"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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle