A worldwide paradigm shift from ‘sharing’ to ‘collaborative’ economy?

Patterns of CommoningThe so-called “sharing economy” – as propelled on the world stage in the last few years by corporations such as Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft – is finally shedding its true skin and showing its shortcomings, at least when confronted with more collaborative and participatory initiative across the world. That trend, being described sometimes as a new type of business and other times as a social movement, is based on the basic assumption that “Internet is making the world better”, not just through wonderful gadgets and more information, but also by reshaping entire societies.

While this typical and unnecessary hype about technology is now being reconsidered in any field, it is clear that the word “sharing” has been stretched beyond reasonable limits here. Therefore, it is finally being rebranded (more correctly) as “rental” or “on-demand” economy.

Among the growing critics of that initial approach, technologist Tom Slee goes as far as to argue that the so-called “sharing economy” presents the opportunity for a few people to make fortunes by damaging communities and pushing vulnerable individuals to take on unsustainable risk. In his upcoming book What’s yours is mine (OR Books) he writes:

If the Sharing Economy proponents who do believe in equality and sustainability want to build something useful, they need to drop the hubris of Internet culture and learn some lessons from those in other fields who have been engaged in sharing for years. Just as there are no shortcuts to solving complex social problems, so there is no simple Big Idea to countering the worst of the Sharing Economy. A starting point is that we recognize it for what it is.

In other words, we should look at those experiences and people that have been actually sharing resources and economies for generations, and explore their commons roots to try to apply them to modern society. And a new anthology is doing just that, providing great help to recognize the great scope and vitality of commons initiatives around the world. Edited by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, Patterns of Commoning is arguably the most accessible and broad-ranging survey of contemporary commons in print.

From alternative currencies and open source farm equipment, to community forests and collaborative mapping, urban commons and dozens of other examples, this collection shows in vivid detail that there are plenty of alternatives to such disguised capitalist enterprises and even to the power of the Market/State duopoly – taken for granted in western societies. Indeed, as David Bollier (author, policy strategist,
international activist and blogger on commons-related issues since late 1990s) writes in his previous book, Think Like a Commoner (now available also in Italian):

Historically, the State has had very little to do with com- mons except to indulge their existence or work with market players (corporations, investors, industries) to enclose them. The basic problem is that the state has strong incentives to ally itself with market forces in order to advance the privatization and commodification of public resources.

On the same vein, Michel Bauwens (theorist, researcher, author and founder of the p-2-p foundation) has proposed that we reimagine the State and the Market as a “triarchy” that shares governance authority with the commons— the Market/State/Commons. The goal is to realign authority and provisioning into new, more socially beneficial configurations while at the same pushing for peer-to-peer, participatory platforms. In a recent blog post, Michel Bauwens adds some important insights:

Platforms are a valuable, shared resource making interactive value creation possible through organizing and simplifying participation. Sociologists have called such shared resources public goods. A private good is one that the owners can exclude others from using. Private was valuable and public without much value during the era of scarcity economics. This is now changing in a dramatic way, creating the intellectual confusion we are in the midst of today. The physical commons were, and still often are, over-exploited but the new commons follow a different logic. The more they are used, the more valuable they are for each participant.

So, how do we as a society step out of such “intellectual confusion” and try practical solutions on the ground? Well, a great example is the path chosen by Sharing City Seoul: switching gear from the Airbnb/Uber model and investing instead in self-sufficient alternatives involving small local businesses and social innovators. Along with global projects such as OurCities, a broader approach requires a general rethinking of urban space, common goods and city governance within a citizen-base context – issues at centerstage in the upcoming City as a Commons conference (Bologna, 6-7 november). Including Bauwens and Bollier among the speakers, this event will seek to better understand the idea of urban commons at different scales, with all its varied ramifications, including the “sharing everything” paradigm.

Most importantly, it’s only if and when each and all of us gets directly involved in such a process that we together can make a difference – suggesting a more than necessary shift toward a more participatory and collaborative economy.


La cosiddetta “sharing economy” (quella trainata da corporation quali Airbnb, Uber e Lyft) va dimostrandosi sempre meno collaborativa e partecipativa, portando molti a definirla più appropriatamente economia “on demand” oppure “d’affitto”. Tra i molti critici di quell’approccio in stile business, nel mondo anglofono ne parlano ora Tom Slee in un prossimo libro di ampio respiro (What’s yours is mine) e l’antologia appena uscita Patterns of Commoning che dettaglia decine di esempi comunitari nel mondo basati su economie locali, innovative e cooperative. Analogo cambio di marcia verso il locale partecipato emerge da iniziative quali la Sharing City Seoul, come anche quanto suggeriscono le proposte operative al centro dell’imminente conferenza City as a Commons (Bologna del 6-7 novembre). Un quadro complessivo in mutazione e tutto sommato promettente per spostare il paradigma generale dello “sharing” verso un contesto (e un’economia) più di base, condiviso e costruito da tutti i cittadini.