Unless you’ve had your head in the sand this past year, you will have registered the flurry of excitement around companies such as Airbnb, Uber, JustPark and Etsy, that are being grouped together under the term “the Sharing Economy”.
It’s caught the attention of the UK government too, who earlier this year commissioned an independent report on the sector from CEO of Love Home Swap, Debbie Wosskow (see here for a more in-depth blog). The day after the report was published I attended the remarkably well-timed “Share Summit” to hear first-hand from some of the key players.
But let’s back up – what is the sharing economy? As many have observed, none of the names associated with the “sharing”, “peer” or “collaborative” economy” seem to adequately describe the phenomenon. At Share Summit, CEO of cleaning portal Hassle.com Alex Depledge even queried why she was on the panel, arguing that her service is simply the agency model reimagined for the digital age. The name aside, what these services do have in common is the use of digital platforms to enable people to do what they have always done – buy, sell, share or rent goods, services and possessions – but with increased ease and at scale.
The fact that these “sharing” companies have now entered the mainstream (ride-sharing service Blablacar now moves twice as many people as Eurostar, for example), is thanks to three developments: the pervasity of smart phones and social media; increased urbanisation (most services requiring critical mass to work optimally); and attitudinal change. As Compare and Share’s Benita Matofska explained, the Baby Boomer generation’s Goldilocks Complex (they don’t want people using “their bed”) is being replaced by Millennials’ preference for access over ownership. Sharing is now socially acceptable.
Proponents of the movement argue that the social and economic opportunity is huge. At a macro level this means more sustainable use of existing resources, less waste, less pollution. At a personal level, for the “sharer” it can enable micro-entrepreneurship, bringing vital extra income and flexible working into households. For the consumer, while many are first attracted by cost savings (Blablacar claim their journeys are 80% cheaper than car rental), people become long-term sharers because of the experience – the conversation in a ride-share, the ability to stay in a “real home” while on holiday, the convenience of parking on someone’s drive.
But with opportunity, of course comes risk – especially in relation to workers’ rights, consumer trust and safety – as well as the ire of incumbent businesses. This is where regulation comes in. But during a panel session at Share Summit that asked “How do we reduce the red tape and regulatory burdens that are holding innovation back?”, the answer depended very much on the company’s specific sector.
For Hassle.com’s Alex Depledge, any form of additional regulation to tackle perceived risk was unwelcome, arguing that for low margin, low wage sectors, an increased regulatory burden dramatically affects the platform’s bottom line, with costs inevitably being passed on to its users. The net effect would be counter-intuitive, as it would force users back to the informal economy, and away from any regulatory oversight at all.
Alex Stephany, CEO of JustPark, provided a classic example of outdated regulation that had been significantly holding back the online parking platform. Local councils in the UK had increasingly been fining residents for renting out their driveways, claiming that they had failed to register a change of use for the drive – itself a costly exercise. After a campaign by JustPark, Local Government Minister Eric Pickles, agreed to issue new guidance to councils as part of an overhaul of the UK’s planning laws.
While Airbnb is facing innumerous regulatory hurdles across the world, with tourist and accommodation rules varying from city to city (and district to district in some cases), it’s Head of European Policy Patrick Robinson argued that regulation can also be the sharing economy’s friend. Balanced and appropriate regulation can bring validation and recognition to a sector that can suffers from a distrust of “disruptive businesses” among the public and policy-makers’. Ian Cruickshank, from P2P lender Ratesetter agreed, saying that new FCA regulations applying to the sector from 1 April 2014, have given much need authentication to the industry.
It was a fascinating discussion that served as a reminder that although the Sharing Economy umbrella is convenient term for journalists and blog writers, each new business model and sector poses different policy challenges, and that a one size fits all approach to regulation will not be appropriate.
Photo Credit: Eight Sustainability Platform