PMD Ban and Why Food Delivery Apps are Like Washing Machines

As the controversy over PMD ban continues, I have a few other observations to make as a result of it - about the government and about the public - and the underappreciation of innovation. I rarely (if ever) say a bad word about Singaporean authorities, because they seem to avoid really big mistakes. Yes, you can find some faults if you really wanted to - but who doesn't stumble sometimes?

That said, I think the PMD ban is a rare case of bureaucracy (usually uncommon in SG) that got blindsided by reality.

Frankly, I'm pretty sure that those who decided on the ban have never ordered food using one of the mobile apps. I also do not think that they actually walk around the city much. Of course it's not surprising - high ranking politicians have neither the time nor need for this. Some of them might be jogging or cycling around but I think that's where their interactions with the outside world usually end (the same is true for every country).

I also think that many people treat food delivery apps merely as modern iteration of an old service rather than a groundbreaking innovation that's changing the world.

Food delivery still seems to be perceived as an optional service, a little extra that you may use once in a while when you really need to. Much as if it was a pizza delivery of old - you'd order it maybe when you had friends over but surely wouldn't use it every day.

For the same reason a lot of people in the broad public appear to be looking down on delivery drivers. "What sort of a job is it anyway? They should improve their skills and so something else!"

Finally, everybody was quite annoyed with and frightened of PMDs on footpaths, which are clearly unfit for the growing traffic. So people were generally unhappy about PMDs, many riders have been quite reckless and nobody seems to appreciate the service - so it has become a politically sensitive topic, prompting the authorities to act.

These things converged and led to the sudden, overnight ban, which restricted the devices from footpaths but in the absence of viable alternative routes, effectively rendered them useless.

It seems nobody in the government expected such a big backlash, while the public has only just learned how many people depend on a pretty good income derived from food deliveries.

Still, the proposals of helping the riders change profession by various upskilling programs betray a certain blindness to the shift that is happening before our eyes thanks to food delivery apps.

In a lot of ways it's one of the final chapters of the transformation of traditional family model, where roles used to be separated - with men providing means of survival and women providing services like cleaning or cooking for family members.

This arrangement has undergone a tectonic shift in the middle of last century, with the advent of home appliances - most importantly the washing machine.

Before automatic washing machines have become a basic equipment in most households, an entire day (or more) at least once or twice a month would be devoted to washing clothes by hand. It was a demanding job and hasn't exactly produced ideal results (which is why the world of old didn't smell very nice).

Automation reduced the burden to mere hours, freeing women from one of the biggest chores (washing dishes was next, thanks to dishwashers) and was a stepping stone in allowing them to join the workforce - since their obligations at home have drastically shrunk, enabling them to pursue real careers rather than work as full-time caretakers, cleaners and cooks.

It changed our societies and our economies, and was one of the phenomenons that defined the modern world we live in today.

That said, one area where - despite plenty of innovation - not that much has changed is cooking. We need to eat, it's our most basic need. And no matter how good your fridge or oven are, they can't exactly do it for you. Yes, they have simplified the process of storage and preparation but it still takes considerable time to get your meal done.

Depending on the country - and Singapore is a big one in that respect - people may choose eat out instead (hawker centers here definitely help). However, even dining in public is not the most streamlined process - you can only have whatever you're close to (so choice is relatively limited), you are forced to go there, queue up in peak hours (often in sweat inducing heat) only to grab a bowl of rice or soup.

And here arrive the food apps.

Thanks to them you effectively have a multi-cuisine menu right in your phone. You can order a meal even at weird hours, from much larger distances that you would normally be happy to commute across. It takes a few taps and then you can do whatever it is you want or need to, while the preparation and delivery are done for you. All for a few bucks extra (with a monthly subscription bringing it down to cents).

The need for cooking at home has very nearly been obliterated - and I'm certain the selection of foods and specialization of restaurants will only progress with time.

In the meanwhile, companies running the services optimize the delivery time and storage of food to make sure it arrives as quickly and in as good condition as possible (I'm sure that will improve as well).

It means that you can have practically anything, anywhere at almost any time, without the need to do shopping, make a mess in your kitchen and spend hours actually cooking (and then eating the same damn thing for a week, because why make only one portion while you're at it?).

Personally, I use Grab Food 30 to 40 times a month - basically, more than once per day. I usually eat some cereal for breakfast (no hassle) and perhaps make myself some eggs on toast (very little hassle and cost). But for lunch and dinner I rely on restaurants.

It takes a minute to order something, I have an enormous choice and once I confirm the request I can get back to work, waiting for the doorbell to ring.

This produces extensive optimization across many areas of the economy.

Firstly - I don't waste my time and can use it to do what I want or need to do, instead of being forced to go to a supermarket or a food joint to get food. At the same time, I have a broad choice of dishes that I would normally never be able to prepare at home. It also reduces waste (how much food gets thrown out because we no longer fancy it after a few days in the fridge?).

Secondly - restaurants can focus on maximizing their output, which is no longer limited by available seating space. How many times have you had to eat at a different place because your first choice was crowded? With food delivery the best places can serve a lot more people without restriction renting large space to accommodate and provide service to them brings.

In fact, I think in the future we may see a rise of delivery-only restaurants, which will be able to rent cheap kitchen space and focus on making great food, instead of paying through the nose for prime location in public areas, malls etc. Quality will go up - prices will go down.

Thirdly - food delivery apps have created extremely flexible employment arrangements, allowing people to decide how much they want to work and earn. This is probably something that is least appreciated by most members of the society who believe stable - i.e. highly fixed - working conditions are something to strive for.

But for many people they are not - whether due to personal preferences or various other reasons that prevent them from taking up permanent jobs.

It means that thousands can earn an income they would normally be deprived of as they cannot commit to stricter employment rules. Even part-time jobs require you to show up and work an X amount of time for the employer. But there are no minimum thresholds for food delivery. If you want to you can work 2 hours today, 3 hours tomorrow and 10 hours on the weekend. Of course there are perks for the most efficient and hardworking people, what incentivizes them to put in the effort.

It's perfectly possible to make $2000-3000 per month doing deliveries. Some people have pulled in even $4000 or more, while others are happy with a side income of $1000. Everybody earns as much as they are willing - or able - to work. Why should anybody dictate them they should do something else?

Which is why all the talk of retraining or upskilling is pointless - these people enjoy the opportunities their jobs are giving them and their work provides a meaningful, valuable service to many others, all in all improving productivity of the entire economy.

Delivery riders are like worker ants, zipping across the city, shipping chunks food from one place to another, optimizing the performance of the entire society as a result.

So the focus of the political leaders should be on how to adapt to the new reality, how to ensure safety for both pedestrians and riders, and instead of discouraging them or suggesting other employment, how to make their work even more efficient.

Unlike what many believe, it does not condemn your professional life - quite the contrary. Most people employed by the food apps are young, often students, who can accumulate savings from this side income and turn them into something more valuable in the future. Because most young people - regardless of their diplomas - are underskilled and often lack access to money, such flexible employment can be a springboard allowing them to accumulate seed capital either for further education or entrepreneurship.

Others may lack currently employable skills and just fill their time while looking for a permanent job by bringing you your burger or pasta. Somebody else may choose to make a few bucks extra on the weekends, to take his family on holidays or pay for a better school for kids.

So before you want to be judgmental about them, do consider that they may very well be quite smart in doing this - especially as countless others keep sitting on their butts whining that somebody should simply give them a better job or more money.

Delivery apps allow you to maximize the financial output from the time you have available, with very few strict commitments to the employer and with extremely basic skill requirements. In other words - anybody can do it.

And because of that this fairly simple technological advance has become one of the most innovative liberators of the people - much like the washing machine freed millions of women and transformed the world forever.