A taxonomy of the Sharing Economy?

This is one of those ‘work out what you think by writing it down’ blogs. I hope it works. It’s fuelled by three things:

  1. My understanding that the ‘low carbon economy’ that each place will need to foster is about something much deeper than making widgets for wind turbines or even developing skills for retrofitting. It’s about new lifestyles and livelihoods in which the use of natural resources (and production of carbon emissions) is much, much lower than it is currently.
  2. A strong sense that we can now see many examples of what components of this new economy will look like, for example in the Compendium for the Civic Economy.
  3. My belief that most policy-makers don’t get this yet and we need to help them to do so, so that they can prime the development of the new economy. (I’ve written a bit about this, at least from a local government point of view)

So, recently I found myself at the launch of the Sharing Economy network, at the behest of People Who Share. A thought started to form, which I’m trying to crystallise. If this is helpful to the #SharingEconomy people, good. If not, no problem.

At the launch, I felt that much of the discussion people have about policy or principle relating to the sharing economy (anything other than ‘how to’ discussions) defaults to considering initiatives like Freegle, Streetbank and Freecycle, which are actually fairly similar to each other.

I may be wrong, but I think we default to these initiatives because the model they represent is accessible: buy something, use it until you don’t need it, then pass it on. I’m certainly guilty of this default myself: if I’m trying to excite people about the sharing economy, I often cite swishing, which is similar, only with the added thrill of the event.

This may not matter. But let me explain why I think it does. Most people involved in developing and promoting a sharing economy are keen on it because, compared with how we usually use/exchange goods and services, the Sharing Economy uses fewer natural resources and builds social capital. (Users, of course, are mostly taking part to save money – but hopefully feeling the social capital benefits, and maybe getting some insight into living lower-impact lives).

This is happening without much input from policy-makers. Fine, until now. But I think it is worth promoting to policy-makers as worthwhile and essential. And to do that, we need a narrative that also helps them start to see the sharing economy as a sector that can be encouraged. However, if every policy discussion about the sharing economy centres around the freecycle model, then much is lost.

My suggestion: develop a taxonomy of the sharing economy, so that we are clear what distinct types of sharing there are. If we do this, then the likes of People Who Share can have clearer asks of policy-makers, because they’ll be able to identify which parts of the sector are developing faster than others, which need specific incentives, and suggest interventions specific to different types of initiative.

How would you go about developing the taxonomy? It’s a research project, but I don’t think it’s overly complex. I’d start by identifying a long list of initiatives that meet ‘sharing economy criteria’ (lower natural resource use compared with conventional economic activity, possibility to improve social capital); for each one, categorise it according to a number of factors; cluster into a manageable set of typologies; and name them.

Which factors to use for the categorisation? Here’s my very rough starter for ten:

  • What is being shared (skills / clothes / electrical goods / space in car / etc)
  • Ownership (individual / community or shared / corporation)
  • Tangible / virtual / service
  • Type of utility offered (travel to work / cultural access / goods / etc)
  • Nature of sharing (temporary, in return for a fee / temporary, no fee / ownership passed on / ‘never owned’ / etc)
  • Platform (online / event / email group / noticeboard / etc)

In this way, we start to see how Whipcar is different from Freegle is different from Streetbank is different from Airbnb, and so on. And have more powerful policy ‘asks’ as a result.

So I guess the main questions are:

  • Would this be helpful?
  • If yes, has it been done (or at least started) already?
  • If not, who’s going to do it?

Over to Benita and co!

Yes to a duty, no to local carbon budgets: my take on the CCC report

So the Committee on Climate Change has published its report on the role of local authorities in addressing climate change. This is significant, as it has previously only addressed things from a central government perspective, and was only asked (by the Government) to consider the role of local government, after a fair bit of lobbying by Friends of the Earth. The Committee’s views are significant as it exists to advise government on how to achieve the UK’s statutory carbon budget.

I only have time today to make two points. One for, one against.

First, the report has to be welcomed for making it clear that not acting on carbon is not an option. The Committee is clearly concerned that “at the moment there is no requirement for councils to set targets and implement measures to reduce emissions within their area. And the scale of ambition is generally low given limited funding and lack of obligation”. As a result, it recommends “the introduction of a statutory duty for local authorities to develop and implement carbon plans, and that national funding to support such programmes is increased”. It’s a shame that the Committee has had to say this, but they’re absolutely right. The Green Alliance report, Is Localism Delivering for Climate Change? made clear in October 2011 that many local authorities’ commitment to address carbon reduction has waned recently.

Statutory duties are, I admit, a mixed blessing. They jar with me as a Localist, but I have sometimes argued for local authorities to have a single statutory duty: to ensure the future viability of their area. Everything else should flow from this; it seems to get to the point of local governance which, for me, is all about place. I could argue that a statutory duty on carbon is a proxy for this, but in practice, it’s more straightforward than that: acting on carbon reduction cannot be optional for any place. Localism cannot be about whether or not my place does anything to reduce emissions; it should be about deciding how. So I don’t have a problem with a statutory duty – but let’s avoid the classic centralist model, where local plans are sent to a central template and signed off by civil servants.

Which brings me neatly to my second point. The Committee comes out against the introduction of local carbon budgets. Their rationale is that this would not be appropriate “given the multiple drivers of emissions, many of which are beyond their control”. If this is the case, then why do councils have ambitions about job creation or waste reduction? Pretty much everything a council does that could be broadly described as ‘community leadership’ or ‘place shaping’ (ie everything except simple service delivery) is subject to forces “beyond their control”. Why should this be a barrier on carbon? Further to this, based on this logic, the UK should not have a national carbon budget; success, after all, is dependent on factors which the national government can’t fully control.

I’ve written plenty about local carbon budgets in the past, and still see the case for them as straightforward: we have a national carbon budget; our emissions are the sum total of emissions in each locality; so it makes sense for each local authority area to have a local carbon budget – that way, there is a clear role for each place in contributing to the national commitment to reduce carbon. The LGA has argued that this would be ‘centrally-imposed, top-down’ target setting; I see it as taking responsibility, arguably subsidiarity.

So I would argue for local carbon budgets as the mechanism for ensuring both that the UK meets its commitments and that each local authority is able to be ambitious about their own place. I’m disappointed that the Committee on Climate Change hasn’t taken this view, but pleased that what they do suggest looks like progress. I hope the Government listens.