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The collaborative economy: time for an assessment?

Although there might not be any universally agreed terminology for what is happening, it is clear that the collaborative economy, the sharing economy, or whatever nomenclature is preferred, is a growing phenomenon.

From giving away, swapping and selling no longer wanted goods through to renting 'idle' items or undertaking odd jobs and tasks for a fee, the idea of temporary access and use above ownership is spreading across a myriad of goods and services. Technology has played an important role in reducing the difficulties of coordinating this ‘sharing’ of goods, allowing strangers in the same city, in the same country and even around the world, to ‘match’ their needs and wants.

However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that such collaboration isn’t a completely new phenomenon. Communities have long shared what they have; often for reasons of necessity rather than life-style choice. This point remains important. Is not being able to afford something and having to ‘share’ it collaborative or it is something else? Laundrettes and hired household goods can symbolise a lack of resources and assets as much as active choices.  

What does collaboration mean for exclusion and vulnerability? And what can the collaborative economy do to improve the well-being of all of our communities?

Increased collaboration and sharing offers many opportunities, from helping to reduce greenhouse emissions with car and ride sharing through to extending the life of items and reducing waste by selling, giving away or swapping those things we no longer want for those we do. At the same time, the collaborative economy has also been heralded as symbolising a shift away from individualistic, consumer driven societies to new ways of building and maintaining relationships, with the potential to create and sustain communities.

Increased social trust and opportunities to re-think social, economic and political participation are seen as part of this shift to focusing on access rather than ownership. There is no doubt that the collaborative economy can change the way in which we consume and even the relationships we build as a result. But its potential downsides should not be overlooked in the rush to promote and advocate the collaborative economy.

Taxes need to be paid and safety assured. While companies that facilitate transactions between owners and users may argue it is not their responsibility to ensure such requirements are met, they cannot be ignored. Jobs and errands websites may encourage ‘micro-entrepreneurship’ amongst people and offer flexibility, but they also offer vulnerability; with little protection or basic benefits, from health and safety and sick-leave, through to pension or health-care entitlements.

At the same time, sharing, whether it be cars, rooms or homes can reinforce inequalities rather than overcoming them. Appropriate regulatory and legal frameworks that support rather than stifle the collaborative economy may go some way to addressing such concerns, but tackling inequalities will require more than just frameworks.

How the opportunities offered by the collaborative economy of utilising resources more efficiently and building stronger trust relationships can be harnessed in ways that promote inclusive and equitable communities is an important issue for exploration. Thinking critically about what the collaborative economy is, and what it can hope to achieve, is crucial. This isn’t about rejecting the collaborative economy, nor about seeing it as a magic solution to such issues, but rather arguing that what is needed is an open assessment of what can be achieved by the collaborative economy in tackling some of the most pressing social and economic issues our societies and communities confront.

Photo credit: Charles Levecque Licence: Creative Commons Attribution - www.unsplash.com


Emma Clarence

Emma Clarence

Emma Clarence

Principal Researcher, Social Innovation

Emma was a Principal Researcher on Social Innovation in Nesta’s Policy and Research unit. She joined Nesta in April 2014 and worked on areas including the collaborative economy and soc…

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