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Transport of no Delight

When does ‘disruption’ tip over into irresponsibility? That was one of the fundamental tensions underpinning the tech manifesto published by Centre for London, with Tech London Advocates and London First, in February 2016. The row over Uber’s licence suspension in London shows that we are still some way from an answer.

The Tech Manifesto argued for an approach that balanced “open innovation, with consideration of citizens’ needs”, and identified “the disruption to the private hire markets caused by the introduction of Uber in London [as] a prime example of regulators failing to keep pace with the scale and speed of a particular innovation”.

On Friday, it felt like regulators finally caught up, when Transport for London announced that Uber’s licence to operate in London would be revoked from the end of September. But the racing metaphor quickly implodes: the events of the last few days look like an object lesson in how not to do digital regulation. Transport for London’s decision to pull Uber’s licence appears to have come out of the blue, with little opportunity for Uber to address the concerns about driver and passenger safety that have been raised.  At the same time, Uber, so rich in political networks, has responded with petitions and media campaigns about its 40,000 workers and millions of customers, blowing squid ink rather than trying to engage with the concerns about its systems and policies.

It may be that TfL has announced the ‘surprise’ revocation to force the pace with a company that would otherwise happily deploy lobbyists and lawyers to haggle for months over sanctions and compliance, and it may also be that Uber is sincere in the sentiment expressed by its CEO in a tweet on Saturday, asking London to “work with us to make things right”.

But this clash – more interesting because it is more textured than other cities’ decision to ban Uber outright – does not inspire much faith in the future for intelligent discussions about regulating the digital economy. We cannot preserve business as usual for every element of city services, but we shouldn’t give ‘disruption’ a free pass an unalloyed benefit to urban life – individually or in aggregate – either.