Mention online platforms to people in Asia, and odds are that ride sharing apps will be top of mind. The last few years have witnessed extraordinary growth of these platforms across this region. Southeast Asia alone is expected to witness growth in its ride sharing market from US$2.5 to US$13 billion between 2015 and 2025. But do these platforms strive to support the public good? Increasingly, the companies behind these behemoths view, implement and promote their apps as not only profitable but also development oriented, as significant contributors to positive social impact.
Perhaps the biggest name of all, Uber, has been in the news recently for re-pivoting its Asia strategy towards one of greater engagement with local taxi operators and, more significantly, with host governments. Having long touted the social and environmental benefits of increased ride sharing, Uber is increasingly stressing local engagement—such as more direct assistance to local regulators and city planners—to confront what is increasingly crippling urban congestion. This is undoubtedly in the public interest, but is also clearly canny politics and savvy business for a company that has had its public relations challenges. What could be viewed as a convenient blurring of the distinction between company good and social good could also be seen as development of a business model that is designed to address pressing social needs.
To its credit, Uber has also, from time to time, more explicitly activated its platform for social good, for example in giving free rides to support social and charitable ends such as to enable voting, blood donations, and charity giving. But Uber has yet to go as far as enabling broader access around its valuable data horde in support of designing counter-congestions strategies.
Step up Grab, Easy Taxi and Le.Taxi. In December 2016, these ride sharing apps signed an agreement with the World Bank-led Open Transport Partnership. This partnership promotes a super-charged model of data philanthropy, making available the traffic data derived from millions of driver GPS streams in over 30 countries (“the first scalable open-source program of its kind,” according to the World Bank). The goal is to develop better evidence-based solutions to traffic and road safety challenges. Reflecting the extent that this partnership was inspired by acknowledgement of the need to collaborate with government, Grab’s collaboration was defined as follows by Anthony Tan, the company’s Group Founder and CEO: “These collaborations reflect Grab’s commitment to working hand-in-hand with governments to enable drivers and commuters to travel efficiently and safely.”
Indonesia’s star start-up, Go-Jek, even goes as far to describe itself—and have itself described—as a social enterprise. Admittedly, social enterprise is not only a fashionable term but also loosely defined and therefore open to exploitation. But most standard definitions of a social enterprise go beyond simply doing good or, in the words of Go-Jek, by “providing jobs”, and include either explicit commitment to re-invest at least a majority of profit into positive social impact or some tangible demonstration that the social mission is at least on par with any profit motive. With that in mind, Go-Jek’s social enterprise moniker is more aspirational for now. But that is not to say that Go-Jek is not supporting important development objectives and the Indonesian government’s digital agenda.
How does Go-Jek argue its social enterprise status? An interview with Go-Jek CTO Ajey Gore summarized his position as follows: “for Go-Jek it is not about creating business or revenue. It’s about impacting Indonesia—social impact, opportunities impact, and economic impact.” The statistics generally cited to support this impact are around overall employment via Go-Jek, the demographics of those gaining employment, and the salaries these people are capable of earning compared to previous employment opportunities. The data are impressive, and, as a result, Go-Jek has been frequently feted. One prominent regional news channel suggested with appropriate journalistic flair that Go-Jek offers its drivers—as well as small business owners benefiting from deliveries facilitated by ride-sharing apps—a “ride out of poverty”.
Go-Jek has also been recognized for its contributions to support financial inclusion, through the development of its Go-Pay payment system. Reflecting the enormous potential of fintech in Indonesia, this system had received over 44 million downloads by September 2017. But financial inclusion is, of course, good for business, too. Go-Pay facilitates ride transactions and also enables users to access other financial services, such as insurance.
Ride-sharing apps occupy a unique space in discussions around online platforms for development. They design on a vast consumer canvas and have significant ambitions as all-in service platforms. But they are increasingly recognizing that it is good business to engage rather than enrage host governments, support and inform related government policy, and contribute actively in determining solutions to pressing social issues such as sustainable transportation and banking the un-banked.
Image credit: Shiyang Huang.