This article was published on June 6, 2011

Long Live Collaborative Consumption

Long Live Collaborative Consumption
Axelle Tessandier
Story by

Axelle Tessandier

Talker, greener, thinker, reader, writer, greater, faster, better, P5er, former @GAFFTA Resident and Marketing @scoopit. Talker, greener, thinker, reader, writer, greater, faster, better, P5er, former @GAFFTA Resident and Marketing @scoopit.

“There is no delight in owning anything unshared.”


Shared services have become an important part of our lives. Be it the hordes of Parisians who ride to work every day using the bike sharing service Velib’, the New Yorker who uses a Zipcar to run an errand over lunch or the San Franciscan who uses Park Circa to share a parking spot, these services have become a global phenomenon.

Lisa Gansky, the successful serial entrepreneur and author of “The Mesh: Why The Future of Business is Sharing” defines the mesh as this new shift where ownership is not the rule anymore in an economy where we share many different things. The mesh businesses have 4 common characteristics: sharing, advanced use of Web and mobile information networks, a focus on physical goods and materials, and engagement with customers through social networks.

Sharing is first of all a human experience, probably as old as our existence, but after the rise of consumption, we welcome the golden age of collaboration.

The Internet has clearly redefined our relationship to ownership. First, appeared the new idea that being open could be a competitive advantage. But the web that revolutionized our lives is clearly an invention that changed the rules. When your name is “World Wide Web”, expecting openness is not only legitimate but a natural evolution that welcomed Open Source projects such as FireFox from the Mozilla Foundation.

Indeed, the rhythm has changed. Today it is more than ever all about immediacy. The time where our parents had to go to a retail store to choose a fridge, making an important consumption choice, is long gone. We consume very differently. Our relationships to objects is probably more dematerialized than before and faster than ever. In a digitally connected world, it’s not about what we posses, but what we can access.

From Ownership to Access

Accessing a service was probably the beginning of collaborative consumption. Over the last few years, it seems that there are new companies popping up trying to convince us that ownership is not always necessary. Zipcar was one of the first companies to go beyond car rentals and helped introduced the idea of car sharing.

The Netflix phenomenon was a first step as well in revolutionizing the notion of renting. All of a sudden the price was linked to the service, not the amount of time you had the DVD. It was frictionless and was improving a rental service that existed offline. They made the argument for owning a DVD even more difficult.

From Access to a Product to Access to People

Let’s take a look at collaborative consumption plus the human factor. We used to believe that the digital trend would create a society of lonely wired users. But to the contrary, it has never been easier to connect with people.

Joe Gebbia, CPO and co-founder of Airbnb, the community marketplace for unique spaces, says: “The Internet can help us to go back to how people used to travel. Before the hotel industry, you slept at peoples’ homes. We are bringing back to life this old concept.”

These new services go beyond the solitary enjoyment and the idea of renting that existed before the web. Maybe because we now know that consumption and capitalism are not the doors to happiness. You do not simply rent, you temporarily own it. You share the benefits while reducing consumption. Sharing is not enough anymore. “Sharing with” is the new humanized experience.

The headline of the parking space sharing service, Park Circa, is expressing exactly this with their “let us introduce you.” They are not just focusing on the service but also encouraging new collaborations and social behavior. There’s also the recently launched GetAround, a San Francisco based company that has tapped into the market of collaborative consumption, acting like the Airbnb of car lending. [See our interview with GetAround here]

Airbnb, which was recently valued at $1 billion is the service that allows you to meet people from all over the world. As Joe Gebbia says, “It is clearly in the mission of our company to make people interact with each other and meet different cultures. We are actually just trying to scale the first experience we had at our flat when we created Airbnb.”

Like many success stories, the company was born out of necessity as Joe Gebbia explains, “In 2007, we needed to solve a big problem. We quit our jobs to become entrepreneurs and the same week our rent got higher. We just could not pay it anymore. We decided in 24 hours to create a website to rent the space we had as we knew a big design conference was happening and [Brian Chesky, today CEO and co-founder] were designers ourselves. The first website was called AirBedandBreakfast and we met 3 amazing designers that stayed at our place and were a wonderful inspiration to create Airbnb.”

The company makes what used to be an annoying and cold experience, renting a flat (and or an island or country) for a short period of time, a cozy, fun and human moment. Airbnb is nurturing our human condition with their recently launched Airbnb Social Connections. They are leveraging your social media presence in order to make the best recommendations possible and giving you personally tailored information (like the host is a friend of a friend of yours, or another friend recommends a particular apartment). Since launching 3 weeks ago, the total connections have gone from 15,000,000 to over 24,000,000.

The digital medium does not only represent a wired network. It creates relationships and a smaller world.

Generation Collaboration

“Digital Natives” are those born after 1980 and are now growing up during the digital revolution. What does this mean? They are connected; they know that the world is now a group of interest based communities ripe for collaboration. Collaboration is not only our nature but has become a necessity. The world is more complex than ever, and the idea that you cannot solve anything by yourself is now accepted. The tools the digital generation embraces are the ones demonstrating this trend everyday like Twitter, Meetup, and Kickstarter, to name a few.

Technology has changed the mindset and the companies succeeding today are the ones embracing it. The context is different and the web could finally be the basis of a connected society as explained by Tim Leberecht, CMO of Frog Design: “Clearly, the Connected Age has arrived. A world population connected through ubiquitous, real-time, and social computing, and through more than 50, 75, or even 100 billion devices. A world where every thing is connected with everything.”

But connectedness is not enough. Airbnb, Getaround and Park Circa have other characteristics that create this digital sharing society. They are “adaptable, connectable, sociable and easily upgraded,” says Tim Leberecht.

Clay Shirky, the famous American writer and teacher specialized in the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, explains in his book his Theory of the Cognitive Surplus how we move from a consumer’s society to a collaborators who consume one:

“The Internet, mobile phones… let us do more than consume, what we’re seeing is that people weren’t couch potatoes because we liked to be. We were couch potatoes because that was the only opportunity given to us. We still like to consume, of course. But it turns out we also like to create, and we like to share. And it’s those two things together — ancient human motivation and the modern tools to allow that motivation to be joined up in large-scale efforts — that are the new design resource. And using cognitive surplus we’re starting to see truly incredible experiments in scientific, literary, artistic, political efforts.”

Let’s change the world with collective consumption but do not call us digital hippies yet. Indeed, sharing is not a new concept but our digital society is an extremely powerful context that can take things to a new level.  That’s why Generation Y was ready to enjoy it. But, as Airbnb’s Joe Gebbia explains, “The first 3 people who came to our place when we set up AirBedandBreakfast were 30 years old and we see people from any age using our service. We are not a generational product. Everybody from all over the world uses it every day more and more. We are actually in a similar place that eBay was in 1998.”

Indeed, a business making our digital society more social is not necessarily a social business and beyond all these success stories that save us money, there are also great business models that make money. Airbnb has now more than 100 employees, and just announced the opening of their German office, a country of travelers. And that’s just the beginning…

Collaborative consumption is all about creating value. Any kind.

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