With more than 30 attendees, ranging from sharing economy specialists to NGOs representatives, social entrepreneurs, creative thinkers and changemakers, the session encouraged participants to think about the ways we can work and advance within a sharing economy model, given the opportunities and challenges it comes with. The meeting was a productive exchange of ideas that yielded a good deal of fresh, invaluable insights on a vast array of topics.
Samantha van den Bos fired the starting gun by illustrating the potential of new technologies to become empowering tools for people at the individual level, thereby creating social value and improving individual and social well-being alike. She mapped out the most remarkable initiatives within the ecosystem of the sharing economy, thereby not only providing an update on the impact of some of the most well-known platforms (such as BlaBlaCar or Uber), but also bringing in more recent, less known platforms that are currently making their way through the field, locally and internationally alike. Moreover, participants were also informed about special features of well-established platforms that meet particular social or individual demands (e.g. Uber Assist for disabled users or Bijzonder Thuisafgehaald for the elderly), which illustrate the rapid evolution of the field and the precision it can achieve to tackle specific social needs.
The bright side of the current state of affairs was supplemented with a discussion on the most pressing challenges and risks that need to be addressed in the transition into this socioeconomic paradigm, thus providing a fuller, realistic picture. Exclusion and lack of access to technology or the high-paced development of the field at the expense of quality were only a few of the points raised. But perhaps the most salient difficulties referred to overall ethical concerns on the one hand, and the relative disregard of cultural factors on the other, which can certainly become a barrier to the successful integration of initiatives within a given social or cultural group.
Firstly, as far as ethics goes many participants pointed out possible negative externalities of sharing economy models rooted in technology, such as the risk that technological developments result in human labour exploitation. Secondly, some stressed the difficulties that crop up by underestimating cultural dimensions in the creation and export of sharing economy initiatives. Precisely in connection with cultural idiosyncrasies, Matthijs Nederveen from Light for the World showed a broad range of examples of sharing economy startups in the Global South that had emerged as the product of cultural values and the aim to meet local societal demands, thus shedding light, once again, on the vital importance of adding culturally-shaped mindsets into the equation and giving evidence of the capacity of technology to export ideas from the Global South into the Western world.
Beatriz Bremer from Seats2Meet presented the Brazilian sharing economy landscape, while also alluding to the role of culture. Her own story, moreover, served to emphasise the part played by networks and personal connections in making these kinds of projects grow and flourish. The day concluded with a brainstorming session where participants gathered across the room around five themes.
One of the brainstorming groups around the general theme of governmental influence raised the fundamental question as to what role do institutions and governments should play in such a bottom up model, and the ways in which the sharing economy can capitalise on this somewhat overarching position of institutional structures. The discussion mainly focused on the regulatory frameworks affecting sharing economy initiatives. Today, legal adaptations to enable their operation in the market are unapt to reach small entrepreneurs, who face major obstacles deterring their growth and presence in the market. In light of the countless legal challenges, the group came up with the idea of creating legal labs, perhaps backed up by traditional institutions, that provide a platform to share stories of success and failure in connection with existing regulations. In this way, social entrepreneurs could access a coherent framework concerning legal issues and efficiently navigate through them to implement their projects locally and globally.
A very similar idea of sharing knowledge and expertise was central to the brainstorming on the ways in which NGOs can overcome their isolation by adopting new business models from other sectors through platforms that would bring corporations, governments and NGOs together to rise to potential challenges affecting their activities.
As for the synergies between rural and urban contexts, participants concluded that initiatives should be oriented towards capitalising on the connections between the two, that is, targeting the exchange of skills and knowledge through activities that, for instance, bring children and youth from these backgrounds together. Bottom line, it was argued, is to avoid the loss of skills and knowledge inherent in rural-urban migration and to make use of the potential of this knowledge sharing (e.g. farming or medical skills) to improve urban and rural life.
The discussion group on waithood centred around the high dynamism that pervades today’s job market. Zooming into this theme, the group called for the need to reconceptualise schooling itself and to adjust the curriculum to the new demands of the job market, especially through the promotion of entrepreneurship. A change in mentality that should be brought forward through the collaboration of wider society, including governments and the private sector.
Finally, the group on inclusivity highlighted the importance of normalising the active participation of marginal groups in sharing economy initiatives and not to waste their skills and talents. In other words, sharing economy initiatives should, from their very inception, try their best to consider these groups rather than progressively introduce features that take them into account, thereby also extending the reach of their impact to wider sections of markets and society.