Juggernauts like car-hailing app Uber and room renter Airbnb may be the biggest and most obvious examples of the cloud-based sharing economy.
But speakers at Metro Vancouver’s Zero Waste Conference Thursday said they expect much more peer-to-peer collaboration as the field expands.
And they told delegates it holds great promise to help consumers reuse products they’d otherwise throw out, or not buy new “stuff” in the first place – by borrowing or renting anything from a power drill to a pickup truck from a willing stranger.
Borrowing from others to put underused equipment to broader use isn’t new, noted Sunil Johal, policy director at the University of Toronto’s Mowat Centre.
But online networks mean instead of dozens of people you can approach for something, there are thousands or millions.
The sharing revolution is transformative in part because we increasingly live close together in cities but disconnected from our neighbours.
“The bonds of social cohesion have frayed as our cities have gotten bigger and bigger and the sharing economy has stepped into that void to some degree,” Johal said. “The scale of these markets is much, much bigger than it ever has been.”
Repairing products that don’t have to be tossed out is a focus of a growing number of players.
“You’ve got to think of recycling as the last resort because it’s ultimately a lossy process that’s one of destruction,” said Eric Doster, of ifixit.com, an open-source site that connects repair experts with learners.
The Vancouver Tool Library is one local service that lends out mainly donated tools, the Metro waste conference heard.
Founder Chris Diplock said the tool library has almost no problem with borrowed tools not coming back.
Critical to overcoming trust issues – whether it’s for someone to rent out their tools, apartment or their car – are the recommendation systems that borrow heavily from social networks.
John Atcheson, who helped launch car-sharing service Getaround before becoming CEO of Stuffstr, said it’s critical to have effective systems to judge which users are good or bad.
Unlike car-shares like Modo or Car2Go that either collectively or corporately own vehicle fleets, Getaround – which operates in five U.S. cities and aims to launch in Vancouver – pairs individuals who are willing to rent out their cars with others nearby who need one.
It’s not just physical products that can be shared or used more efficiently as the sharing economy grows, but also real estate and storefronts.
Services like TaskRabbit that take out corporate middlemen and connect people with marketable skills to buyers who need them will be increasingly popular, the panel said.
Peer-to-peer transactions in five key sectors – transportation, retail, accommodations, services and finance – are forecast to balloon from $15 billion to $335 billion over the next 10 years, Johal said.
“People are voting with their feet and their thumbs,” he said.
Finance is being reshaped by crowdfunding services and online banking alternatives.
Johal credits Uber for opening many eyes to the change taking place and the potential for the future, although he said it’s arguably not truly a sharing economy company.
“It’s not peer-to-peer in the sense I can’t decide how much I am going to charge somebody for a ride. There are set rates and Uber takes 20 per cent of the fee.”
The company, worth more than $50 billion, owns no vehicles of its own but like eBay connects willing buyers and sellers.
Car owners run their personal cars as taxis for extra money. Passengers who need a ride open the Uber app on their smart phone and a car is en route a couple of taps later.
“These companies are harnessing underutilized assets that they themselves don’t own,” Johal said.
The biggest constraint is whether governments stay out of their way, he said.
So far Vancouver and the provincial government have blocked Uber’s entry in the Lower Mainland.
Cities across the country have been torn about how to respond to new services that are highly popular with residents but disrupt existing taxpaying businesses like taxis and hotels.
Johal and others suggested municipalities resist the instinct to swiflty regulate with an iron fist to protect existing businesses and take a wait-and-see approach to deciding whether and how to control the new offerings.
He noted those operators are typically self-policed through reviews.
“If users are happy and nobody’s complaining, let’s take a little bit of a hands off approach.”