This blog post will be the first in a new long-term column here at consummary, focusing on alternative futures. Formulating such futures is important in order to better understand what types of lifestyles we can expect in a future where climate change has been taken into consideration. One formulation of an alternative future system has broadly been termed ‘the sharing economy’.
Here I will share some thoughts that occurred during and after the 1st international workshop on the sharing economy, which took place in Utrecht, June 4-5 2015.
There has been something of an explosion of sharing recently.
Ebay, couchsurfing, airbnb, Uber, and co-working spaces are only a few examples of relatively new services that have become very popular over the past ten years. There is even a sharing festival in Paris every year, called OuiShare. All these are often grouped under the umbrella term ‘the sharing economy’. Are we, as some argue, moving in a direction where consumption will be based on more sharing? A world where we share space, services, time, products and much more?
I remember my first encounter with Airbnb. Some of my colleagues had booked a whole apartment with a top-floor balcony during a three-day conference in Copenhagen, and they paid less than I had paid for my small, mediocre and bed bug-infested hotel room. Outrageous and unbelievable, I thought. As my colleagues explained the concept to me, I was struck by how simple, yet magnificent the idea had been: making use of idle capacity, what a great idea! I immediately sat down and tried to think of other areas where such an idea could be used, but I was not able to imagine the scale and potential of this idea: almost everything can be shared.
As pointed out in the book ‘What’s Mine is Yours’ by Botsman and Rogers from 2011, sharing has been part of human nature since the very beginning. In the Stone Age tribes would hunt and gather in groups because collaboration made it easier to catch an animal. This collaborative behaviour continued as human civilisation started farming land, by sharing equipment, building barns, harvesting crops and defending the land. Some researchers believe that cooperative behaviour is not only learned but also has an evolutionary component. We could say that sharing is already an ingrained part of human life.
So what is then the ‘sharing economy’? Juliet Schor, who was a keynote speaker at the 1st International Sharing Economy Workshop, has noted in a recent piece on sharing that sharing economy activities fall into four broad categories:
- Recirculation of goods, which includes online marketplaces like eBay or craigslist
- Increased utilisation of durable assets, where examples are Couchsurfing, Airbnb or Zipcar
- Exchange of services, as exemplified by initiatives such as LETS or Task Rabbit
- Sharing of productive assets, including initiatives where assets or space is shared in order to produce rather than consume, such as DIGS or other share working spaces.
In other words, the sharing economy can be said to be an umbrella term that covers many recent online-based initiatives that change the way we make use of things, space, skills and time.
However, the sharing economy initiatives are not without its critics. One much debated question is the role of the ridesharing app Uber, a service where literally everyone who owns a car can be a personal driver, often for much less than the local taxi services. Concerns relating to worker’s rights, long work hours and low salaries are reasons why many call apps such as Uber a ‘race to the bottom’.
Therefore, it still remains to be seen whether these various initiatives can be said to be real alternatives to the prevailing capitalistic system. Are we really ‘sharing’ when we charge a fee for whatever we share? And what about inequality? Does the ‘sharing economy’ give preference to the so-called 1% that is able to extract resources from those that share?
Many of these questions were asked at the 1st International Sharing Economy Workshop and it is clear that much more research is needed in order to find out how good an alternative the sharing economy really is.
Botsman, R., & Rogers, R. (2011). What’s mine is yours: how collaborative consumption is changing the way we live. London: Collins.