"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

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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How will British science survive Brexit?

What the future of science and tech looks like in the UK, without the European Union.

Science and tech are two industries most likely to be affected by Brexit. British science and tech companies were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining. A Brexit survey run in March by Nature found that of the 907 UK researchers who were polled, around 83 per cent believed the UK should remain in the EU.

UK scientists receive close to £1bn annually for research from the EU – a testament to the quality and influence of the work done on British soil. Between 2007 and 2013, the UK sector supported EU projects by spending €5.4bn, and was rewarded in return with funds of around €8.8bn; it’s a give and take relationship that has seen growth for both.

The combined science and tech sector has laid down the framework and investment for some of the most important research projects in the world. To date, the brightest minds in the UK and Europe have combined to work on highly influential projects: the Large Hadron Collider headed by CERN discovered the Higgs Boson particle, the Human Brain Project set itself the gargantuan goal of unravelling the mysteries of the human brain, and the European Space Agency has helped expand space exploration as European and British astronauts have headed into the ether.

In May 2016, chairman of the Science and Technology Facilities Council Sir Michael Sterling announced that UK scientist Professor John Womersley will lead Europe's next major science project – the European Spallation Source  which is a "multi-disciplinary research centre based on the world's most powerful neutron source." It's the type of project that creates openings and opportunities for researchers, in all fields of science, to really materialise their most ingenious ideas.

The organisation techUK, which according to their website represents more than 900 companies, said in a statement that the result has created many uncertainties but has attempted to appease concerns by declaring that the UK tech sector “will play its part in helping the UK to prepare, adapt and thrive in a future outside the European Union.”

BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, has reinforced techUK’s concerns surrounding uncertainty, highlighting areas which need to be addressed as soon as possible. The institute believes that discussions with the EU should focus on ensuring access to digital markets, freedom to innovate and growth of “our academic research base and industrial collaborations in computing . . . to shore up and build on a major driver of UK economic success and international influence in the digital sphere”.

Confusion over the UK’s position in the EU single market has prompted questions about the freedom of movement of labour, raising concerns among researchers from Europe about their future role in UK-based projects. The naturally collaborative nature of STEM research, the cross-breeding of ideas which foster scientific and technological advancement, could be severely hampered if limitations are imposed as a result the UK’s separation from the single market.

Speaking to the BBC, Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and director of The Francis Crick Institute said: “Being in the EU gives us access to ideas, people and to investment in science." The Royal Society reports that researchers at UK universities house more than 31,000 researchers of EU origin. The danger of losing much of that support is now imminent.

Many other leading voices in the community chimed in too. Paul Drayson, former Minister of Science in the Department for Business, told Scientific American: “The very idea that a country would voluntarily withdraw from Europe seems anathema to scientists.” Remain advocate Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for universities and science (and brother to the leave campaign’s front man, Boris Johnson), stated his concerns to a House of Lords committee of there being very little means to make up for severed EU finances. The referendum result means that a solution to replace that money from a different source must now be sought. He also tweeted:

Despite the science and tech sector favouring a Remain vote, there were some who were leaning towards Brexit pre-referendum. Scientists for Britain, a group of UK scientists who, according to their website were “concerned that pro-EU campaigners are misusing science for political gain”, issued a statement after the referendum. They thanked leave voters for sharing their vision of the UK “outside the political structures of the European Union.”

Though there are many new policies which will need to be drawn up, it is evident that the UK’s requirement to prop itself up once outside the EU will only serve to hinder science and tech growth. The industries best served through European and global outreach are now at risk of being marginalised.

Currently in place is “Horizon 2020” – an enterprise touted as “the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever” as almost €80 million is available to researchers seeking to take their ideas “from the lab to the market”. Once Article 50 is invoked, it is crucial that any negotiations that take place ensure the UK’s spot within the programme is maintained.

There are options to maintain some European integration; gaining an “associated country” status like Switzerland could continue to strengthen the STEM sector, for example. But prioritisation of science and tech seems bleaker by the day. As a new landscape takes shape post-Brexit, we must work tirelessly to prevent our most progressive and forward-thinking frontiers caving in.