The Rise of Collaborative Consumption

Posted on March 8, 2011


EVENT REVIEW: ‘The Rise of Collaborative Consumption’, Rachel Botsman at the RSA

A while ago, a few of us attended a great talk by Rachel Botsman on collaborative consumption. You can watch the event here, or have a look at the Ted talk, which nicely sums up her thinking:

She presented her very inspiring view on the emergence of online community initiatives and their potential to enable social cohesion.

What is it?

She describes how the way we use internet has evolved from simply sharing information (emails, wikipedia), to connecting to others (facebook, twitter), to collaborating. She also demonstrates how websites like Ebay, Landshare, Air BnB, Hey Neighbor, WhipCar and many more mark the transition from “me” to “we”.

These innovations do not only happen online, but network technologies like smart phones and social networks provide “the efficiency and the social glue” that enable people to collaborate in meaningful ways.

She has identified three approaches that are symptomatic of this trend, which she be interprets as a move from ownership to access, and the emergence of a generation that is not looking for stuff, but for experiences.

“On the whole, we will find more wealth in usage than in ownership.” Aristotle

1. Product Service Systems

Product Service Systems come from the understanding that, when we buy an object, what we really want is its usage. If we apply this idea to car companies for instance, this means that rather than selling cars, they are selling mobility services. Hence the emergence of car sharing businesses like Zipcars, for example, whose tagline is “wheels when you want them”. Bike sharing schemes are also a great illustration of the convenience of such an idea: the bike is handy for as long as we need it and disappears when we do not need it anymore. If we consider that, in average, 90% or the objects we own are used less than once a month, we start to understand the potential of such systems to address sustainability issues.

2. Redistribution Markets

Like any second-hand shop, websites like Ebay or Freecycle allow people to sell unwanted items. However, the fact that they are online gives a new dimension to the idea. Rachel Botsman refers to the internet as the “ultimate match making machine”, that connects an incredibly wide range of people with an incredibly diverse range of wants to an incredibly diverse range of offers. Redistribution markets also have interesting sustainability implications, as they help to maximize the usage of a product and extend its life-cycle.

3. Collaborative Lifestyles

Finally, Rachel Botsman argues that network technologies facilitate the emergence of collaborative lifestyles. Couchsurfing, which connects travelers who need somewhere to sleep and people who have a spare bed, is one of many examples of this. It goes beyond just convenience: more than offering somewhere to sleep, it is about sharing hospitality, creating friendships and experiencing meaningful ways of travelling. It is about building social capital and thus making the world a smaller planet.

These kind of online platforms work because they place emphasis on trust: contributors are rated and reviewed by other members of the online community. This is characteristic of a transition to an economy where we are “being defined, not by what we consume, but by what we contribute.”

How did that happen?

Values of “reputation, community and shared access” are taking over values of credit, advertising and ownership.” To explain this shift from Hyper Consumption to Collaborative Consumption Rachel Botsman mentions the following factors:

  • a renewed belief in the importance of community, and social interaction;
  • the rise of social networks;
  • the awakening of our environmental consciousness;
  • and finally the global recession, which is pushing us to reconsider our consumption habits.

Why is it interesting for us?

The implications for designers are very interesting, as these type of initiatives not only mark a shift from products (having) to services (being), but also suggest new levels of consumer involvement. If, from passive consumers, people are becoming active contributors, chances are that people are also more and more likely to become their own problem solvers as well. Therefore, if design is about solving problems, then designers might have to reconsider their role.

* by Fan Sissoko.