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Chasing a Better Future

Zipcar co-founder speaks on "Peers Inc.," the sharing economy, and a new world.

Robin Chase wants you to imagine a future. First, though, she wants you to imagine a past. A past 4.5 degrees Celsius colder, the world buried under kilometers of ice. Next, she wants you to imagine a future. One that is 4.5 degrees Celsius hotter, the world scorched and drowned under seas.

And then Robin Chase wants you to imagine a different future: this time where humans not only share cars, beds, roads, and ideas, but also a thriving earth.

Both futures are possible, Chase, co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar, said at a talk cohosted by The Fletcher School’s Center for Environment and Resource Policy and the Institute for Business in the Global Context. But it’s up to the world’s entrepreneurs and citizens to decide which one to create.

“This is probably the most important thing in the world, except for maybe our democracy,” Chase said.

Robin Chase lecturing, exasperated

Chase, a transportation entrepreneur who has been named one of the world’s most influential innovators — including in 2009, one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people — spoke to students at The Fletcher School about her new book, “Peers Inc,” which argues technology is reshaping global economies. More than just a “platform economy,” which ignores the mass participation of users, or a “gig economy,” which ignores the mass capital required to build successful platforms, Chase calls the emerging sharing economy embodied by Zipcar, Airbnb, and even Duolingo a “deep, deep collaboration” that could reshape the world.

The key to “Peers Inc,” she says, is taking already existing excess capacity in the economy and putting it to work “where the Inc. side provides a platform and peers provide a diversity of offering,” like Zipcar did. 

“We have moved away from industrial capitalism,” Chase said. “Today we’ve moved into this collaborative economy. … It’s all one big mosh pit.”

That mosh pit is the future, whether we like it or not, Chase said, emphasizing that the internet links together minds and assets that can deliver far more than proprietary ones. That reality—by leveraging the already-existing capacity in our cars, homes, and infrastructure and by making clear the costs and benefits of our choices—makes it possible to envision a world that’s different from the scorched one toward which we’re headed.

Robin Chase talking and gesturing

“People have a really hard time imagining a future that is not the status quo,” Chase said. “No one is paying what it costs to drive a car in the United States, which is why our infrastructure sucks.”

Solutions like those Chase suggests will require thinking about things in new and difficult ways, she said, and they will entail interaction and collaboration between new platforms, peers, and governments. Especially if people are to avoid that first, fried-up future that Chase wants you to imagine.

“All of government is a platform,” Chase said. “I think government is profoundly a platform, and the question is where can we improve that platform? … The answer is democracy. Voting.”