Last week I attended the Workshop on the Collaborative Economy, organized by the Business Innovation Observatory of the Directorate General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (DG GROW). The aim was to discuss the opportunities, policy gaps and challenges brought by the Collaborative Economy, framed by the findings of 3 case studies – Crowdsolving, Freemium and Collaborative Production. Invited panellists included practitioners and entrepreneurs from platforms and/or start-ups, experts and community leaders. Kathleen Stokes from NESTA gave an overview of the main trends, drawing from the report Making Sense of the UK Collaborative Economy. The main insight I withdrew was that the Collaborative Economy is pushing for significant transformations in the social, environmental and economic value of assets at an unprecedented scale and we need to further explore its potential for more equitable, sustainable and efficient scenarios.
Cooperation vs competitiveness
The following panel discussion and Q&A session focused the debate from the viewpoint of companies and/or business in the Collaborative Economy. Some of the issues under discussion were the multiplicity of regulations across European States, which burdens companies in the Collaborative Economy, and also the problem of accessing finance when start-ups (but also social businesses) are looking to scale up, that is to increase their activity in size, offer of services or access market in other Countries. The provocative question “should the European model for the Sharing Economy be based on cooperation instead of competitiveness?” was met with scepticism, but it stimulated an interesting discussion on moving towards more distributed value models. Generally speaking, the Collaborative Economy can be seen as a hybrid economy embracing a diversity of models. For instance, Juho Makkonen from Sharetribe argued for distributed and decentralized networks of organizations owned by users to retain the value inside, which is at the core of Sharetribe as an open source marketplace platform that helps to create basic infrastructure for mostly small co-ops. Benita Matofska from Compare and Share pointed out that profit and purpose are not incompatible in the Collaborative Economy. For example the ShareTrade kitemark was recently launched as a badge given or adopted by organizations and individuals in the Collaborative Economy that comply with basic set of verification, reputation and protection mechanisms. In reaction to her general statements that business needs to be responsible in terms of data protection or also in workers’ rights, insurance or liability, I think current companies still need to show more concrete commitments and keep away from “sharewashing” as mere marketing strategies.
An economy with social purpose
The next session was designed as a “role swap” for a TV news format. Panellists and participants broke out in 3 stakeholder groups – entrepreneurs, policy makers and investors – and were provided with a set of specific questions (from the perspective of the stakeholder) and a summary of 2 companies in the Collaborative Economy as examples. One person per group presented their findings through an “interview” with a TV host (video recorded). After each “interview” participants had the opportunity to ask questions directly to the “interviewee”. I was assigned to the “Investors” group, where the exchange of ideas was centred on how to measure social impact or how to integrate non-financial elements of value generation in investors’ models. In the Collaborative Economy social purpose arises as a central element that needs to be taken into account through alternative or non-traditional mechanisms. Examples of such mechanisms were discussed: corporate social responsibility; cooperative models and social currencies; other legal dispositions such as “social company” (which can’t distribute through their stakeholders more than a fixed amount); or new forms of investment through crowdfunding. The “role swap” format allowed for more in-depth and focused discussions within each group, with the bonus of a visual output (the “interview”) that can be potentially shared to audiences outside the workshop. Suggestion for improvement is to provide each group from the beginning with the questions to be asked in the “interview”, which helps in better summarizing the group discussions into clear messages.
OuiShare initiative: POC21
During the final session, Benjamin Tincq (Co-Founder of the OuiShare community) gave an overview of OuiShare’s recent activities, particularly POC21. This initiative brought together makers, designers, engineers and social innovators for a 5-week intensive innovation camp to produce 12 final projects as proofs of concept of the disruptive impact of collaborative production, open source and the maker movement for sustainable living.
Overall the workshop stimulated insightful discussions between participants with diverse outlooks on what is and could be the Collaborative Economy, still with a strong focus on reducing what is considered by platforms as barriers for their development (such as current models for taxation, insurance or access to finance, and lack of specific regulation). I think that a broad debate is also needed about the drivers and actual impacts of Collaborative Economy initiatives for employment, environment and competitiveness.