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Airbnb's Joe Gebbia talks about running a design-driven company

Design dialogue

Airbnb’s design thinking: Looking at the modern model of philanthropy and how architecture can generate a deeper connection between guests and hosts

Airbnb's your classic Silicon Valley rags-to-riches story. What started as a weekend experiment to save two housemates' rising cost of rental morphed into a global movement, operating in over 65,000 cities in 191 countries, with three million listings and over 200 million users. In 2007, after two broke Rhode Island School of Design Fine Arts graduates realised they could no longer afford their apartment, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky inflated an airbed in their living room and rented the space to guests who couldn't secure a hotel reservation. These weren't your regular guests — they were attendees of a major design conference in San Francisco, who came packed with insights and of course, contacts. That same night, Gebbia and Chesky coined the name, 'Airbed & Breakfast'. After creating a site, emailing design blogs and buying two more air mattresses, they managed to keep the apartment. Airbnb was born.

Gebbia's now the chief product officer of the company that has changed the way travellers think about accommodation. In Singapore for the Brainstorm Design conference at Singapore Design Week, the 36-year-old was tasked to speak about running a design-driven company. Although many look towards Airbnb as a hospitality service provider, it's worth calling out that they've very much in the intersection between art and science. While Gebbia and Chesky are creatives with solid product sense and graphic design knowledge, their other co-founder, Nathan Blecharczyk, is a computer science graduate from Harvard. They're also what you'd call 'design thinkers'.

Joe Gebbia at Brainstorm Design

"To me, it's about how you think about the layer between you and whatever you're designing, and the technology and person accessing that technology," answered Gebbia when asked to define what design thinking really is. To design a platform that reaches so many geographies and cultures, the challenge the trio faced was specific. How do you design a two-sided marketplace on the Internet, coupled with the need to engineer behaviour change? 10 years ago, people weren't willing to stay at other people's homes in such a scale. 

Next came new sectors within Airbnb such as trips, which offer experiences other than homes. In February, they introduced another category, Airbnb Plus. Later in the year, they're planning to roll out more incentives for Superhosts, and will introduce the concept of Superguests as well. It's a steady growth that's juggled with pressing issues such as legal pushback from each country's respective legislation, accusations of guest discrimination and safety.

Besides product updates, Airbnb has also gone beyond the call of their day-to-day business. "It's more than just writing a cheque, but actually taking whatever it is you're good at as a company, and actually going out to the world and solve problems that can benefit from whatever your talents are," explained Gebbia. Airbnb's expertise? Community-building. Since 2012, they've located emergency housing for people affected by more than 90 natural disasters in 20 countries, beginning with Hurricane Sandy in New York City. Open Homes, a program they launched last year, is targeting to help 100,000 refugees find a home during interim periods in the span of five years. Samara, an internal design and innovation lab within Airbnb also experiments with architecture to build a modern model of philanthropy.

Yoshino Cedar House

Samara's first project saw them heading to the Nara prefecture in Japan, in a town called Yoshino. A rapidly aging town where seven out of eight homes are empty, Yoshino's a window into Japan's declining population problem, spurred by the younger generations moving to the city where the jobs are. Thanks to a meeting of minds pushed by Japanese designer Kenya Hara, Gebbia met with Tokyo-based architect Go Hasegawa to build a shared home that responded to the problems faced by such a shrinking rural population.

"The future of a shared home is not really about technology," said Gebbia when he was asked what his vision of a future home was, "but how can you use architecture to generate a deeper connection between a guest and a host?" Taking inspiration from the locale's identity (Yoshino's one of the birth places of wood craftsmanship in Japan), the Yoshino Cedar House was born, made entirely out of cedar wood. Its first floor is a multi-use space — with a kitchen, living room and dining room — that also functions as a community centre for the village. A small architectural detail — the front porch — also resembles a public bench where people who pass by are encouraged to rest and have some tea. There's no individual host as the villagers take turns, flipping Airbnb's model on its head.

Craftsmen working on Yoshino Cedar House

"You open the sliding doors and inside is the smell of some green tea on the stove, and there's people in your living room," Gebbia described of the experience, which doesn't get any more local than this. "There are the washi paper makers, the one who runs the local sake brewery and the one who runs the local chopstick factory."

Proceeds from the guest's stay go back to the village. Since its inception last year, the property has brought more than $150,000 with tourists providing income for local craftsmen and artisans. It's a benchmark to demonstrate how Japan can solve the problem of empty homes — according to Gebbia, there are a total of eight million empty homes in the entire country. Hopefully, it'll result in a ripple effect that will see more homes being repurposed.

Civita, Italy

When the Yoshino Cedar House proved successful, another call came through — this time, it was from the 3,000-year-old Italian village of Civita, home to a population of just 10 people. After seeing what Airbnb had done to Yoshino, the villagers worked with local artisans and designers to restore parts of a historic building. Just like that, everything old is now new again, backed by a design-driven company that puts people and communities at the heart of what they do. 

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Text: Adibah Isa

  • Image:
    Airbnb,
    Stefen Chow for Fortune/Brainstorm Design
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