Worth Sharing

The Old Switcheroo

Digital networking in all areas of life is creating a new economy of sharing. The opportunities to live and work more efficiently and sustainably are out there – we just need to seize them.

The best ideas are often born of desperation. That was the case with Casey Fenton, a programmer from New Hampshire. In 1999, the then-21-year-old snapped up a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland. He still needed a place to stay, though. So he hacked into the network of Reykjavík University and asked 1,500 students via e-mail if they could host him. He received over 50 offers and ended up staying with a rhythm and blues singer. Inspired by this experience, on his flight home Fenton got the idea to start a website through which travelers could network and offer each other a place to sleep or their services as a city guide, free of charge. Couchsurfing.com went live in 2004. The platform now has around 15 million members all around the world. Alongside Wikipedia (est. 2001) and Facebook (est. 2004), Couchsurfing was one of the first platforms to arise from a new culture of sharing. This ‘sharing culture’ leverages the unique properties of the Internet: Everyone who has the technical infrastructure can contribute something to the network, and everyone can share these contributions – practically free of charge, at that.

Sharing yet owning

In parallel to digital networking, the sharing philosophy is penetrating more and more areas of life. Billions of people produce and share videos, music, encyclopedia entries, apartments, cars, and even renewable sources of energy that they create themselves. According to a study conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), over 50 percent of consumers in Germany are already taking up on sharing offers. In 2018, revenue from these offers is expected to grow by five percent over the previous year’s value, to around €24 billion. Global revenue generated through sharing will reach approximately €335 billion in 2025. Sharing culture revolves around the communal good instead of commercial goals; the latter are the preserve of the clearly business-oriented sharing economy. Sharing culture and the sharing economy are not always easy to clearly differentiate from one another. Many sharing culture projects begin as non-profit endeavors, but sooner or later, they adopt a business model. Popular motivations behind this decision include the needs to manage requirements for user service, data management, and app development. Sharing culture and the sharing economy rest upon the same principle. “Collaborative approaches revolve around access, not possession. Buyers and sellers give way to users and providers. Consumers become ‘prosumers,’” says American economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin. “Thanks to the infrastructure of the Internet of Things and increasing levels of automation, productivity is improving to such an extent that the costs of purchasing and distributing a constantly growing range of goods and services are sinking down to zero,” says Rifkin. This paradigm shift poses a challenge to the business models of many industries, forcing them to adapt: The music industry was confronted with digital exchange platforms and artists marketing themselves via YouTube, and now makes use of digital sales channels itself. Major energy suppliers with coal-fired and nuclear power plants are facing many decentralized, smaller-scale energy providers that can operate at constantly decreasing costs – such as a private individual with a photovoltaic system on the roof of their house or a village association running a wind farm. The mobility sector, in particular, is experiencing disruption and fighting to gain market shares in a new area: The Deutsche Bahn, Daimler, and BMW are engaging in the carsharing market – Ford is offering bikesharing. “Automotive manufacturers need to decide whether it will hurt or help them to get involved with carsharing, since each shared car replaces 15 privately owned vehicles,” says Rifkin. At any rate, self-driving taxis will soon make owning a car completely superfluous, he predicts.

Social life will supersede status symbols

One motivation behind implementing more of a sharing culture in both the private and the commercial sector is the necessity to preserve resources, whether this be for economic or environmental reasons. The PwC study found that the drivers of today’s sharing economy are individuals in the under-40 bracket. For many of these people, property increasingly seems like a burden that hinders their private and professional flexibility. Status symbols and maximizing profits are losing their meaning; social life is becoming more important. Moreover, the under-30s in particular hope to make a contribution to preserving resources, environmental protection, and sustainability through the sharing economy without having to forgo consumption and have a lesser quality of life. Millennials and digital natives have grown up well versed with climate change, a globalized working world, social media, and digitalization. The concept of ‘sharing instead of buying’ seems only natural to them, and will also seem this way to subsequent generations. At present, sharing machines only makes up ten percent of the sharing economy market. The Internet of Things, big data, and 3D printing could, however, inspire a culture of exchange among industrial concerns. The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research is carrying out research through its ‘WICE’ project on how companies from the fields of mechanical and plant engineering, for example, can enter into profitable exchange-based relationships with one another. In a collaborative industrial economy, products will seldom pass into the customer’s possession. Instead, as managed by a Web service, they will be temporarily used by one customer or by several in parallel – the key concepts here are leasing, sharing, and pooling. Mobile on-site production systems or online leasing platforms are conceivable, through which companies will offer their own machines, tools, or entire production systems from other companies for exchange or against payment. According to Rifkin, the reigning principle of centralized production facilities and long sales chains will be made obsolete by 3D printers. These are becoming more and more affordable. Around the world, the network of FabLabs (fabrication labs) operated by companies, private individuals, communities, or universities is growing. At these labs, anyone (in keeping with the principle that ‘virtually anything is possible’) can use 3D printers, laser cutters, computer-driven presses, and mills – for prototype production, for small series production, or even just to create a replacement part. The printing data is usually open-source, collaboratively designed, shared via online platforms such as Thingiverse global, and traded on online marketplaces such as Shapeways, Etsy, or Taobao. The open nature of FabLabs captures the essence of sharing culture: Production technologies and expertise will become accessible to everyone, even in places where this was previously difficult due to a lack of education, funding, and infrastructure. FabLabs in India, Asia, and Africa are already helping to resolve local problems and increase locals’ quality of life. 3D printing is beginning to gain a foothold as a means of production in industrial nations: ­Medical technicians use this method to create prosthetics, the automotive manufacturer Bugatti prints titanium calipers, and in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, Project Milestone is currently facilitating the construction of five houses that fulfill the local building regulations using concrete 3D printing.

Sharing without limits?

While the sharing economy opens up a wealth of opportunities, it does also have its downsides. A fundamental principle of sharing lies in making major properties accessible to the largest possible number of parties by splitting the respective costs. However, even if a new world based upon sharing will be more livable, socially conscious, and oriented to the greater good than the world at present, it will still give rise to new conflicts and the risk of self-exploitation. “The principles of the sharing economy are often merely applied to even better exploit unused resources such as apartments, cars, or manpower and make it possible to use these more efficiently,” says Rachel Botsman, an economist and lecturer at Oxford University. Things that were previously left off the market will be capitalized. Platforms such as Uber and Lyft (driving services), Airbnb and booking.com (accommodation) network millions of users with providers that market their own resources in the manner of sole proprietors. This practice is placing entities such as taxi companies and the hotel sector under pressure. It also threatens some of the securities afforded under labor and consumer protection law. The mass marketing of living spaces in major cities via Airbnb has already lead to shortages in the availability of regular rental properties, rising costs of living, and an atmosphere of hostility towards tourists among citizens. Following protests, Amsterdam (Netherlands), Barcelona (Spain), and Berlin (Germany), to name a few examples, have regulated the market. These kinds of developments are a far cry from the original trust-based vision of sharing culture that once inspired Casey Fenton to start up couchsurfing. The new sharing culture has arrived. We obviously need to learn how to handle it responsibly.

Picture credit: U.S. Geological Survey and NASA