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Inside Airbnb’s Innovation and Design Lab

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Hosts share their homes with strangers. Can Samara help them solve the refugee crisis?

Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia and Cameron Sinclair, flanked by colleagues (Getty Images)

Hi Backchannel readers,

It’s Jessi, reporting this week from the Near Future Summit in San Diego, California. Yesterday, I ran into Cameron Sinclair, the blond-haired Brit who has been building homes, schools, and clinics for those displaced by war and natural disasters since 1999. I hadn’t heard about him in a while, so I was surprised to see he was speaking this week on behalf of his new employer, Airbnb.

A year and a half ago, Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia hired him on to be part of a stealth innovation and design studio run out of a separate building not far from Airbnb’s campus. Airbnb quietly announced the lab, dubbed “Samara” after the winged dry fruit that carries a seed safely from a tree, last August. As best I can figure, this is the company’s version of Google X, an R&D outfit tasked with taking on the projects of most ambition and import.

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As head of social innovation and community development, Sinclair has been trying to find ways for Airbnb to connect refugees with housing. It’s really what he’s been working on for his entire career, and since Sinclair started, the need has exploded. Consider that in 2000, there were 20 million refugees in the world. Today there are 65 million. Thanks to climate change and manmade disasters, by the year 2047, Sinclair said there would be 325 million people displaced from their homes. For context, that’s roughly the size of the entire US population.

The resettlement process for refugees isn’t quick, even at its best. It takes an average of 17 years for a person displaced from her home to settle into a new community. Sinclair’s team tapped many resources, including the US State Department, to figure out where Airbnb could be most useful. Sinclair told us that very often, housing options in the US fall through by the time a refugee family arrives, and the government often pays top dollar to put families up in hotels. Said Sinclair, “We spend $40 million in tax money a year for refugees to spend their first nights in our country in a crap motel by the airport.”

So, Sinclair’s team thought, we can get Airbnb hosts to volunteer a warm first welcome to the country instead.

Remember Airbnb’s Super Bowl commercial? The one that flashed through different faces and ended with the hashtag #weaccept? As a result of that 30-second spot, 16,000 people pulled up the website airbnb.com/weaccept, read the rather lengthy letter about tolerance from Airbnb’s founders, and clicked the link buried in the last paragraph inviting them to share their home with refugees or people affected by natural disasters. And here’s the stat that really got me: Sinclair said 40 percent of them weren’t previously Airbnb hosts.

By the Super Bowl, though, Airbnb had already tested its thesis. In November, the company started a pilot program to host refugees in conjunction with the International Rescue Committee’s Reception and Placement center in Oakland, California. Sinclair showed a short video of an Oakland host who’d shared her home with a refugee family and made the point that it’s not that different from sharing your home with anyone else.

Like the ever-optimistic Brian Chesky, who recently added Head of Community to his CEO title, Sinclair believes that Airbnb can be more than a homesharing site. He sees it as a way of life, a symbol of tolerance and empathy. Given that Sinclair has spent nearly two decades toiling away in the brutal nonprofit sector to address similar challenges, his optimism is more believable. He believes Airbnb can tackle togetherness in an age of increasing isolationism, and it’s hard not to root for that.

But something else is obvious: Airbnb has, since its earliest days, enjoyed great synchronicity between its business and its social mission. (Yes, there are regulatory issues, but Airbnb’s kumbaya strategy for collaborating with regulators and enrolling hosts as boosters has mainly kept them in check.) Airbnb’s refugee efforts represent the company at its very best on this front: it has tapped into a way to convince people who wouldn’t be interested in sharing their homes for money to list rooms on the site; who’s to say that they won’t be willing to rent rooms in the future…or use Airbnb themselves when they travel?

Timing is everything for Sinclair’s effort. Airbnb is in a golden moment. As a platform and a company, it’s big enough to have built a strong brand and it has the capital to invest in projects of its choosing (it just raised a billion dollars at a $31 billion valuation). But Airbnb has not yet gone public. Speaking in New York last Monday, Chesky said the company was halfway through its two-year IPO preparations, so the company could begin to face the scrutiny of outside shareholders as soon as next year. When that happens, Airbnb’s kumbaya strategy will meet its ultimate test.

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