What exactly is the sharing economy?


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When I first attended Davos in January 2013, I asked everyone I met if they’d heard of the term “sharing economy.” Ninety percent of people said no, 5% assumed I was talking about barter exchange, and the remaining 5% acknowledged new technologies and peer-to-peer networks were enabling emergent business models. It was difficult to find anyone who had used Airbnb or BlaBlaCar. Later that year I co-founded the Forum’s Sharing Economy Working Group with other Young Global Leaders, with the goal of building awareness, visibility and expertise throughout the Forum’s communities.

Fast forward to 2017 and the reality is vastly different. Not only is the sharing economy in the news daily, it also has spurred a growing – and at times mind-boggling – list of related terms. To many people, the sharing economy and gig economy are the same thing. But in fact, almost nothing could be further from the truth.

Unpacking the terms

As the sharing economy has grown, it has become a victim of its own success. Some people have charged that much of today’s sharing economy is not really “sharing”, an allegation that is partly right. While on the one hand, there are many platforms that espouse the true spirit of sharing – underutilised assets and building community – on the other hand, increasingly there is “sharewashing” going on: companies latching onto the term because it makes them part of a hot trend. Who doesn’t want to conjure up notions of community and cooperation?

An example of terminology confusion is Uber. Is it ridesharing when a driver leases out a car that they did not own before, in order to provide rides that they would not have taken otherwise? Hardly. Yet, to much of the public and media, Uber is one of the most touted examples of the sharing economy. That said, newer offerings such as Lyft Line and Uber Pool are wonderful examples of ridesharing: they enable more efficient use of cars, full stop. But they represent only a fraction of current rides provided. More broadly, when an entrepreneur claims to be the “Uber of X,” that is an immediate red flag of questionable sharing-economy status.

So what is the sharing economy? And how should we distinguish among the various “new economy” models in the headlines? Here is a summary list that will clarify the confusion and provide guidance to companies, policymakers, individuals and investors alike:

Sharing economy: focus on the sharing of underutilised assets, monetised or not, in ways that improve efficiency, sustainability and community

Collaborative economy: focus on collaborative forms of consumption, production, finance and learning (“collaborative consumption” is closest to the orthodox sharing economy definition)

On-demand economy: focus on “on-demand” (i.e. immediate and access-based) provision of goods and services

Gig economy: focus on workforce participation and income generation via “gigs”, single projects or tasks for which a worker is hired (limited overlap with skill sharing)

Freelance economy: focus on workforce participation and income generation by freelancers, also known as independent workers and self-employed (limited overlap with skill sharing; freelance engagements are often longer and/or deeper than gigs)

Peer economy: focus on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks in the creation of products, delivery of services, funding and more

Access economy: focus on “access over ownership” (overlaps with sharing, though sharing is by no means requisite)

Crowd economy: focus on economic models powered by “the crowd”, including but not limited to crowdsourcing and crowdfunding

Digital economy: focus on anything powered by digital technologies

Platform economy: focus on anything powered by tech-centric platforms

It is entirely possible that one platform can fall under multiple definitions. For example, TaskRabbit is arguably part of the on-demand, gig, collaborative and sharing (assuming the Tasker’s skills were previously underutilised) economies. Airbnb’s homesharing inventory is clearly part of the sharing economy, while full-time short-term corporate rentals are not necessarily so, and more likely are in the access economy.

Moreover, the sharing economy is not defined the same way around the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in China. Ever since declaring the sharing economy a national priority in 2015, and that sharing would comprise 10% of China’s GDP by 2020, the Chinese government has taken an increasingly broad view towards what is included.

Today, what we term the digital economy in the West – including, for example, Amazon and Netflix – China defines as the sharing economy. The result is a unique set of nuances and challenges, not least for policymakers and economists trying to measure its size and impact, and media trying to report accurately on the issue.

The sharing economy is not black and white: it is a spectrum, and it is increasingly crucial to understand its different shades. Ultimately it will become simply part of the economy, without special terminology, but we are not there yet. Entrepreneurs, journalists, governments, and (perhaps most of all) users of and participants in these new-economy platforms have a duty to be clear about whether and what we are, and are not, sharing.


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