Brussels — What do social ridesharing, e-commerce and 3D printing have in common? It seems far more than most people would expect. At least this is what became very clear during an event organized by the CCIA at the European Parliament on ‘Disruptive Innovation’, hosted by MEP Ró?a Thun und Hohenstein. To be more precise, the event was actually about Internet-enabled disruptive innovation – a detail that is quite important in this context.

Our heroes (the innovators) explained the disruptive element of their products and services; the impact on existing players and markets; regulatory problems in the adoption and commercialization of the service or product; and the potential role for regulators. It is clear that disruptive innovation brings benefit for consumers, citizens and the broader economy. New businesses are being created, consumer demand is being served and we progress as a society. So in which ways are social ridesharing, e-commerce and 3D printing disruptive and innovative?

Anissia Tcherniaeff, co-founder of Brussels-based Djump.in, runs a start-up that provides an app for social ridesharing services based on a community of drivers and users. In a nutshell, Djump.in is the Facebook for urban mobility which to date operates in Brussels and Paris. The innovative part of it is the social element to mobility (you essentially ride with people you know from your network) as well as a payment system that is based on donations – you ‘tip’ drivers, you don’t ‘pay’ them. The service provides an alternative to established taxi services for the benefit of consumers providing competition in the market which in many cities is regulated in a way that excludes competition to the greatest extent possible. This also explains why such an innovative mobility service is quite disruptive, particularly in the eyes of the established industry. Only recently has the Brussels Association for Taxis threatened to sue Djump and Uber for more than EUR 24.000 a day should they not stop their operations [see also Djump’s blog post here].

Slightly different from a social ridesharing app is, broadly speaking, e-commerce. We became used to buying and selling products and services online. We are also used to compare products and gather information online before purchasing products. The price transparency and product choice brought by Internet-enabled commerce is unprecedented. In fact, we have become so accustomed to online innovations that it does not make sense anymore to distinguish traditional, brick-and-mortar commerce from e-commerce. It’s simply commerce. It seems not everyone is of that opinion since there continues to be outright discrimination against e-commerce. Oliver Prothmann, chairman of the Choice in eCommerce initiative, explained how certain brand manufacturers try to prevent resellers from using online marketplaces to sell their products. Let’s be clear, this is not only to the detriment of consumers but particularly a problem for small sellers who are prevented from using network effects found on online marketplaces with an established user base. Their ability to sell cross-border, a common European problem, is also undermined. Why is that? It seems the disruption brought into controlling all possible distribution channels is a step too far for some manufacturers (as is the increased intra- and inter-brand competition that comes with it).

 

3D printing is one of the most promising technologies for the future – if ever in doubt, that’s clear after Carla Van Steenbergen’s waving of a 3D printed skull and presentation of Materialise. You could refer to it as disruptive manufacturing which holds the promise of redefining craftsmanship as it enables everyone to have her/his projects ‘printed’. The potential benefits to our health sector are vast. 3D printed bones or even parts of a skull are some examples patients are already able to benefit from. This, however, requires the handling of sensitive personal data which companies operating internationally need to transfer between jurisdictions – a theme that is currently very controversially debated in various fora. Also questions regarding these companies’ liability are important – to what extent are they liable for ‘producing’ IP-protected objects by order of their clients?

For policymakers disruptive innovation will bring both challenges and the need to act. On the challenges side it has always been the case that innovation, particularly in the guise of Internet-enabled technologies, will remain unpredictable. Legislation is bound to lag behind. This might necessitate new thinking about new approaches to regulation that are outcome- and principles-based to leave more breathing space for innovation and leave the way to achieve a desired outcome to market participants. There might be a need to disrupt the “business of regulation”. The reason for that is very simple: it is more than evident that disruption, while to the detriment of some, mostly established players, brings new benefits for citizens, consumers and businesses. It is not a ‘thing’ which at a certain point in time somebody decides to employ to anger somebody else – it works only because at the end of the day the consumer/citizen wants it and is therefore willing to pay for it. The market will take decisions and regulation should not be put in place to limit options.

On the need to act side, the role for policymakers is arguably clearer. But it might be as difficult to achieve for a very simple reason: it requires political decisions. Let’s take two examples from our event. If we do want to have a prospering digital economy and entrepreneurs who do take risks and build their businesses, taking on established industries requires a lot of political will. The question is not whether we want regulation that will help Djump.in enter the urban mobility market, it’s rather how do we break an overreglated, lazy and innovation-resistant market for taxi services which often work to the dissatisfaction of a lot of people including consumers and taxi drivers themselves. Equally, it will require politicians to stand up and champion small enterprises that want to take advantage of the vast opportunities offered by e-commerce. Taking action against online discrimination is clearly needed, particularly if all the rhetoric around a thriving digital economy (self-proclaimed goal of the EU) is truly genuine.

Maybe a good starting point would be a very simple proposition: the default rule for new, disruptive innovations should be ‘how to enable it further’ rather than ‘how to regulate it’. I.e. we might be served better by first enabling and subsequently regulating (if needed).

 

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