Mareike Geiling is a co-founder of “Refugees Welcome”,an online platform that matches people who have an empty room with refugees who need a place to stay in Germany. She was rather surprised when she received an invitation to a European Commission workshop about the “sharing economy” run by the Joint Research Centre in December 2015. Despite being a prime example of platform-enabled sharing, she and her colleagues have not associated their Berlin-based initiative with the label that has been resonating in the tech, business and increasingly also policy circles for a number of years now.

What is the sharing economy?

It was during the initial discussions at the workshop, when a number of other participants explained that for them, the “sharing economy” is about facilitating a more efficient access to otherwise underused resources, that Mareike realised how fitting the label was to what they are trying to achieve. In little over a year, “Refugees Welcome” has helped to find accommodation for 249 refugees in 18 German cities. The platform has expanded to nine other countries where it placed further 233 refugees in private homes and two more are about to join. The term “sharing economy” is now commonly associated with big commercial players such as Uber or Airbnb who have eagerly embraced the label and have shaped the debate around it. So much so that many new initiatives are now being called the Uber or the Airbnb for X or Y. Likewise, “Refugees Welcome” has been labelled as the “Airbnb for refugees”. Mareike is not very happy about it because the concept of their platform is quite different from a commercial service that “connects people to unique travel experiences”. They are strictly not-for-profit and keep firm control over the matchmaking that is done offline, painstakingly by Mareike and her seven colleagues now employed by the organisation. There are no pictures of hosts, guests or properties and no rating systems.

The sharing economy project of the EU Policy Lab

So why did Mareike and others running not-for-profit platform-based initiatives such as Timebanking UK or Streetbank find themselves in one room with big for-profit companies such as Uber or Blablacar and a selection of experts and EU policy-makers? One of the aims of the sharing economy project, currently run by the EU Policy Lab, is to think broadly about its possible future developments and related challenges and opportunities. By including smaller not-for-profit initiatives, we wanted to move beyond the present focus on the big influential players who currently pose the most obvious challenges to the existing regulatory systems. In this first of a series of workshops, we tried to put forward a descriptive and comprehensive framework that would allow for a less value-laden debate about this growing phenomenon, deliberately avoiding the question what is and what is not “sharing”. We focused on the types of transactions that are facilitated or enabled by such platforms and described them in terms of: selling of goods and services, lending money, renting and bartering things and assets, collaborating on projects but also giving things and time for free. Some workshop participants were critical towards this approach. They felt it did not fully capture the complexities of the phenomenon for example by not appreciating the fundamental difference between profit-driven and more altruistic initiatives, online and offline types of interactions or by not differentiating between gaining access to goods and the transfer of ownership. One of the take-away messages from the workshop was that striving for a comprehensive categorisation can come at the cost of over-simplification. Given that new initiatives that combine different types of transactions and value creation are probably emerging even while you read this post, it really seems like shooting at a moving target. However, two things were made clear:
1) there are plenty of different opinions as to what the “sharing economy” is and how it should be treated by the European Union and individual countries;
2) the debate would benefit from more solid empirical evidence about its social, economic and environmental impacts.

Refugees Welcome platform

How it works Source: Refugees Welcome website

How it works
Source: Refugees Welcome website

What “Refugees Welcome” and Airbnb or Blablacar all have in common is that they are responding to people’s needs by enabling and scaling up activities in a different and often more effective way than the established institutions. Mareike explained that when they started the platform, their fellow-citizens often responded: “But it cannot be legal to just take in the refugees”. “Refugees Welcome” is a living proof that it is not only possible but also relatively simple and accessible. About half of the rent costs for refugees’ private lodging is covered by German job centres, and another quarter is financed by private donations received by the platform. The impact of the initiative goes far beyond the 482 people who now live in private accommodation instead of crowded asylum centres. They have daily interactions with their German hosts, which is the best recipe for integration. It has also had a profound effect on the hosts’, their families’ and friends’ views on refugees. They can see them in a more personal and intimate way, as fellow humans and not only as a problem their government has to deal with.

The sharing economy platforms pose some serious challenges to the national and EU regulatory frameworks. Their positive or negative impacts on economic growth, employment and environment still need to be assessed. When considering if and how to support and regulate them, it is necessary to differentiate and recognise the potential contribution of less visible and less commercially oriented players to tackling some of the key issues Europe will face in the years to come.

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