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!