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The diversity of opinion at this year’s OuiShare festival could pave the way for a broader debate on the political drivers of social and environmental crises, as well as the role that sharing and collaboration can play in addressing them.

Are we lost in the transition to a truly collaborative economy? This provocative question formed the overarching theme of this year’s OuiShare Festival in Paris, now an annual highlight for all those involved in the sharing economy movement – from techies and entrepreneurs to commons theorists and environmentalists. The breadth of opinion among the numerous speakers who praised, critiqued and debated the rise of collaborative consumption during the course of the three day event suggests that the organisers are attuned to the increasingly visible debates taking shape in both the mainstream and alternative media, often in response to the success of the larger companies operating in this sector. As embodied in the hashtag #wewashing for example, commentators everywhere have been querying whether sharing is just a fashionable way to reframe market-based practices that are more about making a profit than sharing per se. Among concerns around exploiting workers and evading regulations, questions are also being asked about whether sharing economy platforms can measurably reduce consumption levels, reduce inequitable access to goods and services or enable those living below the poverty line to fulfil their basic needs.

In light of such pressing concerns, it was perhaps significant that Charles Eisenstein was selected to open the festival with a presentation that might have puzzled those who were unfamiliar with his work. A vocal proponent of the gift economy, Eisenstein asked the audience to re-examine “what our role is on Earth and how change happens”, and to consider whether gift culture could be established on a larger scale than ever before attempted. As detailed in his book Sacred Economics, Eisenstein’s perspective stands in contrast to a traditionally capitalist approach to organising social and economic systems on the basis of self-interest, competition and outdated monetary systems. Instead, his narrative is essentially a spiritual one that encourages reciprocity and genuine (not-for-profit) forms of giving and sharing. Appealing to a very large and mixed crowd in the main ‘circus’ tent, he suggested that deep down even the most profit-oriented ‘sharing businesses’ want to embrace a different way of operating that can help more people to overcome our tendency towards separateness and give more freely to society.

Eisenstein’s generous comments about turbo-capitalist sharing economy businesses might not have convinced everyone present, but they did set the scene for a festival that was more nuanced than expected. Altogether, 13 broad topics were explored in the various festival venues, spanning issues as diverse as work, capital, knowledge, sustainability, cities and social impact. The politics track was one of the most stimulating, especially Pia Mancini’s presentation on ‘liquid democracy’ and DemocracyOS – a potentially revolutionary digital tool for creating a more representative form of governance. Her arguments for reforming archaic political systems were most welcome at a time when the focus of the sharing economy movement is largely confined to private sector initiatives rather than the more holistic strategy of creating ‘sharing societies’ by decentralising wealth and political power, and reforming public policy.

The need for greater political engagement was also voiced by Michel Bauwens, a peer-to-peer advocate who has set out a ground-breaking commons transition strategy based on creating a social knowledge economy with the potential to revolutionise how we produce and access information, goods and services. In his thought-provoking interview, Bauwens highlighted the tensions between the two dominant attitudes to creating a more sustainable world: those who have lost faith in political institutions tend to adopt a ‘prefigurative’ approach through practices such as the many new economy initiatives that seek to build an alternative from the ground up; while others take a more political approach by working with civil society groups and people’s movements to demand specific policy reforms.

Building bridges

Even though both of these methods are clearly interconnected, the gulf between them highlights the growing concerns that we have emphasised in our work at Share The World’s Resources (STWR) in relation to collaborative consumption. Since the vast majority of sharing economy proponents operative almost exclusively within the prefigurative camp, there is an urgent need to bridge the gap between their work and the many millions of campaigners and organisations challenging the unjust rules that underpin our economic systems. There can be no denying that the causes of social and environmental crises are rooted in complex economic and foreign policy objectives that determine how the planet’s natural resources are exploited, distributed and consumed across the world. If we are serious about addressing inequality and climate change through sharing and collaboration, we therefore need to recognise the political context within which these problems exist and seek to change the policies that create and sustain them. This is the essential message that I reiterated during my presentation and panel discussion at the festival on the environmental impacts of collaborative consumption, as reflected in this comment for OuiShare Magazine:

“…proponents of the sharing economy have an important role to play in addressing the climate and resource crises by getting political about sharing and advocating for the creation of economic systems that embody the ethic and practice of sharing in all its forms. That means taking a global perspective and adding our collective voice to an emerging call for sharing that underpins the activities of environmentalists, social justice activists and progressive thinkers across the world. As STWR have highlighted in a recent report, sharing must be recognised as a common cause that can help connect truly progressive businesses, social movements and civil society organisations under a united call for transformative change.”

This is not to criticise those engaged in the prefigurative approach of ‘being the change’ or creating viable grassroots alternatives to our socio-economic systems. As Rob Hopkins argued at the festival from the perspective of the Transition Towns movement, the real benefit of living the alternative is not only to highlight what is possible but to demonstrate what is already happening on the ground. While many would disagree with his contention that this is the “only way” to change policy, Hopkins was right to point out in his presentation that “when governments are ready to make policy” established alternatives can help pave the way towards a new economy.

Nonetheless, given the enormous social and ecological challenges ahead and the relatively small number of citizens that are in any way politically engaged on these issues, serious doubts remain about whether a significant transformation of society from the bottom up can lead to the policy changes needed within an acceptable timeframe. It is only pragmatic to suggest that those engaged in the multiplicity of new economy initiatives, including collaborative consumption, should also consider engaging more proactively with those in the social justice and environmental movements. Without this convergence of approaches, it’s very likely that neither the prefigurative or reformist strategy alone will be sufficient to turn the tide on climate change or significantly reduce poverty and inequality.

There were some indications at OuiShare Fest that these two parallel perspectives were at least beginning to come together. For example, during the ‘sharing cities’ panel Neal Gorenflo, Nils Roemen and Harmen van Sprang talked about the growing level of support for the sharing economy on a city-wide scale, citing examples such as San Francisco and Nijmegen. Most significantly, Seoul and Amsterdam have both been officially branded ‘sharing cities’ and are supporting collaborative consumption with public policy interventions. Such initiatives have the potential to take the emerging discourse on sharing in a necessarily more political direction, as governments work closely with the private sector and civil society organisations to share available resources on a far wider scale than is possible without public sector engagement.

When I asked the panel what the label of a ‘sharing city’ really means in relation to access to food, social protection, housing and other essential resources that should be the priority of any city-wide sharing initiative, the response was positive but perhaps not as concrete as hoped for: we were reassured that the Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, has a background in human rights and social justice and remains very active on these issues. This was encouraging, but let’s hope that sharing city initiatives actively influence the policy debate on how to reduce the substantial levels of poverty and inequality that are evident in Seoul and a characteristic of all major cities at a time when urban populations are fast expanding.

Enlarging the debate

Despite valuable contributions from a more diverse than expected group of presenters and participants, there was a distinct sense that some of the OuiShare Fest conversations were taking place in a vacuum, especially when they referred to multifaceted problems such as environmental and social crises. For example, there was little acknowledgement of the unjust power structures that cause inequality, even during the panel debate on whether the collaborative economy can help alleviate poverty and social exclusion. Similarly, when considering the environmental benefits of collaborative consumption, concerns were not raised about whether the sharing economy could be subject to the Jevons paradox (whereby increased efficiency may lead to more resource consumption, not less) which is likely to be the case as long as the movement as a whole fails to oppose consumerism or encourage sufficiency and voluntary simplicity. Perhaps most notably, there seemed to be little or no engagement with the myriad of civil society organisations, environmentalists and social activists that are also working towards reducing inequitable access to resources or addressing the root causes of climate change.

In many ways, the collaborative economy conversation is closely related to the demand for more sustainable models of production and consumption that gained international prominence back in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Rio conference or Earth Summit. An entire chapter in the extensive action plan that followed (known as Agenda 21) is dedicated to promoting “patterns of consumption and production that reduce environmental stress and will meet the basic needs of humanity”, as well as developing “a better understanding of the role of consumption and how to bring about more sustainable consumption patterns”. There can be little doubt that collaborative consumption is naturally aligned to this well-established global agenda, which the United Nations as well as innumerable civil society organisations and people’s movements have long been working towards. With both international climate change and sustainable development goals negotiations concluding in 2015, a more visible engagement with environmental and development groups would have been an important addition to the OuiShare programme.

Overall, I was very pleased to participate at the event, which was skilfully executed and provided an important forum for discussing some of the broader concerns that pertain to the collaborative economy, such as the negative impacts of venture capital funding or the problems associated with operating within a capitalist framework that encourages rent extraction and digital feudalism. However, there is still much scope for widening OuiShare’s focus on the political drivers of the social and environmental crises that concern many of those attending the event, as well as the role that the ethic and practice of sharing can play in addressing them.

As Aral Balkan explained in one of the festival’s most rousing presentations, we must recognise that systemic inequality poses an existential threat and that “a war is being waged on the public sphere, on the commons and on democracy”. Having drawn attention to Oxfam’s oft-quoted statistic on massive and widening global inequality (the richest 85 people own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population), Balkan went on to argue that new digital platforms must challenge inequitable power structures and actively work to protect basic human rights and needs. His presentation should remind us that sharing is about much more than the sharing economy; that sharing is a fundamental aspect of our human nature and must therefore underpin not only the way we organise our business models but the way we shape society as a whole – including our public institutions and government policies. In response to the interconnected global crises we face, let’s hope that there is greater scope for discussing these more overtly political questions around the need for a systemic transformation of our world on the basis of economic sharing and collaboration during next year’s festival.