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25 February, 2019 11:49:57 AM

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The sharing economy

Research suggests that rather than transforming us, the sharing economy simply repackages our same old consumerist impulses in a more appealing message
Mohammed Abul Kalam, PhD
The sharing economy

The sharing economy is often hailed as an antidote to capitalism. But is it really causing a shift to a more communal and socially conscious way of life, or is this just clever marketing? As a city dweller and social scientist, I look at the evidence and finds people who participate in the sharing economy are primarily motivated by financial rewards.

Service providers use the income from “sharing” their assets to live than the present, while customers seek cheaper deals than traditional providers can offer. Rather than transforming us, the sharing economy simply dresses up our consumerist tendencies in a more palatable ideology. The scope and scale of the so-called “sharing economy” has increased exponentially over the past decade, to the point where it affects almost every aspect of our lives.

Ride sharing has changed how we move. Food delivery apps have changed our eating habits. And some of these apps may have influenced how we work, and whether or not we can pay our rent.

This shift to peer-to-peer transactions is often portrayed as an antidote to the consumer culture of modern society because it supports sharing instead of ownership. But have sharing platforms simply created a new form of capitalism?

Research suggests that rather than transforming us, the sharing economy simply repackages our same old consumerist impulses in a more appealing message. More than ever, cities face multiple crises posing paradoxical opportunities. Key challenges for cities in the urban century are climate change, inequality and governance. Where are the solutions going to come from? In cities that are dominated by globalized, market-based forces, how can equity and justice be brought centre stage? The many virtuous adjectives applied to cities have a compelling, if superficial, attraction – who wouldn’t want a city to be “smart”, “sustainable” and “resilient”? Similarly, “sharing economy” sounds good, right?

Do ‘solutions’ solve our big problems? The broader point here is about the extent to which any new shiny idea presented as a “solution” actually solves urban problems. To get to the heart of the matter, we need to agree on what these are.

Look no further than the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or the New Urban Agenda in which Clause lays out the ambition:… help to end poverty and hunger in all its forms and dimensions; reduce inequalities; promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth; achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in order to fully harness their vital contribution to sustainable development; improve human health and well-being; foster resilience; and protect the environment. It is very obvious that, in 21st-century cities, urban humanity faces a set of three key problems: (1) environmental sustainability and climate change (2) inequality, equity and inclusion, and (3) inclusive governance and representation.

For any sharing economy idea, then, the question is: what will it do to fix these urban problems that we face? If it undermines workers’ rights for the most vulnerable, then it is not a solution but merely a new means of capital accumulation. It will make matters worse. Put simply, the question we need to ask of uberisation is: what work will it do to either address or exacerbate climate change, inequality and democracy? If it fails on any of these, then we must resist the shiny wrapping and continue our search for real solutions.

More than ever, cities face multiple crises posing paradoxical opportunities. Key challenges for cities in the urban century are climate change, inequality and governance. Where are the solutions going to come from? In cities that are dominated by globalized, market-based forces, how can equity and justice be brought centre stage?

The many virtuous adjectives applied to cities have a compelling, if superficial, attraction – who wouldn’t want a city to be “smart”, “sustainable” and “resilient”? Similarly, “sharing economy” sounds good, right? Look at the actual impacts: The promise of getting a stream of income from spare time and spare stuff is tantalizing. The apparently informal, casual intent of the sharing economy seems innocent enough, but in many cases the market reality is a step change downwards in terms of equity and justice.

We evaluate commercial and shared services in the same way. The sharing economy both shapes and is shaped by the providers and consumers of shared services. Studies have shown that people perceive, select and evaluate shared experiences in a similar way to commercial offers. For example, the criteria we use to select Uber drivers is similar to how we evaluate commercial transportation services. That is: price, location, service quality and reputation. Studies also confirm the factors influencing satisfaction and the likelihood of rebooking are the same.

This affects how suppliers develop services. Sharing platforms use peer review comments and ratings to calculate the quality scores of service providers, recognizing those of a higher quality. Not really communal or sustainable: The sharing economy is often romanticized as a shift away from the evils of capitalism to a more communal and socially conscious way of life.

Some studies to suggest micro-entrepreneurs and customers do not discriminate on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation when deciding how, and with whom, they will “share” resources.

Trust is a crucial element in any relationship, not least when financial transactions are taking place. The rise of sharing economy platforms such as Uber, Pathao, and OBhai – where we pay a stranger for a service – are especially dependent on trust. Are they who they say they are? Will they deliver the service that they’ve promised? With the use of some key digital features, trust is being built between people that have never met each other.

Keys to success: The way that trust is built in the sharing economy is by strengthening users’ trust in the platform in general. If they trust the company behind it, or the “brand”, this will spill over onto other users being active on the platform. Another important feature is the review process – where both hosts and guests rate each other. The platform also lists many rooms from all around the world. This has a network effect – because so many other people are using the service and from all over the world, it must be safe to use. You are aware of this when you’re on the platform – and it helps build trust.

Consumption hasn’t gone away: People who participate in the sharing economy are primarily motivated by financial rewards. The sharing economy enables people to consume during the economic crisis, satisfying materialist needs, values, priorities and lifestyles in different ways – through “sharing” and “access”, rather than “ownership”.

People see the practice of sharing resources as a way to achieve self-image, self-promotion, social appreciation and recognition. Even people living in more collectivist cultures see the sharing economy as a way to express community and social values.

The sharing economy has not changed people’s mindsets, values, lifestyles or behaviors. People still wish to consume at the same levels and they do consume for the same reasons, but in a different way. The sharing economy disrupts the traditional economy, but it has not transformed it.

The writer is Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology, Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR), Dhaka, Bangladesh

E-mail: med_sociology_iedcr@yahoo.com

 

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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