Let the hunger games begin: UberEats, the Uber for food delivery, has launched in London

Deliveroo deliverers. Image: Getty.

In my humble opinion, one of the best things about living in a city is that, with a few jabs at my phone, I can order most sorts of food directly to wherever I am. No calling and painstakingly reading out numbers from a paper menu. No leaving the house. No changing into respectable outdoor clothes.  

And over time, the number of ways to do so has increased dramatically. Takeaway mainstay JustEat was joined in London by Deliveroo in 2013, healthy food delivery service Pronto launched in 2014, Belgian start-up Take Eat Easy arrived this year – and this month, London becomes the 18th city to be served by Uber’s new food delivery app, UberEats.

Here’s your need-to-know:

1. No, you won’t share your next Uber ride with a pizza – UberEats will be delivered by bikes and scooters, not cabs.

2. You can't get it through the main Uber app it's a separate app called "UberEats". 

3. It’s launching with 150 restaurants on its books, from chains like Chilango and Hummus Bros to independent restaurants like Borough Market’s Fish!.

4. For now, you can only order to central London.

5. For now, there is no delivery fee, usually set at around £2-£3 by competitors. 

6. There’s no minimum order – this is unusual, as most delivery services and restaurants set a minimum of £15 or so…

7. ...and if your order costs £20 or less and takes more than half an hour to come, UberEats gives you £20 credit towards your next meal.

These last three points would ring alarm bells on any business plan. It's notoriously difficult to make delivery services profitable, and Deliveroo relies heavily on its partnerships with massive, popular chains like Nandos to make it work.

By not charging a fee, having no minimum order (you could, technically, order a can a Coke from a restaurant and nothing more) and giving out cash for late deliveries, Uber probably stands to lose money on the service, at least at first. 


Will those tricky margins have an effect on wages? Hard to say, but it's unlikely Uber will be handing out generous paychecks in these circumstances.

Uber's business model here appears to rely on killing the competition, even if it hits Uber financially – then ramping up delivery prices and times once it’s eaten (sorry) into Deliveroo and other competitors' business. 

So how easy will that be? A Business Insider piece reporting on Pronto’s launch noted that most restaurants were happy to send out food via multiple delivery services, though rising numbers may tax their patience. It would certainly be within the services’ interests to sign exclusivity deals with certain outlets or chains. 

UberEats may also need to lure riders from other services to meet demand. An Evening Standard preview of the service used a courier who said she previously worked for Deliveroo, but preferred UberEats’ “flexibility”. Yet riders working for either Uber or Deliveroo have few labour rights – and, at Deliveroo at least, wages below the London Living Wage. As with Uber’s car drivers, riders for both companies are described as “contractors” rather than employees.

The on-demand economy presents the lure of flexible working times to drivers and low prices and convenience to customers, but it revokes everything from holiday pay to job security in the process. As the UberEats launch shows, it's a race to the bottom in terms of price and convenience – and we need to make sure that isn’t taken out on those bringing us the bacon.

 
 
 
 

Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”