Earlier this week, a mixed crowd of entrepreneurs, investors, start ups, nonprofits, social activists, and others came together for the inaugural conference on Catalyzing the Sharing Economy defined as the use of networked, mobile, information technology to share goods and services. Think AirBNB and Uber, but it is much more than that. It is a movement driven by social change values — less consumption, less waste, and sustainability. But also, in an era of being connected online – it is a human driven desire to connect with others, as one speaker said, “The antidote to loneliness.”
In an earlier blog post, I shared a framework from Jeremiah Owyang that describes the different sub-sectors of this economy – from sharing homes to sharing food to crowdfunding. At first blush, it might appear that crowdfunding is most relevant to nonprofits, but it goes deeper as Lewis Haidt from TechSoup describes in his piece, “Nonprofits Imagine a Better Share Economy.”
What is most exciting about the Sharing Economy is its embrace of a revitalized public square and a rejuvenated commitment to social good. This is part of the Sharing Economy with the most transformative potential: the ability to address societal inequities and envision new ecological solutions.
Nonprofits, faith-based organizations, libraries, and networks such as the NetSquared Local should be leading this movement as they are already committed to social good. We should also create more substantive partnerships with the private sector, learn from its innovations and successes, and build a more transformative Sharing Economy.
What does that look like on the ground? One of the categories is “food swapping” or “food sharing.” For example, an app that connects people with chefs who share a restaurant space and kitchen – so you can dine out and have a custom meal prepared for you. But there is the local social good version – a project like AmpleHarvest.Org which connects gardeners with food pantries. “No food left behind.” My colleague, Robert Egger, is one of the early pioneers in the Share economy and food. His projects address unemployment, food waste, and health.
You can see the inequity that is present in the share economy. On the one hand you have examples of share economy services for wealthy people and on the other a whole group of people who do not have access to the share economy. One of the keynote plenary speakers, Janelle Orsi, executive director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, said that the share economy could perpetuate income inequality. She made this point by passing out two bars of chocolate to the audience. She told the people on the left side to share it, and the people on the right side that by the time the chocolate gets to them – there won’t be any left for them.
She noted that the challenge will be to create structures that help return wealth to users, such as t-corps or worker cooperatives. “In other words, Task Rabbit is owned by the rabbits.”
Who Are Sharers?
One of the sessions featured the results of research of people who share, users of these services. My longtime colleague, Alexandra Samuel, gave an overview of the research her company conducted that found that people fall into one of three categories: non-sharers, re-sharers (sell stuff on ebay, etc) and neo sharers (use these services.) The neo sharers tend to be younger and heavy users of online networks and social media and also tend to be influencers. Part of the trend is the digitalization of our everyday life and it is a lifestyle choice.
Professor Juliet Schor, a leading academic researcher shared some of her recent research. She pointed out that sharing is not new, but what is new is sharing with strangers – because of the Internet’s ability to connect us and also because we can crowdsource information on reputation. Trust systems and platforms are becoming critical.
Chelsea Rustrum, co-author of “It’s a Shareable Life” is a practical guide to using these sharing services based on her personal experience of couch surfing around the world. She shared stories of sharers and their sharing life styles – people who prefer co-working spaces, renting out their car to others when they are traveling, and sharing clothing.
The Future of Work
The most eyeopening session was one on how the share economy is disrupting traditional work — in the future it won’t be about being an employee with a regular paycheck and benefits. Some referred to it as the “gig economy.” That people would be freelancing and also need the skills of being to market themselves for the next gig. And this had implications for work force development training and skills – and again, equity issues as not everyone has access to networks and networking skills. The question is about creating a platform that creates economic dignity for most of us.
A question during the Q/A, “Will the future of work be not working for a company but for a community?”
Some more reflections on this panel and the conference from Lucy Bernholz
During one of the sessions, one of the questions raised was “Who is not at the table?” And it isn’t a matter of bringing people to “our table” but finding the conversations that are already happening about the share economy. Lots to ponder here, especially for nonprofits. For starters, what examples of the share economy have you seen in the nonprofit sector? Please add it in the comments.