Encyclopedia Britannica is to Wikipedia as the IMF is to crowdfunding; as a provincial CD store is to Soundcloud; as railway is to car sharing. The link is our newfound capacity to collaborate on a massive scale, thanks to the social web. It’s one of the most powerful and abundant resources available to us. It’s so powerful, in fact, that it’s disrupting industry after industry, and driving such profound social and economic change that the word “revolution” is appropriate. Who would have thought, in 1990, that blogs would transform the news industry, or that P2P could change the face of finance? A great case in point is transport, and a company called BlaBlaCar, who are using the potential of collaboration to build an entirely new transport network.
Track back. Between 1750 and 1950, England was powering up on steam and discovering the potential of machine manufacturing, unlocking huge social, cultural and economic change: that was the first industrial revolution. Skip to the 1900s when electricity and the internal combustion engine jump-started the oil economy, powering the telecoms and auto age: that was the second. Today, the social web is providing a new kind of fuel for change: collaboration. What BlaBlaCar are doing is part of this third industrial revolution, powered by the social web.
So what is it exactly? BlaBlaCar connects drivers with empty seats to passengers looking for a ride so they can share their journey. They also share the cost of the trip so the driver can save money on petrol and the passengers can get a better deal than on travel. The BlaBlaCar platform is emblematic of how the social web and collaboration are driving deep socio-economic change in three important ways.
First, the potential of the BlaBlaCar network outsizes any existing infrastructure. Think Wikipedia vs Encyclopedia Brittanica, which already has 50 times more entries and is still growing. A hallmark of the new, connected economy is that aggregate size of networked resources is vastly greater than the centralised resources of yesterday. For example, the number of departure and arrival points of the BlaBlaCar network is infinite (a driver willing to make detours can offer transport to and from any two points). In June, BlaBlaCar hit a seat capacity of one million with a yearly growth of 135%. Centralised infrastructure growth is impossible at a figure anywhere near that. Comparing the railway network with the BlaBlaCar network is like comparing a provincial CD store with Soundcloud.
Second, the BlaBlaCar network is a new efficiency paradigm, typical of the new economy, driven by the social web. Car sharing is a peer to peer network, where the necessary resources are already in place and organically match demand. There’s actually negative waste, as car sharing exploits under-utilised assets, instead of creating new ones. Existing transport infrastructure is to BlaBlaCar as the hotel industry (empty rooms and all) is to peer-to-peer hosting sites like Airbnb, that are filling empty rooms.
Third, and most importantly, BlaBlaCar, as its name indicates, is social. Every car share journey is an enriching exchange between people, in which they share resources but also enjoy time together. BlaBlaCar adds a human layer to infrastructure. Compare, for example, the faceless institutional banking system to the amazing work being done by microfinance associations like Kiva or peer to peer lending marketplaces like Funding Circle.
Companies like BlaBlaCar, Wikipedia, Soundcloud, Airbnb, Kiva or Funding Circle are trailblazers; the tip of the collaboration iceberg. Here’s the big picture: imagine a central switchboard, manned by lots of operators in a long, noisy room, to represent our potential for exchange and collaboration. Compare said switchboard with the social web: it’s infinitely larger and structured in a completely different, distributed way. That’s our radical new power source, and that’s what the people at BlaBlaCar, and at Social Media Week are excited about.
A sustainability and innovation advocate, Vanina is Content and Community Manager at www.blablacar.com and London OuiShare Connector, a think tank for the collaborative economy (www.ouishare.net). She tweets @vaninaschick