Conferences: knowledge exchange of the past or for the future?

agglomeration economies As I write this, I’m preparing for my second Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. The 11,000+ attendee conference takes place January 22-26, and covers all topics related to transportation planning, policy, and engineering and related topics like health and land use planning.

The preparation work got me thinking: a conference this big is a wonderful opportunity, and at the same time it’s also a burden. In order to get the most out of it, that is, in order to catch a raft on the river of information exchange, one must do a lot of prep work – who’s going to be there? Who should I see? What topics are being covered? What topics overlap with my current projects? And then, one actually has to go there and see those people and talk to them in person. It got me thinking. This type of information exchange seems a bit antiquated. Or is it? Today, we have tools like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even simple email that allow rapid communication without physical proximity. Individuals are putting together knowledge share events, where subject “experts” educate their friends in a fun, relaxed, and community setting, negating the need to rely on a large centralized entity to plan the exchange event. Do these things better facilitate information exchange than the traditional conference? Judging by the popularity of the “unconference,” perhaps a hybrid model is appropriate.

One thing we know for sure: collaboration is the new black. Whether it’s through bike sharing, car sharing, crowd sourcing, or peer-to-peer anything, the 2010s are all about collaboration. What traditional conferences do is exemplify how Richard Florida’s creative class flourishes in Edward Glaeser’s agglomeration economies: bring smart, motivated, interesting people in close proximity with one another and they’ll start collaborating. This collaboration is at the heart of innovation. But again, are traditional conferences the best vehicle for delivering this collaboration, if attendees are meant to shuffle themselves into pre-assigned sessions with pre-assigned topics, hour after hour, day after day?

Would smaller, collaboratively-led “unconferences” be a better answer? Would more or better information be exchanged in these settings? Maybe the success of a conference as large at TRB actually is due to its sheer size: the conference itself is a city of the creative class, rubbing shoulders with one another.

-          Terra Curtis

Getaround Gets It: $3.4 million in Funding

getaround logoGetaround, the peer-to-peer car-sharing service we profiled here back in May, has achieved another step towards legitimacy: financial backing from several investors including the founders of Netflix, Powerset, and WordPress. According to a recent article on TechCrunch, a technology media company that profiles startups, new internet products, and breaking tech news, initial investor attention was garnered after Getaround was awarded the “hottest next generation startup” at the TechCrunch Disrupt event in New York this year.

But the award wasn’t the only thing: Getaround just seems to make financial sense.  By taking a 40% transaction fee for each rental, Getaround is able to cover roadside assistance, insurance and support.  And, for the individual, top renters are grossing $6,000-$10,000 per year, with the average monthly revenue per car at $340.  For those renting, some cars go for up to $75 per hour (a Tesla Roadster), but can be as cheap as $5-$6 per hour (even for a Nissan Xterra).  The daily rates are comparable to traditional rental cars and without the hassle of getting to a rental car lot and returning the car within their service hours.

This round of funding provides yet another vote of confidence in the peer-to-peer rental market.  Getaround joins RelayRides (a competitor), AirBnb, and HomeAway as peer-to-peer services who have recently received hefty financial backing.

- Terra Curtis

getaroundMy first day back in San Francisco, I walked by a paper sign stapled to a utility pole advertising a pilot of a new peer-to-peer carsharing service called Getaround.  Since then, I’ve seen no other evidence of the company on the ground, so I decided to look into it a little further. The service, which allows car-owners to rent their cars to others in their neighborhood using an iPhone app, has arranged insurance coverage for the duration of rentals, covering liability, collision, and theft and a deductible of only $500, for which the car-driver (not the owner) would be responsible.  Physical key-swapping is an option, however the company also has a “Carkit” that allows renters to unlock vehicles with their iPhone.

Getaround also pays parking tickets up front, leaving the car-owner free of any headaches and the car driver responsible for reimbursing the company.  (Side note: what if the Getaround app could be integrated with the SFPark data so Getaround users could see parking availability and also detailed parking pricing information to avoid unnecessary fees?)

The company has likened itself to Airbnb, a peer-to-peer apartment rental service, allowing renters to capitalize on unused space when their room is temporarily vacant.  While some have been skeptical of the feasibility of these services, questioning individuals’ openness to sharing their own property with strangers, both companies are having initial successes and hiring.  Airbnb was nominated for a Webby award.

But back to Getaround, in a recent survey of its Twitter followers, the company found only two users who liked the concept but would not rent their own vehicle.  @ryanisnan first expressed concern, but seemed to lighten up to the idea after he was assured that Getaround basically takes all responsibility while the car is in the hands of the renter.  @Getaround responded by reiterating that they screen all drivers before allowing them to rent to ensure the driver has a safe driving record.

Have you tried it?  Would you rent your own?

- Terra Curtis