There is a good chance that you’ve heard about “The Sharing Economy”. It’s drawing attention because of innovations such as peer-to-peer sharing among neighbours including tool libraries and business-to-consumer enterprises including AirBnB. Instead of keeping our focus here, we can widen our view and find an entire universe of social innovations. These innovations have the potential to connect us to each other, lessen our impact on the Earth, and experiment with new business models.
Sharing has always been a part of city life including through libraries, community spaces, guilds, and civic structures. In the past decade, there has been a revival and acceleration in sharing innovations across sectors from mobility (Bixie Bikes, Coop Cars) to accommodation (AirBnB, coachsurfing) to skills (TaskRabbit). Businesses are sharing idle supply chain capacity and joining forces in collective institutional purchasing, and community-based grassroots innovators are creating neighbourhood community time banks and clothing swaps.
“Sharing cars, books, tools can also be expanded to shared, community-owned energy; shared 3D printing facilities; and communal office spaces. Shared ideas, green space, seeds, air, and water have been with us since we set foot on the earth but need protecting.”
– Mike Childs1
“The sharing economy can be manifest in almost every sector of society and corner of the globe. Sectors which have experienced robust traction and interest include accommodation, transportation, tourism, office space, financial services and retail products. Areas where significant growth is expected include [peer to peer] P2P car sharing, ridesharing, errand marketplaces, P2P and social lending, and product rental.”
– Young Global Leaders Sharing Economy Working Group2
Also known as collaborative consumption and the collaborative economy, the Sharing Economy is the bartering, exchanging, sharing, renting, trading, borrowing, lending, leasing and swapping of goods, services, time, capital, experiences and space by individuals, institutions, businesses and communities. This is all being supported by new mobile and digital technologies and online platforms that redistribute and enable transactions based on trust and reciprocity. It is motivated by the realities of the economic crisis and financial hardship, growing urbanization, resource and energy constraints, and inequitable access to resources.3
There are opportunities to unlock idling capacity – the untapped social, economic, and environmental value of underutilized assets. For some this is heralded as indicative of a changing relationship with material possessions and a rejection of mass consumption through a shift from ownership to access; however, others question whether the mainstream is willing to make this shift. What we do know is that when a community shares more, it consumes less material and energy. The purchase of one 10 pound circular saw at the Vancouver Tool Library is estimated to have prevented up to 320 pounds of waste. Although as Rachel Botsman notes, the Sharing Economy Lacks A Shared Definition, its promise lies in the possibility of reductions and more efficient use of resources and untapped and idle capacities, opportunities for local and inclusive economies, and greater social connectivity and trust.
Though the Sharing Economy holds much promise for creating social innovations, it’s important to consider who is benefitting from these new models of sharing. The successful growth of sharing businesses like Airbnb and Lyft clearly indicate the economic value of the movement. What is less understood is the social benefits that are created by the Sharing Economy for vulnerable populations. One of the greatest aspirations of the Collaborative Economy is to form a more inclusive society. Monitoring the impacts of sharing on low-income groups can help realize this vision.
An Expanding Universe of Sharing
“‘Sharing and shareability’ are typically too narrowly conceived and perceived. The opportunity is so much greater than middle-class ‘swishing’ and even though urban bike-sharing schemes have dominated news in this space, whether in London, Copenhagen, Paris or Montreal, or Rio, Guadalajara (México), Buenos Aires, or Providencia (Chile), sharing is definitely about much more than ‘bums on bikes.’”
– Julian Agyeman, Duncan McLaren and Adrianne Schaefer-Borrego4
We are missing some key aspects of the Collaborative and the Sharing Economy such as business to business sharing, informal sharing among immigrant, isolated or marginalized communities, and activities in unexpected sectors such as within the arts.
So how can we widen our view? We can explore the what, who and how of the sharing economy:
The universe of sharing crosses many areas of our lives including transportation, food, space, funding, and goods. It’s quite different if we are sharing things (books, cars, art), services (rides, child care, time) or experiences (skill sharing). There are also varying types of ownership – some sharing innovations are public, some private and others are cooperative.
Most attention has been on individual peer-to-peer sharing (e.g., bartering networks like Swapsity.ca) and business to consumer enterprises (e.g., Zipcar). Sharing is also taking place among businesses (e.g., Liquidspace and horizontal collaboration across supply chains) and within communities (e.g., Tool Libraries, Cooperatives). We can also explore the diversity of networks emerging to support sharing innovators (Shareable.net, Collaborative Lab, Peers).
The way we share also varies from money exchanges to non-monetized transactions, formal and informal innovations, and socially connected and more impersonal interactions.
By broadening our definition, it is possible to spark entrepreneurship and social innovation, to anticipate negative reactions and impacts, and to create a more nuanced and vibrant understanding of the Sharing Economy. This, in turn, can guide the development of pilots, activities and supportive structures and policies.
From 10 – 14 February, I’m traveling with April Rinne, Chief Strategy Officer, Collaborative Lab and Tim Draimin, Executive Director, SiG National across Canada on a collaborative economy tour, co-sponsored by SiG and Cities for People. Join in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver and tell us how you see the Sharing Economy!
1 Mike Childs (2013) The Power of Sharing: A Call to Action for Environmentalists. 5 November.
2 Young Global Leaders Working Group (2013) Circular Economy Innovation and New Business Models Initiative. Position Paper: World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders Taskforce.
3 Resources: Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers (2012) What’s Mine is Yours; Lisa Gansky (2010) The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing; The Sharing Project Bryan Walsh 10 Ideas That Will Change the World: Today’s Smart Choice: Don’t Own. Share. Time Magazine, 17 March 2011. http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2059521_2059717_2059710,00.html
4 Julian Agyeman, Duncan McLaren and Adrianne Schaefer-Borrego (2013) Briefing: Sharing Cities. Written for Friends of the Earth’s “Big Ideas” project, September.