The sharing movement in Europe is thriving. Due in large part to the endless hustle, focus, and connectedness of the OuiShare community, new networks are forming, growing, and connecting with each other.
In advance of the upcoming OuiShare Fest, May 5-7 in Paris, Shareable caught up with Benjamin Tincq, the co-founder of OuiShare and co-chair of OuiShare Fest, and Robin Chase, the founder of both Zipcar and Buzzcar, to get the latest on new European sharing initiatives, the growing collaborative community, how the sharing movement is evolving in Europe, and some of the challenges it faces.
Shareable: Give us the big picture, what’s happening with the European collaborative economy right now? What are you excited about?
Benjamin Tincq: What is exciting to see happening in Europe is that the sharing economy is really gaining momentum on many levels, with a huge diversity of projects and startups. Local sharing models such as timebanking and community-supported agriculture have been around for many years, and we see many grassroots movements such as Repair Café, Disco Soupe, FoodSharing, Skjutsgruppen, Verschenks [freecycling], Guifi/Freifunk [open wireless networks] emerging and standing side by side with a very active sharing startup scene in France, the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Central and Eastern Europe. Coworking and crowdfunding are also getting big here.
But not only the sharing economy is thriving in Europe. The maker and fabbing movement are growing rapidly in various parts of Europe with a strong history and culture of craftsmanship—Italy especially, but also the UK, the Netherlands and France, among others. Fablabs and maker spaces are popping up like mushrooms and the open hardware and open design scenes are thriving, as this year’s opening of a European branch of the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) shows. There are also a remarkable number of global events on the topic this year: Fab10, the 10th annual Fablab Conference in Barcelona, Maker Faires in Paris and Rome, the Open Hardware Summit also in Rome, and the FabJam which was mostly European last year, but will unite dozens of makerspaces around the world for two days of distributed prototyping.
Driven by these developments, self-employment and microbusinesses are thriving, while other business types are experiencing static or negative growth. In England for instance, the number of one-man maker businesses has grown by 40 percent in the last three years, and self-employment is at a record high of 15 percent of the population.
Spearheaded by inspiring projects such as Barcelona FabCity, Europe is where I see a strong vision of distributed production as a new economic paradigm developing. I think the maker economy will be much more profound and disrupting than the sharing economy. It’s production, it’s tangible and it’s a new post-industrial system.
What are some recent examples of successful sharing projects or policies coming out of the European Union or national and city governments?
BT: Currently one of my favorite projects is Barcelona FabCity, a program that aims to create one FabLab per district of Barcelona by 2020. Many forward thinking policies to foster the collaborative economy are also being put in place in cities such as Bologna, Italy, where the cities of commons project is enabling public administrations to govern with, instead of on behalf of their citizens. Other pioneers include the UK, the city of Amsterdam, and France, where new crowdfunding-friendly policies—a new French law about crowdfunding is one of the most advanced in the world—are being put in place and the development of makerspaces is being incentivized with public money.
Collaborative consumption has also already caught the attention of the European Union, which officially announced in March that this is an important area of opportunity for consumers and businesses and that it therefore seeks to regulate these new practices.
Participants of OuiShare Fest 2013 mixing it up
What are some of the challenges the collaborative economy faces in Europe, and how might they be different from U.S. challenges?
Robin Chase: Putting aside cultural norms and differences, which I actually think play only a very small role in the sharing economy, the intersection of sharing—both opportunity and conflict—feels country specific to me. Sharing upends old expectations around the separation of public versus private goods, personal versus commercial uses, and monetary versus non-monetary compensation.
The sharing economy introduces a lot of grey into what was made black and white over the last century and the rise of industrialization. Specifically, there are issues around the permissibility of "work" in residential zones; insurance that separates personal and commercial uses; regulations around commerce that are intended for much larger enterprises; and taxation expectations made convenient for employer-employee configurations. Every country handles these issues differently, and every country is having to rethink and reevaluate the way it does things, both for what is happening today, as well as for the volume of these activities that we anticipate in the future.
BT: One of the biggest challenges in Europe for startups is that there is a lot less VC funding available than in the US. There are a few alternatives to VC funding especially for grassroots projects, such as crowdfunding and a few public subsidies targeting collaborative projects. But as I remember discussing one day with Neal [Gorenflo, Shareable’s co-founder], what we really miss today is a fully integrated ecosystem focusing on social impact and long term value, which could identify, fund and support high potential project to help them scale without putting on them the burden of maximizing investor value on the short term. Equity based crowdfunding might be one part of the equation, but there is still a long way to go to making startups less dependent on capital from VCs. Besides, European startups have always relied on debt rather than VC funding. But with the everlasting credit crisis in most European countries, credit does not flow as it used to.
Another challenge is that many institutions and traditional organizations don’t yet understand the collaborative economy and are completely lost. This is a huge challenge for them, if you think about it: the collaborative economy implies completely new ways of dealing with intellectual property, supply chain, new ways of treating both your employees and customers, etc. But I think this is not just a European problem here.
Another challenge specific to Europe is its diversity in terms of culture and law. Each country is unique and often has very different regulations, so projects cannot grow as fast as they do in the US for instance. Take peer-to-peer car sharing for instance: in Spain, it is much more challenging for peer-to-peer car sharing companies than in France or Germany, due to the specific insurance regulations they have.
What do you think Europe’s most significant contribution to the global sharing movement is?
BT: The web is good start, since its inventor Tim Berners-Lee is British. It might sound like a joke, but what little of what we call the collaborative economy or the sharing movement would be possible without the web.
Speaking of concrete sharing models, I think European startups are setting the standard when it comes to ridesharing. Companies like BlaBlaCar in France or Carpooling in Germany are now going international and carry more than two million passengers each month. There is also a very innovative non-profit in Sweden, Skjutsgruppen (literally, “transport group”), which I already mentioned, which was born out of a facebook group of people sharing rides in Sweden. It’s now developing a multimodal transport platform together with public transport companies.
Many of the stones with which the collaborative society is being built originate from Europe. Another great example is Arduino. With this open source and low cost micro-controller, Massimo Banzi and his team have provided the maker movement with a solid foundation for open hardware to bloom in the future. But there are more than just initiatives: what Europe is bringing is a particular mindset—community driven—to the sharing movement.
One of the OuiShare goals is to bridge the gap between sharing communities
What’s the relationship between European collaborative economy startups and grassroots sharing projects? In the U.S., it feels like there’s a sharp divide between private startups and grassroots sharing initiatives. Do you have that sense as well? And how will grassroots sharing projects be represented at OuiShare Fest?
RC: From my perspective, I think there is a lot of both kind of activities going on, but well-funded efforts are usually larger and target a larger and more geographically spread audience. Therefore we hear a lot more about them. We see in the media and at conferences the biggest efforts. This is only natural. It does not mean that small local efforts aren’t happening. They are!
BT: We also feel this gap strongly here, but there are actually more than two different worlds here: startups, makers, social innovation, environmental activists, open source activists, and more, who are all approaching the collaborative economy from a different angle. As an organization, we see one of our main roles to bridge this gap and connect actors that have somewhat similar goals, but may not even know about each other because they come from one of these groups.
OuiShare Fest is one of the ways how we foster these encounters and aim to bring grassroots projects, startups and traditional organizations to the same table. Some of the projects represented this year will be Skjutsgruppen, P2P Food Lab, Open Source Beehives, the bio-hackerspace La Paillasse, Disco Soupe, Cohabitat…. we’ll even have a session dedicated to social movements and community movements including Occupy London and MeuRio.
Last year’s OuiShare Fest explored many different facets of the sharing economy. This year the theme is communities. Why did you pick this theme?
BT: Communities are one of the main common denominators we see in the diversity of the collaborative economy. We define the collaborative economy as the practices and business models based on horizontal networks and participation of a community. By choosing this theme we wanted to highlight the fact that, from our perspective, communities and community-based models will be critical drivers for societal change in the coming decade and century. Rachel Botsman recently called communities “institutions for the 21st century.” I think that’s a great way to put it.
In-person gatherings are an essential part of furthering the sharing movement
As a way to extend the reach of this year’s Ouishare Fest, people are encouraged to create satellite events either in Paris or elsewhere. What led to this decision and what’s your vision for engaging people who can’t make the fest?
BT: We can’t talk about the concept of a more distributed economy all the time and be entirely satisfied with one single event. Of course, meeting people in real life is, in our view, absolutely crucial, especially for scattered movements such as the sharing one. But obviously, not everyone can make it to Paris. In the digital age, events do not only happen on physical locations, there is always another event happening on the web and echoing the physical one. Why not go to the next level and think of the online part not just as a mere echo, but as a part of the Fest itself? We want conversations to resonate on the web and connect the global collaborative economy community for three days. We experimented with this last year with a satellite event in Porto Alegre or the FabJam, a distributed event where Fablabs work on the same topic, which was crowdsourced beforehand, simultaneously. These were such amazing moments!
Regarding the satellite events set in Paris, it’s pretty simple: we want people to enjoy Paris and discover new places when they’re around, and most importantly, we want to enable them to go and meet the local collaborative economy in its native environment. I would also like for the people who cannot attend the main event to have the opportunity still to connect with the Fest’s participants in the evening. After all, it’s only once in a year!
The speakers you’ve scheduled are key leaders of the sharing movement. Bringing them together could prove to be quite a catalyst for building the movement. What’s your thinking behind the line up. And what do you hope will happen by bringing all these folks together?
BT: Similar to last year, we invited all the thought leaders that inspire us, while at the same time staying open to people we have never heard of by having an open call for contributions. That enables us to have a great balance between known and unknown projects we might not have spotted otherwise (we received over 200 awesome submissions).
And each year it is really a challenge to select the proposals, because there are so many great projects we would love to feature, but we simply do not have the room for all of them. But we are doing our best to balance the program in terms of topics, formats, nationalities and gender, while doing this in an organic and collaborative fashion. To be honest, it’s a big mess, but I think it’s worth the extra effort and will bring a great result in the end.
OuiShare Fest brings together sharing advocates and thought leaders from around the world.
One aspect of OuiShare Fest 2014 is exploring how the vast array of communities around the world fit together to create a common vision of a collaborative society. Any thoughts you’d like to share regarding this?
BT: There are two main kind of places where a community can emerge: online and locally. I think the difference between the two is blurring as we are increasingly using the internet to augment and facilitate real-life interactions—to produce and share value, both locally and globally, within the “glocal” networks that we want to participate in. David De Ugarte from Las Indias beautifully explains this in a recent piece about phyles and the new communalism. Furthermore, the tools of digital production have been democratized over the past 15 years, and now this process is extending with manufacturing. It has never been so easy to make things, create your own job and become future-proof. I am convinced that we are at the dawn of a massive transformation of the social and economic landscape, but I am not sure how it will unfold.
In 1937, Ronald Coase taught us that we form organizations to lower transaction costs by internalizing them. Large firms and institutions were built across the 19th and 20th century to coordinate the vast amounts of individuals and resources required to achieve great things: railroads, the internet, medicine. But organizations have now reached so much complexity that it is now more efficient for some of them to outsource even their innovation process.
When I look at the way most corporations and institutions work today, I see a huge waste at every layer or the organization. Dedicated people and valuable resources could be put to use to solve the world’s most pressing issues instead of being clogged in bureaucracy and processes. I think that tomorrow, the best way to coordinate these resources will not be through vertical integration within large organizations, but through ecosystems of networked individuals, communities and smaller organizations. Experiments in open value networks and value-driven organizations such as Sensorica or Cocoon Projects are true inspirations for what the future of value creation and distribution could look like within this kind of network.
I think the only thing that is still keeping all of this bundled is the concentration of capital and rising inequalities, and this is something we will need to address soon.
What’s your big picture vision for the sharing movement at large? What would you most like to see?
RC: The two most important aspects of the sharing movement for me are one: the promise of better resource management: getting more out of fewer resources, which is a requirement to build a sustainable world, and two: the creation of community: getting people to know more people and have tighter ties with them. Climate change is going to be very challenging, and often result in abrupt, disruptive changes in our lives. Building our community muscle, and developing a community muscle memory and community muscle reflex will be key to our ability to survive and thrive. Adding a third point, that is just a little less important than the first two, is that the sharing economy can deliver an increased sense of personal empowerment and agency in one’s life.
BT: I think we need more diversity, inclusiveness and bridges between worlds that do not talk enough with each other. For instance, mixing the commons approach with social economy principles: this is what Michel Bauwens and his research team are doing with the FLOK Society project in Ecuador. Or providing entrepreneurs with new perspectives for governance, ownership and value sharing to scale their impact in a meaningful way. Or bringing the startup culture and agile methodologies within the non-profit and public sector.
But in a broader sense, I think this is important to create a shared political vision for the collaborative economy as a tool for democracy, and understand how this is related with the struggle for a free and open internet. I love the internet, but like Edward Snowden reminded us, we should not take it for granted.
Anything you’d like to add?
BT: Come to OuiShare Fest!
Photos: OuiShare Fest 2013. Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter.