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Are we ready for an ‘on-demand’ economy?

This new economy is changing entire industries, but some say it’s moving too fast.

We may be living in a material world, but we’re also living in an on-demand world — where we can purchase or rent things at the swipe of a finger. Soon we’ll be able to order what we want, when we want, via drones or self-driving cars.

The on-demand economy uses technology to provide for the immediate provisioning of goods and services. Perhaps the most recognizable names to date in this new economic world order are Uber and Airbnb, which have turned their respective industries upside-down, changing consumer expectations.

Transforming industries

Uber, for example, has been so successful (despite burning through cash and facing a few lawsuits) because people got tired of calling cab companies and waiting anywhere from five to 20 minutes for a car to show up. Sometimes the cabbie wouldn’t accept credit cards, so you’d anxiously watch the meter tick upwards, hoping you had enough cash in your wallet to foot the bill.

Uber flipped that model on its head, so you can quickly scan available cars on its mobile app, see exactly when your car is going to arrive and how much the ride will cost, and even see how your driver is rated by other customers.

On-demand companies like Uber and Airbnb have transformed entire industries — from transportation to hospitality and food service — by creating new business models, using technology on top of existing infrastructure.

This provides new ways for old industries to transform and make themselves relevant to consumers again. It also puts power back in consumers’ hands, making customer service matter. Don’t like a particular on-demand service? No problem. There are several others to choose from.

Too much of a good thing

But there’s something to be said about too much of a good thing. This always-on connectivity takes a toll on our lives, both personally and professionally. And some argue it’s unsustainable.

Most people these days own a smartphone — if you don’t, people look at you like you’re living in the Dark Ages — and that’s led to ‘always-on’ access. Consider how many ways people can get in touch with you, from email and messaging apps to social media sites. It blurs the line between our work and personal lives, allowing people to contact you anytime, anywhere — with the expectation you’ll respond immediately, even if it’s midnight on a Saturday.

“The phenomenon of constant connectivity has intruded into people’s lives to a degree that for many has become unbearable,” said Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic, a professor at UNSW Business School, in an article for Business Think. A research paper she co-authored found there’s a growing expectation for professionals to be constantly connected and available — but this has negative implications for their health and well-being, and even their ability to do their jobs properly.

The on-demand economy has opened the door to real-time fulfillment, which has arguably made our lives easier and more convenient. On the other hand, the need for always-on access is making it near impossible to find downtime and recharge our brains. We’re more distracted than ever and there’s constant pressure to increase productivity.

Economic activity is flourishing with on-demand tech, but are we going to be able to keep up?

While the on-demand economy isn’t going to disappear, some believe the hyper-growth we’re seeing isn’t sustainable — and that many on-demand businesses won’t survive.

The end of customer loyalty?

One of the biggest issues in an on-demand economy is that consumers feel no inherent loyalty to a specific brand when there are similarly priced offerings, according to Sunil Rajaraman, a Bay Area-based tech entrepreneur and writer, in a blog post on Quartz.

“For example, if you want groceries delivered to your house, do you really care if you receive the goods from Amazon Prime, Google Shopping Express or Instacart?” he says. “If you have a single bad experience with one service, you’ll likely switch to another — there’s no shortage of them for you to try out, after all, and there are always new ones cropping up with cheap sign-up offers.”

Customer loyalty isn’t the only issue. In an on-demand economy, people aren’t ‘hired’ by a company but work as independent contractors. And there isn’t much incentive for an independent contractor to stay loyal to one on-demand company over another. Eventually, they could be replaced altogether by drones and self-driving cars — but that’s a whole other topic.

The on-demand economy, however, isn’t going to disappear. That means employers, employees and consumers alike need to set boundaries and manage always-on expectations (which is, of course, easier said than done). My guess is that productivity, loyalty and quality of life will be better off when there are boundaries around connectivity and access.

We may be living in an on-demand world, but sometimes we just need to be off.

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Vawn Himmelsbach

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. She has covered technology and travel for 15 years, for media outlets such as, The Globe & Mail, Metro News, ITBusiness, PCworld Canada and Computerworld Canada. She also spent three years living abroad and working as an Asian correspondent.

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