The original meaning of the term “sharing economy” is evidenced by the truly collaborative, democratic and equitable projects covered regularly at Shareable. Recently, however, many investor-owned, profit-first tech startups and “unicorns” have co-opted the language and used it to whitewash projects more accurately understood as platform capitalism.
In a world where this term has developed contradictory meanings and brings up strong emotions whenever it is evoked, it is useful to have a stock of objective research which takes into consideration the full spectrum of sharing economy — collaborative economy — projects.
The Sharing and Caring COST Action seeks to provide this type of research backbone for the sharing economy by increasing the understanding of how different types of sharing projects are started and how they impact society. COST Actions are European Commission programs which fund networking between academics and researchers over the course of four years on a specific topic, allowing interdisciplinary networking and collaborative research to take place across borders in the fields of science and technology.
We spoke with the chair of this project, Dr. Gabriela Avram, a lecturer at the Interaction Design Centre at the University of Limerick in Ireland, about how the Sharing and Caring COST Action was started and what the researchers hope to accomplish.
How did you and the initial core group of the Sharing and Caring COST Action start thinking about these types of collaborative economy projects, and that it was important to do more research on it?
Initially, the way it was formulated was to look at how work is changing, and the future of work. In 2016, when we wrote the application, there was almost nothing; there was no European research agenda. The term ‘collaborative economy’ had been suggested as a European slant on the sharing economy. Because there was already disappointment with the share-washing and how everything is labeled as sharing economy where there’s no sharing aspect. So when we started and wrote the application, there was not much out there. Publications started appearing after we applied. We saw that there were other people working on this, but we couldn’t see big names.
We also tried to identify the actors studying the collaborative economy. Many of us are interested in platform cooperativism and we created a special interest group in the human-computer interaction community. We had a conference in Glasgow and [about 100 participants came together to discuss] cooperativism in human-computer interaction. So, this is a topic for the future and the fact that we got so many people shows that there is an interest from all over the world.
So, similar to platform cooperativism, are there other general categories that you find a lot of people focusing on?
One is short-term letting. Housing is a major thing and there are several [researchers] interested in housing, both short-term and long-term. For example, I have a project here on co-housing because co-housing does not exist in Ireland at the moment, but it’s widespread in Scandinavia and in the UK. With the help of the Action, we manage to network and go and visit colleagues who know more.
There’s a lot done on mobility. When we started, we asked ourselves about what a collaborative economy really is. That is, “How do we define the phenomenon? Is it for-profit? Not-for-profit?” And so on. The majority of members were interested in digital platforms and how they facilitate both commercial and non-commercial activities. We realized that if we were to exclude all the bike-sharing schemes and all the car-sharing schemes, only some initiatives would survive.
We decided to leave the spectrum quite wide, but also do a critique of the term sharing. Of course, these are collaborative initiatives and it’s better to share a bike than everybody buying one, but at the end of the day, this is not proper sharing.
Is this because of concern about the business model where a company comes in and monopolizes the market?
Yes. It is an important aspect because it helps with sustainability and [reduces] detritus (you have a bike, you get rid of it) so people [who have not decided to buy a bike] can use bikes in a bike scheme, if their location allows that. What we see is that the collaborative economy is far more developed in the urban environment, and it’s far behind in rural environments. Although, the tradition of sharing and collaborating comes from rural environments.
And is that finding exclusive to digital formats, or are there non-digital, unofficial collaborative systems?
We decided to also get short stories on these non-digital formats because some of them have the potential to be put on a platform and shared in other countries. So that’s the idea — that the sharing mechanism that’s there can then be enhanced, or not, with technology.
Is it the case that, initially, the focus of the research was primarily on technological tools and platforms?
Yes, but we got an influx of people from a lot of other backgrounds who are not necessarily interested in technology. [Out of the four working groups,] Working Group #2 is the most technical one. They’re doing an inventory of platforms at the moment. They have over 100 platforms and inside each platform, they’re looking at mechanisms and functionalities. The whole idea is to build a sort of catalogue that would allow people who want to start a sharing initiative to go there and say “We need this but we don’t need that. What should be the features that we need?” [And be able to see that] in general, people who are working in food sharing initiatives use these types of functionalities and people who are looking at mobility platforms use these types of functionalities.
This COST Action ends in March 2021. We’re hoping that by the end of next year, we would have these whitepapers — each working group is going to come up with a publication with a sort of summary of findings that will be not necessarily [be] academic. The idea is to have whitepapers that can be taken by NGOs and think tanks and communities, and they would feed into their activities. Our point was that there are a lot of sharing initiatives that could be publicized more and embraced in other countries.
If there’s anything else you’d like to mention?
I think we have momentum. We have a conference happening on the 25th of October in Edinburgh: Ethnographies of Collaborative Economies. It is focused on the topics around how people go and study collaborative economies. We intentionally left it in plural — there’s a bit of wordplay there — because we think there are several types of collaborative economies and the spectrum is wide.
We were [networking] in Vilnius and met a member of the Lithuanian parliament who is interested in the collaborative economy there and are trying to legislate, and because the European Union only gives some directives and lets every country legislate, they are a bit in the dark, they don’t know what to do. Sometimes there is a public outcry against AirBnb or something like this and the first impulse is to legislate against, and only then do they stop and think, “Are there any advantages?” She was very grateful that we were doing this kind of work and looked forward to reports [in relation to] what other countries do, because they don’t have this information.
I think we do a lot, taking into account that our work is not paid, and is all voluntary. You either have a national or a European project funded — or you are doing it all completely in your own time — so that makes it a bit difficult. We see that there’s a real benefit from the networking and the exchange of information.
Like all COST Actions, the Sharing and Caring COST Action is open to join as a collaborator until it comes to a close in March 2021. From providing information about sharing projects in your country to developing and deploying social impact tools, anyone can join any of the four Sharing and Caring working groups by contacting the leaders of the working groups.