Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

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Collaborative Consumption: Would It Work?

 

Bill-Frayer-2010In January, at the weekly LCS Learning Seminar, we viewed a TED podcast from Sidney by Rachel Botsman, author of What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption. In a nutshell, she is on a mission to sell the concept of resource sharing rather than individual ownership. She asks, for example, how much sense it makes that many of us own a vehicle which sits idle for 23 hours a day? Wouldn’t it make more sense to share the expense of a vehicle and have it be used by more than one family?  Well yes, maybe.

In the rousing discussion which followed the presentation, although many people endorsed the idea of collaborative consumption, many were also skeptical about its practicality and even its possible effect on an already-fragile economy.  How, in other words, could we organize car-sharing so it would be convenient and workable?  And to what degree would it lower car sales and slow down the economy?  Practical concerns, to be sure.  

Botsman suggests, however, that, like it or not, we are already heading in this direction. In part it’s a generational movement driven by the open sharing opportunities on the Internet. The young “gen-xers” have wholeheartedly embraced the sharing culture with open-source software and on-line music and movie sharing. Even those of us in the older generation use collaborative consumption in the form of Wikipedia and libraries. 

With the worldwide economic downturn and the pressure that a rising population puts on the environment, Botsman argues that we have little choice but to move from what she calls “ultra consumption” to collaborative consumption. Why should we own so much “stuff” that we only use occasionally.   Usually, she points out, we don’t really need the object as much as the capability or experience it provides. Most of us own electric drills which may only be used a few hours in our lifetime. We don’t really need a drill. What we need is a hole! Likewise, we don’t need CD’s; we just want the music.  We may not need a car if we could have reliable transportation. 

Entrepreneurs are already responding. There are a number of car/ride sharing companies allowing consumers to get transportation without owning a vehicle. Websites like Swaptree are already allowing consumers to swap items. Companies like EBay and Craig’s List have been making money for years putting consumers in touch with people who have items to sell or swap.  

Of course, people enjoy owning things, and many would not find such “sharing” arrangements appealing. Yet, as resources become more scarce, and more expensive, we may see a resurgence in such old collaborative concepts like public transportation systems which would allow more families to make the choice to avoid car ownership. 

Perhaps our “ownership” society is going to fade, to some degree. The younger generations care just as much about quality of life but seem to be more content to share resources and avoid owning as many things. For a long time, status has been demonstrated through ownership. Perhaps this era is ending, as more people decide to live in rental units, participate in communal child care and take advantage of job-sharing opportunities. 

If this happens, maybe our idea of what brings us status may change as well. We may no longer be able to impress people by owning lots of items which we use only rarely. Perhaps our future status might be enhanced by consuming less and living in communities which share recreational space, laundry facilities, and even transportation.  

 

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