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Corporations, startups, and the crowd. There are many examples of attempts to bring these three worlds together, both successful and unsuccessful. The corporation is too cumbersome, the startup is too fast and takes too many risks, and the crowd simply has different interests and doesn’t want to listen. When I heard of a telecommunications company and a banking company seemingly able to work together, they caught my attention. At the CrowdDialog congress in Helsinki –actually outdoors, because inside it was all too warm, small, dark, and noisy– I entered into a conversation with Andreas Pages, the head of crowdfunding at Swisscom.

We talked about two real-life situations. The first regarding crowdfunding, as Swisscom has built a SaaS crowdfunding platform from which clients may launch their own crowdfunding platforms. Andreas is responsible for this project. The second situation deals with Swisscom Friends: a platform where Swisscom clients receive compensation for helping other clients solving technical problems. Check out the video of the interview, listen to the podcast, and/or read the most interesting findings and thoughts below.

A bank as facilitator and catalyst

With these projects, Swisscom clearly looks toward its future role. The thought of running an organization like a platform highly interests me. In these two examples, Swisscom takes a step back into the role of facilitator and catalyst. Facilitator: by offering its stakeholders (private and corporate clients) tools and a platform to deal with each other without the intervention of the company. Catalyst: by taking the lead, especially in the crowdfunding case, in the maturation process of the market.

Outsourcing the not-profitable and still building relationship

Recently, I visited an ABN AMRO session for a discussion about crowdfunding. At one point, I asked, “Starting from what amount does a business loan become profitable?” Understandably, I received answers like, “Well, it would depend on … bla bla bla”. So I asked again, “Fair enough, but could you pin down a specific number?” We ended up with the amount of €200,000. A loan –roughly estimated and not relevant in this case– of less than €200,000 costs the bank money. So why doesn’t a bank facilitate things for its clients with crowdfunding/crowdinvesting by working together with and by investing in other platforms? (In the broadest sense of the term.) Actually, this is what Swisscom does. They could facilitate the client with the means to collect uninteresting amounts of money (read: amounts incurring losses), while maintaining the relationship until the client does have an interesting (read: profitable) query. Regarding the help desk, it is the same story. The level of organization needed to support the bottom end of the market and the costs involved are huge. By providing clients with a platform, a win-win situation is created.

Keeping expenses and investments within borders

By giving Swiss investors the opportunity to invest, while offering national companies an extra option in the market of financing, money is literally kept within national borders and a closed ecosystem is created. This may sound a little nationalistic, but looking at the crowdfunding market, this is the way it currently works almost everywhere. As of today, there are  very few platforms where international investments are made.

Conclusions:

All in all, I’m of the opinion that the way Swisscom researches and takes on its future role now is by doing. The reason behind Swisscom’s success can be summed up as follows:

  1. They accept the well-known clichés of corporations being cumbersome and startups being fast and risk-taking, all the while looking for methods to deal with these factors.
  1. The teams are allowed to operate between the organization and the outside world as ‘interpreters’.
  1. By allowing the name Swisscom to be affiliated with the initiatives, particularly those cooperating with startups, they are motivated to enforce a certain level of quality. Maybe this is not advantageous to speed, however it is important to show externally, and even more so internally, that it is serious about this endeavor.
  1. By taking on a leading role in the market, also regarding regulations, they not only ensure themselves from developing dependency on reactive regulation making by the government, but they also add value to other crowdfunding startups. In this way they become an ‘equal’ partner (as they are one of us) in this young industry.
  1. Our business case has to be comprehensive in all we do. Hopefully, this also avoids innovations being used purely as marketing strategies, without creating long-term value for the organization. Of course, a pioneering role will attract a lot of positive attention, which is undoubtedly deserved. This is also the result of innovating in the open, and may have a downside: in the event things go wrong you’ll be ridiculed. For this reason, many organizations do not innovate under their own brand name. In contrast to a big brand, a start-up may back the wrong horse in the court of public opinion. Especially when this brand represents, among others, a bank.

I’m curious about the way they will use these new innovations, situated on the outskirts of the services sector, to change the organizations at their core. Whether they like it or not, it is what has to happen in the end. This, from my perspective, is a corporations’ greatest challenge. I observe many corporations making promising (and often also less fortunate) innovations, but usually it’s nothing more than a marketing ploy (only as a means for people to view them as innovative, working together with society and start-ups, or to have the appearance of being open to change). This might be worthwhile for a time, but in the long run they’ll be overtaken mercilessly anyhow. The fact that Swisscom manages to transfer innovations from the drawing table into practice, as well as the way in which they execute this process, instills confidence.

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At The Next Web Europe in Amsterdam I had the opportunity to talk to Ethan Zuckerman. Wikipedia describes him as: “American media scholar, blogger, and Internet activist. He is the director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and the author most recently of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection”. Since I am thinking, talking and researching about the impact of digital platforms and reputation systems on society, I needed to talk to this guy. Enjoy!

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At The Next Web Europe in Amsterdam I talked to Nicolas Brusson, one of the founders of ride sharing service BlaBlaCar. We talked about their rapid growth, how to secure culture while growing internationally, their new office in Amsterdam, trust and reputation and how the holy grail in ridesharing looks like. To reach this goal they need to lower the threshold for ridesharing drastically and get a way to get into the daily habits of their users.

Two years ago I also interviewed his other co-founder Frédéric Mazzella at their HQ in Paris about the story behind BlaBlaCar. You ca check it here.

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At The Next Web in Amsterdam I had a talk with Danae Ringelmann, co-founder of Indiegogo. It was not the first time we met: in December 2014 we met at the Indiegogo HQ in San Francisco. By then she made a big impression on me when she shared her dream: “to  democratise access to capital and empower anyone to fund what matters to them, whatever that is.” Now, almost 1,5 years, her dream has changed. In this video we talk about her new ambition, crowdfunding, the European market and responsibilities of platforms. Enjoy!

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    “A different view on how platforms and inspection services might strengthen one another”

    The AirDnD platform, a Dutch platform where amateur cooks can offer dinners at their own homes, is under siege. Traditional catering wants the same rules, as apply to them, to be imposed on amateur cooks. I’m of the opinion that we’re having the wrong conversation.

    More and more conventional industries are being ruffled by ‘disruptive’ online platforms. Platforms which presume to hand the power back to consumers. Think of Airbnb, a website on which individuals can rent their houses to tourists. Over a few years, this website has grown to be the world’s largest accommodation provider, without ever furnishing a single room.

    This new business model has provided the Netherlands with a number of interesting start-ups. A couple of months ago, after Peerby (borrowing things from your neighbors) and SnappCar (car sharing), home restaurant platform AirDnD (Air Drink ‘n Dine) was born. The platform offers amateur cooks the possibility to open their house and host a dinner for interested people in their own living rooms, lowering the threshold of opening their own home restaurant. As of this moment, already 1,502 amateur cooks have signed up, and it seems the organization focuses mainly on the supply side of the industry, expecting the demand to follow in time. Interestingly, ‘Koninklijke Horeca Nederland’ (Royal Catering Netherland) concluded fairly quickly that strict catering regulations should apply to home restaurants as well. Rob Lagendijk, founder of AirDnD, doesn’t agree, “Amateur cooks aren’t entrepreneurs, though they might ask compensation for the expenses of the dinner they serve in their own home. Most of them have full-time jobs and only want to open their home restaurants for guests a few times a month. Student dorms, societies, and neighborhood barbecues, where expenses are being shared, aren’t enterprises either, and they also don’t have to comply with professional catering regulations.”

    Upscaling transparency

    To discover what is going on, we need to look at the developments in a broader perspective. In the first place, the activities on the AirDnD-platform aren’t new. Since the beginning of time, individuals have been organizing themselves in groups to eat and drink together, whether with monetary compensation or not. Sometimes someone profits, though most often not. What an online platform like AirDnD does, is making the supply at once transparent. Every visitor is able to quickly see where the food will be cooked, what is on the menu, and how other visitors rate the cooks. Customer service reviews of other users provide additional security to enter the house of an unknown host, and the platform supplies the supplier with a greater audience. Every home restaurant gets its own profile on which the amateur chefs may market themselves, and gather reviews. The platform benefits from both supply and demand, by allowing them to present themselves at their best. The better the presentation, the bigger the business, and more commission is payed to the platform accordingly. Compare it to the rise of Marktplaats.nl (a typical Dutch eBay-like website). While the threshold to sell or buy second hand products used to be quite high, now your products are displayed online within a few clicks, and can be seen by millions of people. On top of that, the buyer gets a complete overview of the current supply.

    Unrest among the status quo

    In the home restaurant market, it is interesting to notice that AirDnD isn’t the first platform of its kind on the Dutch market; however, it is the first one creating serious uproar. I’m of the opinion this is due to the fact that AirDnD is the first platform focusing primarily on the Dutch market. The founders are actively looking to speak with the media. Even though the press has expressed more criticism regarding the sharing economy in recent months. How big is this problem really? Although the ambitions of AirDnD may be huge, the outside world isn’t aware of what really happens on the platform –transparency is limited even on platforms– nor does it know what the future will hold. From my point of view, the unrest among the status quo is mainly caused by the potential scale (in their eyes) of unfair competition. Competition which has always existed, and for which opinions have been existent for a while, but wasn’t taken seriously because of the small scale at which it previously operated. The fact that the market of living room restaurants might potentially grow very fast by means of platforms like AirDnD, has caused the urgency to begin the discussion needed to clarify the boundaries. The challenge the status quo has to face, is how to turn this looming threat into an advantage.

    Platform as tax inspector

    AirDnD doesn’t only make supply and demand easily comprehensible for users. In the past, people also used to cook for one another, wether or not being compensated. The non-transparent fragmented market might have been substantially interesting for inspectors to control, though the cost would never have outweighed the benefits. Now, there is a platform: a place where all the fragmented supply and demand gathers. A platform that has insight into all transactions, users, and so on. Where Facebook used to be the secret service’s wet dream –as people will fill out what they do and where they are themselves– a platform like AirDnD may become the nutrition and tax inspector’s wet dream. I am of the opinion that the most important question isn’t if the sharing platforms should comply with the same regulations, but rather “What consequences and chances do platforms offer for regulation and privacy?”.

    The idea that a platform makes a direct link with the tax offices database and the inspectors of Koninklijke Horeca Nederland is the most obvious, as well as the most disputed, scenario. No worries about tax forms, all data will automatically be handled. Convenient for everyone. The major downside of such a system is its privacy: even though you might have nothing to hide, you still might not want everyone to know what you are doing. This could partially be solved by clarifying to the user who might see their data, and letting them control access to the data by other parties. An option would be offer the extra service of automatically filled out tax forms, from which the user benefits. This service is an additional plus for users of the platform. For a simpler solution, the municipality Amsterdam has chosen, in cooperation with Airbnb, to automatically charge tourist tax for Airbnb rentals in Amsterdam, which Airbnb pays to the municipality as one general non-personalised tax amount. You may say what you want, but In this case the municipality has to trust Airbnb blindly, and in Amsterdam they have been clear with their opinions.

    Delegate inspection to platforms

    Opportunities presented to the nutrition inspectors of the ‘Voedsel- en Warenautoriteit’ (Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety authority) are most interesting, I think. Even though the platform would provide data to the inspectors regarding customers, the execution of the inspection still is a huge challenge. My question is: why doesn’t the inspection delegate these tasks to the platform? The platform maintains good contact with suppliers. The quality label of the inspection might even provide more business opportunities for the platform: a quality inspection mark is another additional reason for guests to trust a hobby chef. Besides this, the execution of inspection tasks might legitimize the revenue model of a platform even more. The risk is that the industry becomes self-regulated, so in this case a combination of inspection, user reviews, and more would be required.

    Wrapping up

    Developments regarding platforms like AirDnD are expected to surface in different industries in the years ahead. The primary concern is to focus on what is really new, where boundaries have to be drawn, and how these new developments may lead to new opportunities. I see them everywhere, though all parties involved do have to start looking past the tip of their own noses.

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    If I would have told you in 2008 that a businessman would build a hotel chain with about 1.5 million rooms in roughly 34,000 cities in over 190 different countries in just eight short years, you would have laughed in my face. Consequently, you would have listed for me all the impossibilities one would face in building such an empire with limited capital in so short a time. However, this is exactly what Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia proved themselves capable of. Not by building all this on their own, but by facilitating others to conveniently rent out their existent real estate to complete strangers.

    Airbnb embodies, together with, for example, Uber, Lendingclub and the Dutch 3D hubs, Peerby and SnappCar, the unprecedented opportunities of exponential growth in the platform economy. Platforms on which the supply and demand of items, knowledge, money, and labor meet, learn to trust each other, and finally perform a transaction. The keyword in this development is facilitation. To facilitate others in creating value and making use of existing and unexploited knowledge and assets.

    Personally, I believe that every form of organization, without exception, will be influenced by this new platform of development, also referred to as collaborative economy, within the next ten years. This belief caused me to travel all over the world for the last three years, to visit and speak with over 300 businessmen and experts in this industry. Through this process I learned to understand what is going on, what their dilemmas are, and what several future scenarios might look like. What follows is a brief analysis.

    Frustration and amazement as sources of inspiration

    The parents of Danae Ringelmann, crowdfunding platform Indiegogo’s co-founder, were as businesspeople never able to make the next step. Reason: they lacked access to growth capital. This frustration planted the seed of Indiegogo. Its goal: democratization of the access to capital, so that everyone would be able to finance what is important to him or her, regardless of what it is. Finding no affordable transport, while thousands of empty passenger seats speed down the highway, and a high transaction cost for transferring money internationally, were the frustrations that laid the foundation of respectively BlaBlaCar and Transferwise, both ‘unicorns’ on European soil. Besides being an accelerator of innovation, frustration also leads to a higher purpose. A higher purpose in giving everyone in the workplace direction.

    Does and don’ts

    “If you’re not ashamed of your first version, you went live too late”, is a well-known quote in the startup scene. Platform organizations are characterized by a fast learning curve and close contact with their users. Whoever thinks “doing” equals charging full speed ahead is mistaken. It strikes me time and again how well startups and scaleups keep their focus and resist this temptation. Recently, I asked Frédéric Mazzella, founder of ridesharing platform BlaBlaCar, if he would be open to delivering packages or implementing Uber-like activity. It would only be a small step and makes for an interesting business case. His answer was, “No. First we’re aiming to become the best ‘ridesharing service’ in the world. After that, we’ll see.”

    Box? Which box?

    For existing companies it’s hard to confine or predict these startups. Often, they aren’t the usual suspects and therefore it is difficult to know where they might surface from. About three years ago, I asked a bank director of one of the Netherland’s largest banks if he had heard of Transferwise. “No,” was his answer. He had never heard of –what still was– a startup in international money transferring. Now, I do understand it’s impossible to monitor the whole world, yet when a new player, however small, arises in your industry, is built by the people who built Skype and PayPal, and is being funded by Richard Branson, I would at least prefer to know of its existence. Meanwhile, I read recently that Transferwise is ‘shipping’ 500 million British pound a month through their platform now. I forwarded the link to the respective director. He should know of them by now. Saying it is hard to monitor the market is no excuse for creating a system that signals certain indicators. The positive message for existent organizations is that if others can think outside the box, you could do it as well. Ask yourself the question, ‘What am I?’. And you’ll see, there are more possibilities than you thought.

    Existing organizations catching up

    Although the landscape of platforms is presently formed by new companies, my forecast is that existing companies will join the movement in the near future. Existing companies have something of a leg up on a startup, namely a client base. Social media organizations like Google and Facebook are already experimenting with initiatives in the sharing economy. They have a certain critical mass and are already part of their users ‘routine’. However, also less likely organizations can make great strides. It strikes me how existing organizations present their legacy as a handicap, instead of their advantage. Change your perspective and you’ll be amazed by all the possibilities. As a corporation, you will present a far more attractive partner for energetic startups. Start looking for bridge-builders within your own ranks, those who know the pros and cons of both worlds, and make the connection from that point. 

    Wrapping up

    The platform economy is developing rapidly, though the race isn’t over yet. We’re in the middle of the transition, and though figures of growth may be impressive, the current greatest examples are far from perfect. Issues regarding ownership, (reputation) data, responsibilities of platforms, exclusion, and raison d’être, will probably be fueling public debate in the near future. Meanwhile, developments regarding blockchain are at the verge of a breakthrough with the goal to decentralize the constructed central power of these platforms. Where are we headed? God only knows. The only way to find out is by doing. Will you join the ‘expedition’?

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      The collaborative economy has fueled public debate in recent years. Although development was received positively in the beginning, yet minor cases being viewed as disruptive, public criticism has been voiced more frequently during the last couple of months. Nevertheless, the potential and high value of platforms in this sector, such as Uber and Airbnb, are persuading a growing number of businesses to start a platform themselves. Many platforms make it difficult for users to see the wood for the trees. From this point on, this will be changed for the Dutch market.

      Collaborative economy analyst and researcher at Crowd Expedition, Martijn Arets, launched the website deeleconomieinnederland.nl (Sharing / Collaborative Economy in the Netherlands), in cooperation with the University of Utrecht, Centraal Beheer, and the DOEN Foundation. Arets says, “The growth in the number of platforms in the collaborative economy market, active in the Netherlands, is huge. I expect the number, currently over 130 already, and which isn’t even the complete picture, to double over the next two years. Partially by Dutch platforms, and partially by foreign platforms entering the Dutch market. The collaborative economy in the Netherlands also starts to represent a greater variety of sectors, which is great news. These platforms have a social, durable, and financial impact on their users. More often than not, they offer a far better solution –or at least a welcome alternative– to the current market. At deeleconomieinnederland.nl we map out the current situation. All active platforms are given an extensive information profile, and the latest news is being presented.”

      Raising awareness, stimulating research

      Besides a practical overview, the website will be expanded over the next few months with a ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ section, which will raise awareness about participation in the collaborative economy in several industries. Arets comments, “Additions will include information about insurances, responsibility, as well as information and resources to start a collaborative initiative yourself. In many cases a WhatsApp or Facebook group might be sufficient. Oftentimes, it happens very locally.” All data on the platform will be made available for free to researchers under a Creative Commons license. Koen Frenken, Professor of Innovation from the University of Utrecht says, “There isn’t much data available about the collaborative economy platforms. Through this website we can collect valuable information, which might in turn boost the research in this industry”. Data is currently only available in Dutch, but will be translated to English later this year and is expect to be presented this fall.

      Growth sectors

      The sectors money (+120), items (39), services (27), and mobility (20) head the list totaling 11 industries. Arets observes, “The number of platforms per sector isn’t all there is to say. We hardly see any new initiatives in the home exchange sector. This might be due to the fact that there are already a few strong players in the market. Within the sector ‘space’, I see the number of platforms to share parking lots has grown to four recently. This clearly is a market where potential is recognized, and which lacks a strong player. I expect exactly these kinds of sectors to experience the largest short term growth, followed by a so called ‘shake out’ in about a year or two. Besides this, I expect to see a growth in local initiatives in coming years. The threshold is certainly lowered day by day through the creation of free tools.”

      With a little patience

      The website was launched last week with 100 collaborative platforms profiles. Arets explains, “We’re making a good start. We’ll fill in the gaps during the months ahead as we aim to offer a complete overview for customers and a relevant dataset for researchers.”

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      What importance might be assigned to online reputation? More and more people make use of online market spaces in order to trade with strangers. You may rent out their house on Airbnb, join a private driver through Uber, or invest in a cool gadget in a Kickstarter campaign. It’s really exciting, for anyone and everyone is basically anonymous on the internet. So, you’re in the blue if you can trust the person in advance. Over time, these market spaces have developed countless ways to generate trust.

      Control Systems

      Systems will ask for ID-checks, Facebook connects and connections with other trusted sources. This is the only beginning. After every transaction, demand and supply side are requested to evaluate each other. How did you enjoy your stay in this home? How clean was the guest? Most often indicated by a short descriptive review or a star-based rating.

      Seemingly, these platforms deem these evaluations and checks not yet sufficient. Uber, in this context, announced recently to start using gps-data of driver’s cell phones in order to monitor the driving skills and to intervene if needed. Kroodle, an initiative of Dutch insurer Aegon, launched a very similar product. The calmer you drive, the higher the reduction on your car insurance at the end of the month. This is the first tug pulling the rug from under the collectivity principle on which insurances are based. So far it is only a reduction, but we can figure it is just the beginning.

      Further and Beyond

      Reputation and valuation systems will be used more extensively. They are applied in a wider scope and databases –data originating from apps, but also connection to bank account, profiles and friend’s behavior– are being connected. The more information one gathers, the clearer the user profile. With such a personal profile, bad behavior can be punished with exclusion and good behavior awarded with greater access and privileges. Transparency in conduct fails, desired behavior is stimulated, being left out once is just a bummer. And all this is becoming even easier with automated algorithms.

      Systems in use nowadays are still in an early phase. With scores of 4 out of 5 stars you could think to be heading in the right direction. On Uber, however, having less than 4.6 stars already puts you in the penalty box. Even though the driver has no complete control over the customers experience. Bad weather, traffic jams, accidents, or problems with the app do have a direct influence on the final grade. Besides this, the frugal Dutch will probably give a lower average than the jovial Americans. In case a customer regrets the low rating he gave the next day, there is no way to correct oneself.

      Insanity

      The better and completer the online reputation, the greater the chances for an Uber driver to find work. This reputation is composed of evaluations of small assignments. An Uber driver will be evaluated about twenty times a day. Off course everyone will attempt a maximized customer experience, but ask yourself what effect it will have on the person itself. The constant push to please somebody, avoiding every little mistake, and adapting your behavior to the standard Uber tries to establish, leaves no space to experiment. Deviant behavior is most probable to be punished, resulting in exclusion. I don’t know about you, but such would drive me totally insane.

      Who determines what is ‘right’?

      Earlier on I indicated that these systems aren’t perfect. Not only the techniques, but also the interpretation of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ is on the line. This in turn is situationally linked. Whenever I’m taking an Uber ride in company of my kids, I like the driver to drive calmly, yet when I’m in a rush to catch my flight, I’d be pleased with a racy driving style. In both cases the gps-algorithms are likely to punish the driver –as he would be either far too slow, or far too speedy. Though, I would be a super content customer. In hiring a cleaning lady through a mediator platform like Helping the same dilemmas are faced. What makes a cleaning lady good? One greatly values punctuality, another cleaning abilities, and a third a friendly chat.

      How important is trust?

      Platforms claim that the creation and monitoring of trust is one of their main added values. The question arises: Isn’t the importance of online reputation too exaggerated. Ratings are based on rational data, although the human being can’t make rational decisions. I buy a house for more than the asking price, mainly based on gut feeling, but leave my most precious possession –my kids– at home with a relatively unknown, when going out for diner with my girlfriend at night. The platforms make us believe that online trust is very important, see this short fragment.

      They have an incentive as well: the fact that you won’t trust a stranger right away –distrust being the standard– has a huge impact on their right of existence. What would happen if we would switch the standard to ‘trust’?

      It is important to ask ourselves this question. As mentioned before, reputation systems will be used for so many more applications. These may be good, but also be bad or with disputable objectives.

      Sesame Credit

      Reputation data helps entrepreneurs without credit history in less developed countries to obtain loans. But things may turn. Considering the possibilities, one would end up in the scenarios described in the book The Circle, by Dave Eggers. Reality has caught up with the writer’s fantasy, so it seems. Late December last year, it was announced that China is developing a national reputation score, Sesame Credit. Drenched in clever gamification techniques, the score is still optional, yet will be mandatory for all it’s population from 2020. The Independent unraveled the system, stating “The system measures how obediently citizens follow the party line, pulling data from social networks and online purchase histories.” (China has made obedience to the state a game) Bringing a scenario depicted in The Circle within reach.

      Designing the future

      Consequently, the time has come to consider future reputation systems. Anyone who owns reputation data is sitting on a goldmine, and even owns the solution to glue platforms together. The interpretation of data will hence never be fully objective, but always in advantage of the (revenue) model of the platform.

      Everyone has to learn from their own mistakes. The current systems do not allow for this, so we will have to think about creating a system that takes into account the human development on the long run. A system with room for mistakes, where you do have the right to experiment, and where shortcomings can be forgotten. For otherwise we’ll end up in a situation in which deviant behavior, which has been a source of new inventions through the ages and brought growth to the human existence, will be hampered.

       

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      In Brussels I interviewed Alex Gaschard, co-founder of peer2peer car sharing platform CarAmigo. We talked about their entrepreneurial journey, working with different stakeholders, tax rulings and responsibilities and added values of sharing platforms.