There’s a great opportunity to make use of collaborative economy principles to create greater public benefit. To do so we need to move beyond contradictory commentary and embed an ethos of evidence in all collaborative economy activities. Evidence of what’s happening at the aggregate and platform level can help policy makers, regulators, investors and funders create conditions that unlock the collaborative economy’s capacity to deliver more meaningful triple bottom line impacts. And there are benefits for platforms who can demonstrate their impact too.
Capturing current and ongoing evidence of impact can be challenging, and is not always highest priority for new collaborative economy ventures who may lack the time, capacity or skills to undertake such research. How could a burgeoning community of researchers interested in testing and exploring the collaborative economy connect with organisations looking to better understand or deepen their impact?
This line of inquiry prompted our recent event How can research support the collaborative economy to create meaningful impact? In the morning, we heard some inspiring examples of collaborative economy organisations that have worked hard to better understand their impact and the communities they’re reaching out to. You can take a look at the highlights from the event here.
What was clear from the panel discussion was the value of research as a growth and development strategy for collaborative economy organisations. In the afternoon, a smaller group of researchers and collaborative economy organisations met to discuss the practicalities of working together and supporting one another. Between collaborative economy 'speed dating' and intense brainstorming, we came up with a number of opportunities for improving collaboration between researchers and organisations in the collaborative economy. Here are some of the key points that emerged:
Research and practice shouldn’t be thought of as distinct and unrelated activities. Considering how researchers and collaborative economy organisations can connect and support one another is crucial if we are to answer some of the most pressing questions about the collaborative economy, and wherever possible, start demonstrating impact grounded in evidence. Recognising the interdependence of both activities can help researchers and organisations find the mutual benefits of working together.
For organisations, this means thinking about research and evaluation earlier and throughout the lifespan of their work. Where organisations lack the requisite skills to do this themselves, partnering with think tanks, academic or independent researchers or other research bodies might present a viable solution. For researchers - who noted some of the challenges around keeping pace with such a rapidly evolving space - this might mean going beyond standard reports to deliver different forms of research outputs that are more accessible and digestible to organisations themselves - such as blogs and infographics.
Collaborative economy organisations are increasingly asked to demonstrate their impact to funders and investors, which can lead some organisations to ‘fake a successful model’ at the earliest stages. Those who attempt research in-house are likely to encounter challenges around research bias when the work is carried out internally. Instead, organisations and ventures can leverage external research partnerships to ensure their research is more independent, credible, and analytically sound. Airbnb, for instance, partners with local economists who understand the local context when conducting city-level economic impact studies.
Strong, objective impact findings can help organisations engage with and inform key stakeholders. However, research isn’t simply for fulfilling external demands. Impact assessments can also shed light on user perceptions, which organisations can in turn use to adapt and improve.
Aside from carrying out research, there are other ways that researchers and collaborative economy organisations can work together. Advisory relationships with academics and researchers can helpfully rebalance output with assessment, for instance.
Whilst giving the necessary due regard to users’ privacy protection, and individual venture’s sensitive market intelligence - some participants pointed to the intermediary role sharing economy trade associations, like SEUK, could play in independently managing collaborative economy ventures’ data in a way that fosters transparency and trust. Gathering and publishing open, de-anonymised impact data could then become the industry standard. Making such data publicly available would do a lot to address questions around impact in the collaborative economy.
To capture ongoing collaborative economy activities, research funding models need to be more open and flexible. Many participants questioned the appropriateness of typical two-three year research funding models for collaborative economy researchers. Research funders and governments can actively support and call for research that aims to better understand the collaborative economy activities’ triple bottom line impacts, and allow researchers the flexibility to pivot between more in-depth studies and more immediately responsive research outputs.
There are limited opportunities for researchers and organisations to discuss how their work might overlap. Creating a space where both can interact to brainstorm, share knowledge, and explore ways of working together was a strong theme on the day. Likewise, researchers also noted the value of having a cross-disciplinary consortia of researchers and academics to discuss work and exchange ideas and approaches. Other ideas such as hackathons, online platforms, and university science shops - open spaces where organisations could drop in and ask for advice on pressing research questions - were also considered. Whether virtual or real,there is value in having spaces that allow such exchanges to take place.
These takeaways highlight some of the many opportunities to better connect research and practice in the collaborative economy. To do so in a lasting and sustained way will require the ongoing dedication and support from researchers and organisations alike. Something which doesn’t seem unlikely given the intelligence, thoughtfulness, diversity and enthusiasm of participants on the day. As we prepare for next week’s OuiShare Fest, we’re hoping to meet even more researchers and practitioners with an interest in working together in new and exciting ways.