On Saturday, November 19th and 20th, Shareable and Parsons Desis Lab hosted ShareNY, a conference on the sharing economy in New York City. If your reaction is, “But New Yorkers don’t share!” you’re probably forming judgments based on bad Hollywood movies. NYC is quite a shareable city; people live in apartment buildings (often with roommates), take public transit together (sharing many awkward, annoying and amusing moments) and share bikes – beginning in 2012.
The sharing economy has a lot of names – collaborative consumption, peer-to-peer, access economy, the mesh – but it’s essentially built on person-to-person transactions that create social benefit within a local community. Though a global community, airbnb is probably the most recognized example to date.
One of the questions posed at the start of the conference was, “Is this an alternative form of capitalism or an alternative to capitalism?” I would argue that it’s both. The sharing economy is comprised of social enterprises and non-profits – some enable monetary transactions while others promote barters of goods and services. Employing both models is an intelligent way of garnering a broader appeal since people on one end of the spectrum are enticed by the ability to make extra cash and those on the other side simply want to build relationships, trust and community (and, of course, there are a whole bunch of folks in the middle).
Finding ways to profit from what we already own is quite capitalistic – and opportune in a recession. While our traditional economy continues to flail, what emerges is one spurred by resourceful communities of people building trust in each other instead of Uncle Sam. What’s more, it’s an industry built on shared values instead of a particular line of business. Here’s how a few companies from ShareNY could change your life:
It’s the holidays so you decide to get on a cake-making kick but you don’t have the funds or space for a mixer. You jump on SnapGoods and find one four blocks away that a neighbor named Sammy W. is renting for $3/day. Perfect, especially since chances are, you won’t be making cakes after December for at least another year. Why own such an infrequently used appliance? Your first cake turns out to be a disaster so you sign up for a class called “Bake Your Cake & Eat It, Too!” on Skillshare which launches you into a delicious cake-making frenzy. One night you’re concocting something brilliant and you realize you’re out of eggs (doh) and it’s 11 pm, which normally wouldn’t be a problem in NYC except for that tornado-like blizzard outside. You cross your fingers and post a “MicroFavor” on Hey, Neighbor!: Can anyone lend me 4 eggs in the next 30 minutes? I’ll get you back tomorrow! Who knew that the big galoot in 4B actually has a name (it’s Tom) and some extra organic eggs? Tom saves the day night and the whole encounter inspires a business idea: a mobile neighborhood chicken coop. You quit your day job and rent a cubicle at a design firm through Loosecubes so you can network at work and find a freelancer to help you build your sweet mobile app for what you’re now calling Urban Eggriculture. A few months later, you’re getting so much buzz that you begin co-working and teaching entrepreneurial classes at General Assembly, where you also happen to meet your future spouse. Wow, that was easy, fun and wildly successful!
In addition to all those companies that just improved your life, there are also cooperatives in this space, like the Park Slope Food Co-op (PSFC). Ann Herpel of the PSFC says that some people consider her organization to be socialist but she maintains that it runs on capitalism; the co-op buys produce from local producers and sells it to its members. PSFC has 67 paid employees which averages out to about one per 250 members. And it works. Well. One good reason for its success is likely that all members have to work about a 3-hour shift every 30 days and no one’s allowed to buy his/her way out. Herpel remarked that it’s clear when members still don’t get what the co-op’s about because when asking about inventory, they’ll query, “do they carry this?” instead of, “do we carry this?” Get it or not, they’re still active members because the place is rampant with affordable and delicious produce (I know firsthand – I was a member when I lived in Brooklyn). As mentioned at ShareNY, the United Nations has declared 2012 the International Year of the Cooperatives – it’s time to grow this model.
The non-profit players at ShareNY were as inspiring as the for-profits. OurGoods is a community of artists and creators who barter skills, spaces and objects to help each other execute projects with limited resources. Trade School, from the founders of OurGoods, is a “barter for instruction” model. When the founders tested the idea at GrandOpening in spring 2011, they were overwhelmed by the concept’s popularity. In their words: “Classes…ranged from Scrabble strategy to composting, from grant writing to ghost hunting. In exchange for instruction, teachers received everything from running shoes to mixed CDs, from letters to a stranger to cheddar cheese.” Cheddar cheese for a ghost hunting class? I’m in! And then there’s the crowdfunding platform ioby, which is like Kickstarter for environmental projects. (As much as co-founder Erin Barnes used to hate that analogy because they launched at the same time, she now admits it’s totally true.) Barnes also admitted that projects on the site with more than one leader get funded six times as fast – so partner up on your work.
Unsurprisingly, collaboration truly was at the heart of the conversation. It’s what motivates these leaders, powers their organizations and defines this industry as a new kind of capitalism. Conventional capitalism is incredibly individualistic and maybe these pioneers can salvage its tarnished reputation. If you agree, join the sharing economy and help prove that it’s the new economy.
Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for behavior change, collaboration and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to make sustainability inconveniently fun.