Q&A: Zipcar founder Robin Chase on open source and the collaboration economy

robin chase
Credit: liftconferencephotos/flickr

Sharing is the "path of greatest value creation," says Chase.


Robin Chase is a transportation entrepreneur known for founding the transportation related companies such as Zipcar, Buzzcar and Veniam. She wears many hats and is an inspiration to women all around the globe. She is also a strong supporter of Open Source and Open Collaborative technologies. She recently authored a book called Peers Inc: How People and Platforms Are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism. Chase will be delivering a keynote at the upcoming LinuxCon event.

In this email interview with ITworld's Swapnil Bhartiya, Chase talks about her new book, her LinuxCon talk, and the economy-shifting movement brought on by the power of collaboration.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Robin Chase: Three little known facts: 1) I like to knit with patterns I make up myself, a nice quiet challenge involving resources on hand and my skill. 2) I used to like to garden but now I’m never home, so what little time I spend at it is before breakfast/heat weeding which is still satisfying. 3) I love engineers (married to one, many others I admire).

You will be speaking at LinuxCon this year in Seattle. Can you tell us about about the focus of your talk?

Chase: Over the last few years I’ve stumbled across a new way to look at a lot of the company-building activity that is going on today. Zipcar was my first foray in to this new structure that I call Peers Inc: excess capacity + platforms for participation + a diversity of peers. I just wrote a book about this called Peers Inc. As I was writing, I realized that the Free and Open Source Software movement is one such example. My hope for the talk is to put FOSS into a larger economy-shifting movement that is going on worldwide. Linux is a wonderful example of what is possible.

You founded Zipcar and Veniam and both have some collaborative element to them. What attracts you towards such open collaborative systems?

Chase: I stumbled on the power of collaboration with Zipcar, and since then I have been completely enamored with it. I love the idea of collaboratively built infrastructure that is collaboratively financed. Zipcar today has a network of 13,000 cars parked across North America and Europe that exists because we each have pooled our little bit of demand, which finances the cars.

In fact, it was while at a conference, that an important and life-changing connection happened for me (yay conferences!). I gave a talk about the way Zipcar built a community of people without ever actually seeing its members in real life. Immediately after me was David Reed (of Reed’s Law and the end-to-end-principle) who talked about mesh networking, a community of networks.

Veniam, which I co-founded in 2012, is the child of my love affair with mesh networking first inspired way back in 2003. Veniam is building the networking fabric that will support the Internet of Things. Our netrider box turns vehicles into WIFI hotspots by combining three radio frequencies: cellular, WIFI, and 802.11p (vehicle to vehicle).

Have you been involved with open source or Linux development or communities

Chase: I’ve been a big supporter of FOSS, open spectrum, open devices, and preserving an open Internet over the years. I testified before Congress once, and have written an oped or two on the subject.

Are there any open source or Linux technologies being used by Zipcar or Veniam.

Chase: Zipcar based all its systems on Open Source technology when initially developed between 1999 and 2006 when I left.  I think they still use the same platform but I don't know for sure.

Early on we used open source PostgreSQL database though we switched to Oracle after a few years.  All the systems were Linux on the server side and we used an open source web server called AOLServer for many years, with front ends to that of various Linux tools.

At Veniam we use a lot of open source tools and platforms, from OpenWRT variant of Linux for our embedded systems to Node.js, MySQL, MongoDB, Redis, and many others on the server side.

What role do you think Open Source plays in a capitalistic society like ours, or at a global scale?

Chase: As hinted at above, I see the open source movement as a prime example of the huge transition the world is going through. Because the Internet connects assets, people, and ideas it now makes much more sense to SHARE those things because that is the path of greatest value creation.

We have a new organizational structure that is completely transforming how we build businesses, how we work, and therefore how we shape economies. I call this new paradigm Peers Inc. I love the headline of a book review that got posted on Amazon yesterday (by someone I don’t know). She called it “A New World’s Manifesto.” Linux and FOSS are an important part and enabler of this transformation.

Do you think that the 'open source' model, which is more about sharing knowledge and building on top of each other's work, goes beyond software development? How can such open collaboration change our world?

Chase: Ha! I’m going to leave you in suspense. 1) Hear my keynote at LinuxCon or 2) read the book! :-)

We don't see many women in the IT field, what do you think is the root cause and what needs to be done to improve the situation?

Chase: Lots of roots. The way we teach girls to think that they are good at certain things and not others. The way we actually teach STEM. The way the boy’s club/culture permits and encourages bad behavior that can be mean and exclusionary. Not every male engineer falls into this category, as noted above, there are many male engineers I really really like and admire. But the problems are both structural (which we can solve) and cultural (for which men have make some of that change onto themselves).

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