Making the invisible, visible is no longer magic

The Belgian government has announced a number of initiatives this year to further stimulate economic activity through start-ups and small & medium enterprises. The latest involves encouraging us to lend part of our savings to these businesses and get tax incentives in the process: For somebody like myself, who believes that Europe needs to open its eyes to the resources which it has available and start using them constructively, this is good news.

What have Robber crabs got to do with it?

First, let me introduce you to one:

Robber crabs are amongst the largest in the world. Quite amazing creatures. They inhabit isolated islands where they have been able to grow to enormous sizes in the absence of predators or competitors for resources. The irony with these guys is that they live on land but still lay their eggs in the sea. Due to the fact that they have grown so large, laying their eggs at sea has become a kamikaze mission as if they fall into the water, they will likely not survive as they would not be able to swim.

As with many things, we can learn from nature. Large corporations have also grown too large from exploiting resources in the absence of predators. These predators are now emerging and many large companies fear disintermediation, “uberisation” and are wondering how they need to adapt to the new rules of the game. Very often, we don’t see the resources which are available to us. The new competitors, the predators which the large companies fear, are now finding ways of making existing resources visible to us and this is driving a new wave of business model innovation.

Opening our eyes

Collaborative economy Belgium
Close to the Robber crabs, there are lots of other isolated islands with small human populations. They are also a source of inspiration. The sea is their key resource, not the land, and therefore they have decided to farm underwater rather than on land. The aerial photos of this are amazing and it is something which is replicated in Indonesia, South Korea and probably other places. This requires a certain amount of innovation and thinking out of the box.

To a certain extent, the entire P2P economy is built on a similar premise which is that we find new ways of exploiting the resources around us. There are lots of examples. I’m working with which is trying to optimise the use of parking spaces and reduce the environmental impact associated with cars going round in circles for 30mins looking for parking places. There is also who organise the transportation of stuff using travellers rather than UPS, DHL etc… There are platforms for sharing all sorts of stuff with the goal of optimising existing resources rather than creating new ones.

In all cases, it is taking something which is currently not seen as a resource and transforming it into one.

The regulation challenge

Platforms are not solutions. Their role is to make the invisible visible. To encourage the re-use of existing resources and make it easier for the people looking for them to find them. The challenge for governments is to adapt to the new reality which is that objects, things, places and people will now have multiple functions so are more difficult to classify. Rather than having private cars and taxis we have both in one. Rather than categorising a dwelling as being for personal use or commercial exploitation, we will have both. Rather than saying that an object which is bought can not be sub-let or subcontracted, we will increasingly have people commercialising objects which they originally bought for private use. Is this is a good thing? Maximising re-use will ultimately reduce waste and hopefully stem the consumption economy which many have become slaves to. Less products being bought and sold will probably mean less jobs for people building them so of course that is a conversation which not everyone is comfortable with.

Its not magic. People can now start businesses in an hour with a simple concept and a Facebook page before expanding. Get ready, they are coming your way.


2 responses to “Making the invisible, visible is no longer magic

  1. I’ll admit I’m one of those people uncomfortable with the idea of threatening the consumption economy – which has absorbed, occupied and enriched a massive increase in global workforce, and provided a rationale of sorts for the ubiquitous and very-low-cost provision of exactly the infrastructure on which the collaborative economy is reliant, as it threatens to bite the hand that feeds it. Giving dead assets a new lease of life? Worthwhile, in my view. But investing in propositions whose success depends on disruption (also known as the destruction of value) of an existing franchise somewhere else is not. Myflexypark sounds like an idea that deserves the scale of success it needs. Uber will eventually become the monster it is threatening – or it will fizzle out trying. I agree – the single-page propositions are coming, but it will be a small subset of them that stay. My own investment strategy will remain focussed on rejuvenation of dead assets and “New-squared” (new products for new markets or segments). Thanks for leaving foom for me in your vision, David!


    • Always room for you Andrew. Without getting too philosophical, when forest burns, growth emerges so personally I think that if the value which emerges is greater than the value which is destroyed, I’m ok with that equation. If the rejuvenation of dead assets is done in a way which creates positive social, environmental and economic impact then I’m very happy with that also. Its not a religion about disruptive start-ups so the incumbents are welcome to join the party!


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