New technologies have tremendous potential to transform the lives of all people. Yet people age 50 and older and traditionally-underserved market populations—including people with disabilities, people of racial and ethnic groups that have experienced discrimination, and people with low incomes—are not always able to take advantage of these innovations. More needs to be done to ensure that products and services are available to and accessible for all populations.
When products and services are designed for people of varying ability levels, the broadest possible range of consumers can take advantage of innovations. Universal design is an approach to creating environments and products so they can be used by all people to the greatest extent possible. Universal design offers products and services that can be adjusted or modified to meet people’s individual needs. For example, people who are blind are able to use the same smartphones that are marketed to people who can see because smartphones now integrate voice technology to describe what is on the screen, even when using the camera to take a picture. However, the rate at which technology is accelerating may leave some people out, unless people with disabilities and older populations are at the table when products and services are being designed. It is important to sustain a dialogue between tech innovators and these populations to allow everyone in society to benefit from innovation.
The sharing economy—also known as the gig economy, collaborative economy, on-demand economy, and peer-to-peer economy—is one potentially transformative new economic model in which technology platform companies help connect individuals to exchange goods and services. It has the potential to help all people, including those with low incomes, generate income, rent out existing assets, and more easily rent others’ assets to avoid buying big-ticket items such as cars. The sharing economy is growing in size, according to the Pew Research Center. It has found that 15 percent of Americans have used transportation network companies (TNCs)—also known as ride-sourcing services—which connect those seeking a ride with those who can provide one. Another sector of the sharing economy is home-sharing services, which use an online platform to connect those with a room or home to rent out with those seeking accommodations. The Pew Research Center has found that 11 percent of Americans have used home-sharing services.
Despite this growth in the size of the sharing economy, many Americans—particularly those with low incomes, people of racial and ethnic groups that have experienced discrimination, people with disabilities, and people who are older—are not yet receiving the benefits of this technology. It is critically important that access to products and services in the sharing economy be provided in a non-discriminatory manner and be available to all. Questions have arisen as to whether TNCs are providing equal access to services regardless of characteristics such as race, gender, and disability status. In addition, a recent paper from researchers at the Harvard Business School provides evidence that implicit biases may be causing home-sharing service providers to discriminate against people of racial and ethnic groups that have experienced discrimination. Ongoing data analysis is needed to ensure equal access and quality.
Consumers also should be empowered with full information so they can effectively use the sharing economy if they choose to do so. For example, they may need information about the benefits and drawbacks of the technology, how the platforms work, the importance of carrying adequate insurance in case of accidents, and how to resolve disputes if they arise. They may also need access to the technology, such as smartphones, that enable use of the services.
Innovation for All: Policy
Product design for all
Policymakers and the private sector should ensure that products, services, and emerging technologies are created using the principle of universal design so that they can be used by the widest range of ability levels and ages.
Policymakers and the private sector should ensure that people with disabilities and older people are consulted in the design process so that emerging products and services meet their needs.
Inclusivity in the sharing economy
Policymakers and the private sector should:
- consult with older adults and traditionally-underserved populations to expand access to the sharing economy;
- ensure that services are offered in a non-discriminatory manner; and
- ensure that potential sharing economy service providers and consumers have full information about potential benefits and challenges (for additional policies related to the sharing economy, see this chapter’s section on Insurance and Chapter 9, Livable Communities—Fixed-Route and Demand-Response Transportation).
Sharing economy companies should provide government regulators and researchers with data for evaluation purposes.