What do Uber, Airbnb, Wikipedia and open source software have in common?
They are all disruptive production and consumption models that allow any individual to create value outside of a company, exchange products and services with other individuals, and enjoy the use of goods without necessarily owning them. With Airbnb, I can rent my apartment to a passing tourist without having to go through a travel agency. With Uber, I can book a car and a driver’s services without ordering a taxi. With Wikipedia, I have free access to an encyclopedia that I can personally help to build. And, lastly, with open source software, I can use, study, share and even improve the tool’s code, freely and legally. These four examples, like many thousands of others (crowdfunding, makerspaces, fab labs, tool-sharing spaces and platforms, etc.), are all commonly filed away under the convenient label of the “sharing economy and collaborative consumption.” And yet these phenomena can have radically different models, and a number of politicians and researchers are gradually distinguishing between them.
Production of common property
With Airbnb and Uber, it would be more appropriate to talk about a for-profit collaborative economy. This model “is based on the production of shared goods and services, relying on a horizontal organization that is facilitated, in particular, by the use of Internet platforms,” as explained in Les Echos by Cyril Kretzschmar, Assistant Advisor to the Rhône-Alpes Region on the new economy, new jobs, craft industry and the social and solidarity-based economy. “In the sharing economy, several people produce services, but this does not make those services their collective property. A room rented via Airbnb or an Uber driver’s car still belongs to its owner, and a significant portion of the rental price goes to the central reservation platform.”
True sharing model
In the two other examples (Wikipedia and open source software), the term “sharing economy” is much more accurate. “This is a peer-to-peer system, in which individuals self-organize to create a common property,” continues Cyril Kretzschmar. “It involves the joint creation of collective property […]. The open source software developed by its user communities belongs to everyone.” Michel Bauwens, the author of Save the world – Towards a Post Capitalist Society with P2P, has a starker view. In an interview with Le Monde, he says that Uber’s system is neither “collaborative” nor “sharing.” “It is more a question of marketing resources that were previously unused,” according to the former entrepreneur. As he sees it, “The difference between peer-to-peer production and Uber is the division of labor, where workers compete in order to obtain a service without their actually having access to that service, to that ‘common property’ – in this case, the algorithm controlled by the firm.” This is a far cry indeed from the anti-proprietary ideas of open source software and collective kitchens and gardens. But the model has its aficionados and financial backers. Today, Airbnb is valued at nearly $30 billion and Uber at more than $50 billion. Forbes magazine estimates that crowdfunding platforms could collect more than 1,000 billion dollars around the world in the next 10 years.
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