We-commerce: The sharing economy’s uncertain path to changing the world

Published on Tech Republic, by Lyndsey Gilpin, Aug 27, 2014.

Peer-to-peer collaboration is gaining ground and changing the economics of the future, but there are questions to answer and obstacles to overcome … //

… States of sharing:

  • The sharing economy is here to stay. It is a small but rapidly expanding market that is transforming social, economic, and environmental practices.  
  • “I think the thing about the sharing economy is we still don’t know what it is yet. Things that happen have been happening through all of humanity, in our communities for thousands of years,” said Milicent Johnson, director of partnerships and community building at Peers, an organization that promotes what they call the collaborative economy. “At the same time we have new ways people can share or collaborate with other people — it’s really important we understand what’s happening and people aren’t doing it alone.”
  • Clearly, sharing is a primitive concept. We’ve been bartering and cooperating since the beginning of time. If we didn’t have money, we have traded time, meals, favors, or personal belongings, and many cultures still do the same.
  • On the web, the peer-to-peer model started with eBay in 1995. It remains an important internet standard and it has influenced many of the peer-to-peer models that are in motion today. Then came Craigslist, which started in the late 1990s, and Zipcar, whose fleet entered the market back in 2000. When Airbnb took off in 2007, and “collaborative consumption” was championed in 2010 when Rachel Botsman’s book, What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption was released, people started to take more notice.
  • The “sharing economy” has become the most-used description of this movement, though it has far outgrown the term. Sharing economy is too abstract to encompass all of the startups and models in the industry these days — some are monetary trades, some are free services, some use credits. So depending on who you ask, we can call it “peer to peer sharing,” “collaborative consumption,” or even “collaborative production,” which would refer to something like having extra power generated from your solar panels return to the grid to help power someone else’s home. We can even expand collaborative practices to include crowdfunding, microfinancing, or peer-to-peer lending.
  • “Collaborative consumption, as we define it, is the reinvention of older market behaviors that are really taking charge through tech now,” said Lauren Anderson, chief knowledge officer at Collaborative Consumption, “which is enabling people to share anything and everything online, but also in the real world as well.”

Shifting the economy: … //

… A sustainable future:

  • Several years ago, UCLA researchers did an extensive study on our accumulation of stuff by following 32 Los Angeles area families for four years. The results: an average of three rooms held more than 2,200 possessions; 75% of garages had nowhere to store a car; possessions increased 30% with each new child.
  • Enter Yerdle, a service that helps you give and get things for free, using a simple smartphone app. Gain credits by giving away, and spend them on whatever you need: clothes, kitchen appliances, that tool you will only use one time. The goal is to displace 25% of what we are using now, the company said.
  • “People have been buying strangers’ things from garage sales and estate sales for years and years,” said Rachel Barge, director of marketing for Yerdle. “We are allowing people to do it online and nationally vs. only locally… the use of technology and communication systems to basically facilitate more efficient use of resources, the way that Airbnb technology facilitates the use of physical space.”
  • The uncomfortable truth is that we won’t have a choice in the future, and environmental consciousness is something that has been lost in conversations about the sharing economy. We will have to share resources, as our cities are growing exponentially, spaces are getting smaller, and valuable resources — water, food, oil — are growing more scarce.
  • “We are using resources in a way that isn’t sustainable. Things need to shift. There is absolutely an endpoint where we won’t be able to do things like this anymore, and these platforms offer us not a way we have to sacrifice our lifestyles, but actually get access to more in this collaborative and connected way that actually makes the whole experience richer. That’s the ultimate in how we should be living and working with each other,” Anderson said.

Here are some other pioneers of the sharing economy, offering services to share goods, services, resources, and space:

  • Skillshare provides access to top-class tutors for cheap
  • Tradesy lets you sell and buy used clothes from big brands. The company takes 9% of profits.
  • JustPark is a London startup that allows you to charge people to use your driveway as a safe, secure parking space.
  • Bla Bla Car lets you can rent out extra seats in your car when going on a trip.
  • Leftover Swap is an app where you can find leftover food to share. Sounds strange, but it’s important in a country that wastes 30% of our food.
  • Streetbank allows you can lend things to your neighbors or borrow things you need to use for a set amount of time.
  • Feastly gives you a way to share any type of meal with people in your area.
  • RelayRides is on a separate plane from Uber and Lyft. Its main competition are the big names in the car rental industry: Hertz and Enterprise. The company grew from its original idea to do short-term rentals to long-term ones based on what it found out users wanted, which was an alternative to renting a car through a traditional service

… Learning to trust: … //

From the ground up:

  • Peers was founded on the basic premise that the sharing economy wasn’t just a trend, but a movement around the world — a movement that would create a new economy. The organization is member-driven, and supportive of sharing on its most basic level to give people more flexible work hours, support systems, and more spending money. When people join, they can interact with other members around the world, learn more about the movement, and start petitions to make their city more sharing-friendly.
  • But, like anything, the grassroots effort can’t work on its own. Peers, which was founded in 2013, knew it needed partnerships. So the organization got involved with big-names in the industry: Airbnb, Lyft, Yerdle, Relay Rides, ShareDesk. It also partnered with crowdfunding sites like Mosaic, Divvy, and Crowdtilt.
  • Collaborative Consumption, on the other hand, has been around since 2009 and is based in Australia, but it considers itself a global organization and serves as an online resource for this movement.
  • To challenge the traditional industries — whether it is the restaurant, hotel, car rental, or retail — this movement has to scale. But in order for these companies to scale, they must either become bigger (and by default, worth much more money) or open local chapters in a variety of places to service those locations. Making sure they are accessible to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or geographic location is the heart of the movement for Johnson, and, she said, many other leaders she has spoken to.
  • Yonatan Schkolnik is a Peers member who lives in San Francisco. He began driving for a ride sharing platform in May 2013, when he needed more flexibility in his work schedule to complete his college degree. He was worried, at first, that his driver rating would be low because he wasn’t familiar enough with the streets of San Francisco, but after a year he is much more comfortable.
  • “Every connection that is happening through us is a success and changes the perspective of people, and that’s when you know little by little, you’re changing people.”
  • Cedric Giorgi, Cookening
  • “It also provided the opportunity to meet like-minded people: providers, users, and advocates of the share economy with which I found common interests such as provider rights, democratization of income structures, the importance of accountability, etc.,” he said. “The first time I used [it] as a passenger, I was happy to be able to provide individual feedback about the driver, finally an opportunity to reward a driver with more than a tip for her safe driving, and sound advice about where to get an authentic burrito.”
  • These types of small moments are often what are the most important — and overlooked — aspect of the sharing economy. The ride sharing platforms have inspired Schkolnik to participate in meal sharing with neighbors and to share food he has grown in his garden.
  • “Collaborative marketplaces are important for the individual financial effect, allowing people to monetize their time, skills, and assets according to personal needs including family obligations and education goals,” he said. “I would like to have access to work related safety networks such as competitive medical insurance rates, retirement saving tools, and some sort of union-based collective bargaining tools.”
  • Though advocates want the movement to scale, there is an underlying push to keep it local — whether that’s with local chapters, local versions of these websites, or regional companies, time can only tell. What’s important to remember, both Peers and Collaborative Consumption reiterate, is that what works in San Francisco (where most of these companies are growing) won’t work for every other city. We must look at their dynamics, needs, and connections in order to scale successfully.
  • “We want [people] to tell the story of the sharing economy and normalize it,” Johnson said. “Beautiful things happen when you open yourself up to that.”

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