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Another view from OuiShare Fest: What are we sharing, exactly?

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Photo by Stephano Borghi

I was given a card to share when I arrived at OuishareFest in Paris this May: “Hello, I would like to inform you that we can make history together. Let’s talk about it.” (please be environmentally responsible and re-use this card on the next person who could make history with you). It perfectly expressed the energy that pervaded Cabaret Sauvage, the beautiful circus tent where it was being held and the sense you were surrounded by pioneers of a world to come, who had gathered to share, connect, and accelerate the process together.

With the The Age of Communities as its theme and now in its second year, OuishareFest is a three-day festival on the collaborative economy, attracting more then a thousand participants from all over the world. The event aimed to provide a platform for its participants to “Inspire, Debate, Connect, Co-Create and Play.” These not only framed the vibe of the festival but also reflected the different formats being used: keynotes, panels, participatory debates, how-to workshops and even a factory tent where you could build wiki-furniture.

The festival was organised in a participatory way: an open call was put out for proposals, accompanied by a questionnaire asking participants for input on the content and format. I submitted both, and as soon as I was confirmed as a speaker I was given access to the organising platform being used to discuss and shape the event collectively, making me feel immediately part of the “community” and empowered to contribute however I could or wished.

Ouishare is more then a group of people organising an event. It is an ever-growing branded community with “connectors” spreading in cities across Europe adhering to common values listed and explained on its site: transparency, openness, MPRL (meet people in real life), permanent beta, inclusion, independence, action, play, feedback, impact.

The network defines itself as “a think and do-tank with the mission to empower citizens, public institutions and companies to create a collaborative economy.” But what exactly is the collaborative economy? Currently, it is one of those terms used without a clear definition, making it malleable, open and inclusive but also easily co-optable. The complexity of what it comprises was reflected in a rich programme with more than 70 sessions and 140 speakers who ranged from directors of Airbnb and Zipcar to activists from grassroots organisations such as Goteo and Gorilla Translations. It was “a conference that was focused […] but not fundamentalist in its content,” able to engage a very broad spectrum of people with different approaches, motivations and aims.

However, concerns started to be raised in the debates where for the first time I heard the word “share-washing” being used. Others pointed out how some of the collaborative social enterprises considered most successful at the moment, even if they started as socially transformative entities, ended up taking on the role of new profiteers themselves, once they had grown to the point of becoming economically disruptive. So if on one side this openness can be enriching, there is a risk that the inclusion of certain actors could discourage the participation of others, and this might already be happening to some extent. For example, neither the co-operative movements that have been around for decades, nor the more radical forms of co-operativism that have been developed across Europe since the start of the global economic crisis, were present or if they were, they were not visible. Is this because they are not prepared to share space, knowledge, and resources with those looking at the sharing economy from a merely entrepreneurial point-of-view? Or is it just a question of bridging the gap between two realms that have not yet made contact?

As a participant coming from an activist background, I did wonder if there was a need for more political talk in the festival. I would not expect this at standard entrepreneurial conferences but would here, where there seemed to be a general belief that the collaborative economy was going to bring radical transformations both socially and economically. Fortunately, some political issues did emerge within the debates. For example, the effects of the collaborative economy on workers’ rights and how it is contributing to the growing individualisation of the precariat, and also how to be able to share one must first be in possession of something, be it an asset, means of production, skills, time: things that cut out a large part of society. Others also touched upon how much data, power and wealth some of the online sharing platforms are progressively accumulating.

What was encouraging was that, even if not directly in response to these concerns, inventive solutions were already being proposed within the festival: basic-income, open-access and user-friendly sharing platforms, innovation in organisational structures and systems of work retribution, open means of production and access to knowledge and new legal frameworks. At OuishareFest I was overwhelmed by all the exciting new ideas presented and by the inspiring people I met. I expect the collaborative economy to grow, expand, and be a transformative force. And I hope this growth will be accompanied by an awareness of the negative impacts it may bring so that these can be critically addressed, facilitating an effective and positive radical shift, not just a minor disruption and reshuffling of the current system.

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Ludovica Rogers is active in the international networks that were generated by the wave of protests and occupations of 2011. She collaborates with various groups both in London and internationally in producing events, actions and online platforms on the issues that the movements of the squares brought to the forefront. Currently she is participating in DebtResistUK, the #NoTTIP campaign and an international project to map the Commons in Europe.

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