The “sharing economy” has attracted a great deal of attention in recent months. Platforms such as Airbnb and Uber are experiencing explosive growth, which, in turn, has led to regulatory and political battles.
The government’s advisers are defining the sharing economy as online platforms that help people share access to assets, resources time and skills. It encompasses a broad church of businesses and business models: peer-to-peer marketplaces such as Etsy, which allows anyone to sell their craftware; services like City Car Club where people can share access to a car without having to own one themselves and timebanks like Economy of Hours which allows you to trade your skills, an hour for an hour. Indeed, Nesta has estimated that 25% of the UK adult population is sharing online in some way.
It is no surprise that the “sharing economy” is attracting such attention. PwC has calculated that on a global basis, it is currently worth £9bn – with this set to rise to a massive £250bn by 2025. As a result, venture capitalists are piling into technology start-ups that specialise in platform development for fear of missing out on the next big thing.
New York’s venture capitalists claim the new technologies will yield utopian outcomes—empowerment of ordinary people, efficiency, and even lower carbon footprints.
Critics denounce them for being about economic self-interest rather than sharing, and for being predatory and exploitative.
Yet arguably the sharing economy began in 1844 when the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers founded an early consumer co-operative, and was one of the first to pay a dividend to members, forming the basis for the co-operative movement that we know today. The difference between this movement and the likes of Uber and Air Bnb boil down to the sharing of the enterprise and of the surplus it generated.
The Rochdale Pioneers considered that shared ownership was key – stakeholders not shareholders. There were two important aspects: shared profits, where contribution was linked to entitlement, and shared values & principles which increased trust, democracy and engagement.
Their shared purpose was to help all in need, not just a few. They believed that a shared enterprise would mean learning to cooperate, and that a shared identity was essential in creating work that was worthwhile and rewarding.
With protests mounting against Uber in Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, Rome, Milan, Mexico City and London, and campaigns against Airbnb in Barcelona, San Francisco and elsewhere, it’s increasingly obvious that the new use of the term “the sharing economy” is an appropriation of the name for a noble tradition by venture capitalists and their allies, as yet another way of extracting profits from the rest of us. It couldn’t be more Orwellian in its use of a term to suggest the opposite of what it refers to.
While the large technology companies will merely be “profit-maximising” as usual, these new technologies of peer-to-peer economic activity are potentially powerful tools for building a social movement centred on genuine practices of sharing and cooperation in the production and consumption of goods and services.
But achieving that potential will require democratising the ownership and governance of the platforms, or more likely, constructing ones that are intentionally designed to do this.
By developing an enabling platform and new co-operative network, Manchester is developing its own version of the sharing economy by raising the stakes around what it means to share.
Steady State Manchester is working with a number of individuals and organisations on a new project. We are identifying a core group of individuals, brands and organisations that are willing to share their resources in order to tackle the large complex social, environmental and economic problems that are too big for any one organisation to fix on their own.
The enabling platform will provide shared service support to the co-operative’s members many of whom will include small community groups and good causes. They will be encouraged to mobilise their memberships and solve local problems. Local businesses will be able to use the platform to support and develop the work undertaken. The idea is to address the root cause of problems by providing backbone support, and create new outcomes that benefit everyone.
Locally based activities will be coordinated through a mutually reinforcing plan of action, and bring together a diverse set of stakeholders from different sectors. Success will be measured and reported in a standardised and uniform way (for example via time-based units), and relevant performance indicators will share best practice so the network can learn and improve.
By building a web-enabled social platform, the aim is to develop a responsible marketplace where members can connect, share and trade for mutual benefit, with a rewards system sitting at the heart of it.
The business strategy is to create a large network of highly engaged members that eventually could work together to disrupt big, dominated markets such as insurance, finance and energy. As we develop, more individuals, brands and membership organisations will be invited to join the network and enjoy the rewards of its growth.
Uber and Air BnB have taught us that there is unused value stored in expensive and underutilised assets such as cars and homes, which advances in technology can now help to unlock.
But this is a trivial use of such powerful new tools when our entire and abundant economy is full of assets and resources that remain under- or unemployed.
A co-operative network where transport, shared office space, accommodation and skills networks are joined together, and residents are encouraged to share as part of their daily lives, is a network that fits the traditions and ethos of a city like Manchester where the co-operative ‘divi’ was the best reward going.
A world where business prospers by helping citizens live more sustainably, and citizens prosper by doing so, is an elegant solution to addressing social, environmental and economic needs. Manchester is the perfect city to combine trade with social justice and earn a living from it.