so far.)
  • Various possible plans were shown, including those that use nature as a bulwark or even work to integrate man-made and natural designs as means to stop the water.  However, this is more than a traditional public works problem whose solution is to “build something”.
  • First, recent experience and scientific data show that the threat to the urban areas is not merely where we see as the water’s edge.  In Manhattan and elsewhere, the sea also surged from under the ground.  Although the common assumption is that all of New York is built on solid bedrock that goes down thousands of feet, the reality is quite different.  Much of it has been built on landfill or natural formations that can be permeated by water.
  • Second, the city is not just a collection of physical structures so making it resilient also involves the people who live there.   The urban community is ultimately what needs to be resilient.  This is especially important given that the many of those most affected by the storm were the poor and elderly who have been housed on the edge of the ocean – out of sight and mind.  Perhaps just getting the people who lived there back into harm’s way as quickly as possible does not serve their best interests nor the interests of the city at large.  Thus, thinking about resilience in this case also means thinking clearly about what constitutes environmental justice. 
  • Thus, MAS, GIG and others need to work to help devise a plan to transform the currently vulnerable metropolis into a resilient Eco-polis.  The tools to do this are at hand.  The geological and other data is available.  Betaville provides a tool for people to collaborate on a joint vision of the future.  

GIG invites all who wish to contribute to this effort.  

I was also reminded of a statement from Taleb’s recent book:

“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness: the resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better” [… as it learns]. 

New York needs to develop anti fragility.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Gotham Innovation Greenhouse: 2nd Meeting On New Ideas

Last Tuesday, June 19, the collaborators of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse met at the WHITE BOX gallery on Broome Street in NYC.

These were the innovative proposals that were presented and discussed:

Dorothy Nash presented a project to retrieve and extend translation software developed for Haitian Creole after the quake in 2010, and develop the tools further to provide services for Brooklyn’s Haitian Diaspora community and their relatives in-country.

Dana Karwas presented BLDG BLOK (http://www.bldgblok.com/), an app to socialize and identify the history of the world around a person.  As a modern cartographic tool, it aggregates unique data sets to tell the story of a particular place. The maps explore the confluence of architecture, landscape, literature, news, cultural and social history, film/tv, and future visions for the cityscape. She and her co-founder hope that the connections that are sparked will inspire new thinking and ideas that could change the world.

Andres Fortino presented CREDS, an idea for a central repository of educational and other credentials that a person needs during the vetting process for a job.

David Turnbull presented his idea for an East River Think-Place, a blended-reality public construction with an initial emphasis on soccer as a tool of engagement.

There was also discussion about next ideas and expanding the current group of GIG collaborators. 

If you have an interest in participating, either in New York or virtually, please contact me at njacknis@cisco.com.

More information about GIG can be found at http://www.gothaminnovationgreenhouse/wordpress.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Gotham Innovation Greenhouse Progress Report

G.I.G. is a group of creative folks from various fields who are trying to establish a 21st century version of the 17th century Royal Society – but with a deeper understanding of how innovation occurs and with the use of today’s collaborative technology.  

A number of people have expressed interest in the progress of G.I.G.  So I’ll be writing periodic updates here, especially after each meeting.

For the next few meetings, at least, people will be presenting various ideas/projects.  Mostly these focus on what is called social innovation.  Partly this is a reflection of the issues that the collaborators are interested in.  Partly this is a reflection of the fact that we have not yet worked out the intellectual property and other economic issues that are part of commercial product innovation.

It was clear from the presentations that there are three types: presentation of an idea for enlightenment or fun (kind of a TED talk); a presentation which asks for feedback, but is pretty much limited to discussion at the meeting; and a presentation which is really an invitation for one or more G.I.G. collaborators to participate in the project being presented.

The second and third categories are much like presentations made by entrepreneurs to panels of venture capitalists or angel investors.  Except in the case of G.I.G., the proposal presenters are seeking the creative ideas and energies of the other G.I.G. collaborators.

So last night, May 22, we had our second meeting, at which the following proposals were presented and discussed:  

  • Leveraging FlexSpace to Power GIG, and vice-versa. This was presented from the beta FlexSpace room in San Jose to the group in New York.  FlexSpace is an evolving set of technologies to enable distributed people to work together.  The solution is designed to facilitate the creative process by enabling virtual post-its, white boarding, co-creation of content and a fascinating blending of physical and virtual space. 
  • A real-time mobile logistics platform: to support on-the-fly coordination of large groups, while mitigating impact on other traffic. While initially focused on a bicycle event, this is potentially generalizable to all kinds of scenarios.
  • Open Line Studio: a collaborative distributed research studio about potential futures of waterfronts in Toronto, New York City, Bremen, Istanbul, and Busan. The project will serve as a proof-of-concept for intensive virtual sharing of physical plans as a way to improve local future-making.

There was also quite a bit of discussion about the process of innovation, how creative people can organize, etc. – all part of giving birth to G.I.G.

Our next meeting is Tuesday, June 19, where we will discuss additional projects/ideas.  

Please let me know (njacknis@cisco.com) if you are interested in attending or participating in G.I.G.

We’ll also be working on enhancing the website and including the PowerPoints from this meeting.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Gotham Innovation Greenhouse

Talk about the need for innovation – in all of its various forms – is hard to escape these days.  It comes from the President of the US, nearly every other politician and, of course, most of the CEOs of the Fortune 100.

In response, there have been a number of grand announcements about the building of innovation centers.  Often these innovation centers are combined with attempts to build some kind of business cluster in a narrow field of technology.

Usually, the word “building” is quite literal.  All over the world, major edifices and “parks” are being built to employ people who will somehow manufacture innovation in these specialized clusters.  [Please excuse a bit of sarcasm about manufacturing innovation, but to read some of the press releases that accompany these building plans, you would think indeed that turning out new ideas is like turning out widgets.]

Some of the interest in innovation is due to the publication, in the last couple of years, of popular books on the subject.  There is, of course, Steven Johnson’s valuable book, “Where Good Ideas Come From”.  More recently, Jon Gertner’s book “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation” has been a best seller as has “Imagine: How Creativity Works" by Jonah Lehrer, among others.  

The books are good, but I wonder how much policy makers have read them.

An important part of all this study of innovation is that it is not like industrial-era manufacturing.  The process is more organic and unpredictable.  It is social – as Johnson writes:

"That is how innovation happens … chance favors the connected mind.”

Or, in a more jaundiced view, attributed to Einstein:

“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

Innovation arises not so much as narrow specialists talking to others in their field and delving deeper into their narrow specialties, but in people who can and do talk across disciplines.

While the city government has been pursuing its own copy of the “building innovation center” approach, the New York metropolitan area is filled with creative people who understand how innovation happens.  Too often they are working for institutions that are anything but innovative.

With all of this in mind, several of us have come together in what is initially a virtual experiment in innovation called the Gotham Innovation Greeenhouse – or G.I.G.  The use of “gig” is intentional as that expresses better the impromptu, perhaps not long term, combination of creative people that may lead to innovation.  

Imagine re-creating in 21st century, Internet-enabled New York, the 17th century Royal Society of scientists in London.

The initial instigators of this idea, aside from myself include Carl Skelton, director of the Experimental Media Center of Polytechnic Institute at New York University and Vin Cipolla, President of the Municipal Arts Society.  But the group is larger now and growing.

We are in the very embryonic stages now, but I’ll be posting more information as things develop.  For a look at the concept document, see 

© 2012 Norman Jacknis