The Government should do more to support a genuinely sharing economy, suggests Chris Martin.
The UK Government has adopted a very narrow commercial perspective on the emergence of the sharing economy. In doing so, it is overlooking the potential environmental and social benefits of sharing. These benefits might grow if digital technologies can be harnessed to support new forms of economic activity based upon sharing and collaboration within communities.
Government attention seems to have been attracted by ‘sharing’ economy platforms, such as Uber and Airbnb, which grew from entrepreneurial start-ups to multi-billion pound global corporations in a few years. It also seems that the Government is ignoring the word ‘sharing’ and focusing almost exclusively on the word ‘economy’.
In particular, government is focussing on the ways sharing economy platforms can enable peer-to-peer commercial activity. For example, this has enabled the emergence of micro-entrepreneurs who rent out rooms in their homes using Airbnb, or spaces on their driveway using JustPark.
So, why is the Government adopting such a narrow commercial focus on the sharing economy? I suggest this says much about the flexibility of the concept of the sharing economy. People see their own values, hopes and fears reflected within it. How else might we have arrived at the point where advocates talk about a sharing economy consisting of platforms as different as Uber (a platform providing for-profit taxi service), and Freecycle (a platform for freely gifting unwanted items)?
Earlier this year the Cabinet Office completed a sharing economy policy review. It is easy to see how the Government’s hopes and established policy objectives have led to a narrow, commercial vision of the sharing economy. So, for example, the sharing economy is viewed as a commercial opportunity within the global economic race.
One minister suggested: “The sharing economy is maturing, moving from early adopters to the mainstream, and we in government are committed to ensuring the UK is the best environment in the world for these entrepreneurs to flourish.”
Government has also viewed the sharing economy as a way of increasing labour market flexibility; eroding labour rights; and promoting the piecemeal forms of work offered on ‘task-sharing’, such as task-sharing’ platforms, such as Taskrabbit. In a response to a policy document, the government explained:
“Jobcentre staff should be given clear guidance on how to promote … task-sharing platforms. They should actively point job-seekers towards these platforms as a way to build up their experience and earn money.”
My research, recently published in Ecological Economics, has explored visions of a sharing economy that are more firmly connected to the idea of sharing (in its common sense meaning). This research analysed approximately 250 documents where entrepreneurs, innovators, incumbent businesses, policy-makers, media commenters and grassroots activists grappled with two questions. What is the sharing economy? And, what should it become? Some answered these questions is a similar way to the UK Government, but most did not. Two distinct alternative visions of the sharing economy also emerged from the research.
When the sharing economy (sometimes referred to as collaborative consumption) emerged as an idea about five years ago, it was motivated by a deep concern about the wastefulness and environmental impacts of consumer culture. Advocates, in particular Botsman and Rogers, saw the potential for peer-to-peer online platforms to enable people to share access to consumer products (from cars to drills).
They argued that sharing access reduces the demand for consumer products, and hence the demand for materials and energy used in manufacturing these products. For example, peer-to-peer car sharing platforms, such as EasyCarClub, can reduce rates of car ownership and associated material and energy demand; and platforms for sharing consumer products within local communities, such as Streetbank, can help reduce waste and promote interactions between neighbours.
There remains considerable ambition across a loose coalition of sharing economy advocates, activists and entrepreneurs to enable more sustainable forms of consumption. However, this optimism has been tempered by the far-sighted early-movers in the sharing economy, such as Airbnb, which neglected social and environmental objectives in the process of achieving commercial success.
A more radical vision of the sharing economy is also developing, primarily amongst grassroots activists (such as Ouishare and Shareable). The goal of the sharing economy, within this vision, is creating a more sustainable and equitable society.
The central idea that underpins the sharing economy – using digital technologies to enable peer-to-peer economic activity – is extended far beyond the transport (e.g. Uber), accommodation (e.g. Airbnb) and consumer products sectors (e.g. Streetbank and Freecycle). So, the sharing economy becomes an umbrella term for a diverse group of innovations ranging from open source software and hardware, to crowdfunding and microfinance, fablabs providing shared access to 3D printers and collaborative consumption. Although these innovations might initially seem an odd group; they do share a focus on empowering communities and decentralising the economy by refashioning sharing and collaborative practices in a digital age.
Both these alternative visions of the sharing economy have weaknesses and the second might easily be criticised as a digital utopia. In particular, they seem to be grounded in a belief that digital technologies will inevitably empower citizens to address social and environmental challenges.
However, given the challenges we face in creating a more sustainable and equitable economy they certainly warrant further attention from policy-makers. It is time for the Cabinet Office to revisit the sharing economy and adopt a much broader perspective.