Sharing is caring: positive progress or damaging disruption?

25th Jul, 2014

The sharing economy is leading to new business models that provide convenience, immediate access and often a better price. But is this too disruptive – or just a side-effect of progress?

The sharing economy is taking the world by storm. Companies such as AirBnB or Uber have identified the digitally facilitated trend for collaborative consumption – where individuals come together to get the best deal and bypass mediators.

There’s a broader benefit too – we have all heard the idiom “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, and one aspect of the sharing economy builds on people’s environmental consciousness by looking for creative ways of prolonging the consumption cycle of unwanted goods. Sites like Gumtree or Freecycle have made it easy for individuals to get rid of their unwanted stuff, others allow people to borrow or rent items they only need occasionally, and others like AirBnB let you rent out your home to complete strangers.

This trust – between complete strangers – is crucial to the sharing economy. As trust in businesses and institutions crumbles in the wake of scandal after scandal, trust in other people increases. Our newest wave of Trajectory Global Foresight data reveals a 6% increase in the proportion of people who say that other people can generally be trusted – against the direction of travel for politicians, business leaders and the media.

People are thus more willing to look for alternatives and, most perhaps most importantly, the internet has played a crucial role in enabling the ‘global village’ to truly mimic the historic community values of knowing and trusting one’s neighbours. Despite dealing with strangers, and protected through anonymity, these spaces also rely on mutual understanding, as well as feedback based reviews in order to ensure smooth running.

But it is not only consumer items that are affected and influenced by the sharing economy: In the words of Kevin Kelly “access is better than ownership”. As such, we no longer need to own a vast music, film or book collection. Instead, we can have immediate access to all the music, films and books through free or subscription based services such as Netflix or Spotify.  Consumers, and especially the digital natives of the Generation Y, no longer want to deal with the question of ownership, which is surpassed with an immediate want of access. One side effect is raised expectations, as we now not only expect to have access to any song ever recorded, but also to find it easily and immediately.

As always, depending on which side you’re standing, the sharing economy can either be seen as a positive development or a bad disruptive force. Whilst for the disruptees, this emerging trend is associated with the loss of profit and greater competition through unlicensed competitors – and likely to result in demonstrations and legal protest as seen in last month’s black cab drivers demonstration or AirBnB’s ongoing legal troubles. For the disrupters, however, it provides a new business model and the potential to give way to greater community cohesion.

There is no doubt that the sharing economy will further shake up life as we know it, just like downloading MP3s was considered dangerous before iTunes provided the first legal basis for this service.