Zenefits, Uber and Facebook: Who Loses When Innovation & Regulation Collide?

ZenefitsUberFacebook or Internet.org. These companies have dominated tech headlines in the past few days for the issues they are dealing with regarding policy and regulation. In the case of Uber it's been the case pretty much since inception. Some of the coverage positions the regulators as the bad guys stifling innovation: 'Damn those luddites!'. Some paint the technology companies as the villains; 'Travis Kalanick is the evil baron of our time!'. In the case of Zenefits it does seem like there was a lot of negligence and disregard for regulation.

The more thoughtful commentary cuts to the fundamental issue here and that is the conflict between the purpose of government and the purpose of business. The most crucial determinant of a system's behavior (the government or the business in this case) is the system's purpose. I talk more about this in my ebook which is currently free on Amazon. Fundamentally, both sides of regulation (government) and technology (business) pursue their own separate goals. There will always be friction between what was (and how regulation dealt with that) and what is about to be (and the inadequacy of old regulations to deal with this). That will never not be the case. Another example is the inadequacy of utility industry regulation in dealing with consumer energy data in a time when every device captures and stores data.

In all these cases what needs to happen is a shift from the ‘all regulations are constraining’ trope towards helping create enabling regulations. What gets missed in the conversation is the nature of regulation; some are enabling and help to bring the innovation or benefit to life while some are constraining by putting bounds around how much can be impacted as a result of the innovation or technology. The goal is to help inform more enabling regulations, with emphasis on the word inform not influence, and also foster an acceptance that some constraining regulations are actually for our own good! The simplest examples of constraining regulations that have been hugely beneficial that I can think of is traffic control through lane demarcations. Imagine a world where there were no lane markers on the roads because car manufacturers felt it would limit how much driving people could do...

Enabling regulation comes about by utilizing a framework where regulators

  • look at the macro system,
  • make projections about where things are going at the subsystem level (and this is where the technologists or innovators can help)
  • Engage with the citizens they are trying to serve
  • futurecast about what technology wants

and factor in all this information to create policies that enable the government achieve its ultimate aim of creating a thriving citizenry that benefits from the  innovative/new technology that the other side of this conversation is selling.

It starts from working towards the same goal or shared purpose. A greater goal When goals are at odds (as is the case in the 3 examples above) the only real losers are the consumers; they miss out on the benefits the technology can provide while the regulators and businesses are distracted. During these regulation battles the businesses keep figuring out ways to run outside of the regulations (a systems trap called 'Rule Beating') to continue growing while the regulators keep regulating.

A shared goal that will yield benefits for all the subsystems involved, especially the most important element ; you and I.

One can always dream...