Number 10 wraps its arms around the collaborative economy
Hearing George Osborne so enthusiastically endorse the rise of the collaborative economy, and specifically, applaud the large group of UK entrepreneurs and sharing economy pioneers that gathered at Number 10 last week, was pretty encouraging.
With over a thousand collaborative economy enterprises now burgeoning in the UK, it certainly feels a good time to be more proactively supporting its growth - and more accurately assessing its potential across the sectors. The opening of this kind of conversation with government now, rather than being forced when growing enterprises start to rub the incumbents up the wrong way (as we have peered at so voyeuristically in New York, Paris, Berlin etc) feels good too.
The question framing the event last week asked what can government do to remove barriers that may be hindering the growth of the collaborative economy - to which there were no shortage of answers. Everything from macro policy interventions (such as having a blanket ban on any clothing entering landfill or giving tax breaks for income generated through sharing platforms) to small tweaks to archaic legislation (like ensuring that just because you rent out your spare room every now and again, it doesn’t constitute a ‘change of use’ for your entire home) were explored.
Post-its were flying and the flip charts were full. As an event, it did one of those rare things in toppling into something that was genuinely useful. And the range of diagnoses of problems – and usefully – specific solutions will I am sure provide much food for thought, and action.
The outdated regulation, the legal grey areas, the status of revenue from micro (sometimes homeopathic) entrepreneurship, the liability and insurance headaches for P2P lending, the impact of people on benefits wanting to engage in sharing platforms; these are important things to work through. Some are super-straightforward problems that are easy to solve; others are more knotty and cracking them will almost certainly add complexity to the system.
But I wouldn’t want anyone to think that if all these technical hurdles were overcome in a day that the collaborative economy would somehow be released from captivity and scale dramatically. With a handful of notable exceptions, the enterprises that are operating in this space are super-small, often struggling for cash and struggling to scale. Some of that’s about the relatively short amount of time we’ve been collectively experimenting with this stuff (some ideas will fail, be built on, grow, evolve – be totally superseded over time) but more generally it’s about the awareness and willingness of consumers – people – to experiment with new ways of doing things, that (let’s face it) are sometimes less convenient than engrained habits and behaviours, as well as requiring people to internally negotiate new kinds of trusting relationships. Recalibration of regulation and legislation then, needs to be undertaken hand in glove with a range of other activities to support this embryonic economy.
Greater, more detailed understanding of the market potential of the collaborative economy - its potential to support more inclusive economic growth, public services, communities, entrepreneurship – as well as a full living map of European-wide ventures and initiatives in this space feels like a good start and something in which Nesta has a keen and immediate interest.
It also feels like we might be ready for a new kind of accelerator, one that intensively accelerates proven, rather than experimental, businesses; perhaps alongside behavioural research that seeks to get to the core of the why, how - and importantly - who, engages in sharing activities and what marketing and messages they respond to.
Following from some of the great leadership and policy commitments we see in Seoul, a focus on city-wide experiments that articulate and manifest what a Sharing City would look like writ large also feels like an exciting proposition for the UK - and would take us more deeply into the territory of optimal and enabling regulation and policy making for the collaborative economy.
Finally, no one could have attended last week’s event and not wondered at just how broad a church the collaborative economy is. And how long it can retain its integrity as ‘one thing’, when it is so clearly many things (and some things not yet conceived), makes my brain ache slightly. But the social, environmental and economic potential of the proliferation of ideas and initiatives that fall under today’s umbrella terms (whether that be collaborative consumption, the peer to peer, sharing or collaborative economies) is intuitively great. And there is no doubt Nesta will be further venturing into this space as the year goes on.