söndag 8 maj 2016

On Collaborative Consumption

I went to no less than two seminars on The Collaborative Economy/Collaborative Consumption this past week. The first seminar was organised by KTH acquaintances of mine who work in the research project "Beyond GDP growth" and the second seminar was organised by the think tank "Global Utmaning" [Global challenge], "an independent and entrepreneurial think tank that promotes long-term solutions to crises in ecological, economic and social systems". These seminars were in fact held almost back-to-back with the first being a May 2 afternoon affair and the second being a May 3 breakfast seminar. Both events had four invited guests and one person, Åsa Minoz, had in fact been invited as a speaker to both of these events.

The first seminar had four guests:
- Åsa Minoz, working with innovation policies, social innovations and social entrepreneurship together with her partner Sara Modig in their company ModigMinoz.
Fredrik Söderkvist, economist at Unionen, Sweden's largest trade union for white collar workers in the private sector.
- Emma Öhrvall, collaborative consumption activist and co-founder of Collaborative Economy Gothenburg.
- Erik Wallin, founder of BagHitchHow it works? "We connect spare capacity in vehicles with people who need to send stuff".

Short summary:
- Åsa was the most well-read and she could stand up to anyone in a discussion about collaborative consumption and related concepts. She had a whirlwind presentation where she pointed out various dichotomies, trends and contradictions.
- Fredrik started by discussing automatisation - an important issue for the 500 000 Unionen members (who, he mentioned, will be considerably fewer in the future). I don't know if he really managed to bridge automation and collaborative consumption but I did however feel that I would have been considerably more worried about current trends if I was walking in his shoes. He mentioned "creative destruction" and the "solution" was to "re-training people to professions that are well adapted to the needs of the labor market". I sounded lika a lot of hand-waving to me.
- Emma was nice and genuine. In this context she was an Åsa-in-development. She brought flavour by showing and discussing various concrete examples of collaborative consumption (Åsa was for the most part on the level "above" concrete examples).
- Erik was an entrepreneur and he talked like an entrepreneur. Big words came out of his mouth, but he had taken some shortcuts in his internal reasoning processes. He assumed that an increased market for second-hand products (Blocket/Craigslist) is always and invariably a good thing (e.g. buying someone else's old stuff instead of buying new), but, there is plenty of space for rebound effects and there are many question marks. Enlarging the marketplace (event if it's "only" the marketplace for "pre-owned" products) might be good or it might be bad from a sustainability point of view.

The moderator, Ulrika Gunnarsson Östling, asked a question about the effects of collaborative consumption on the environment. Åsa urged us to think in terms of services ("transportation") instead of products ("cars"). Emma pointed out that we have to think about how services are designed, what assumptions are designed/built in to them from the very beginning and how we manage/steer them. Erik's "contribution" was to state that it's important to encourage innovation and not steer/govern developments too much, and, that environmental concerns have to stand back at first and enter at a later stage so as not to "hinder innovation".

Erik's positon reminded me of a quote by Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!". That quote would have to be altered and a version that is customised for Erik reads like this: "It is easy for a man to argue about the benefits of something [e.g. collaborative consumption] when he so obviously benefits from the spread of that something".

I also do have to mention that Åsa's comment about the need for experimentation (instead of just talking about collaborative consumption) sounds good and is reasonable, but, could also be construed as being borderline hostile to studying (e.g. conducting research) on collaborative consumption. Why spend a lot of time studying something when the end result is just "talk" when the alternative is to do something and change the world?

The seminar was nice, but I felt that there should have been at least one person in the panel who had more qualms or was more sceptical towards collaborative consumption. The emphasis was decidedly on the (potentially) positive effects of collaborative consumption and about (unsubstantiated) hopes about the future, but, it would have been interesting to hear a more critical voice discuss problems that are present already today and some of the worries we should guard against in the future.


The second seminar asked if Collaborative Consumption was something genuinely new or yet another trend and Global Challenge had again invited four guests:
- Åsa Minoz (again), working with innovation policies, social innovations, social entrepreneurship together with her partner Sara Modig in their form ModigMinoz.
Anna Felländer, ex-chief economist, now digitisation and future economist at Swedbank
Johanna Giorgi, strategist working with sustainability aspects of economic development at Tillväxtverket [The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth]
Ulf Kristersson, member of the parliament and economic-political spokesperson for Moderaterna [The Moderate Party]

The set-up was slightly different as the moderator (Alexander Crawford) invited the speakers up to the stage in pairs. As he had prepared questions, it became more of a three-way conversation.

- Anna started off strongly with some econo-speak; unused capacities, low costs, dormant competence, decreased tax bases, perfect competition (within a platform) but a race for critical mass and quickly emerging monopolies between the platforms. Self-regulation works fine in some industries/lines of business and the sharing economy works as a catalyst, so-so in others and in yet other extern regulation is a must. Åsa followed and did her thing (see above).

Alexander asked how Sharing Economy companies that are moving towards IPOs and the stock market  (Airbnb, Über) should be regarded. Both Anna and Åsa discussed "cooperative ownership" as a possible model, e.g.g "what if every Über driver owned a small part of Über?". The gloomy alternative is that the 1% will own (also) the Sharing Economy but neither Anna nor Åsa saw that as threat and they instead put their faith in historical precedents during the process of industrialisation (factories and capital vs workers and unions).

Alexander then asked Johanna and Ulf how we can encourage positive developments and counteract the negative developments. Ulf answered that he was of three minds. As an ex-IT consultant he is enthusiastic, almost blissful about the fact that what we hoped for 10 or 15 years ago (when reading Wired and Fast Company) has or is about to happen. As an economist, he wants to cut the crap and just get all the numbers into an Excel sheet to be able to count on the effects. Finally, as a tax bureaucrat, he wants Collaborative Consumption to become a part of the legal economy. Looking at the tex needs of the state to be able to uphold promises made, you will tend to become sceptical towards new technologies and he also said (I really liked it!) that "new technologies is a lousy excuse for tax evasion".

After this point in time, I did not really take any good notes, but rather became enmeshed in my own thoughts. I did however manage to squeeze in one of the two questions that there was time for before the seminar ended. My question went something like this:
- "Many have expressed high hopes for the future. Even when some problem has been highlighted, solutions to that same problem has been emphasised in the same breath. But, I'd like to know what worries you? What keeps you awake at night?"
I don't really know that I got any great answers to that question unfortunately.

Due to the book I'm currently reading, some of my thoughts went like this:
- Many express high hopes for the future when thinking about Collaborative Consumption. It might be natural to focus on what we hope for and on potential positive effects when talking about something new.
- But imagine that this debate had been held during the first tentative steps of industrialisation (200 years ago), sometime when the battle between the old order (water power) and the new order (steam engine) was fought.
- Many would have expressed high hopes for the future (of coal and steam) also at that time.
- It is then up to each and everyone of us to discern whether industrialisation has had primarily positive or negative consequences, and, to what extent the potential for positive change has been realised.
- ...but it's not so easy, in hindsight, to say that the best solution won (water power vs steam steam).
- Same thing with the car. There were electric cars 100 years ago but the internal combustion engine won out. So, did the best solution win?
- Industrialisation as it indeed did happen was very much in line with Åsa's call for "experimentation", but, it is also possible to in hindsight see the disadvantages of to little advance thinking, steering and regulation. Stuff happens. You end up somewhere, but not necessarily where you wanted to be.

I'll finish the blog post with the unanswered question that Alexander asked at the beginning of the seminar: "Does Collaborative Consumption represent something genuinely new or not?"

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