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The unstoppable rise of the collaborative economy

My work at REconomy Project has inspired me to believe that a credible alternative to our current system is now emerging at an incredible rate. In this 12 minute TEDx talk I explore the unstoppable rise of the collaborative economy.

The problem is that I’ve long been a fan of TED and given the opportunity to do a talk I got nervous and cut the talk short by about 5 mins. Firstly, here’s the video of the talk and below I’ve elaborated some of the missing detail. Some of the most important gaps are in the information economy and collaborative economy sections. In fact I’m still learning so it’ll all evolving!!

I hope you think this is an “idea worth spreading”.

The first couple of slides are self explanatory. We’re at a point where there is unprecedented levels of skepticism and mistrust with our current economic system’s ability to deliver progress, as well as social and environmental security. The presentation is about trying to identify the existence of a credible alternative not through theory and predictions but through an observation of what’s actually happening and already in existence.

Garden share and Landshare

Lou Brown’s project was “Garden Share“. She didn’t set up “Landshare“. The idea from Garden Share got taken on by a local celebrity chef (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall). See a great video of Landshare here. It’s interesting to note that the land being shared there has extended to include some of the largest land owners in the country and not just gardens.

Some key features of the new economy

Landshare is symbolic of a wider trend towards community ownership of land and the emergence of access rather than ownership as a feature of the new economy. It’s also symbolic of several other features of the new economy, which are listed in the slide below. It’s important to say that this presentation takes a narrow view looking at only the more collaborative elements but there are lots more interlinked features.

Cooperative movement

When talking about the cooperative movement it’s difficult to get across, without writing 10 paragraphs, just how inter-wovern into our society the cooperative model is already. Be it in Iran, Switzerland, China or Brazil., the cooperative model is significant, irrespective of political bias.

To many that see some of the larger cooperative supermarkets (e.g. Migors, Switzerland or The Cooperative, UK), that look pretty much as good or bad as the near by corporate supermarkets, it is easy to think that cooperatives represent no real change. However, taking a more broad view of cooperatives in general, we can see that they represent a fundamental change to a more democratic working environment with well documented social benefits. There are also great examples within the cooperative movement (like Mondragon) that demonstrate that a fundamentally different model is possible.

Evolution of economics

When talking about the evolution of economics, I want to thank Arthur Brock, who provided the first version of the evolution slides. Arthur’s slides focused on the economic components only. I just added the organisational components to that.

What I wanted to make clear during that section is that historically an economic revolution, and the introduction of new economic components, does not make the old economic components obsolete in their entirety. Some industries and organisations are disrupted but, for example, agriculture was still important in the industrial age and land is still important in the capital age. I always sense that people see discussions of “alternative economic models” as being a discussion about a complete replacement of the old with the new. That’s incorrect in my view! What does become completely obsolete is the overarching model. It is replaced. We see an evolutionary leap in terms of the meta frame or model. It should be seen as upgrades i.e. like a software upgrade or a business model upgrade.

Peer to peer, open source and collaborative consumption

Something that I hadn’t articulated very well in my brain at the time of the talk is that the collaborative spaces described come together nicely in a full spectrum of a collaborative approaches movement but it's easy to see these as isolated and unrelated activities.

Open source (Linux and Wordpess etc.) and collaborative consumption (Airbnb and car sharing etc.) are often discussed separately by proponents from each of those movements. As such they’re seen in separate silos. But these two movements do in fact fit together as a single unified collaborative movement. Open source is just one form of collaborative creation (while co-working and maker fairs are others). Therefore, collaborative consumption and collaborative creation are just two sides of the same coin. Of course we don’t just create and consume, this is not really a two sided coin, there is a whole spectrum of collaborative doing, collaborative living, collaborative production, collaborative organising and these actually mix together and are rarely done in isolation.

The information economy and the collaborative movement

There were some key points missing when I discussed the information economy. When talking about disruptions caused by the information economy I focused on the online aspects. From what I said it would be very easy to think that the disruptions are just in the online non-material world. Some of the most exciting innovations are happening off line too.

It was important to discuss open source and Wikipedia etc. as these are kind of like the epicenter of the disruptive explosion caused by the information economy. Not surprising given that it's information focused. But actually the impact of the explosion is widening and there are two main ways that what started online is changing the offline and material economy tools:

1. What ever happens online has offline ramifications and enables us to act differently offline

2. Online practices have shown us a different way of operating and now we’re using them offline

The obvious examples for number 1 above is that Airbnb, Landshare, Zopa etc. are internet enabled but these companies are disrupting traditionally offline industries such as leisure, banking and even food growing, which is possibly the most material of material commerce.

An example of number 2 can be seen in some of the growing number of co-working spaces around the globe. In Berlin I visited the intensely entrepreneurial and collaborative BetaHaus co-working space. I asked the co-founder, Christoff, if he had any philosophical reasons for setting up a workspace that was built around collaboration. And his response was that there were no philosophical drivers just that he was working together with friends online and that it seemed only natural that they’d do it offline too. Hundreds and thousands of companies are now being founded and launched from within the cafes and open offices of the 2,000 coworking spaces from around the globe.

These co-working spaces are acting as incubators for new businesses but also for new ways of doing business. And in fact these new collaborative business models are incubating in many other spheres too like the hacklabs, maker fairs, urban farms, open source hardware projects, 3D printers, repair cafes, pop up shops, tool libraries and even the open culture inspired political parties like the Pirate Party. They’re also incubating the Transition Town communities and at protest camps like Occupy and other change-maker communities that I talk about more below.

In some ways these collaborative practices are just reflective of a Facebook and YouTube generation that grew up sharing.

Disruption to the industrial economy

Another area that I didn’t get across very well was this idea of basic economic principles that are fundamentally different between the information economy and the industrial economy. I introduced these when I showed the slide about Landshare. These conflicting principles include:

1. Scarcity adds value in the old industrial economy and sharing adds value in the new information economy

2. Division of labor in the old and distribution of labor in the new

3. Hierarchies in the old and internet enabled networks in the new

4. Ownership in the old and access in the new

5. Survival of the fittest is now being updated to those who collaborate best are far fitter

All of the slides that I showed about Wikipedia, Linux, Zopa, Airbnb, Landshare etc. were supposed to demonstrate these different principles causing disruption, but not that industrial economy principles will disappear. These opposing principles will largely co-exist going forward but not without massive amounts of disruption to some industries and with the new principles becoming the dominant meta-framing for the economy.

Change-maker movement

Thanks to Fiona Ward who put together some of the original slides for this section which I adapted for the talk.

I would have liked to have said that Transition Towns are one part of the wider change movement, which includes others like Occupy, Slow food, Resilience Circles, 15M and many others. And that these groups are trying to come up with solutions to our large global issues and when we see these solutions manifest in terms of projects, enterprises and constructive strategies, we see them using these collaborative models intensely. It’s this core thread of collaboration that runs through all the slides that I presented and below are some examples of how it’s manifesting in Transition Towns.

The recipe for a credible alternative

Somewhere between these three movements (collaborative, cooperative and change-maker) there is a new collaborative core that represents the beginnings of a new economic model. This is not theory as such, it’s more a biased observation of what is already here. This is not a vision of the future, in the traditional sense, it’s just a particular perspective of what exists in the present.

There are also wider supporting factors in the present too that make a shift to a more collaborative economy more possible than many would think. Things like small local independent business aren’t just smaller versions of large corporations; they tend to run on a completely different operating system that is rooted within the community. And those small businesses already make up a large part of our economy. The concept of working together (in that collaborative sense) is one that is also integral to governments and charities. So these segments of our society are already very well aligned with a more collaborative approach.

Another segment that would be supportive or indifferent of a global shift in economic models is the global “poor”. There’s a couple of billion people living on a few dollars a day and to a certain extent these people are already living outside the existing commercialised system.

Finally, we see the competitive commercialised economy as all dominant but it’s important to see it in context. It is actually just a part of the wider informal economy where we do favours for one another like giving someone a ride in your car etc. or where parents dedicate their lives to children. This informal economy is again just a small part of nature's economy that provides fresh air, nutrients and water etc.

So we already live in an intensely collaborative economy with an abundance of ingredients supporting a further shift towards a more collaborative meta frame and a credible alternative to our capitalist industrialised (almost fossilised) system. The transition will likely include lots of disruption but the leap that is needed is not as big as many may think. There’s a final point to make around the importance of believing that this level of change is possible and how that belief can create hope and how hope is essential at times of uncertainty like now.

About the author:

Shane is an REconomist, entrepreneur, environmentalist and dreamer. He left the UK at 17 to discover the world, without money, direction or date of return – just a fascination for big questions like “is a better world possible?” 20 years later, his current work with the Transition Network’s REconomy Project exposes him to the rise of the new economy and a possible answer. Shane is a co-founder of the REconomy Project and also runs a small carbon consultancy.


Credits: The excellent work of Fiona Ward and Arthur Brock has been credited in the text. The photo of me on stage is credited to TEDxLausanne with other images available here

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