The co-founder of the global holiday rental service on the future of design and his new philanthropic project
The home rental service Airbnb began life as a way of co‑founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky making their rent. Since its official launch in August 2008, it has developed into a global business, transforming the way people travel and, more fundamentally, how they view their living spaces. Soon, 100 million people will have used Airbnb. Icon spoke to Gebbia about his early years studying design, how the object is no longer important, and his new landmark philanthropic project, #withrefugees.
ICON You studied industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design. Did you ever harbour ambitions to create some kind of Eamesian masterpiece?
JOE GEBBIA When I was studying, I did want to work on something that could achieve scale and improve people’s lives, but there was a seminal moment in the second year at school when they took all the industrial design students to the Rhode Island state landfill. It was like driving through a canyon of trash and it was demoralising. Here I was, so excited to learn the craft of product design but, oh my god, do I really want to be creating more stuff in the world that is just contributing to making landfills bigger? That was the beginning of what I would call designer’s guilt, and it planted a pretty deep seed in me. I didn’t know how to resolve it right away – I certainly toiled with it. What Airbnb represents is a form of design that not only doesn’t create stuff in the world, but helps people think differently about the stuff they already have. It helps people reimagine the excess they have in their lives, and how they can repurpose it in a more useful way.
ICON Are services and systems rather than products where you see the big game-changing moves being made when it comes to design?
JG I feel like the playing field has levelled, to the degree where technology is no longer a differentiator – Google, Samsung and Apple all have access to the same suppliers around the world. The differentiator is the experience that somebody has with the technology. To me, that is why design has come on the scene so hard in the past couple of years. What was interesting back in 2008, when we were trying to raise money to fund Airbnb, was how investors didn’t trust a founding team with two designers and one engineer. It was so improbable that it just didn’t fit a success formula of the companies before us. They were usually technologists, computer scientists and maybe a sales guy as the founding team. That was one of the other reasons why we weren’t able to raise money.
ICON Are designers now in the room?
JG Design is now an asset on a founding team. [When we approached him], Paul Graham from start-up funder Y-Combinator said: ‘I never funded a team that had two designers at the founding core level.’ He took a bet on us, and now he looks for it when he’s funding programmes or companies. All the big players out here in the world of venture capital have come to us over the years, looking for advice on how they can better spot designers at the founding-team level. If we can’t differentiate through a faster processor or a brighter screen, how can we differentiate? I feel like the answer is in making design that is easier to use. If I had two devices in my hand, the one that’s easier to use will be the one people choose, if all other things are equal.
ICON So design, for you, is not even about the object itself anymore?
JG I think the power of good design is the feeling it gives to people, and that exists in the space between you and the object. That’s what we’re moving towards – something that’s even less about aesthetics. For example, Google’s Pixel phone looks pretty close to the iPhone. In a dark room, you might get confused as to which is which.
Airbnb’s offices in San Francisco’s SoMA neighbourhood
ICON There has been a backlash against Airbnb in certain cities, certainly in Europe. I wondered what you made of that?
JG With any new idea, if you trace it back to its roots, it didn’t always start exactly that way. It matured over time and got better. We have an incredibly iterative and creative process so that when we start to see groups in certain cities using properties to manage a lot of different homes, we can respond and create policies around that to de-activate and remove certain types of properties. We’ve removed thousands of listings around the world. But, at the end of the day, we believe the world is ready for this idea. A hundred million people have used it: I feel like that’s proof that the world is ready for this.
ICON Do you foresee a moment when we might design our cities with sharing in mind?
JG In short, yes. But I also think there are cities and spaces that are already thinking this way. There are many examples over centuries of how people have experienced shared living, going back to tribes living in villages. More recently, places like Denmark have intentionally designed for shared living. The country has hundreds of co-housing communities with shared facilities and good social interaction. Another one of my favorite examples is the Sawaman apartment building in Kochi City, Japan. The apartment complex is considered a five-storey do-it-yourself structure that has been shaped over time by the people living there. The structure is constantly evolving as tenants add and subtract rooms, and create new gardens and green spaces.
There are some known trends that will affect how we live. By 2050, 66 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban city centres. This density will demand smarter ways of living and space utilisation that will have to be figured out. The other side of that trend is decreasing rural populations. This is already happening in a number of countries, and how we adapt – from architecture to city planning – will define the future of urban spaces.
Satellite imagery of the Hagadera refugee camp south of Dadaab, Kenya in 2014
ICON Tell me about the refugees project.
JG One of my software engineers showed me a graph of the 65 million displaced people today; according to UN data, in 2044 the number will be 300 million. Not only is this problem not going away, it is getting worse. We tried to identify what it would take to help refugees stay with Airbnb hosts, which is very hard to do. There are so many different agencies and policies involved in housing a refugee that it is anything but a cut-and-dried process. We have four people working on this project full-time: two software engineers, a designer and an architect. They’re creating a product to serve the needs of a population that doesn’t have what I would call top-tier design and engineering talent building things for them.
The team has been out to Jordan, Greece and Macedonia, to the razor-wire fences and in the tents with families, to really understand what the challenges are. I had a chance to go to the largest camp in Africa – 350,000 people in Dadaab camp in Kenya. You get incredible insights into what people are actually going through. From that, we were able to map the refugee experience from end to end: from the time of conflict and displacement, to the journey they take, to the resettlement of landing in a new place, to questions of how they might integrate, get a job and plug into the social and civic systems of the place that they are now in. We could start to identify two areas where we could have the most impact: the first was helping house refugees in Airbnb homes. The second was an opportunity that emerged in Jordan.
ICON What was different about Jordan?
JG The problem with Syrian refugees in Jordan is the government doesn’t want to give a job to a refugee that a Jordanian national could have. We found an exception, though, which is that if a Syrian refugee could provide an experience to travellers coming, for example, to Amman and get paid for it, they could get a job permit as result, which is incredibly hard to get. We already have a pilot scheme that allows our hosts to offer experiences to guests. We have hosts in Paris and San Francisco who offer, for example, walking tours of the Marais or cooking classes with a Michelin star chef who’s also a host on our site. We’ve brought that model to Amman. We have about 30 experienced hosts – some of them are Syrian refugees that live in Amman, who offer things like Middle Eastern cooking classes, belly dancing or designing, building and then flying kites at the Citadel over sunset. This will be a way for refugees to find livelihoods for themselves.
ICON How does the financial model for the refugee project work? Is it purely a philanthropic exercise?
JG We don’t take fee on the refugee initiatives, that’s not the point. It’s about doing the right thing. The refugee programmes are building on the generosity that already exists in our community, allowing us a path towards our mission of belonging and adapting what we’ve already created to do the right thing.
ICON I read a quote on the Airbnb website that said, ‘The journey is long’, which suggests a destination of some kind. What is that destination?
JG We’re digging in. Airbnb has been going for nine years, but I would not call it an overnight success. There are other tech companies – Facebook, YouTube – that flipped a switch and took off like a rocket ship. Ours has been very slow, then all of a sudden there was a take-off moment. I think it’s just a recognition that good design – digging into the layers between a thing and a person, and the relationships that exist between them – takes time to figure out. That innovation that happens in the space between humans and objects, design as a differentiator – all that takes a certain patience.