Scope of new sharing economy revealed

A new economic ecosystem is emerging. It may sound strange, but chances are you are already a part of the Sharing Economy: whether it's renting out that lawnmower you never use, catching a lift via an app instead of a taxi, or shirking the hotel to stay at the home of a local on your next holiday. Where once we bought and sold, today we exchange, share, barter, lend and give. These new forms of exchanges have been made possible by our increasing connectivity through the internet and social networks.

Researchers at the Melbourne Networked Society Institute have mapped the landscape of this emerging economy within Melbourne, a recognised Sharing City. The results can be found in their latest research paper which is both intricate and fascinating. The research results speak to a wider cultural shift taking place where our idea of ownership and our relationship with possession is changing.

The project delivered the first comprehensive listing of sharing networks active and available to people in Melbourne from data collected across eight months in 2016. There are the familiar big-name networks such as Uber and AirBnB, but there are also many surprises. 

Warm showers, for example, is a social network that puts touring cyclists in touch with people who are happy to let them stop by their home for a shower and a rest. Happy Hubbub is a co-working space with childcare facilities, and our own Open Food Network is where people can access locally grown food as an alternative to corporate-controlled supply chains. The sharing economy stretches across physical, intellectual, and human resources.

What we see in the diverse nature of this sharing economy, from crowdfunding big projects to borrowing a designer handbag to match your shoes, is a wider cultural shift where our ideas of ownership and relationship with possessions is changing. 

However, the waters are somewhat muddied over debate around the definition of 'sharing'. While small, local, and niche networks of exchange easily fit under the umbrella of a sharing economy, larger companies can cause confusion. Strangely, these are often the companies most associated with the sharing economy.

There are an increasing number of global, commercial companies that market themselves as part of the sharing economy while working with traditional business models. They offer online services with geolocation, automated payments, and review systems, but do they really qualify as 'sharing' when the goal is corporate profit? 

Businesses and institutions are getting involved with mixed results. The emerging sharing economy presents opportunities for progress and the evolution of more connected, efficient cities with lower consumption. It could also become a new way of marketing old business models. The choice lies in the way we as citizens, communities, cities, industry, and government respond to the changes and opportunities offered by the sharing economy.

In their work of mapping the sharing economy, our researchers have helped develop a generalised conceptual understanding of the key characteristics of the sharing economy for Melbourne. This alongside their comprehensive data set around the networks available to people in Melbourne make the Mapping the Melbourne Sharing Economy paper vital reading for those wishing to work with or within this new economic ecosystem. 

Other important areas of the sharing economy addressed in the paper are: regulatory concerns, labour rights, and access and equity.

You can download the full paper in our Publications section or join us for the launch event on Friday 10 March 2017 at the University of Melbourne.

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Kate Murray