There’s bike-sharing, car-sharing, ride-sharing and even home-sharing in Singapore – but are the big companies in the “sharing economy” really sharing anything at all?
Economist Dean Baker doesn’t think so.
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“The sharing economy’ is a misnomer, which the industry no doubt likes a lot. (But) it’s got nothing to do with sharing,” said Baker in an interview with The Atlantic.
Companies like Uber and AirBnB want to be associated with the “sharing economy” terminology because of the “halo of positive branding”, argues Baker. A Pew Research Center survey in 2016 found that while many Americans could not properly define the sharing economy, they viewed the phrase positively, like an altruistic endeavour.
“The real sharing economy is one built around goodwill, gratitude and mutual benefit, not commerce,” writes Creative Commons CEO Ryan Merkley in a commentary for The Globe and Mail.
“Sharing shouldn’t require compensation. If you’re paying for it, it’s not actually sharing: It’s just a service.”
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Is the sharing economy diluting the true meaning of sharing?
April Rinne, writing on the World Economic Forum’s website, says that companies today are engaging in “sharewashing” – latching themselves to the “sharing economy” – because it makes them part of a hot trend.
Rinne says: “Who doesn’t want to conjure up notions of community and cooperation?
“Is it ridesharing when a driver leases out a car that they did not own before, in order to provide rides that they would not have taken otherwise? Hardly,” she notes. But Uber remains, to the public and the media, a common example of the sharing economy, she adds.
An article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) expresses a deeper concern: It suggests that the idea of sharing has been subverted by the sharing economy to become more like a monetary-driven endeavour, rather than a community-driven social interaction.
“When consumers use the world’s leading car-sharing service (Zipcar), they don’t feel any of the reciprocal obligations that arise when sharing with one another,” the researchers cited as an example.
“They experience Zipcar in the anonymous way one experiences a hotel; they know others have used the cars, but have no desire to interact with them. They don’t view other Zipsters as co-sharers of the cars, but rather are mistrustful of them.”
Making money in the real sharing economy
At its core, the sharing economy, as we know it today, is really just a jazzed up term up for a behaviour we’ve been doing for a long time: Renting. Which is simply paying to share a product.
Still, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the bike-sharing, car-sharing, and ride-sharing services in Singapore. They are great services that bring additional convenience to our society. Nevertheless it is hard to label them as “sharing”.
So what should the real sharing economy look like and can we still make money from it?
In his book, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, researcher Adam Grant argues that those who “give first are often best positioned for success later.” Merkley cites Tesla’s founder Elon Musk as an example. In 2014, Musk declared that all his company’s patents for electric vehicle technology were free and open for all to use.
This decision was not just generous, but also a smart business move, says Merkley. For one, companies that use Musk’s patents get a free and faster lead-in to technology that they would have spent more time trying to develop.
Musk and Tesla also stand to gain when more companies use their patents, because their designs would ultimately become the industry standard. Tesla would then be seen as the industry leader, and would thus be able to sell more cars.
And finally, society benefits because the technology is more readily available.
A community-driven sharing economy
Besides companies, communities, too, can drive a sharing economy. There’s an odd phenomenon in Taiwan that often baffles visitors: Leave your umbrella outside a store on a rainy day, and there’s a high chance it may “disappear” before you return.
To the uninitiated, it may appear that your umbrella was stolen; but ask the locals and they’ll say your umbrella was “borrowed” by a passerby.
You see, in Taiwan, there’s an unspoken tradition for people to share umbrellas freely. On a wet day, local businesses will place umbrella stands outside their shops, and any passerby can take one if they need it.
This custom inspired one Danish entrepreneur to start his own free umbrella-sharing system back home, which has since expanded to five other European countries.
And recently in Singapore, there have been attempts to do something similar.
Around July last year, an umbrella-sharing project, called “Sharella”, began near Sembawang MRT station. The initiative allowed residents to pick up a brolly for free to cross an unsheltered road.
On Sharella’s first day, all 20 umbrellas placed at the racks went missing, reported TODAY. When a replacement batch came in, they disappeared after a few days, too, despite signs in four languages informing users of the sharing initiative.
Initially, people were calling for a deposit-refund system or CCTVs to encourage users to return the umbrellas. But then “an amazing thing happened”, according to Member of Parliament Ong Ye Kung. Volunteers stationed themselves at the crossing to educate users on the initiative, and these efforts later saw residents contribute their own umbrellas. The initiative was so successful that it has now expanded to 17 spots across the constituency.
The Sembawang example highlights a crucial point: For the sharing economy to succeed, the sharer and receiver must both be accountable and learn how to share.
It’s not enough that we show our disapproval of users’ lack of graciousness. Without any action we cannot change the situation. As the receiver, we have a responsibility to be considerate to others. As the sharer, we also have the responsibility to promote considerate behaviour.
Our success lies in collective acts – to create a culture that promotes and rewards sharing, for all of us to benefit.