The political economy of Uber’s multi-dimensional creative destruction

Over the past week it’s been hard to keep up with the news about Uber. Uber’s creative destruction is rapid, and occurring on multiple dimensions in different places. And while the focus right now is on Uber’s disruption in the shared transportation market, I suspect that more disruption will arise in other markets too.

Start with two facts from this Wired article from last week by Marcus Wohlsen: Uber has just completed a funding round that raised an additional $1.2 billion, and last week it announced lower UberX fares in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago (the Chicago reduction was not mentioned in the article, but I am an Uber Chicago customer, so I received a notification of it). This second fact is interesting, especially once one digs in a little deeper:

With not just success but survival on the line, Uber has even more incentive to expand as rapidly as possible. If it gets big enough quickly enough, the political price could become too high for any elected official who tries to pull Uber to the curb.

Yesterday, Uber announced it was lowering UberX fares by 20 percent in New York City, claiming the cuts would make its cheapest service cheaper than a regular yellow taxi. That follows a 25 percent decrease in the San Francisco Bay Areaannounced last week, and a similar drop in Los Angeles UberX prices revealed earlier last month. The company says UberX drivers in California (though apparently not in New York) will still get paid their standard 80 percent portion of what the fare would have been before the discount. As Forbes‘ Ellen Huet points out, the arrangement means a San Francisco ride that once cost $15 will now cost passengers $11.25, but the driver still gets paid $12.

So one thing they’re doing with their cash is essentially topping off payments to drivers while lowering prices to customers for the UberX service. Note that Uber is a multi-service firm, with rides at different quality/price combinations. I think Wohlsen’s Wired argument is right, and that they are pursuing a strategy of “grow the base quickly”, even if it means that the UberX prices are loss leaders for now (while their other service prices remain unchanged). In a recent (highly recommended!) EconTalk podcast, Russ Roberts and Mike Munger also make this point.

This “grow the base” strategy is common in tech industries, and we’ve seen it repeatedly over the past 15 years with Amazon and others. But, as Wohlsen notes, this strategy has an additional benefit of making regulatory inertia and status quo protection more costly. The more popular Uber becomes with more people, the harder it will be for existing taxi interests to succeed in shutting them down.

The ease, the transparency, the convenience, the lower transaction costs, the ability to see and submit driver ratings, the consumer assessment of whether Uber’s reputation and driver certification provides him/her with enough expectation of safety — all of these are things that consumers can now assess for themselves, without a regulator’s judgment substitution for their own judgment. The technology, the business model, and the reputation mechanism diminish the public safety justification for taxi regulation. Creative destruction and freedom to innovate are the core of improvements in living standards. But the regulated taxi industry, having paid for medallions with the expectation of perpetual entry barriers, are seeing the value of the government-created entry barrier wither, and are lobbying to stem the losses in the value of their medallions. Note here the similarity between this situation and the one in the 1990s when regulated electric utilities argued, largely successfully, that they should be compensated for “stranded costs” when they were required to divest their generation capacity at lower prices due to the anticipation of competitive wholesale markets. One consequence of regulation is the expectation of the right to a profitable business model, an expectation that flies in the face of economic growth and dynamic change.

Another move that I think represents a political compromise while giving Uber a PR opportunity was last week’s agreement with the New York Attorney General to cap “surge pricing” during citywide emergencies, a policy that Uber appears to be extending nationally. As Megan McArdle notes, this does indeed make economists sad, since Uber’s surge pricing is a wonderful example of how dynamic pricing induces more drivers to supply rides when demand is high, rather than leaving potential passengers with fewer taxis in the face of a fixed, regulated price.

Sadly, no one else loves surge pricing as much as economists do. Instead of getting all excited about the subtle, elegant machinery of price discovery, people get all outraged about “price gouging.” No matter how earnestly economists and their fellow travelers explain that this is irrational madness — that price gouging actually makes everyone better off by ensuring greater supply and allocating the supply to (approximately) those with the greatest demand — the rest of the country continues to view marking up generators after a hurricane, or similar maneuvers, as a pretty serious moral crime.

Back in April Mike wrote here about how likely this was to happen in NY, and in commenting on the agreement with the NY AG last week, Regulation editor Peter Van Doren gave a great shout-out to Mike’s lead article in the Spring 2011 issue on price gouging regulations and their ethical and welfare effects.

Even though the surge pricing cap during emergencies is economically harmful but politically predictable (in Megan’s words), I think the real effects of Uber will transcend the shared ride market. It’s a flexible piece of software — an app, a menu of contracts with drivers and riders, transparency, a reputation mechanism. Much as Amazon started by disrupting the retail book market and then expanded because of the flexibility of its software, I expect Uber to do something similar, in some form.

Critiquing the theory of disruptive innovation

Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard and writer for the New Yorker, has written a critique of Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation that is worth thinking through. Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma (the dilemma is for firms to continue making the same decisions that made them successful, which will lead to their downfall) has been incredibly influential since its 1997 publication, and has moved the concept of disruptive innovation from its arcane Schumpeterian origins into modern business practice in a fast-changing technological environment. Disrupt or be disrupted, innovate or die, become corporate strategy maxims under the theory of disruptive innovation.

Lepore’s critique highlights the weaknesses of Christensen’s model (and it does have weaknesses, despite its success and prevalence in business culture). His historical analysis, the case study methodology, and the decisions he made regarding cutoff points in time all leave unsatisfyingly unsystematic support for his model, yet he argues that the theory of disruptive innovation is predictive and can be used with foresight to identify how firms can avoid failure. Lepore’s critique here is apt and worth considering.

Josh Gans weighs in on the Lepore article, and the theory of disruptive innovation more generally, by noting that at the core of the theory of disruptive innovation lies a new technology, and the appeal of that technology (or what it enables) to consumers:

But for every theory that reaches too far, there is a nugget of truth lurking at the centre. For Christensen, it was always clearer when we broke it down to its constituent parts as an economic theorist might (by the way, Christensen doesn’t like us economists but that is another matter). At the heart of the theory is a type of technology — a disruptive technology. In my mind, this is a technology that satisfies two criteria. First, it initially performs worse than existing technologies on precisely the dimensions that set the leading, for want of a better word, ‘metrics’ of the industry. So for disk drives, it might be capacity or performance even as new entrants promoted lower energy drives that were useful for laptops.

But that isn’t enough. You can’t actually ‘disrupt’ an industry with a technology that most consumers don’t like. There are many of those. To distinguish a disruptive technology from a mere bad idea or dead-end, you need a second criteria — the technology has a fast path of improvement on precisely those metrics the industry currently values. So your low powered drives get better performance and capacity. It is only then that the incumbents say ‘uh oh’ and are facing disruption that may be too late to deal with.

Herein lies the contradiction that Christensen has always faced. It is easy to tell if a technology is ‘potentially disruptive’ as it only has to satisfy criteria 1 — that it performs well on one thing but not on the ‘standard’ stuff. However, that is all you have to go on to make a prediction. Because the second criteria will only be determined in the future. And what is more, there has to be uncertainty over that prediction.

Josh has hit upon one of the most important dilemmas in innovation — if the new technology is likely to succeed against the old, it must offer satisfaction on the established value propositions of the incumbent technology as well as improving upon them either in speed, quality, or differentiation. And that’s inherently unknown; the incumbent can either innovate too soon and suffer losses, or innovate too late and suffer losses. At this level, the theory does not help us distinguish and identify the factors that associate innovation with continued success of the firm.

Both Lepore and Gans highlight Christensen’s desire for his theory to be predictive when it cannot be. Lepore summarizes the circularity that indicates this lack of a predictive hypothesis:

If an established company doesn’t disrupt, it will fail, and if it fails it must be because it didn’t disrupt. When a startup fails, that’s a success, since epidemic failure is a hallmark of disruptive innovation. … When an established company succeeds, that’s only because it hasn’t yet failed. And, when any of these things happen, all of them are only further evidence of disruption.

What Lepore brings to the party, in addition to a sharp mind and good analytical writing, is her background and sensibilities as an historian. A historical perspective on innovation helps balance some of the breathless enthusiasm for novelty often found in technology or business strategy writing. Her essay includes a discussion of the concept of “innovation” and how it has changed over several centuries (having been largely negative pre-Schumpeter), as has the Enlightenment’s theory of history as being one of human progress, which has since morphed into different theories of history:

The eighteenth century embraced the idea of progress; the nineteenth century had evolution; the twentieth century had growth and then innovation. Our era has disruption, which, despite its futurism, is atavistic. It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence. …

The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.

I think there’s a lot to her interpretation (and I say that wearing both my historian hat and my technologist hat). But I think that both the Lepore and Gans critiques, and indeed Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation itself, would benefit from (for lack of a catchier name) a Smithian-Austrian perspective on creativity, uncertainty, and innovation.

The Lepore and Gans critiques indicate, correctly, that supporting the disruptive innovation theory requires hindsight and historical analysis because we have to observe realized outcomes to identify the relationship between innovation and the success/failure of the firm. That concept of an unknown future rests mostly in the category of risk — if we identify that past relationship, we can generate a probability distribution or a Bayesian prior for the factors likely to lead to innovation yielding success.

But the genesis of innovation is in uncertainty, not risk; if truly disruptive, innovation may break those historical relationships (pace the Gans observation about having to satisfy the incumbent value propositions). And we won’t know if that’s the case until after the innovators have unleashed the process. Some aspects of what leads to success or failure will indeed be unknowable. My epistemic/knowledge problem take on the innovator’s dilemma is that both risk and uncertainty are at play in the dynamics of innovation, and they are hard to disentangle, both epistemologically and as a matter of strategy. Successful innovation will arise from combining awareness of profit opportunities and taking action along with the disruption (the Schumpeter-Knight-Kirzner synthesis).

The genesis of innovation is also in our innate human creativity, and our channeling of that creativity into this thing we call innovation. I’d go back to the 18th century (and that Enlightenment notion of progress) and invoke both Adam Smith and David Hume to argue that innovation as an expression of human creativity is a natural consequence of our individual striving to make ourselves better off. Good market institutions using the signals of prices, profits, and losses align that individual striving with an incentive for creators to create goods and services that will benefit others, as indicated by their willingness to buy them rather than do other things with their resources.

By this model, we are inherent innovators, and successful innovation involves the combination of awareness, action, and disruption in the face of epistemic reality. Identifying that combination ex ante may be impossible. This is not a strategy model of why firms fail, but it does suggest that such strategy models should consider more than just disruption when trying to understand (or dare I say predict) future success or failure.

The peanut butter Pop-Tart is not an innovation

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article about the use, overuse, and misuse of the word “innovation” in modern business, particularly with respect to consumer products. The number of instances of S&P 500 CEOs using the word in their earnings calls has doubled since 2007. Sadly, this misuse and overuse threatens to remove all meaning from the word. Witness the example offered in the article’s title: Kellogg’s new peanut butter Pop-Tart, which Kellogg executives tout as one of the most important innovations of 2013. Peanut butter filling instead of cherry or strawberry or chocolate, an innovation? Really?

Next time your boss starts droning on about innovation, it might be helpful to stop and analyze: Is she talking about building the next iPod or the next Pop-Tart? Does “innovate” mean just “stay competitive”? And if so, where is the innovation in that? …

In this context, to innovate can often mean falling short of the word’s Latin roots (of “new creation”). It’s more modest: simply keeping pace with rivals.

They used to call it competitiveness—a word fraught with the implication that others might win. Now it has been elevated to innovation, a more regal way to describe what business has always done: Adapt.

That’s a great point, and it’s a point that Schumpeter and Austrian economists have made for over a century — there are many different ways that firms adapt to the effects of rivalry in markets, and one of them is innovation. But, you might reply, Schumpeter emphasized the role of product differentiation in lessening the effects of rivalry, by making your new product less substitutable for the existing competitor products, and isn’t a peanut butter Pop-Tart an example of product differentiation? (Technically speaking, my answer to that question is no, but that may be me being pedantic, which is what I do …)

That’s where an old post from Roger Pielke Jr. is helpful:

In recent comments I was asked about what I mean when I use the term “innovation.”  I use the term as Peter Drucker did:

Innovation is change that creates a new dimension of performance.

Roger tweeted the link to that old post in response to the WSJ peanut butter Pop-Tart article today. Does Drucker’s definition help; is it “operationalizable”? Only if you define “sell more peanut butter Pop-Tarts” as the new dimension of performance!

New Chicago mall and Schumpeterian disruptive innovation

Today a new mall is opening in Rosemont, near O’Hare Airport and the Rosemont Convention Center. The Fashion Outlets of Chicago will have a range of familiar factory outlet stores and restaurants, conveniently located near the airport and public transportation (I could even take the el there from KP Chicago HQ!).

So what? According to its developer, Arthur Weiner, this mall breaks a bunch of retail factory outlet rules that were just begging to be broken:

“The rules that this center broke were rules that needed to be broken. They were begging to be broken,” said Arthur Weiner. So, just what’s bonkers about the place? “It’s fully enclosed, two levels — never been done before. It is next to the third largest airport in the world, never been done before anywhere in the world.”

“It’s wrapped around a seven-deck, structured parking garage, never been done before,” he continued. “It is never more than 75 feet from the entrance to a shop, never been done before. You go to an outlying outlet center, you’re walking 700 yards after you park your car.”

That does sound pretty neat, and novel. And there will be baggage concierge service for the airport, and an airport shuttle. Another novel aspect is the partnership with a group called The Arts Initiative, which will install large pieces of public art from Chicago artists in the mall. Thus the space will be part mall, part gallery.

Of course, this rang my Schumpeter bell. Rules broken, new configuration, new location, new set of customer services, new arts partnership. Perennial gale of creative destruction. Bring it, baby.

The ephemeral Schumpeterian monopoly

Lynne Kiesling

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson parses Mary Meeker’s annual state of the Internet presentation, which includes some nifty and insightful analyses of data. Here’s my favorite:

mm pres os market share

Note that this is in percentage terms, so it doesn’t show the overall increase in the number and variety of digital devices used — the number of devices using Windows OS hasn’t necessarily declined, but the growth in the past five years of mobile devices using Apple and Android OS is truly striking in terms of its effect on the WinOS overall market share.

The decade-long (1995-2005) Windows OS dominance and its subsequent decline is interesting to those of use who study the economic history of technology. To me it indicates Schumpeter’s point about the ephemeral nature of monopoly and how innovation is the process that generates the new products and platforms that compete with the existing ones.

Perennial gale of creative destruction indeed.

Schumpeterian tablet competition

Lynne Kiesling

If you want good examples of Schumpeterian competition, it doesn’t get much better than this: Amazon to take on Apple this summer with a Samsung-built tablet? The Engadget folks make

… a very reasoned argument that paints Amazon, not Samsung or the rest of the traditional consumer electronics industry, as Apple’s chief competition in the near-term tablet space. An idea that’ll be tough to argue against if Amazon — with its combined music (downloadable and streaming), video, book, and app ecosystem — can actually launch a dirt-cheap, highly-customized, 7-inch Android tablet this summer as Pete predicts.

This evolution is Schumpeterian in several ways, the most obvious of which is the process of creative destruction that disrupts equilibration by entrepreneurs creating a new product that will make some old products less valuable and ultimately obsolete. Note, interestingly, that one of the products likely to be made obsolete is Amazon’s own Kindle.

But the essential product, the tablet computer, is not actually new, which gets to the second, and in some ways more meaningful, Schumpterian aspects of this evolution: this is a good example of competition for the platform. This is not just about coming up with some new gadget that consumers might like; this is about integration of the various applications and services that might create value for consumers into an elegant platform. Given Apple’s announcement this week of iCloud and Amazon’s existing cloud services, this Amazon tablet is part of that platform competition.

Perennial gale of creative destruction, personal wireless division

Lynne Kiesling

Even if it doesn’t end up being the disruptive innovation that these articles suggest, Verizon’s MiFI personal wifi hotspot device makes my little Schumpeterian heart go pitter-pat. Released yesterday, the Verizon MiFi (device by Novatel) is a credit-card sized 3G wireless router that can provide wireless Internet connection for up to 5 devices. Battery powered, 4 hours of service when not plugged in, reviews suggest that it’s interoperable and easy to set up. Good reviews of the product are at Engadget Mobile and the New York Times.

There are two aspects to the potential commercial success of this product: the technical features of the device, and the service contract under which Verizon is willing to offer it. For now Verizon is offering it at two different capacity levels (250 MB and 5GB per month), and pricing it at somewhat more than contracts for other air card wireless services.

But for my part Derek Thompson at the Atlantic made what is the most intellectually interesting point in this new development:

It could signal the end of cell phones.

That’s a big statement, so let’s back up a second. Three weeks ago, I cited an argument that VoIP (“voice over internet protocol”) could replace cell phones because dialing over the internet is much cheaper than dialing through a national cell phone network. The problem was, if you need the Internet to make calls, you’re going rely on Cosi shops and other hotspots for service. Three weeks ago, you couldn’t live in a permanent wifi cloud. Two weeks from now, you can.

That means that you won’t need a cell phone — or at least a cell phone plan. As long as you have a device with a speaker and audio that can connect to the Internet, like an iPod Touch, you can use Skype to make all your calls because the service provider (the Internet) is always in your pocket. Verizon plans to charge $40 a month for basic service. Not a bad deal for all-you-can-eat browsing and calling over the Internet.

It’s interesting to think about whether or not Verizon’s got a long-run strategy here relating to whether or not this kind of device will make their mobile phone business obsolete. I don’t have a particular answer, but raising the question is important. One potential future path involves the growth of their MiFi contracts while their phone contracts fall, implying that the MiFi and the phone are substitutes. Another potential future path would be if their MiFi contracts grow while they sell devices for browsing and calling over the Internet; in this case their phone business could morph into a device business. And I’m sure there are other options beyond my imagination.

But here’s why I think that Verizon possibly sowing the seeds of their own creative destruction is interesting — the convergence of all different communication platforms to the Internet. Over the past 25 years we’ve been moving from an analog telephony platform based on copper wires to a combination of wires/wireless digital telephony separate from the Internet, and now we may be seeing the beginning of the convergence of our formerly separate communication platforms into an Internet-based digital platform. Verizon has been installing fiber optic cable for digital backbone and for consumer applications (such as their FIOS offerings in the mid-Atlantic). Thus I see Verizon’s long-term strategy as one based on their investment in fiber optic to create a single digital communication platform using Internet protocol, on which voice becomes just another application.

So if they are sowing the seeds of the creative destruction of their mobile phone business, I think it’s because they’ve already got another business model in their sights, in which their phone business transitions over to being another application on their fiber optic platform.