Local Tech Platforms Uncover Neighborhood Secrets

Digital platforms can help users discover local services and vendors, even in big cities like New York.

Online platforms can help users discover local services and specialty vendors, even in big cities like New York.

When the favorite dog groomer and sitter for our family’s timid and particular Maltese left town one week before we were headed overseas, finding a replacement quickly became a household priority. We had no dog care referrals and there was little time to vet the unexplored options. What to do? Being digitally-minded, we decided to turn to Yelp. It helped us quickly identify a groomer/sitter less than a mile away who specializes in Malteses. People in more and more communities are experiencing similar successes.

Some expected that off-shoring and consequent “big box” low-prices would be the death knell for local businesses. Now that narrative is shifting, as online digital platforms are enabling individuals and small businesses to act like large ones, connecting with suppliers and customers wherever they may reside. Technology platforms have made it easy and cost-effective for an individual in New York to buy a single scarf from a knitter in Omaha or for a small manufacturer of rugged messenger bags—like Rickshaw or Timbuk2—to produce to order for individual customers anywhere.

Hometown producers and consumers alike now have global reach. But do they want it?

Judging from an unscientific observational study of commuters flowing up from a Bay Area rail station, locally made Timbuk2 and Rickshaw bags are predominant in their home market. Heightened awareness of the financial, social, environmental, and cultural costs of global sourcing has extended the “buy local”  movement beyond food to consumer goods and services. The idea is that to do so will build more sustainable small economies and reduce the ecological damage caused by transporting products great distances. Renewed enthusiasm for community participation, personalization, and customization is reinforcing the local sourcing trend.

A number of platforms have emerged to enhance the appeal of local consumption. Historically a similar “platform” function might have been played by the corner coffee shop, the neighborhood bar, the church, the club, the union hall, the school, or the grocery store bulletin board. Long before mobile and social technologies came on the scene, however, the influence and relevance of those community platforms was diminishing.

But as our existence moves more into the virtual realm, we seem to more fully appreciate the experience of the physical. Look at the popularity of farmers’ markets, local crafts markets, cafes, libraries, and town square music series. As farmer’s markets have boomed in urban areas nationwide, they have drawn not just local farmers, but bakers and jam makers, juicers and tamale ladies, crafters, jewelry designers, and musicians.

Think of today’s local sourcing movement as physical access assisted and amplified by technology. Even as people of all ages wandering the Saturday farmer’s market revel in socializing (bumping into neighbors, interrogating family farmers) and discovery (new peach varieties, crunchy artisanal snacks), they aren’t moving away from technology. If anything they’re moving toward it, using smartphones to capture and share their finds and to seek out the farm stand featured in last week’s magazine. It isn’t physical or virtual, but both. Meet-ups—where individuals use an online platform to arrange for a physical gathering of like-minded individuals to pursue learning and business opportunities in a social setting—are another manifestation of this technology-assisted physical platform.

From Sitter City to Yelp to NextDoor, local platforms are bringing attention to local assets and resources that might otherwise remain secret, at least to the casual and risk-averse or those too busy to invest time and energy in discovery. These platforms go beyond the random new hotspot tip from a friend to provide ratings services, tailored recommendation engines, and referrals.

One important way that local platforms help is by highlighting  the social resources that exist nearby. The concept popularized by Foursquare engages technology and knowledge of your location to inform users when services and people they like are nearby.

Local platforms can also make the unfamiliar seem more familiar, or even friendly. Virtual platforms are portable. When you move or travel to a new city, Yelp helps you find services and destinations, but platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook let you maintain contact with friends and colleagues in your former location while leveraging those connections to make new ones that might be more relevant in the new job or location. Traveling for work, a consultant can check in and discover what her colleagues had found interesting in Chicago, or learn that an old college friend or office acquaintance happens to be at a nearby Starbucks.

There is something to be said for matching the platform to the need and locale. Ideally, the users of our local platforms are like-minded enough to provide ratings and reviews that are useful, but different enough to have knowledge of venues and services we haven’t yet discovered on our own. NextDoor makes recommendations in nearby neighborhoods, where people tend to have similar houses, similar pest problems, and similar needs for mid-day dog-walking services. Using NextDoor you might learn the name of the piano teacher whose window you lingered at to hear music on a spring evening; you could hear of a community effort to install a stop sign at the intersection where you witness near-misses every day; or you might unload your used patio furniture on a new family three blocks away even as you discover someone three doors down to share a load of mulch.

The rise of the sharing economy also hinges on these virtual platforms. In the old days, if you didn’t know someone who had a specific tool you could borrow, you were out of luck. Now there are platforms to help you root out an idle ice cream maker or drywall saw in your neighborhood. The net effect of these local sharing platforms will be to help increase the utilization of physical possessions, once again feeding the broader social desire to avoid waste and reduce environmental impact.

But back to our dog. Services like Yelp, which helped us, or all these other community innovations are great news for pet owners and consumers and independent service providers of any type everywhere. We think this is just the beginning for marshalling local resources to deal with challenges that may be either hyper-local or global.

John Hagel III, director in Deloitte Consulting LLP, is the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge based in Silicon Valley. John Seely Brown is the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge.

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