A design pattern for a Smarter City: Online Peer-to-Peer and Regional Marketplaces

(Photo of Moseley Farmers’ Market in Birmingham by Bongo Vongo)

(In “Do we need a Pattern Language for Smarter Cities” I suggested that “design patterns“, a tool for capturing re-usable experience invented by the town-planner Christopher Alexander, might offer a useful way to organise our knowledge of successful approaches to “Smarter Cities”. I’m now writing a set of design patterns to describe ideas that I’ve seen work more than once. The collection is described and indexed in “Design Patterns for Smarter Cities” which can be found from the link in the navigation bar of this blog).  

Design Pattern: Online Peer-to-Peer and Regional Marketplaces

Summary of the pattern:

A society is defined by the transactions that take place within it, whether their characteristics are social or economic, and whether they consist of material goods or communication. Many of those transactions take place in some form of marketplace.

As traditional business has globalised and integrated over the last few decades, many of the systems that support us – food production and distribution, energy generation, manufacturing and resource extraction, for example – have optimised their operations globally and consolidated ownership to exploit economies of scale and maximise profits. Those operations have come to dominate the marketplaces for the goods and services they consume and process; they defend themselves from competition through the expense and complexity of the business processes and infrastructures that support their operations; through their brand awareness and sales channels to customers; and through their expert knowledge of the availability and price of the resources and components they need.

However, in recent years dramatic improvements in information and communication technology - especially social mediamobile devicese-commerce and analytics - have made it dramatically easier for people and organisations with the potential to transact with each other to make contact and interact. Information about supply and demand has become more freely available; and it is increasingly easy to reach consumers through online channels – this blog, for instance, costs me nothing to write other than my own time, and now has readers in over 140 countries.

In response, online peer-to-peer marketplaces have emerged to compete with traditional models of business in many industries – Apple’s iTunes famously changed the music industry in this way; YouTube has transformed the market for video content and Prosper and Zopa have created markets for peer-to-peer lending. And as technologies such as 3D printing and small-scale energy generation improve, these ideas will spread to other industries as it becomes possible to carry out activities that previously required expensive, large-scale infrastructure at a smaller scale, and so much more widely.

(A Pecheria in Bari, Puglia photographed by Vito Palmi)

Whilst many of those marketplaces are operated by commercial organisations which exist to generate profit, the relevance of online marketplaces for Smarter Cities arises from their ability to deliver non-financial outcomes: i.e. to contribute to the social, economic or environmental objectives of a city, region or community.

The e-Bay marketplace in second hand goods, for example, has extended the life of over $100 billion of goods since it began operating by offering a dramatically easier way for buyers and sellers to identify each other and conduct business than had ever existed before. This spreads the environmental cost of manufacture and disposal of goods over the creation of greater total value from them, contributing to the sustainability agenda in every country in which e-Bay operates.

Local food marketplaces such as Big Barn and Sustaination in the UK, m-farm in Kenya and the fish-market pricing information service operated by the University of Bari in Puglia, Italy, make it easier for consumers to buy locally produced food, and for producers to sell it; reducing the carbon footprint of the food that is consumed within a region, and assisting the success of local businesses.

The opportunity for cities and regions is to encourage the formation and success of online marketplaces in a way that contributes to local priorities and objectives. Such regional focus might be achieved by creating marketplaces with restricted access – for example, only allowing individuals and organisations from within a particular area to participate – or by practicality: free recycling networks tend to operate regionally simply because the expense of long journeys outweighs the benefit of acquiring a secondhand resource for free. The cost of transportation means that in general many markets which support the exchange of physical goods and services in small-scale, peer-to-peer transactions will be relatively localised.

City systems, communities and infrastructures affected:

(This description is based on the elements of Smarter City ecosystems presented in ”The new Architecture of Smart Cities“).

  • Goals: all
  • People: employees, business people, customers, citizens
  • Ecosystem: private sector, public sector, 3rd sector, community
  • Soft infrastructures: innovation forums; networks and community forums
  • Hard infrastructures: information and communication technology, transport and utilities network

Commercial operating model:

The basic commercial premise of an online marketplace is to invest in the provision of online marketplace infrastructure in order to create returns from revenue streams within it. Various revenue streams can be created: for example, e-Bay apply fees to transactions conducted through their marketplace, as does the crowdfunding scheme Spacehive; whereas Linked-In charges a premium subscription fee to businesses such as recruitment agencies in return for the right to make unsolicited approaches to members.

More complex revenue models are created by allowing value-add service providers to operate in the marketplace – such as the payment service PayPal, which operated in e-Bay long before it was acquired; or the start-up Addiply, who add hyperlocal advertising to online transactions. The marketplace operator can also provide fee-based “white-label” or anonymised access to marketplace services to allow third parties to operate their own niche marketplaces – Amazon WebStore, for example, allows traders to build their own, branded online retail presence using Amazon’s services.

(Photo by Mark Vauxhall of public Peugeot Ions on Rue des Ponchettes, Nice, France)

Online marketplaces are operated by a variety of entities: entrepreneurial technology companies such as Shutl, for example, who offer services for delivering goods bought online through a marketplace provding access to independent delivery agents and couriers; or traditional commercial businesses seeking to “servitise” their business models, create “disruptive business platforms” or create new revenue streams from data.

(Apple’s iTunes was a disruptive business platform in the music industry when it launched – it used a new technology-enabled marketplace to completely change flows of money within the industry; and streaming media services such as Spotify have servitised the music business by allowing us to pay for the right to listen to any music we like for a certain period of time, rather than paying for copies of specific musical works as “products” which we own outright. Car manufacturers such as Peugeot are collaborating with car clubs to offer similar “pay-as-you-go” models for car use, particularly as an alternative to ownership for electric cars. Some public sector organisations are also exploring these innovations, especially those that possess large volumes of data.)

Marketplaces can create social, economic and environmental outcomes where they are operated by commercial, profit-seeking organisations which seek to build brand value and customer loyalty through positive environmental and societal impact. Many private enterprises are increasingly conscious of the need to contribute to the communities in which they operate. Often this results from the desire of business leaders to promote responsible and sustainable approaches, combined with the consumer brand-value that is created by a sincere approach. UniLever are perhaps the most high profile commercial organisation pursuing this strategy at present; and Tesco have described similar initiatives recently, such as the newly-launched Tesco Buying Club which helps suppliers secure discounts through collective purchasing. There is a clearly an opportunity for local communities and local government organisations to engage with such initiatives from private enterprise to explore the potential for online marketplaces to create mutual benefit.

In other cases, marketplaces are operated by not-for-profit organisations or social enterprises for whom creating social or economic outcomes in a financially and environmentally sustainable way is the first priority. The social enterprise approach is important if cities everywhere are to benefit from information marketplaces: most commercially operated marketplaces with a geographic focus operate in large, capital cities: these provide the largest customer base and minimise the risk associated with the investment in creating the market. If towns, cities and regions elsewhere wish to benefit from online marketplaces, they may need to encourage alternative models such as social enterprise to deliver them.

Finally, Some schemes are operated entirely on free basis, for example the Freecycle recycling network; or as charitable or donor-sponsored initiatives, for example the Kiva crowdfunding platform for charitable initiatives.

Soft infrastructures, hard infrastructures and assets required:

(The SMS for Life project uses the cheap and widely used SMS infrastructure to create a dynamic, collaborative supply chain for medicines between pharmacies in Africa. Photo by Novartis AG)

The technology infrastructures required to implement online marketplaces include those associated with e-commerce technology and social media: catalogues of goods and services; pricing mechansims; support for marketing campaigns; networks of individuals and organisations and the ability to make connections between them; payments services and multi-channel support.

Many e-commerce platforms offer support for online payments integrated with traditional banking systems; or mobile payments schemes such as the M-Pesa scheme in Kenya can be used. Alternatively, the widespread growth in local currencies and alternative trading systems might offer innovative solutions that are particularly relevant for marketplaces with a regional focus.

In order to be successful, marketplaces need to create an environment of trust in which transactions can be undertaken safely and reliably. As the internet has developed over the past two decades, technologies such as certificate-based identity assurance, consumer reviews and reputation schemes have emerged to create trust in online transactions and relationships. However, many online marketplaces provide robust real-world governance models in addition to tools to create online trust: the peer-to-peer lender Zopa created “Zopa Safeguard“, for example, an independent, not-for-profit entity with funds to re-imburse investors whose debtors are unable to repay them.

Marketplaces which involve the transaction of goods and services with some physical component – whether in the form of manufactured goods, resources such as water and energy or services such as in-home care – will also require transport services; and the cost and convenience of those services will need to be appropriate to the value of exchanges in the marketplace. Shutl’s transportation marketplace is in itself an innovation in delivering more convenient, lower cost delivery services to online retail marketplaces. By contrast, community energy schemes, which attempt to create local energy markets that reduce energy usage and maximise consumption of power generated by local, renewable resources, either need some form of smart grid infrastructure, or a commercial vehicle, such as a shared energy performance contract.

Driving forces:

  • The desire of regional authorities and business communities to form supply chains, market ecosystems and trading networks that maximise the creation and retention of economic value within a region; and that improve economic growth and social mobility.
  • The need to improve efficiency in the use of assets and resources; and to minimise externalities such as the excessive transport of goods and services.
  • The increasing availability and reducing cost of enabling technologies providing opportunities for new entrants in existing marketplaces and supply chains.

Benefits:

  • Maximisation of regional integration in supply networks.
  • Retention of value in the local economy.
  • Increased efficiency of resource usage by sharing and reusing goods and services.
  • Enablement of new models of collaborative asset ownership, management and use.
  • The creation of new business models to provide value-add products and services.

Implications and risks:

(West Midlands police patrolling Birmingham’s busy Frankfurt Market in Christmas, 2012. Photo by West Midlands Police)

Marketplaces must be carefully designed to attract a critical mass of participants with an interest in collaborating. It is unlikely, for example, that a group of large food retailers would collaborate in a single marketplace in which to sell their products to citizens of a particular region. The objective of such organisations is to maximise shareholder value by maximising their share of customers’ weekly household budgets. They would have no interest in sharing information about their products alongside their competitors and thus making it easier for customers to pick and choose suppliers for individual products.

Small, specialist food retailers have a stronger incentive to join such marketplaces: by adding to the diversity of produce available in a marketplace of specialist suppliers, they increase the likelihood of shoppers visiting the marketplace rather than a supermarket; and by sharing the cost of marketplace infrastructure – such as payments and delivery services – each benefits from access to a more sophisticated infrastructure than they could afford individually.

Those marketplaces that require transportation or other physical infrastructures will only be viable if they create transactions of high enough value to account for the cost of that infrastructure. Such a challenge can even apply to purely information-based marketplaces: producing high quality, reliable information requires a certain level of technology infrastructure, and marketplaces that are intended to create value through exchanging information must pay for the cost of that infrastructure. This is one of the challenges facing the open data movement.

If the marketplace does not provide sufficient security infrastructure and governance processes to create trust between participants – or if those participants do not believe that the infrastructure and governance are adequate – then transactions will not be carried out.

Some level of competition is inevitable between participants in a marketplace. If that competition is balanced by the benefits of better access to trading partners and supporting services, then the marketplace will succeed; but if competitive pressures outweigh the benefits, it will fail.

Alternatives and variations:

  • Local currencies and alternative trading systems are in many ways similar to online marketplace; and are often a supporting component
  • Some marketplaces are built on similar principles, and certainly achieve “Smart” outcomes, but do not use any technology. The Dhaka Waste Concern waste recycling scheme in Bangladesh, for example, turns waste into a market resource, creating jobs in the process.

Examples and stories:

Sources of information:

I’ve written about digital marketplaces several times on this blog, including the following articles:

Industry experts and consultancies have published work on this topic that is well worth considering:

About Rick Robinson
I’m an Executive Architect at IBM specialising in emerging technologies and Smarter Cities. You can connect with me on Linked-In and as @dr_rick on Twitter. The views expressed here are my own.

3 Responses to A design pattern for a Smarter City: Online Peer-to-Peer and Regional Marketplaces

  1. Pingback: The sharing economy and the future of movement in smart, human-scale cities | The Urban Technologist

  2. Thank you for sharing Mr.Robinson, from a government prospective it’s going to be difficult to generate a market place i think. They will normally be thinking in a standard behaviour (reproducing what they did for several years). Disruptive market places will normally come from entrepeneurs. However in some countries it is time for a change and hopefully we will see changes in the way of supporting local economy by government.

  3. Pingback: Six ways to design humanity and localism into Smart Cities | The Urban Technologist

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