SAN FRANCISCO — I can't help but feel disappointed that TaskRabbit, the San Francisco-based startup and "sharing economy" pioneer, has agreed to become a unit of Ikea. Although the company has tried to cast the deal as an expansion opportunity, this outcome is a far cry from the lofty expectations of its early days.
TaskRabbit's fate illustrates Silicon Valley's unbounded idealism when it comes to optimizing everything. The company was a catalyst for "collaborative consumption," a movement in which everyone would share their homes, their vehicles and their time. In a seminal TED talk, Rachel Botsman declared that the currency of the new economy was trust, not money. PwC predicted that TaskRabbit and its sharing economy peers would comprise a $335 billion market by 2025.
Unlike traditional commerce, which was cold and profit-driven, collaborative consumption revolved around relationships and reputation. Lyft was "Your Friend With a Car," not a money-grubbing corporation. TaskRabbit offered "service networking" — like social networking, but with labor. Other ventures formed around sharing home-cooked meals, storage space, power tools and camera equipment. Airbnb founder Joe Gebbia predicted that society would eventually abandon private ownership in favor of community-based sharing.
All the activity fell into a regulatory gray area. Early on, Lyft and other ride-sharing services didn't explicitly sell anything: They just took a percentage of the fares "donated" by customers. The companies involved organized an advocacy group called Peers, which campaigned to keep the sharing economy free of regulation — which, of course, was meant to rein in greedy capitalists seeking to exploit information asymmetries, not people who chose to share their resources with trusted peers. (Disclosure: I was the community organizer for the Silicon Valley chapter of Peers.)
When the subsidies went away, the platforms began to struggle.
I had a car and some spare time, so I signed up as a TaskRabbit. Heck, I became a Lyft driver and an Airbnb host as well. Any underutilization of resources was wasteful, I reasoned. Yet somehow my career as a service provider never felt as empowering as advertised. Prospective customers were more price-sensitive than one might expect from a community of peers. They treated my car and apartment worse than I would expect from a trusted friend.
For all the sharing economy's alleged virtues, participants primarily came for the cheap services. The companies had a cost advantage because they faced little or no regulatory burden, and because their investors were willing to subsidize low prices in an effort to build new markets. As soon as the subsidies went away, the platforms began to struggle.
Silicon Valley is obsessed with the idea that technology can iron out the inefficiencies of any system. The underutilization of our time and resources presents a tempting opportunity, but utopians often overlook the transaction costs associated with real-world commerce. As it turns out, burdens such as licensing, insurance and regulation go a long way toward facilitating transactions between strangers. If you take this into account, the outsourcing of one-off errands looks far less efficient.
The gig economy could even be considered dystopian, in the way it takes advantage of differences in the value of people's time. To some extent, it can provide cover for failing to pay a living wage. TaskRabbit likes to advertise its platform as a source of furniture assemblers, but another popular task is hiring people to stand in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Nothing underscores wealth inequality like paying someone to hold your place in line.
In Silicon Valley, bad business models never die — they temporarily disappear and later resurface with new buzzwords. Just as the sharing economy is fading, collaborative consumption has begun to reemerge on the blockchain. This time, underutilized resources like energy, disk space, and apartments will be tokenized and traded. If that doesn't work, maybe quantum artificial intelligence will be next.
*Ou is a blockchain engineer at Global Financial Access, a financial technology company in San Francisco. Previously she was a lecturer in the electrical and information engineering department at the University of Sydney.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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