Is the sharing economy dead before it started?

There has been much ado about the sharing economy. There is no doubt that companies like Uber, AirBnB and Zipcar have the capacity to re-shape industries. But are we actually sharing, or just transacting?

This is a question that Giana M. Eckhardt and Fleura Bardi focus on in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review.

According to Eckhardt and Bardi:

“Sharing is a form of social exchange that takes place among people known to each other, without any profit. Sharing is an established practice, and dominates particular aspects of our life, such as within the family. By sharing and collectively consuming the household space of the home, family members establish a communal identity.”

When “sharing” is market-mediated — when a company is an intermediary between consumers who don’t know each other — it is no longer sharing at all. Rather, consumers are paying to access someone else’s goods or services for a particular period of time. It is an economic exchange, and consumers are after utilitarian, rather than social, value.”

One thing that the sharing economy has been good at is coming up with different words to describe the same thing – something that the investment industry knows a lot about. P2P market places, collaborative consumption, the Mesh Economy have all been used to describe the sharing economy.

It may be that, as the HBR authors suggest, we should simply re-brand the sharing economy as the access economy, but where exactly does this leave the concept of community in economic activity?

The social economy has a long history going back to the development of cooperatives in the 1770’s. Today social entrepreneurs represent the latest chapter in a story that goes back to Robert Owen.

Whilst social entrepreneurs may offer the ability to produce the next digital disruption, another area that has long been over-looked is community infrastructure.

In every city and town across the globe there are assets that have been built to service communities. Examples are Scout Halls, Senior Citizen Clubs and Life Saving Clubs that continue to serve their original functions.

In Australia we saw a boom in such community infrastructure in the 1950’s and 1960’s. As our cities have developed with increased congestion and scarcity of resources, a significant question is whether there are ways, consistent with their original purposes, that we can share community assets.

An example is Life Saving Clubs where most usage occurs on weekends but where in many case the weekday will see clubs closed. Could such facilities be used for multiple purposes during the week, whilst still delivering their core activities? And if so, how could we achieve that?

I will focus on how we can develop our community infrastructure in future blogs.

LINKS

The Sharing Economy Isn’t About Sharing at All
https://hbr.org/2015/01/the-sharing-economy-isnt-about-sharing-at-all

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