What is Uber’s Desirable Future? A Letter to Dara Khosrowshahi

Dear Dara,

Congratulations on your new role as Uber’s CEO! This is a challenging job, but it looks like you’re up to the challenge. While everyone is happy to give you advice on what you should be doing next and how you should lead the company, I want to take a different path. Following President Obama’s letter to President Trump on Inauguration Day, where he writes: “this is a unique office, without a clear blueprint for success, so I don’t know that any advice from me will be particularly helpful,” I will try to avoid giving you advice on what you should do and reflect on the destination itself, i.e. where you should be going.

I know you’re busy so I promise to be short. Just about 1,000 words (not including images..)!

The starting point is deciding what a preferable or desirable future for Uber is. Joseph Voros shows seven types of alternative futures in his Futures Cone. He describes ‘preferable’ as “normative value judgments” — that is what we think ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ happen. In a way this is your main challenge as Uber’s new leader — deciding what you believe the company’s preferable future should be.

So what is Uber’s preferable/desirable future? Depending who you ask. I’m sure everyone at Uber have their own idea on what the answer is, but my guesstimation is that it will probably be more or less in terms of the Uber 1.0 mindset minus the toxic work environment, i.e. it would still be grounded in providing delightful user experiences and shareholder primacy.

You, Dara, however have the power as well as the responsibility to think beyond that, beyond the projected, plausible and the probable futures and design a very different Uber 2.0 mindset, one that is grounded in three principles: Responsible innovation, local urban resilience and stakeholder primacy.

I know it might sound crazy — Uber as a force for good? After all it seems to be the exact opposite of what we assume about Uber. Yet, this is exactly why it might work! I’m not sure, Dara, if you’re a Seinfeld fan, but if you are you may remember the 1994 episode “The Opposite”, where George and Jerry have this aha moment at the diner:

George Costanza: It all became very clear to me sitting out there today that every decision I have ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I wanted it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat …It’s all been wrong.

….

Jerry Seinfeld: If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.

George Costanza: Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!

In a sense Uber 1.0 may be somewhat more successful than George Costanza, but it was still driven by the wrong instincts, and thus the opposite can be right for it. Instead of avoiding ethical questions when it comes to innovation, Uber will have a rigorous human-centered approach to innovation. Instead of ignoring cities’ needs and culture, it will work with them to strengthen their urban resilience. And finally, instead of focusing only on the interests of the company’s shareholders, Uber will consider the interests of multiple stakeholders, including the environment and society.

So let me briefly describe what each of the three principles in which Uber’s preferable/desirable future is grounded in can mean for the company.

Responsible innovation — Uber is an innovative company, no one can argue on that, but a desirable future will require Uber to look at innovation differently, taking ethical and societal concerns into account. Responsible innovation doesn’t just mean adding a sustainability dimension to innovation processes. It also goes beyond making sustainability a driver of innovation or what Andrew Winston calls heretical innovation, which is about “asking very hard questions that challenge the very nature of a business or product.” I see responsible innovation first and foremost as a human-centered innovation, in which to paraphrase Douglas Rushkoff you “stop optimizing human lives for economic growth, and start optimizing the economy for human prosperity.” This approach will be implemented in every innovation, from Uber’s algorithms to decisions on automatous cars to new business models.

Local urban resilience — Uber’s desirable future requires local contextualization, reflecting the resilience needs and priorities of the cities where it operates worldwide. This principle is based on the growing understanding that innovation does not happen in isolation and that you can’t have a healthy business in an unhealthy environment. Therefore, companies like Uber need to support urban resilience (“the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adopt and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience” — 100 Resilient Cities) where they operate, as healthy environment = resilient environment. This principle also requires Uber to take a decentralized approach as each city has its own resilience agenda and strategy and Uber has to adjust to it accordingly, embedding urban resilience into its value proposition city by city.

Stakeholder primacy — this won’t be easy, but no future is desirable for Uber without considering the interests of all of its key stakeholders, not just of its shareholders. This principle should be implemented first and foremost to improve the present working conditions and future prospects of the people creating value for Uber — its drivers, providing them with “dignified and sustainable livelihoods.” Beyond taking a better care of its value creators, this principle requires Uber to operate “in a manner that generates shared value creation for all stakeholders including the environment and society.”

Dara, I’m not sure if you would necessarily agree with this mix, but I do believe it represents not only Uber’s preferable future, but also its best chance to succeed. How do you get there? Well, your job is to find out. But I do hope that you start thinking about your path only after deciding on your preferable destination, hopefully taking into consideration my two cents.

Best regards,
Raz Godelnik

Feel free to add your comments. You can also get in touch with me via email. Thanks for reading.

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Raz Godelnik

Assistant Prof. at Parsons School of Design. My book (2021): Rethinking Corporate Sustainability in the Era of Climate Crisis — A Strategic Design Approach