Digital Futures – the Sustainability of Sharing

Posted in: Business and society, Digital, Sharing Economy

What is the sharing economy, and can it deliver on its promise to contribute to sustainable development? What are the challenges of “sharing” in the age of digital capitalism, and what is the future of using technology responsibly? We brought together two eminent scholars – Adam Arvidsson and Giana Eckhardt – and two inspiring entrepreneurs – Cat Ainsworth and Usman Mohammed –  to discuss these questions and their implications for management theory and practice.


What is the sharing economy?

The sharing economy is an economic system based on people sharing possessions or services, usually via the internet. It is a system that is increasingly touching our lives, from the peer-to-peer online marketplace for accommodation that is Airbnb, through to micro-level platforms such as Neighbourly that work at the grassroots to connect charities and community groups with funding, volunteers and donations of surplus food and products.


What are the paradoxes within the sharing economy?

Giana M. Eckhardt, Professor of Marketing and Director of the Centre for Research in Sustainability at Royal Holloway University of London, bases her reflections on this question around her soon-to-be-published book, Handbook of the Sharing Economy (co-edited with Professors Russell Belk and Fleura Bardhi). She sees some inherent tensions within the sharing economy. While sharing refers to the prosocial behaviour in small communities such as the family, economy relates to “access-based consumption within a potentially large community of distant others”. These paradoxes, Giana argues, have deeply influenced the “coming of age” of the sharing economy in the last ten years, and will likely do so in the future. For example, many hopes of early commentators that the sharing economy would pave the way to a radically new economic system between socialism and capitalism have not materialised. Many community-based sharing initiatives have not survived while the gig part of the sharing economy, including Airbnb and Uber, has attracted massive consumer interests around the world.


What’s the bigger picture? Is the sharing economy a digitally-empowered version of earlier forms of capitalism?

Adam Arvidsson, Professor in Sociology of Culture and Communication at the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Naples, argues that the sharing economy is the symptom of what he refers to as “industrious modernity.” According to Adam, industrious modernity describes the socially embedded economy of the early Puritans and the Italian traders of the middle ages whose ethic of hard work was intimately connected with the social community in which they operated. This community-based form of early capitalism during the commercial revolution, which has greatly influenced and facilitated the transition from feudalism to capitalism, is now resurfacing in a digitally empowered version. This industriousness of the new era, he argues, is a common feature of a newly converging world-view of people in the global economy. It is showcased in the shadow economies in the industrial centres of China characterised by small-scale entrepreneurs and also in the “bourgeois hipster economies” in London or San Francisco where “sharing economy enthusiasts, peer producers, and crypto pioneers” find it harder and harder to carve out a decent living.



The sharing economy in practice

The big names in this new digital economy may have provoked debate and criticism about their working practices and impact on communities, but a new breed of entrepreneurs are using technology to share resources in a different way.  DOT PROJECT, for instance, is a women-led digital consultancy and social enterprise. Founder Cat Ainsworth argues that to fully embrace the potential of technology, and the sharing economy therein, we need empathy: “we need to stop dehumanising technology, and focus on building team-based, people-based approaches to working with technology”. DOT PROJECT has a particular focus on non-profit groups who are working to achieve social impact, and the UK Government agenda to drive digital skills and more women into technology roles. As a key partner of Tech for Good Bath, DOT PROJECT has helped to facilitate informal mentoring, skills workshops and networking across 450 members of the local community, practically demonstrating the positive impact of knowledge sharing in the context of the digital economy.

Recognising that some of the polished platforms of sharing economy darlings such as Uber and Airbnb have pioneered change, DOT PROJECT takes a pragmatic view of the digital future. It can be a positive future but only if technology is seen as an enabler, not an end solution.  In particular, for smaller organisations,  technology can revolutionise the way we solve social challenges. This is a journey, so organisations need to see this as an exploration and have the courage to try new ways of working.


What impact is the sharing economy having in day-to-day life?

Just before Christmas, a culture of alleged sexual harassment came to light at luxury clothing retailer Ted Baker, facilitated in large part by the technological expertise of Organise. Organise is a social enterprise that provides decentralised and anonymised collective action tools for people in the workplace. Organise uses digital technology to provide platforms to engage with issues such as sexual harassment at scale, mobilising change in a fast and efficient way. With a mission of “giving people the tools, network and confidence to make change happen in their workplace,” Organise seeks to use digital technology for collective social good, providing a real-life example of the disruptive and potentially transformative potential of a digital future. Platforms such as Organise offer a valuable opportunity not only to create greater organisational accountability for key internal stakeholders, but also to embed a stronger sense of solidarity amongst workers in increasingly more disparate and unstable working environments, making the invisible visible.


What’s the future for the sharing economy?

In sum, we learned that while the sharing economy can deliver on its promise to provide more sustainable options (e.g. in driving access-based, rather than physical consumption) there are still big challenges to truly embed more collaborative models of consumption in the age of digital capitalism and overcome inherent paradoxes and tensions. There is a real need to encourage responsible use of technology and to work together to ensure that these new business models are truly providing social, as well as, economic benefit. After all, sharing is caring.


Comments and insights in this piece are drawn from presentations and discussion at an event organised by the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society at the University of Bath. The event - Digital Futures: the Sustainability of Sharing, which took place on 11th February 2019 - was introduced by  Dr Sarah Glozer and the panel moderated by Dr Stefan Hielscher.

Posted in: Business and society, Digital, Sharing Economy

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