Designed to respond to the consumer's every wish, the on-demand economy is transforming companies and the labour market, and its rise is undermining the strength of the traditional players.
The term "on-demand economy" was made popular by the rapid success of the new Silicon Valley start-ups led by Uber and Airbnb, and now everyone is talking about it. It refers to business activities where companies use new technologies to bring goods and services to consumers virtually immediately, and is experiencing staggering rates of growth. And so, scarcely seven years after it began, Uber is worth over 60 billion dollars. In the United States, 42% of people have used an on-demand service at some point. This is a trend set to continue.
Aside from the most well-known services that allow customers to order a driver, a meal, a doctor or lawyer, the on-demand economy now seems able to satisfy the consumer's every whim, even the most outlandish. Booster offers a mobile petrol pump service allowing drivers to fill up at any time. Through Techy you can request the services of an IT expert to fix your computer. FriendsTonight finds its users companions for any trip, such as to the cinema, a bar or nightclub. Pamper lets you order a manicure and Soothe brings you a massage. With Trumaker, you can find a tailor to cut you a suit. Washio will do your washing. And finally, Wag! walks your dog for you. There are even start-ups in California that deliver cannabis on demand, plus for Roman Catholics with an urgent need to confess, Scooterino Amen can bring a priest on a scooter to your door. It seems that the economy is more directed towards the immediate gratification of the consumer than ever before.
A new phase of capitalism
The arrival of the on-demand economy marks not only an anthropological development, but also the beginning of a new phase of capitalism. At the start of the 20th century, the introduction of assembly and production lines meant that Henry Ford could mass produce the Ford T at a reasonable price, a development that began to make the automobile more accessible to all. Today, the on-demand economy is allowing ordinary people to access services that were once the preserve of the privileged.
Several factors have converged to allow this revolution to occur. The first is the boom in new technologies. Powerful microcomputers available at low prices mean entrepreneurs can achieve a great deal by working alone from their own home. The spread of smart phones is also enabling autonomous workers to react quickly and move around with ease. And thanks to the internet, complex tasks such as programming or drawing up legal documentation can be outsourced to professionals working remotely.
In short, new technologies are creating relationships that are more fluid: large companies with very strong hierarchies and a stable workforce located in physical premises are giving way to less precisely structured entities composed of a small team of leaders and a constantly fluctuating mass of contractors. They may not even have an office, but those at the top direct the business while their staff work flexibly to meet customer requests.
The swift rise of the on-demand economy has also been facilitated by the financial crisis, which led to an availability on the labour market of young, flexible workers with good access to technology. Today, 34% of US workers are self-employed. Finally, the on-demand economy is the consequence of a shift in the balance of power in society. As The Economist states, whereas Karl Marx once laid out the opposition between the owners of the means of production and their workers, the dichotomy that stands out today contrasts individuals who are cash rich and time poor and those who have less money but much more time. The on-demand economy means transactions can take place between these two kinds of economic agents, and the latter can be paid to provide the former with services that they have no time to carry out themselves.
The winners and losers of the on-demand economy
The on-demand economy has changed the capitalist paradigm, bringing about far-reaching changes within society, the world of work, and even the lives of individuals. There are positives and negatives, as with any radical change. This is why it causes so much passionate debate, as illustrated by the many legal challenges and demonstrations against Uber and the aborted attempt to legislate to limit the expansion of Airbnb in San Francisco. Its opponents regard it as a reversal of social progress and a return to the brutal capitalism of the 19th century, when long queues of workers waited every morning in the hope of picking up a day's work.
But the supporters of this new reality emphasise the flexibility it gives workers, who are free to work wherever and whenever they choose. They also highlight the freedom consumers now have to choose from a wide range of services accessible on demand at prices they can afford. The defenders of the on-demand economy also say that it enables a better allocation of resources in society. For example, many rooms that would otherwise remain empty can be offered to tourists temporarily through Airbnb, and Uber allows several passengers to share the same vehicle.
Consumers certainly appear to be holding all the cards; for workers, however, the picture is more mixed. Those who value flexibility over security benefit from the new reality. This is the case for students wanting to earn a bit of cash, those who loathe office hours, young parents who would like to work part-time while raising their children, or older people nearing retirement who want to reduce their working hours. On the other hand, workers who favour security over flexibility, such as families with mortgages and tuition fees to pay for, stand to lose out in the new economic environment. It is therefore up to governments to adapt their welfare systems to better reflect society's needs in the light of the rapid rise of the on-demand economy. The American model, where health insurance is provided by the employer, is not at all appropriate for these circumstances and ought to be reformed so that every worker is covered.
Traditional actors forced to catch up
The on-demand economy also implies a significant shake-up on the majority of markets. This is firstly because companies offering on-demand services naturally launch on existing markets, where they proceed to impose very stiff competition on the traditional players. The most striking example of this is of course the arrival of Uber on the taxi market. But secondly, the heavyweights of the on-demand economy, which have the benefit of their brand names, capital and the latest technology, can swallow up sectors other than that of their principal and initial line of business.
If we remain with the example of Uber, the company quickly realised that drivers were extremely busy in the mornings and evenings, but had far fewer jobs in the middle of the day. And so to fill the off-peak hours, it began to offer additional services. First came the food delivery service, UberEATS, then the company delivering anything, UberRUSH. From a taxi company at the forefront of technology, Uber has gradually transformed itself into a service platform devoted to nothing in particular, able to turn its hand (or its vehicles) to various types of requirements.
Besides taxis, start-ups delivering food such as Caviar or Munchery are the ones facing competition, as well as longstanding firms on the delivery market such as FedEx and UPS. The name that Uber quickly built for itself, combined with its solid IT infrastructure, has allowed it to rival institutional players in a field where it was initially an outsider. And so these firms are obliged to respond to demand and follow the lead of Uber, or to at least adapt what they offer to meet the new rules of the on-demand economy. This is why UPS has just invested 28 million dollars in the start-up Deliv, which provides a same-day delivery service. The fast food brand Taco Bell has also established its own system for delivering food. And taxis are using smart phone applications modelled on Uber ... Little by little, with missionary zeal, the on-demand economy is converting its competition rather than taking them out.
In the future, will we use CO² to build?
It sounds somewhat futuristic, but today building with CO² is possible. Thanks to accelerates carbonation, CO² is used to produce building material. A sustainable footpath in Ghent illustrates how promising this new technology is.
In mid-December, CO2 Value Europe, a think- and do- tank representing the carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) community in Europe, held a webinar about the use of CO2 to create building material. Concrete examples of this sustainable technology were given to illustrate the potential they can offers, especially in the hard-to-abate construction sector. BNP Paribas Fortis and CO2 Value Europe are partners in issues related to financing innovative and sustainable technologies. As an institution, we work hard to promote corporate sustainability.
The second-most polluting industrial sector
As well as being one of the largest in the world, the cement industry's high levels of flue gas emissions also make it one of the most polluting. Cement is a crucial component in concrete, which is vital for the building sector. A sustainable alternative to cement could make a huge difference. One option here is carbonation, also known as CO2 mineralization. While this CCU technology is not yet well known, it has the potential to play a crucial role in mitigating climate change.
Giving nature a helping hand
Carbonation is a natural process, where minerals react with CO2 to create e.g. limestone and dolomite. In nature, this process takes thousands of years, but today, thanks to innovative methods, this time can be cut down to some minutes. This process requires relatively small amounts of energy and can be used to create several different products, including bricks where CO2 is sequestered permanently.
CO2 all the way
The development of CCU technology has accelerated sharply in recent years. We now have cement alternatives that meet the building sector’s technical requirements. There are various ways to store CO2 into construction materials. For example, CO2 can be injected as an alternative to water for hardening cement. What’s more, CO2 can be used to convert mineral waste from steel and mining industries into new products such as aggregates, which can be used as a basis for paving or building blocks.
Good for the planet
Mineralization of CO2 has a significant impact on the environment, because it has an effect at different levels. The annual global reduction in CO2 emissions is estimated to be 250 - 500 million tonnes by 2030 (source CO2 Value Europe).
- CO2 can be captured from flue gas emitted by industrial processes used to create steel, cement, and chemicals, with no need for concentration or treatment.
- CO2 can be captured directly from the atmosphere to create negative carbon emissions, i.e. carbon removal.
- In both cases, the CO2 will be stored permanently in building materials.
- Mineral waste and even construction waste are used together with CO2 to make new building materials, so it reduces landfills and the associated costs.
- Recycling carbon and construction wastes means fewer new natural resources are exploited.
What’s the catch?
New developments are never without their challenges, and this is no exception. Offering a competitive, quality alternative to concrete in a circular economy requires investment and adaptation.
- Factories will have to adapt their plants. Locating them close to significant sources of CO2, like a steel factory, is recommended so the CO2 and the waste fractions do not have to be transported.
- Manufacturing new products takes energy and creates CO2 emissions, even if the products are made using carbon dioxide and waste. It is why renewable energy should be used as much as possible to increase the sustainability of the processes.
- The commercialization of accelerated carbonation technologies is quite recent, and some processes are not optimally equipped for this yet.
- The lack of appropriate regulatory frameworks is also a drawdown to allow for a fast deployment of CCU technologies. This is an area CO2 Value Europe is especially working on.
Despite these challenges, Andre Bardow (Professor of Energy & Process Systems Engineering, ETH Zurich) told us during the webinar that he is convinced CO2 mineralization reduces the CO2 footprint from a life cycle perspective, even more than carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Zero domestic waste
There are already companies producing low-CO2 construction materials around the world. One of them is in Limburg. Orbix, in Genk, has successfully extracted minerals from steel production waste (known as slag) which are used as a basis for eco-friendly concrete stone. Not only is liquid CO2 used to produce concrete stone rather than polluting cement, but residual waste that would otherwise be dumped in landfill is also recycled.
There is a great example of this in Ghent, where Orbix worked with the Flemish research institute VITO to create the Stapsteen project for the city. Visitors can walk on Belgium’s first-ever circular economy footpath in the Leewstraat: 100m2 made entirely from sustainable bricks, saving a full 2 tonnes of CO2.
Do you have sustainability plans for 2021? Our experts at the Sustainable Business Competence Centre can provide advice about innovations like CO2 mineralisation and support your sustainable transition.
Robovision: “Within five years artificial intelligence will have become omnipresent”
Robovision has emerged as the best-known AI player in the Benelux countries. However, this young firm has an even more extensive vision. “Healthcare, agriculture, the environment… within five years artificial intelligence will have become omnipresent,” foresees CEO Jonathan Berte. BNP Paribas Fortis is an important partner in their growth.
Jonathan Berte, who trained as a civil engineer, smiles as he thinks back to the pioneering years at Robovision. “In fact, when I was a kid I had a really analytical mindset. In the scouts and at school I used to keep note of absolutely everything. It was really important for me to collect information. I was a kind of ‘infoholic’. But just gathering information gets you nowhere. That also goes for information that’s just stored on hard disks. The added value comes from using that information efficiently.”
How exactly do you do that at Robovision?
“Technology is evolving at lightning speed. These days just about everybody has a smartphone in their trouser pocket. Apart from anything else, these devices create a great deal of information, so we need to keep up on the algorithmic front and artificial intelligence helps us with that. That’s how we can provide governments, institutions and companies large and small with a platform for automated decision-making on the basis of visual data. In addition we constantly ask ourselves how we can democratise artificial intelligence. So in a way we’re like the Airbnb of artificial intelligence.”
What might that visual data be for example?
“In May, in collaboration with the University of Antwerp and security firm Securitas, we set up a smart camera in a shopping street in order to measure to what extent people were complying with social distancing requirements. This is important information for the decision makers in this country. Of course we don’t have to look through the images ourselves. We get them analysed using a specific type of artificial intelligence – self-teaching algorithms or what are known as neural networks. They’re designed somewhat along the lines of our own brains, though not nearly as complex.”
Which brings us to the fashionable expression ‘deep learning’. Are machines eventually going to make themselves smarter than us humans?
“Oh, that’s already underway at this very moment – in radiology, among other fields, plus also in games. Remember the legendary Go match between South Korean grandmaster Lee Sedol and a computer, which was beautifully represented in the 2017 documentary film AlphaGo? We’re also focusing on deep learning, because neural networks are very efficient at dealing with visual data. However, it will be some time yet before AI can equal a human being in intuition for instance.”
You’ve now evolved from a startup to a scaleup. Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
“The society of tomorrow will be one in which everything will be properly measured and dealt with. For instance, we’re also working in the field of horticulture, where AI can be applied in quality control – to spot fruit with an abnormal shape or colour, say. Lots of agricultural and horticultural businesses have got into difficulties over the last few months because pickers from Eastern Europe weren’t able to enter this country. Those businesses will very probably be investing in AI and automation over the next few years. In these kinds of fields, the coronavirus has taken us to a digital society almost overnight.”
What sort of partners do you need in order to succeed in your aims?
“During our growth from startup to scaleup, BNP Paribas Fortis has always been an important partner. You have really taken a lot of trouble to understand our story. Of course you do need to grasp our plans from a banking standpoint in order to be able to assess the risks. But quite apart from that, I have the feeling that you’re particularly good when it comes to supporting the whole tech and startup scene.”
Sunglasses that can help save the oceans
Yuma Labs makes sunglasses from recycled PET bottles. The Belgian firm has grown from a one-man startup into a company that manufactures items for other brands as well. But can the firm combine growth with sustainability? At BNP Paribas Fortis we certainly think so.
Yuma Labs (originally named YR Yuma) is the brainchild of Sebastiaan de Neubourg, explains his business partner Lenja Doms. She tells us: "Sebastiaan was working as a consultant, but he was itching to set up his own business. His idea was to use a 3D printer to make sunglasses from recycled plastic. He then found out at first hand why no-one had tried this before. Because it proved to be quite a bit harder than expected,” laughs Lenja.
By 2017 Sebastiaan had a workable prototype and he started a crowdfunding campaign for his sustainable sunglasses. It was an immediate hit. However, the project wasn’t first and foremost about achieving successful sales, reveals Lenja. “Sebastiaan saw the sunglasses primarily as a tool for making people aware of the basic principles of the circular economy. There’s no such thing as waste. A used Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle provides the raw material for a new product, such as a pair of sunglasses.” And to complete the circle, the customer is encouraged to trade the sunglasses back in at the end of their life, in exchange for a new pair at an attractive discount.
Sustainable manufacturing, as Yuma Labs does it, inevitably means that the final product is more expensive. “Fully twice as expensive,” Lenja points out, explaining: “We certainly don’t want to see the circular economy pigeon-holed as the province of the elite. We already take account of the entire life-cycle of a product, and we take responsibility for the recycling and re-use of the materials. And let’s be quite clear about this: that’s more costly than just putting a product on the market without worrying about what happens to it later.”
Aiming for growth
In summer 2019, Lenja Doms and Ronald Duchateau came on board the Yuma team. This provided an opportunity to broaden the focus and look further than the consumer market. This month, Yuma Labs announced a collaborative project with a major fashion company. This upscaling will enable Yuma Labs to reach out to a much larger audience.
A good mix
In order to grow, a business needs financial resources. Yuma Labs has looked into quite a number of possible solutions, says Lenja. “These days there are a lot of initiatives designed to support sustainable businesses – from banks, the government and private investors. We’ve always tried to find the right balance between our own capital and external finance, and to achieve a good mix of different forms of finance between capital, grants and loans.”
Lenja has a golden tip for other businesspeople in the circular economy: "All too often I observe that the economic side of the story is neglected because companies keep on trying to find the perfect solution or the perfect product. There’s no sense in that. You shouldn’t try to be whiter than white.”
Creating added value
At BNP Paribas Fortis, Maxime Prové is the Account Manager for Yuma Labs. He endorses Lenja Doms’ view on this. “Entrepreneurs who set out to do sustainable or social business must also have a desire to create added value, otherwise the business won’t last,” Maxime points out, underlining: “You can’t pursue a sustainable, environmental or social business model unless it’s underpinned by a profit-making scenario. That’s the only way you’ll be able to grow, hire more people and make a greater impact.”
Photo: Karel Hemerijckx
Scale-up concludes mega contract in the midst of the coronavirus crisis
The Antwerp-based scale-up IPEE transforms ordinary toilets into innovative products. BNP Paribas Fortis is more than just the financial partner. IPEE have already come into contact with the right people via the bank’s network several times.
“The traditional urinal has no brain. The infrared eye simply detects that someone is standing in front of the urinal. The result? A lot of wasted water and misery”, says Bart Geraets, who founded IPEE in 2012 together with Jan Schoeters.
The scale-up devised new measuring technology that makes it possible to detect through the ceramic of a urinal when someone is urinating or when the urinal is blocked. With this innovative technology, the scale-up designed urinals that use half as much water and toilets that can be operated without touching them.
“IPEE is an atypical scale-up that innovates in a sector where little has changed in the past few decades”, says Conchita Vercauteren, relationship manager at the BNP Paribas Fortis Innovation Hub.
Jan Schoeters: “At first we mainly focused on durability. But we soon felt that with non-residential applications, the potential water saving is subordinate to the operational aspect. We had to be able to offer added value for each stakeholder in the purchasing process.”
We opted for sleek designs to appeal to architects and end users. The simple installation attracts fitters and maintenance people see the advantages of the sleek design - that is easy to clean - and toilets that do not overflow.
Until 2015, Schoeters and Geraets, along with Victor Claes, an expert in measuring methods and originator of the IPEE technology, put their energy into product development and market research. The financing came mainly from money that they collected in their network of friends, fools and family.
They had to go elsewhere to obtain the funds for production and marketing. Geraets: “We had a product, but it wasn’t ready to sell. To take that step, we needed investors.”
Looking for new investors was a challenge. Schoeters: “We aren’t software developers and we don’t work in a sexy sector. So we miss out with a large target group of investors.”
The young scale-up attracted the attention of Ronald Kerckhaert, who had sold his successful company, Sax Sanitair, at the end of 2015. “He pushed us to think big, more than we dared ourselves. And he never headed for an exit. His express goal was to put our product on the world market”, says Schoeters.
IPEE has achieved impressive growth since then. The product range was expanded and new sectors were broached: educational institutes, office buildings and hospitals. The technology is now used by Kinepolis, Texaco, Schiphol and Changi Airport (Singapore).
“We very soon turned to Asia, because new technology is embraced more quickly there”, Geraets explains. The IPEE technology is distributed in Singapore - where the scale-up has its own sales office - China, Thailand and Vietnam, among other places. About half the turnover comes from abroad, although the coronavirus crisis will leave its mark this year.
“My biggest headache is achieving healthy growth”, says Bart Geraets. One advantage for IPEE is that in coronavirus times, hygiene stands high on the agenda. The scale-up's touchless toilet facilities meet that demand.
At the same time, the shortage of water and the need to use water sparingly is very topical. Geraets: “We notice that in these strange times we are gaining an even bigger foothold. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis we concluded a contract with the world’s biggest manufacture of toilet facilities. Now it’s a matter of further professionalising our business, the personnel policy and the marketing.”
The company’s main bank is an important partner here. Schoeters: “It is more than just a financial organisation. We have already come into contact with the right people via the bank’s network several times. Our bank feels more like a supporter that is also putting its weight behind our story.”