As a former technology journalist and host of a British television series about the Internet, Wingham Rowan discovered the potential for the web to connect people with irregular work availability to employers.
The result is Slivers of Time, an online booking system for paid workers and volunteers. Based in London, the company helps people who need flexible work hours, like students and caregivers, find companies that need their time. Rowan hopes to scale up, bringing in governments to create a large-scale system that helps make the labor market more inclusive in countries like the United States.
I spoke with Rowan this month. Below are excerpts from our interview.
How did you come to do this work?
It goes back to 1994 when the ITV network here wanted to fill their nighttime schedule with fresh content. I went to them and said, 'There's this thing called the internet that's going to be quite big. If we can get in now and start talking about it, people will come on the show and talk about all the adventures they're having on the internet.' That became a show that ran for five years. In parallel with that, I was a member of a think tank. I told them that if the internet takes off, the real impact will be on markets and economic activity. I spent my free time focusing on statistics and economic development. I was crawling all over the internet with the team for those crucial years up to 2000. In parallel to that, I wrote a couple of books about the potential for new online markets.
Now you focus full-time on Slivers of Time. Why is this work important to you?
If you start looking for where the existing market is ineffective for ordinary citizens you come up with this problem that the labor market is just not flexible enough. There are millions of people in a country like Britain that need to work flexibly if they're going to work at all. What do you do if you've got a disabled child and you never know when the child will need you to stay at home? How do you work? People in that situation quickly become isolated. We've heard harrowing stories about people who, for years, have not been able to get out of the house, have had to give up every job because the employer wouldn't let them run off to other priorities. It was about looking in the labor market and saying, 'Can you introduce a very flexible tier if you had a market for spare hours?' It involves sophisticated technology, which we've developed over the last seven years. It now does not only work, but also volunteering and time banking.
How many people fall into this category of flexible workers?
It's a real dark corner of the labor market. Nobody has really researched it before. The reckoning is that in the United Kingdom there are 13.7 million people that need flexible hours at some point within the year. They could be students. They could be parents with complicated childcare needs. They could be the partially employed, people who have a few hours of work each week, but need more. They could be freelancers. There are all these different categories.
What types of companies use employees they find with Slivers of Time?
It varies. Say you run a cafe and you have a lunchtime rush. Retailers have busy times of day. There are cinemas, where you've got a movie that's suddenly doing well, so you need more people to handle the crowds. Think of contact centers, distribution centers. Whenever a new Harry Potter book comes out, there's a huge surge in the distribution industry. Hoteliers that have events going on, the exhibition industry. And even more mundane stuff, like home care, people who transport kids in care to and from the doctor.
How does connecting these two groups impact them and, on a larger scale, the economy?
It has a fantastically multiplying effect. You've got people who need to work, but can't because they have irregular availability. If you are blocked off from the labor market, gone are your skills, your chance to network, your sense of fulfillment. And that's before the cash comes along. It can have an enormous impact once you allow those people into the labor market. It can have a profound effect on their lives and the lives of the people around them.
It could make the economy of a city or a country much more inclusive. At the moment in the United Kingdom, we are going through this huge change. We're moving toward what's called universal credit, which will encourage people to do odd hours of work around their job-seeking. They're not expected to spend all their time job-seeking. There's a kind of recognition that the labor market is having to become more flexible partly because of this problem of people being underemployed. We see that as very much a trend. It's about inclusiveness.
You'd like to scale up this effort. How would that work and who would benefit?
It goes back to this philosophy of modern markets for all. If you imagine Barack Obama woke up tomorrow and said, 'I've got to create jobs, but I'm never going to create as many as I want, so what else can I do? I'm going to focus on all sorts of economic opportunity for my citizens, not just conventional jobs. For that, I've got to get them the best market available.' What then would he do? It's going to have to be a market around time. For most of us, a recurring economic asset is time. That's what an employer pays for. If I can sell you a few hours this week, I can probably sell you a few more next week. Selling my time is the asset you want to unlock for me. And also selling time of my possessions, like a bicycle I'm not using this afternoon. It's how you make that economic activity work. You need fantastically sophisticated markets on par with the ones Wall Street has. To do that, you need certain facilities that the state has.
Is this currently being worked on?
It's in the idea phase, but it's getting attention. Governments do this sort of thing all the time. Throughout history, there have been technologies that have needed a legal framework from the state to achieve their potential. The idea of pumping water out of rivers into houses was invented in about 1830. You needed dams and legislation to stop people from tossing sewage in there. No company could do that, you needed the state. There are all sorts of technologies that went through the same process. They all needed a legal framework. The task is to convince governments to give that framework.
What keeps you up at night as you continue to work on this problem?
It can be a hard sell. There's an assumption that government has to design it, the taxpayer has to fund it. It's not the case. If you look at the national lottery, you get the private sector to run it. It'd be the same here, but it's a message that can easily get lost.
What's next for you and for Slivers of Time?
We'd like to partner with big players in the technology community. We want to engage with think tanks and policymakers in countries that are thinking through these kinds of issues.
Photo: Wingham Rowan