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Sharing can be better

Chris Martin

The government should do more to support a genuinely sharing economy, suggests Dr Chris Martin. The UK government has adopted a very narrow commercial perspective on the emergence of the sharing economy. In doing so, it is overlooking the potential benefits of new digital technologies to enable environmentally and socially sustainable forms of economic activity based upon sharing and collaboration.

Last year saw the coalition government complete a sharing economy policy review. Their attention seems to have been attracted by 'sharing' economy platforms, such as Uber and Airbnb, which grew from start-ups to multi-billion pound global corporations in just a few years. But the government, it seems, is ignoring the word 'sharing' and focusing almost exclusively on the word 'economy'.

In particular, the sharing economy is viewed by ministers as a way of increasing labour market flexibility, eroding labour rights and promoting the piecemeal forms of work offered on 'task-sharing' sites, such as Taskrabbit.

My research, recently published in the journal, Ecological Economics, has explored visions of a sharing economy that are more firmly connected to the idea of sharing (in its common sense meaning). Two visions, which contrast with that of the UK government, emerge.

First, a vision emerged, around five years ago, of a sharing economy which could radically reduce the environmental impacts of consumer culture. Advocates, in particular Botsman and Rogers, in their book 'What's Mine is Yours', saw the potential for peer-to-peer online platforms to enable people to share access to consumer products from cars to drills.

They argued that sharing access reduces the demand for these products and the demand for materials and energy used in manufacturing them. There remains considerable ambition across a loose coalition of sharing economy advocates, activists and entrepreneurs to enable these more sustainable forms of consumption. For example, platforms for sharing consumer products within local communities continue to develop; seeking to reduce consumption and waste and promote interactions between neighbours.

A second, more radical vision of the sharing economy is also developing, primarily among grassroots activists. The goal of the sharing economy, within this vision, is to create a more sustainable and equitable society. Here, the sharing economy becomes an umbrella term for a diverse group of innovations ranging from open source software and hardware, to crowdfunding and microfinance fab labs providing shared access to 3D printers and collaborative consumption. Although these innovations might initially seem an odd group, they share a focus on empowering communities and decentralising the economy by refashioning sharing and collaborative practices in a digital age.

Both these alternative visions of the sharing economy have weaknesses and the second might easily be criticised as a digital utopia. However, given the challenges we face in creating a more sustainable and equitable economy, they warrant further attention from policy-makers.

Chris Martin - Research Associate at our School of Environment, Education and Development. A version of this post and other blogs from our researchers appear on Manchester Policy Blogs

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