By Paula Land


Those of you who keep up with market developments in the ever growing sectors that the collaborative economy is covering by now, have realized that we are approaching a split.  This split is not only manifest in the kinds of platforms that get on the market, you see in the public and academic debate about the collaborative economy as well. 
 
What are we breaking our minds about? While enthusiasts claim that this is just the beginning of major technological disruption, moving towards self-driving vehicles and blockchain enabled home-sharing, just to name a few, critiques become nostalgic. Nostalgic about the lost promise of a more social, equitable, fair, in fact truly collaborative economy. Their major criticism: Efficiency and profit driven corporations, backed by venture capital, are taking over private space and commodifying what used to be shared among friends and family. Those realms that used to be free of capitalistic influence are now for sale - in the ironically so called sharing economy. 
 
But, let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Because neither is it wise to embrace new technological opportunities just for the sake of it, nor should we turn our backs to developments that are already happening in full speed. Instead, we can seize the moment to shape the collaborative economy in our best interest, so that everyone can benefit.
 
In my master thesis research I aimed to precisely do this - to paint a more detailed picture of the prevalent practices within the collaborative economy. I wanted to know if platforms that operate at a large scale, in all kinds of sectors, incorporate values like sociability, reciprocity, and altruism in their operations and have an impact on social networks within neighborhoods. 
 Therefore, I interviewed entrepreneurs and pioneers in the collaborative economy, in the food, care, goods, transportation, space, and service sector, who were kind enough to share their insights and experiences. 
 
And it turns out: It is not all that simple. Trust, values, and social networks do play an important role for collaborative economy platforms. At the same time, these organizations do want to increase their efficiency and effectiveness, both in operations as well as for their users. How to achieve one, without compromising on the other?  Building trust among members takes time, insinuating values takes effort, and establishing social networks is possibly beyond reach for a platform. 
 
There are a couple of key findings that owners of platforms, as well as policy makers can learn from. 
 
How to create trustworthy networks?
The research has shown that trustworthiness is key in the collaborative economy. Trustworthiness describes the level of trust that platform users have a) in the platform itself and b) in each other. Both can be cultivated by the platform.  Platforms operate differently when it comes to trust. Not all mechanisms have the same effect on levels of trust within a network. 

Just to name a few examples: An insurance for breakdown creates trust for large and valuable assets, it might however be intimidating to someone who wants to simply borrow a drill.
Similarly, sharing some personal information is key on some kind of platforms, those that require more personal contact and personal trust, like in the care sector. On others, this could create a sense of giving away too much personal information. 
Platform operators, but also critiques of the collaborative economy, need to keep this in mind.

It is all about knowledge
Sharing the knowledge about how to use a platform best, on what to do in unexpected situations or how to best find what you are looking for is essential for peer-to-peer platforms. When platforms enable their users to exchange experiences and to ask their questions to other users, this can create a sense of ownership and trust that a good customer service would not be able to create. As a benefit of sharing knowledge either via online means, such as facebook groups, or discussion forums, but also offline during meet-ups, members get closer to other users, they find out who in their neighborhood is using the service and they can build stable, trustful relations. Years of studying social capital support this point and platforms can make use of these mechanisms.  

Identity and Values
My interviews also showed that successful platforms operate from a mission, a set of values they subscribe to an that their members identify with. Merely making it easy for members to connect does not mean that there will actually a stable relation. By subscribing to ideals that potential members of a platform share, like sociability, reciprocity, or sustainability, the platform creates a sense of being more than the sum of its transactions. This aspects becomes more crucial the more the platform revolves around intangible assets such as shared meals, time, care, or knowledge. 
 
What is next
Platforms can leverage the positive feedback loops within existing social networks and connect to more established organizations that operate in their sector. By not attempting to 'disrupt' but to build on what exists, collaboration within neighborhoods can increase tremendously. Platforms operating in the care sector have done a great job of incorporating traditional care providers into their service and thereby creating symbiosis. 
 
Connecting platforms
The interviews I conducted also revealed that members are more prone to use a peer-to-peer service when they are already familiar with the concept. If platform link up, cooperate and show their members other possibilities for collaboration, beyond their own market sector, this could also create positive spin-offs. 
 
For policy makers
And finally we need to tackle our understanding of ownership and consumption. If we are to approach a circular economy, we have to shift the ways in which we use, value, and dispose of products, and why we do so. There is a lot more research needed into the behavioral drivers of overconsumption, yet what policy at this point can do is to cultivate a valuation of usage rather than ownership. We need to redefine what our basic needs are and if they are best served by buying products.
 
This dialogue can be started by progressive policy makers. They are also the ones that need to make sure the collaborative economy and its benefits for social capital are accessible for every part of society.
 
For more detail have a look at my master thesis, here. 

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