There's a Very interesting article in Fast Company about how the majority of services in the sharing economy are failing to attract use.
It confirms many of the findings from my own work.
In the research for the We-economy project, I have not come across any sharing services of the sharing-among-neighbors kind, that are actually making money. Even Street club, the British service operated by Kingfisher DIY stores, has folded its activities into a grassroots organization called Street Bank, supported by grants. I talked to both Kingfisher and to the manager of Street Bank, and they are quite clear, that this sort of activity cannot survive on purely commercial terms.
Clearly, true sharing services can have value beyond money. They can strengthen social cohesion and have environmental benefits – but they cannot generate money in significant quantities. In a sense, that’s actually the point: That they remove revenue and offer savings for participants.
The many different outfits that are currently operating under the ”sharing economy” label really belong to very different categories. There are commercial, micro-rental services like Uber and airbnb – and there are actual sharing services, which by nature are rather non-profit, but may be valuable in other ways.
I believe that this last, non-commercial category of sharing platforms might be considered a new type of public service – like state-owned media or libraries.
Historically, public services have been functions in society for which it was clearly in the general interest of society that everyone had access – but which would not be established if left to the market forces.
The rewards of creating these services might be too long-term, or the rewards might be in-direct, cultural, and hard to monetize. Radio and Television channels, libraries, postal service or the telephone network are examples of large-scale services, which were operated by the public sector. Being public services, they upgraded everyone to the next level of societal participation and thereby supported further development and a higher general standard of living.
I have recently worked in a Danish ministerial think tank on smart cities, and one of my conclusions from those discussions are, that as we move towards smart cities, we will need a basic platform for coordinating everyday activities that is non-commercial – otherwise some very fundamental aspects of what is available and acceptable will be controlled by Google, Facebook etc.
The commercial giants do a great job, but I believe that there is a need for some additional levels of service provided on a non-commercial basis if we want to ensure that everyone has decent access and reasonably equal opportunity to participate and benefit.
Examples of this could be the type of concepts found in the sharing economy: Services to share tools, meals, houses, cars, gardens and parking spaces. Digital platforms that connect people with skills and a wish to help users that need assistance with small tasks. Electronic bulletin boards, which allow the inhabitants in a local community to announce or discover social and cultural activities.
Such services can connect community members and build up social capital and coherence – and they should be part of the smart cities of the future. But they are not commercially viable.
All of this leads to the conclusion that it is entirely reasonable to explore if the next type of public service suitable for tomorrow’s smart cities should be a ”citizens network”, established and funded by the government.
Talking about such networks in terms of public service allows us to be less apologetic for the fact that you can’t wring enough money out of them to make them work as business – and it allows us to think much more ambitiously about the functionality of the networks.
A citizens’ network featuring these types of services could create better communication among citizens, it could make it much more transparent what takes place in the local community, it could create new ways of participating in local democracy, it could be the ”help desk” for the information society… And the more functions the network would integrate (including private services and local media), the better chances are that it could indeed reach critical mass of use and users to become the preferred app for interacting with all things local.
This could be the next version of a true sharing economy.