Credit: Stephen Sauer
Ideas Made to Matter
Former Zipcar CEO: Create change through collaborative participation
When Robin Chase started the car-sharing company Zipcar in 2000, she was confident that it would work for three reasons: For people who didn’t need a car to get to work, it was cheaper to rent rather than own one; a digital platform would offer seamless and low-cost transactions; and individual users would be trusted to pick up and drop off the cars without oversight.
Those three theses are at the heart of Chase’s 2015 book, “Peers Inc,” a name she’s given to the organizational structure that creates collaborations between institutions and external resources and people.
“It leverages the ability of individuals and small actors to experiment, adapt, iterate, and evolve,” writes Chase, SM ’86, now chairperson for internet and telecommunications company Tucows. “When done well, Peers Inc can create change at a pace, scale, and quality we previously thought impossible.”
We asked Chase to answer our question set about new ideas, useful sources of information, and her daily routine.
What skill or ability has served you well in your work?
The world is a complex place, and so many issues and activities are interrelated and interdependent, it is hard to know what to prioritize and what to keep top of mind. I think I have an ability to burrow into the complexity, understand its roots and triggers, and communicate the key underlying issues simply. When you are trying to motivate people — within a company or out in the world — expressing clear and simple ideas that make sense and create progress toward your goal is critical.
How do you (or your team) keep track of new ideas?
For me, reading or listening to ideas and strategies outside my areas of expertise and interest almost always gives me ideas about new approaches, strategies, and ways of thinking about things.
What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected way did you grow from it?
That people — your boss, your board, or your elected officials — sometimes make choices that are not in the best interests of a constituency but are rather in their own best interests. I've stopped being so naive. The logical and best answer won't always be chosen, so I need to look deeper and reposition my arguments.
What routine keeps you happy, healthy, or productive?
Knitting or gardening! They're almost effortless and provide concrete satisfaction in a short period of time.
What are your most useful sources of information? What makes them useful?
The people I follow on Twitter who cross the spectrum of urban planning, transportation, sustainability, and cities, from all points of view and geographies have been invaluable in keeping me abreast of both local and international pilots, research, marketing approaches, and novel ways of looking at things. Sadly, I worry about this network dissolving in the future.
What is one thing you have read, watched, or listened to that informs your work today?
I loved Daniel Kahneman's “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” His years of research into human behavior have proved invaluable when doing product design, pricing, and communications. We are hardwired to want to take shortcuts, which leads us to make fast and sometimes irrational decisions.
From a marketing and communications perspective, how can we take advantage of known mental shortcuts — using pricing anchor points or making use of loss aversion — and what can we do to force a slowing down of the thinking when appropriate? For example, actually understanding how much your own car costs every year.
At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter — ideas that are carefully developed and have meaningful impact in the world. In that context, what is your idea made to matter?
We can build platforms for collaborative participation that simplify and standardize the engagement of others, empowering them. These could be services that share physical assets like Zipcar or Airbnb; apps that make room for the wide diversity of skills and life experience, like Upwork or smartphone apps; or even basic infrastructure, like roads, onto which we bring our own vehicles of choice and trip purposes.
With all of these, we can leverage existing excess capacity — idle assets, already gathered data, human networks, the wireless spectrum — and collaborate with peers around the world who have diverse expertise, life experiences, and outlooks.
This organizational structure allows for incredible speed of execution and very efficient use of resources. This is the topic of my book, “Peers Inc,” and is the source of my optimism as we race to address climate change and inequality around the world, at scale and with speed.
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