"Collaborative consumption": the new economy

The networked world allows an unprecedented degree of collaboration within communities.


The rise of the sharing economy

“I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters.”

- Don DeLillo, White Noise

White Noise revels in the excessive clutter pervading every inch of the novel. Underpinning such fascination, however, is intense anxiety about the way consumption has come to dominate and define the contemporary world, demanding high fossil fuel inputs in return for destabilising carbon emissions and excessive amounts of waste, not to mention the psychological impacts of so much "stuff". 

In 2000, worldwide private consumption expenditures (the amount spent on goods and services at a household level) topped $20trn, a four-fold increase over 1960. Short-term thinking argues that consumption is good for the global economy. However, the financial implications of ecological degradation are increasingly being recognised. A new report (pdf) written by more than 50 scientists, economists and policy experts, for example, has just announced that climate change is reducing global GDP by 1.6 per cent annually.

However, out of abundance springs an opportunity in the form of collaborative consumption, a social and economic system made possible by network technologies that moves away from the old industrial economy and enables the sharing and exchange of all kinds of assets. From Wikipedia to Airbnb, Streetbank to Whipcar, peer-to-peer activity is making waves, harnessing the power of local communities to build a more financially and ecologically sustainable future in ways and on a scale never before possible.

Marketplaces for unused goods are nothing new, as thriving car boot sales demonstrate. What’s changing is the way in which digital platforms are enhancing the efficiency of those marketplaces and facilitating sharing across them in a world where more than 2.3 billion people are now online (pdf). By connecting people in unprecedented ways, web platforms are establishing access to a huge audience for un- and underused goods and enabling people to tap into niche audiences to distribute those goods amongst. 

These peer-to-peer activities redefine traditional forms of ownership, lending and renting, establishing a strong affinity to the idea of shared access to goods and knowledge, including amongst strangers. Take car-sharing: cars are financially and ecologically expensive, both in manufacture and day-to-day use. As dense urban streets clog up and parking spaces become more expensive, it makes sense to spread those costs amongst users. The best way to coordinate that? Technology-driven peer-communities to connect suitable sharers together. 

Streetbank: a network of sharing communities

What makes such sharing possible is trust, in both the web-platform mediating the exchange and in the inevitable human interaction that such sharing entails. Far from replacing face-to-face interaction, digital technologies facilitate innovative and resource-conscious ways of bringing people together. Trust can then be built up through rating systems, instilling reputation as a key requisite to further sharing. 

Streetbank is one such collaborative consumption initiative that works to establish a broad-based network of online sharing communities in order to develop stronger, locally-rooted communities across the UK and ultimately worldwide. At its simplest, Streetbank is a website that allows you to see all the things and skills that neighbours are giving away, lending or sharing – a shared attic, garden shed, toolkit, fancy dress chest, DVD collection and skills bank all rolled into one. Its ultimate vision is a hyper-local one in which members are connected to everyone in their street, dramatically reducing consumption through sharing as a result.

From an economic perspective, it could also be argued that organisations such as Streetbank are adding to the output of the UK, if in a small and unmeasured way. GDP measures items bought rather than the use of the items/activity purchased. Take a simple example: the average drill is used for just 15 minutes in its lifetime. GDP measures the number of drills bought but in the case of a drill, this is a poor measure of a nation’s output when its usage is so low. While Government and policy makers obsess over GDP data, any serious economist should agree that an efficient economy is one in which the resources are deployed well, and where output is useful. To put it in Rachel Botsman’s terms – pioneer of the collaborative consumption movement – we need to be taking into account number of holes drilled rather than number of drills sold. 

Streetbank founder Sam Stephens argues that:

We believe that we need to replace GDP with a new way of measuring the effectiveness and efficiency of the economy – measuring useful output and activity rather than simply what is bought.

Instilling a culture of sharing into communities can take time. Botsman regards this as a steady progression from initial trust between strangers to a more widespread belief in the commons to, ultimately, critical mass. Importantly, those communities that seem to benefit most from projects such as Streetbank already have strong pre-established trust networks which are then strengthened by members doing simple but effective things, such as putting a photo on their online profile.

The need for projects like this is huge if we are to establish the rapid reduction in consumption and re-skilling of our communities as we deal with financial and environmental instability. The question is how to reach neighbourhoods where trust is less apparent and how to scale-up community-minded collaborative consumption initiatives in the process. This is the challenge that organisations such as Streetbank and fellow "coll cons" initatives are working to address, constantly testing their innovations as they go and supported by organisations such as NESTA, not to mention one another, embedding peer-to-peer learning in their progress.

So what can peer-to-peer activity bring to the twenty-first century table where the feast is rapidly diminishing and what’s left is meted out so unevenly? The answer is an economy based on collaboration rather than individual ownership, trust rather than status, adaptation rather than standardisation. The answer is a sharing economy. 

Do we really need all those hammers? Photograph: Getty Images

Tess Riley is a freelance journalist and social justice campaigner. She also works, part time, for Streetbank, and can be found on Twitter at @tess_riley

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In praise of the late developer

The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.

A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”

We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.

What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.

Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.

Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.

As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the ­attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.

Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.

There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.

When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.

So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.

The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.

So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.

The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet ­instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.

Those two qualities – first, instinctive ­try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.

Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.

In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.

Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution