Introducing Peers Inc.: Robin Chase at TEDGlobal2012

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Robin Chase

“12 years ago I cofounded Zipcar,” says Robin Chase. “Zipcar buys cars and parks them through dense metropolitan areas for people to use by the hour or day instead of owning their own cars.” Each Zipcar replaced 17 personal cars and caused drivers to drive 80% less.

But Chase isn’t here to wax nostalgic. She’s here to tell us it’s time to push the envelope. So two years ago, she moved to Paris to set up another kind of transportation system: Buzzcar. In this system, people rent their own cars to friends and neighbors. Some people describe this as “peer to peer,” but it’s a phrase that Chase thinks fails to capture the essence of humanity at its core.

Instead, she’d like to discuss Peers Incorporated, a system and way of thinking that can benefit both corporations and individuals. As she puts it, these two “deliver the best of both worlds,” and she has some examples: Ten-year old has 3.5 million members and 1 million people using the service every month. “It’s the equivalent of 2,500 TGV trains without laying a track or building a train,” she says. Or take, which connects people who’d do a particular task for $5 and those who need said tasks done, or Topcoder, a platform where 400,000 engineers complete complex design and engineering projects. Or, her favorite example, Etsy, which just celebrated its seventh anniversary and last year delivered $525 million worth of sales to its maker community.

Of course, it’s not just as simple as building a platform and expecting the people to show up. Chase experienced this firsthand at the launch of Buzzcar, which she describes as her own shot at a Peers Inc. company. The launch, last June 1, went perfectly. Owners added cars, reservations started coming in … and then, a funny thing. Owners didn’t reply to the requests for cars. “A huge percentage of them couldn’t be bothered to reply — even just after they’d signed up,” she says. It was at this point that she realized the true, stark differences and complexities between industrial production and peer production.

Robin Chase

To warm laughs from the audience, she shows us some photographs of current Buzzcar drivers, to demonstrate the diversity at the heart of the company — and it’s clear on her face, as she looks at these early adopters, her real love for these people who’ve trusted enough to join in this experiment. (“I love this driver,” she exclaims.) Now, a year later, Buzzcar lists 1,000 cars and 6,000 members. These are still small figures, but the potential for scale is enormous. “In a company you might have 100 people in charge of innovation,” she says. “In peer companies it might be millions of people. There’s an exceptional amount of innovation.”

Transportation might be Chase’s own area of focus and expertise. But she firmly believes that Peers Inc. can be the antidote to many of the world’s huge problems. “There are profound, big problems I know we can work on,” she says. “Over the last decade we’ve been reveling in the power of the Internet and how it’s empowered individuals. For me, what Peers Inc. does is take it up a notch.” This, she concludes, is about supercharging both corporation and individual. “Together, we can.”

Photos: James Duncan Davidson