From collaborative economy to collaborative society

9th June 2016

Matt Stokes from Nesta looks at how the next stage of the collaborative economy can move beyond profit and develop social good as its primary impact. 

Before the Seine burst its banks and the fuel shortages began to bite, I spent three days in Paris at OuiShare Fest, a conference-cum-festival exploring the collaborative economy, our financial and economic systems and other complex issues of our time.

It was three days full of optimism, but optimism peppered with unease. One major source of unease was the way in which collaborative models have become so divided between profit-oriented, tech-focused unicorns and socially-oriented, people-focused initiatives.

On the one hand we have what I call the “Silicon Valley Model” – the Ubers, Airbnbs and TaskRabbits who have come to define the collaborative economy. On the other, we have the (somewhat less sexily-named) Social Model – the platforms, organisations and communities which I hope will enable us to leave behind the “collaborative economy” and move towards instead a truly “collaborative society”.

These models can take many forms – they can be online or offline, they can be present in one town or a hundred, they can be old or new, they can be technology-driven or not – but they share a set of characteristics, beliefs and aims.

Their primary aim is social

While profit is the driver for the best-known collaborative models, social impact is the primary aim of the emerging alternative model. “Economic impact” when it exists is understood at a personal or community level – asking, for example, if individuals can boost their income or if local economies will grow, rather than if shareholders will profit.

The French network Mon p’ti voisinage, for example, allows people to help others in their community (for example by sharing expertise, lending possessions, offering time and so on), and has an explicit aim to foster stronger neighbourhoods where people know each other. Or take Faircoop, an open global co-operative which aims to reduce social and economic inequality through alternative finance models including cryptocurrency, a credit mutual system, and funding and incubation for charities and social enterprises. 

They begin with questions, not answers

Too much innovation answers a question or issue which doesn’t exist, or which isn’t a primary concern to the public, while too many pressing questions and issues go unanswered. The promise of smart cities, for example, has not been fulfilled because too much innovation didn’t align with citizens’ priorities.

Thankfully, this is now beginning to change. In Bristol, for example, the City Council, working with charity KWMC and Ideas for Change, is developing the “Bristol Approach” for community-driven projects involving sensor technologies. The Approach requires all new technologies to address the needs and priorities of the end users, particularly in communities that are in danger of exclusion. The first pilot is exploring how sensor technologies can be used to improve poor-quality, damp-ridden houses – something which came from speaking to residents about their concerns, and which wouldn’t have happened through a traditional smart cities approach

They empower users

The Silicon Valley Model makes bold claims about how it empowers people. It does, to an extent: it allows people to choose when, what, how and where they want to share, rent or do. Anybody who has used it (and who hasn’t?) will know how empowering extreme convenience feels. But it doesn’t empower those people as creators, contributors or owners. The Social Model does: it involves people in creating, designing, developing and running collaborative models – and ultimately, as I will look at in my next blog, in owning and governing them.

The heroic figure of Silicon Valley – Jobs, Zuckerberg, Musk – is of no interest to the Social Model, because it revolves around outcomes and impact rather than attribution. To use the example of Bristol again, the Bristol Approach involves co-creation (identifying problems with citizens), co-design (through workshops, challenges and competitions), and citizen contribution. In the case of damp houses, the data provided through sensors not only allows people to improve their own homes but is also aggregated to understand what’s going on at a macro level. In Barcelona, the Plan BUITS scheme invites users to submit their own ideas for how publicly-owned but disused spaces can be developed on a temporary basis as community spaces.

They share the profit.

The titans of the collaborative economy make their profit by relying on users’ assets. That is, of course, to some extent the definition of what these platforms do, but there’s a growing feeling that this is all a bit unfair. The Social Model, in contrast, seeks to ensure profit is shared among all, for example through models of employee ownership, through dividend payments or through public ownership. But they also ensure non-financial profit is shared – for example, through sharing data so that others can benefit from it, or through improving communities and thereby benefiting all residents, not just those who are actively involved.

They foster solidarity

In traditional digital collaborative economy models, people are either on the demand side, the supply side, or both (the so-called “prosumer”). And there is an imbalance of power between those sides – in most cases, the demand side is in control.

Sometimes this doesn’t matter; sometimes it might be problematic (for example if someone has to reduce the price of their Airbnb because of a bad review); sometimes it might be catastrophic (for example if a worker in the “gig economy” is blacklisted and loses their main source of income). Even worse, these dynamics are structurally built-in to some platforms – for example, providers may not be allowed to contact one another, preventing the possibility of collective action or unionisation.

The Social Model seeks to recover some of the solidarity which has been lost over the past decades, in work environments and in communities. People are no longer just “users” or “providers” – they are both or neither, they are contributors, they are creators, they are owners, they are governors. They work together, rather than against each other: cooperatives like Enspiral allow freelancers to do their work and also be part of a wider support system. They are equals: on most timebanking platforms, for example, an hour is an hour whether you work in a corporate law firm or a care home. They share ownership, rather than competing for it: communal land ownership models bring that most prized possession of all, land, into the hands of many. And whereas traditional models often mirror existing dividing lines in society of ethnicity, gender, age and class, these models, based as they are on diverse (online or physical) communities, attempt to bring together people from across all spectrums.

They are open – in the widest sense of the word

These models develop open-source software – such as the Wikihouse technology for custom-build houses, or the City of Barcelona’s Sentilo tool, which collects and aggregates data from sensors all around the city and which any other city around the world can also use. This means other communities don’t have to start from scratch, and also means different platforms can work with one another – making possible a whole-place approach and a truly “sharing city” (in which Amsterdam and Seoul lead the way).

They are also open and transparent with their governance, decisions and data – it would be impossible to empower users to design, run and govern initiatives if they were not. They make their algorithms open, so that users understand how platforms are shaping the user experience and decisions. And they tend to be open about what works and what doesn’t work, to share experiences and expertise, so that together progress can come more quickly. And without a profit motive, they have no incentive to keep their intellectual property closed.

They see technology as a tool, not an end

The opportunity of technology is as clear for the Social Model of collaboration as it is for the Silicon Valley Model. But the social model takes a renewed focus on the physical, using technology as a tool to support that. The Social Model appreciates that, especially when addressing local problems, physical things are of utmost importance – from food to housing and from transport to green space – and that they are often scarce, especially in cities.

This model is about addressing that scarcity to collaboratively create abundance, through collaboration, through circular economies, and through encouraging decentralised models of production such as makerspaces. Technology is used when needed, but only if it’s really necessary to solve a problem.

A pipe dream?

A collaborative society based on these principles and operating on such models might seem a world away; the barriers are clear to see. First and foremost, they need cash: cash for setting up, cash for running costs, cash for marketing, cash for product development (and, a cynic might say, cash for lobbying). And there is limited infrastructure – not just financial but also legal – for these organisations, which are often small, locally-based, not-profit and not looking to scale, are unable to access traditional market finance.

By virtue of local focuses, they can’t expect media coverage like the titans do. They don’t always excite our novelty-hungry brains, if they don’t use shiny new technology or build upon well-established principles such as co-operativism, which is, let’s not forget, older than the USA.

And collaboration is a hard thing to get right. It relies on trust, commitment, shared rules and shared goals. Often, a strong sense of community spirit is needed which is sadly lacking today. Social models – and free ones – must often sacrifice convenience, which may detract users. Peerby, a goods-sharing platform, facilitated more transactions in two weeks as a paid-for (but more convenient) platform than it did in two years as a free (but less convenient) platform. Finally, as other research I’m working on at the moment shows, collaboration is much more than putting people in a room and hoping they work together, and it’s not something which is fostered in the education system.

Beacons of hope

But there is already so much going on. At OuiShare Fest I spoke to people working on platforms they part-owned, to people using open data for public good, to programmers developing open software, to makers running community-owned makerspaces. They might not be in the headlines and they might not have national and international governments consulting on them, but they are active and growing. These initiatives show we shouldn’t just be talking about a collaborative economy, but about a collaborative society which brings people together, helps us manage our resources more wisely and improves the communities we live in.

And speaking to those people made me realise why, despite the predictable unease at an event subtitled “After the Gold Rush”, there was such an infectious optimism at OuiShare Fest.

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