This is a guest blog from Anne-Marie Imafidon. Anne-Marie is a Fellow who works in technology at an investment bank and has spent the past 15 months running a social enterprise alongside her main job. She was the UK IT Young Professional of the Year in 2013 and recently won the UnLtd Innovation Award for work on the ‘Stemettes’ which encourages young women to get involved with STEM. She received RSA Catalyst funding in April.
We’re facing a skills shortage across the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries and have what seems like a shrinking minority of females in what is an important industry for our economy. [WISE 2013]
We’ve helped girls meet a diverse set of women working across a diversity of roles in STEM and in doing so have helped break stereotypes
Many have documented the problems across STEM at all levels and made their recommendations for what should be done (see the Through Both Eyes report). Since its launch in February 2013, the Stemettes project has given positive STEM experiences featuring STEM females ‘Big Stemettes’ to over 1100 girls across the UK with our unique brand of passionate, fun & creative panel events, hackathons, workshops and one exhibition.
“It is a paradox of our age, that as digital connectivity enables more of us to work remotely, clustering becomes even more important in the creative, knowledge economy,” so began Rohan Silva at the fifth and final seminar in the Commission’s spring series. To attract talent, investment and foster innovation, cities need to be places of culture and good design.
When persuading Google to invest in its campus in Tech City, Rohan told us it was the fact that “Old Street station is in walking distance of 150 art galleries and exhibitions” that sealed the deal. Culture feeds minds and, citing Richard Florida, so feeds creativity, entrepreneurialism and economic growth. Over half a million people now work in Tech City.
But our home grown talent is not just in the capital. Mark Barrett, Head of Leeds Data Mill, explained the work going on in his city to collate, release and use data from a range of local sources – including Yorkshire Water, the NHS and City Council. They’re also engaging people to create data where none currently exists by gamifying the cataloguing of city’s public statues. With sell out data pub nights, a data dashboard for the city ready to go live and the Data Mill model already spinning out to six other cities in the region, there’s a new movement in town driving social and economic growth. Read more
In January I wrote a couple of blogs about how drones and 3D printers would soon transform our lives and that policy makers need to think about the implications now rather than playing catch up later. Since then there have been a steady stream of articles about the two technologies which suggest both are going to be transforming our lives sooner rather than later.
Both Facebook and Google have plans to use solar powered drones to provide internet access to more of the world’s population, a data stealing drone was revealed at a security conference in Singapore and the BBC revealed it has its own Drone journalism team.
Given that I was on the right path with those two bits of technology, I thought I’d draw up a list of 8 technologies that will change the world that policy makers really need to be thinking about now.
Richard Blissett is Co-founder and CTO of EduKit, an online platform that will help disadvantaged students by matching them with organisations that can provide specialist educational and personal development support. Edukit has recently received RSA Catalyst funding. This is a guest blog from Richard.
Just days before Christmas we received the amazing news that we’d been offered a £2k Catalyst grant to develop a prototype of our ambitious EduKit application – an online platform that will connect schools in deprived areas with youth programmes being run by social enterprises and charities (aka providers). Our prototype is important as it will help us to demo our planned online tool to teachers and students and to collect vital feedback that we will need before we start system development. In addition to this, we had also selected three schools with whom we decided to pilot our approach manually. We were all set for 2014 to be truly eventful – and momentous.
And we have certainly not been disappointed. In early January we handed our system design to our developer Christian, a bright new graduate, who set about turning our vision into reality. After two months of hard slog we have now almost finished developing a prototype which demos the different log in screens i.e. for teachers, school admin staff, students etc and shows the results and analysis that will be available for users. We have also finished our paper pilot during which we matched 29 students (each with interesting, high quality local programmes that they would otherwise have been unaware of) and are just waiting to hear back from schools as to which programmes they will be enrolled for. The feedback from the schools has been exceptional and each has provided us with a testimonial of the service!
“The students have been able to access support from programmes that are tailored to their specific needs and we have already connected with local organisations recommended by Edukit, who offer support/services to young people. Some of the students are receiving free, regular mentoring, and for others we are hoping to give them an extensive experience of living and working on a farm for a week. The whole process has been so helpful in finding targetted programmes to ensure the needs of our students are being met.” Debbie Coloumbo, Eltham Hill School
“The matches between providers and our students have been ideal. For a number of our students, having an additional resource to support and engage them has meant that they are no longer at risk and are much more engaged in their education. This is equally true of those in Year 11 as those in Year 8″. Amanda Desmond Assistant Headteacher, Southfields Academy
But what has really surprised us is how much we’ve learnt about how schools work. During just three or so weeks, we’ve been able to find out so much about what their challenges and expectations are and how users will use and value our tool. For example, we’ve learnt that whilst schools are entirely committed to helping their students in whatever way they can, they can usually take far longer than we had hoped to get back to us so it’s best to either organise drop-ins to help them fill in their data or build an very user friendly online system which would allow both teachers and students to easily enter their data. We also learnt about how schools plan their budgets in order to finance external support.
It’s been a great learning experience but we’re not quite done yet, based on the feedback we have received we now plan to build a Beta version of the online service. This will allow us to test the online functionality and onboard many more charity programmes into our database. if you’d like to find out more about our progress so far please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch this space for further updates!
Recently moved from London to Bristol, a friend of mine asked me last month: “How is life in Megacity 1?”. While she moved to be closer to her work as a retail manager, she finds herself frequently coming back to London to buy clothes for her small chain of shops in the South West.
The problem is not that London is getting too big, it’s that other UK cities are too small. This is how the adversarial relationship set up in the two-part TV series Mind the Gap: London v The Rest was resolved last night. As Evan Davis wrote “Britain does not have a second city. Instead, it has a first city and a couple of thirds…it is as though Britain has a great world city but lacks a great national one.”
As a recent report suggested, London’s ‘primacy’ – its size relative to the national economy – is not particularly unusual by international standards.
It’s not just population size where UK ‘second-tier’ cities underperform. Along with other factors, their smaller size means they are less productive, in terms of economic value produced per resident. As Lewis Dijkstra notes “a range of cities allows each firm to find its optimal city”. Illustrating this point with bar graphs, and noting that costs to firms (wages, rent) and workers (housing, commuting) also increase in larger cities, he likens the ideal city distribution to a staircase. If the steps between cities are well-spaced, as in Germany and the Netherlands, firms and workers are less likely to make a compromise. In short, we can imagine that there are firms and workers who want to “downshift” out of London, but can’t stomach the loss in the benefits of locating in the capital; and firms and workers who want to move to London – but are unsure they can afford the costs relative to the likely benefits. Both scenarios lead to inefficiencies: the gaps in our city staircase are too big.
The solution proposed Monday night was that “the real second city of the UK is a northern, trans-Pennine strip that extends the relatively short distance across northern England, joining the built-up areas that lie second, fourth and sixth in the UK ranking”. This idea has been suggested before. As we highlighted in our Metro Growth report last month, 22,000 people cross the Pennines every day to commute. Other research shows connections and relationships between Leeds and Manchester are less strong than we would expect for these cities given the complementary nature of their economic activities. The Pennines are both a physical and psychological barrier. City boundaries don’t correspond to their economic footprint.
So, should we use national investment in infrastructure which better connects a ‘northern necklace’ of cities? The Northern Hub scheme now underway will improve the speed and frequency of trains, but over a distributed pattern of urban settlements car travel is likely to be much more convenient for the majority of trips. Without investment, the northern trunk road network is forecast to become more congested in the next decade. Which government – local or national – has the conviction to resurrect the motorways once planned? The M64 (Stoke to Derby), the M67 (Manchester to Sheffield), or the M650 (northwest of Bradford) to slice through the Peak District National Park? Furthermore, at our seminar last week, Henry Overman was sceptical that creating a network of northern cities was sufficient; we may be better off with one city of “over 3.5 million” for ‘agglomeration’ effects to kick in.
— Jim (@geographyjim) March 11, 2014
Evan posed the difficult question as being how to fund public transport infrastructure in both London and other parts of the UK, when the needs of London are so evident. It’s easy to get upset when you consider that, on a per person basis, London gets many times more infrastructure investment than other regions. But much of London’s investment is private, not public; and London’s scale means authorities are able to borrow more affordably against future fare returns. London’s public transport network carries half of all the journeys on public transport across the country every day. On a net basis, each day, London also imbibes over a million workers from beyond its borders and a million visitors from the UK and abroad (tourists and those on business trips). But beyond transport, if government is to guide development of Megacity 2, how will specific policies and priorities change? What sacrifices will be made?
The first question is whether we are confident we can make the right kind of spatial plan. As referenced in the programme, Birmingham’s economic success in the post-war era was stunted by the Distribution of Industry Act 1945 and later the Control of Office Employment Act 1965. By 1957 the council had explicitly accepted that it was obliged “to restrain the growth of population and employment potential within the city.” Seeking the opportunity to rebuild bombed-out British cities at higher housing standards, many planners at the time sought to reduce urban densities, protect the newly created Green Belt around cities, and rely on motor vehicle transport supporting new suburban settlements such as Peterlee and Harlow. This was anti-agglomeration, perhaps even contributing to subsequent inner city decline. Only Milton Keynes – the largest of all new towns – has the scale and location today viable enough to have its own economic dynamism as an employment centre.
We have a poor record of predicting the future dynamics of economic geography, and many of the key forces shaping the UK at the moment are little understood. Despite being important long-term trends, the spatial implications of household dynamics and the changing nature of work remain largely unexplored. As more women enter the workforce, more households are made up of two earners. Larger cities offer the additional benefit of having a higher likelihood that both partners will be able to pursue careers in different sectors, occupations or industries. Some argue London has benefited from a ‘trailing spouse’ effect. For example, with schools benefiting from (otherwise mobile) teachers attracted to London by the work of their partners working in less mobile professions tied to London. And new technologies of production are accompanying different career structures, growing rates of self-employment and different types of workplaces.
This #mindthegap programme on BBC2 is beyond awful. How about interviewing some critical urbanists instead of “growth is great” economists?!
— Tom Slater (@tomslater42) March 10, 2014
Mind the Gap barely engaged with the dynamics of the housing market, where growing anxiety is deepening the British obsession. Cambridge featured in the show as a success story, hungry for growth. Like Oxford, it’s a historic city endowed with a Green Belt and now bursting at the seams and increasingly unaffordable. London housing pressure needs a release valve, and London seems unable to provide it for itself.
The Green Belt in fact covers more land than the entirety of England’s urban areas which it was designed to constrain. It’s the jewel of strategic planning policy, but stifles other strategic thinking. For example, HS2 takes fast long-distance trains off the existing line. New commuter services will therefore offer drastically more capacity: from Willesden and Watford up towards Milton Keynes. Who is talking seriously about Green Belt release for new significant new housing development in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire? Welcome to a property-owning democracy.
Perhaps, therefore, we need a change in the geography of democracy itself. City growth needs local champions. Central government consented to London’s Congestion Charge in part with the comfort that Ken Livingstone – rather than national politicians – would be held to account if it failed. Lord Adonis noted last week that more people in Newcastle could name the mayor of London than their own council leader.
According to the boldest propositions, perhaps we should consider moving our capital. This question was asked at the launch of the City Growth Commission, and continues to be posed. Moving the political machinery could bring with it not just lobbyists and central government departments, but much of the private sector too – as the links between the two become more complex.
@JSchifferes should the seat of government be moved from London? Would make government cheaper and decrease focus on London
— Nick Humfrey (@nickhumf) October 28, 2013
The north needs a Boris/Salmond-style figure to champion its interests. Mistake to reject elected mayors/assemblies. #mindthegap
— George Eaton (@georgeeaton) March 10, 2014
According to Professor Alan Harding “we have slowly redesigned our institutions of government and our major policy frameworks so that they respond to the pressures of growth in southern England and rarely see what happens beyond. We have a national policy regime that not only does not mind the gap, it extends it.” Last week we saw northern Lib Dem MPs calling for a High Speed 3 rail line across the North. The broad debate is gaining momentum and Mind the Gap was a substantial contribution. While cleverly pitched to stir debate, we need to move beyond ‘London or’ to ‘London and’. To be successful, the City Growth Commission will need to build the most important links: those between the political rationale and economic rationale for reforms which will produce a better system of cities. London and other cities will each, inevitably, evolve in their role nationally and globally.
If I added up all the time I’ve spent in conferences and meetings discussing some policy or piece of research and what it meant for society I’d probably scare myself. If I counted up how many of those were about new technology it would be a tiny fraction.
Yet technology has had more impact on society and individuals over the past 50 years than any legislation, research or government initiative. Mass car ownership, computers, the pill have all revolutionised society, and now the internet is literally re-wiring our brains. Since we are, at least in part, what we think, then the internet is changing fundamentally what it is to be human.
If you ask policy wonks they will acknowledge technology’s impact on society, but despite this they don’t spend enough time thinking through the societal aspects of technological advance. Getting through the backlog of interesting reading in between relative hopping over Christmas I came across the news that Amazon aim to start delivering their packages by drones.
So drones are fast becoming cheap enough and smart enough for commercial companies to use. It surely won’t be a year or two more before the rich have their own drones and then continuing downwards until I get my own drone one year for Christmas, delivered by a drone.
What are the societal implications of mass ownership of personal drones?
All modern drones have cameras and they will be constantly flying past windows, including bedroom windows, recording everything. However small the malicious element of this, people are more likely to keep their curtains closed to avoid embarrassment. I wouldn’t want Adrian from two doors down looking at my messy bedroom, even when I’m not in it. Drones will exacerbate the continuing trend of technology making privacy harder to find and us barricading ourselves further in to try and find it.
They will be very useful for police, increasing surveillance of people. While it might start with a team of drones keeping tabs on potential football violence or Saturday night town centre disorder, it will surely expand. Big Brother will edge closer.
There will be a further reduction in small interactions, the social glue that holds communities together. I don’t need to go round to drop back the pliers I borrowed from Adrian, thereby having a chat with him, I’ll simply send the drone instead. The regular conversation with the corner shop owner as I buy a pint of milk will be a thing of the past.
The regular conversation with the corner shop owner as I buy a pint of milk will be a thing of the past.
As the RSA’s connected communities research shows, these small interactions are vital to healthy communities.
Courier jobs will disappear, likely to be replaced with higher skilled drone repair jobs, whether software or hardware, requiring a higher skilled workforce and less opportunities for those who don’t have the skills needed.
So overall then, a huge increase in convenience counteracted by loss of privacy, continuing isolation of individuals and increased surveillance. These implications are surely enough that policy makers would do well to think sooner rather than later about the impact of mass drone ownership on our lives, including the more subtle impacts, and prepare for it. I’m no luddite, technology is amazing and I can’t wait to get my hands on my own drone, I just hope I’ve spent a few more hours of my life in meetings and conferences talking about their impact first.
Oliver Reichardt is Director of Fellowship at the RSA, you can follow him @OliverReichardt
The South Central Region of the RSA is holding a series of events aimed at sharing ideas about education. These events are run by and for RSA Fellows with the aims of:
- Sharing knowledge and ideas about education
- Meeting and networking with other Fellows
- Clarifying existing, and provoking new, ideas for potential projects
- Sharing information on Catalyst funding which could potentially support the growth of the ideas.
On Wednesday 6 November Karen Masters and Jennifer Gupta led a discussion on ‘Revolutionising access to science and research through technology’. This is a guest blog from Karen and Jennifer.
The Zooniverse is a collection of online citizen science projects that allow anyone with an internet connection to contribute to cutting-edge research. Starting with the hugely successful Galaxy Zoo – classifying galaxies based on their shape – the diverse Zooniverse projects include identifying whale sounds and transcribing old ship logs.
In addition to Galaxy Zoo, there are currently eight other astronomy Zooniverse projects (such as Moon Zoo, Solar Stormwatch and Planet Hunters) and a suite of projects on nature and biology (such as Whale FM, Seafloor Explorer and Bat Detective). Zooniverse is also expanding into humanities projects, with projects such as Ancient Lives, exploring the lives of the ancient Greeks, and What’s the Score, helping to increase access to the Bodelian’s digitised music collections.
The Zooniverse is experimenting with online tools to enable investigations to go further. The Galaxy Zoo Navigator is a set of in-browser tools that allow users to classify galaxies in a group and then explore these classifications in more detail. The ‘My Galaxies’ feature lets users see how their latest classifications compare to others’, illustrating the relative ease, and difficulty, of classifying different galaxies. Navigator also has tools to create simple histograms and scatter plots of various galaxy parameters, either using the galaxies classified by the group or a random sample. These plots can then be saved as an image or the data downloaded to a spreadsheet for further investigation.
Zooteach is a website where teachers and educators can share lesson plans and resources that link in with the Zooniverse projects.
Zooniverse team members and collaborators are developing a range of lesson plans for Zooteach, but support from the teaching community will be key to its success.
If you use Zooniverse projects in the classroom then please upload lesson plans, ideas, links, worksheets or comment on any existing Zooteach resources you use. Zooteach workshops for teachers are also available.
You can contact Karen and Jennifer at: email@example.com
Book now for upcoming events in the Ideas Education series:
To find out more contact Fellowship Councillor for South Central Bethan Michael.
Despite having been working on the RSA’s new project around Making for the last 6 months, running events to connect Makers from all levels such as the FutureMaker day back in June and our recent Maker Networking workshops, until last week I had never actually visited a real life ‘Makerspace’.
Makespaces, FabLabs Hackspaces and community workshops are popping up all over the world (if I’ve lost you already, then this great article by Gui Cavalcanti will expain all!) and you may have heard Dr Laura James, the founder of Cambridge Makespace singing their praises at this years President’s Lecture. I have long understood their benefits including encouraging startups, enterprise and collaborative learning, but see one of these spaces in the flesh and you realise it is so much more.
Last week Nat Hunter and I spent a whole day at the brilliant MakLab in Glasgow, Scotland’s first open access digital fabrication studio which is nestled in the Lighthouse, an arts centre in the very heart of the city. And it was FANTASTIC!
At this point, I should make it clear that I am not what you would call a Maker. I am a graphic designer, and 99% of what I do involves me working on my own on my laptop, before sending finished artwork to a printer on the other side of London. Quite often I don’t even get to see the finished thing before it is delivered to the client. No collaboration, no materials experimentation, no hands on craft. All in all, not very ‘Makey’, so I was initially sceptical about what I would take from a very hands-on 3D environment such as MakLab.
We were given a tour of the MakLab by Debra, a volunteer and part-time MakLab employee who makes stunning jewellery from plastic off-cuts in her spare time. She showed us all of the different equipment – a digital milling machine, vinyl cutters, laser cutters, CNC machines, digital embroidery and 3D printers. But it wasn’t so much the machines that got me excited (after all, I’ve never used any of this equipment before so wouldn’t know where to start) but the inspiration that surrounded us. From the material banks of brightly coloured vinyl and glittery Perspex (which I took a particular shine to) to the work samples that were lying around – an incredible skull laser cut into slate, a portrait etched out of marble and an intricate paper-cut wedding invitation as just a few examples – gave me ideas instantly of what I (as a non-maker) could do with this equipment. This sort of inspiration is something that you just don’t get by working in a traditional isolated environment.
The atmosphere was also fantastic. People were working together, sharing ideas and helping each other with the equipment. We met Frankie who started her model making company Finch and Fouracre soon after graduating Product Design from Glasgow School of Art. Frankie was using the laser cutter to help her make fast prototypes for a new paper craft project. Before she discovered MakLab she had to send off the work to be cut. This was costing her both money and time. She told us about how MakLab had changed the way she works. She now takes on bigger more complicated jobs, safe in the knowledge that with MakLabs equipment and support she will be able to learn and apply new skills to her work.
I think the most inspiring thing about the space was not necessarily what was being made, but the collaborative backdrop to this making. Anna Marion, an independent jewellery maker and the resident expert on the milling machine spends a large amount of her time at the MakLab. When we arrived she was busy helping someone turn their digital sketch of Skye’s mountain-scape into a 3D cast, which could be used to make collectable fridge magnets to sell to tourists. Anna saw the potential to collaborate, and by the end of the day it was agreed that she could use the design for rings in her jewellery collection. Conversations like this must happen every day, with skills, inspiration and ideas being shared in an open community environment.
I left MakLab and headed back to London bursting with ideas and itching to get Making. The problem is, there isn’t currently a facility for me to do that. MakLab are running a Kickstarter Campaign to bring a Lab to the heart of London. If the campaign is successful they will open a workshop in Makerversity, Somerset House with the following aims:
“1. We will create a bustling centre for making and digital manufacture in the heart of London. Part workshop, part studio, part laboratory, part learning centre. A diverse environment where differing people, technologies, crafts, and world views come together creates true innovation, empowering people to kickstart ideas into realisation. We are creating a place where some of the most weird and wonderful collaborations occur. Where we offer a model that is fair, affordable and inclusive, ensuring creative and experimental work is not pushed out of the city.
2. We will build learning programmes that empower young people with a modern skillset. An alternate education for young people that focus on developing young people’s skills, attitude and creativity with connections directly into different industries. Our aim is to develop young people who are engaged, proactive, critical and enthused.
3. We will put digital manufacturing in the hands of people who might not ordinarily use it. We see many of these technologies as being transformative, both in a technical sense as well as from a social perspective. We have witnessed first hand how making things with technology can be an incredibly empowering exercise and how it can spark creativity and imagination.”
Sounds great doesn’t it!? I’ve already snapped up my 3 months trial membership for just £30, but the campaign needs more help to succeed. Pledge now, and I will see you down at MakLab London in April. I’ll be the one making something out of glittery Perspex!
What do you say to people when you talk about the RSA? Do you mention a great lecture you’ve seen, a Fellow you’ve met or perhaps share an animate online? It’s easy when you’ve got an example but sometimes when you’re on the spot, it can be difficult to in articulate all the many aspects of the RSA’s work. It’s a multi-layered, multifaceted organisation that is governed from a huge house which can feel like a bit of a labyrinth - so where do you begin?
Here in Fellowship we’re pretty clued up on the benefits of joining the RSA’s 27,000 strong network; we can tell you about the Four Ways to Engage, all the House facilities and how our Regional Programme Managers can help you find like-minded people in your area. But, we also know that when you join an organisation it is important for your commitment to have meaning that goes beyond having a place to meet and free Wi-Fi. You need to have a clear idea about what those four letters – FRSA, represent. There are thousands of organisations out there to join and thousands of worthwhile charitable causes.
What makes us different?
When you join the RSA you join a rich history of enlightened thinking. As the Changemakers handbook demonstrates, the RSA is here to facilitate people thinking differently about social challenges. Back in 1754 when the RSA was founded, the people of Britain were facing the dawn of the industrial revolution; a period that saw great technological advancements and equally, many unforeseen problems.
What is remarkable about the RSA and its Fellows is that they began to find solutions to global problems long before buzz words like social justice and sustainability were on the national political agenda. In 1758, an RSA Fellow suggested providing an award to whomever could devise the best plan for the establishment of a charity house to shelter women whose poverty put them at risk of prostitution. Just under 20 years later, we offered an award for inventions that could reduce smoke emissions.
It is easy to underestimate the importance of having a social space to share ideas.
In 1852, the RSA organised the trial of the first public Water Closets but unfortunately, few people were inclined to use them and the campaign was deemed a failure. The idea was temporarily laid to rest but then dug up many years later and, where would we be today without public lavatories?
Sometimes, planting an idea is enough.
This is how I prefer to explain the RSA’s significance to people who are interested in getting involved. By joining our network you are continuing the history of Fellowship: a group of people who are not only willing to think more broadly than the majority, but who have proven many times over that they have the tenacity to pursue their ideas and turn them into practical solutions for the public good.
Find out more about Fellowship http://www.thersa.org/fellowship
If you already a Fellow but know someone who would be a great addition to the Fellowship, why not nominate them?
Alexandra Barker is a Fellowship Development Coordinator at the RSA
Sharing is popular again. It’s been 25 years since Harry Enfield mocked 1980s greed and individualism as his Loadsamoney character – a cockney plasterer. Now, a quick and exciting route to riches is promised by the sharing economy. Airbnb, its posterchild, is worth $2.5bn (£1.5bn) and Silicon Valley is buzzing again. Does sharing represent a scalable opportunity for a socially productive economy? This blog grounds the sharing economy in some context, and is followed by Part 2, analysing of who profits from sharing.
Since 2008, our dominant economic and financial structures have come under increased scrutiny, from many directions. Many argue that existing systems have delivered material wealth at great environmental cost, contributing to (or even relying upon) growing inequality at many scales, and that as we get wealthier, wealth is increasingly an ineffective means of delivering well-being. As the public sector started talking about “doing more with less’ and “sweating the assets” politicians and business consistently urged the public back on to the treadmill of buying more stuff a generation of social entrepreneurs said “let’s use what we have better”, and were spurred to develop their own peer-to-peer circuits for production, distribution and consumption. They were driven by objectives which ranged from getting rich themselves to meeting their neighbours to minimising overall consumption, and we now have a carnival of applications which connect individuals to one another to exchange in new ways.
The sharing economy in a tweet: “#whyishare is making MORE, for LESS and with NEW people”.
The sharing economy is how we describe this system which widens access to goods, services, assets and talents, through arrangements of collaborative consumption, a term first applied in 1978 to car-sharing. The sharing economy is a bunch of new ways to connect things that aren’t being used with people who could use them. It often does this through internet-based applications, and therefore does this radically better than previous systems in achieving higher utilisation of the economy’s ‘idling capacity’. According to Professor Clay Shirky, “the world has over a trillion hours a year of free time to commit to shared projects”.
In 2011, the RSA hosted Rachel Botsman and Time magazine said collaborative consumption was one of ten ideas to change the world. Now sharing economy initiatives are squaring up to entrenched businesses, and regulators and tax collectors are becoming interested.
Rachel Botsman defines three types of collaborative consumption: product service systems (like Barclays bikeshare in London and Netflix, where you rent for short periods rather than owning), redistribution markets (like eBay, Freecycle, Gumtree, where you sell or give away unwanted stuff) and collaborative lifestyles (like Landshare, Streetbank, and Couchsurfing), where people swap skills, time and other assets.
Like efforts to build a circular economy the sharing economy often promises environmental efficiency. Reducing waste appeals to our moral sentiment (waste is a feature in two of the seven deadly sins) while sharing means we get access to more, and perhaps put individualistic materialism (the envy and jealousy associated with coveting thy neighbour’s goods) in the back seat. To paraphrase Neal Gorenflo, the idea is that instead of keeping up with the Joneses, we are inspired and enabled to collaborate with the Khan’s, rent our under-used assets to the Cheng’s and get tips from strangers on how to hack, fix and rejuvenate objects at a makerspace with shared tools. We meet new people (online and offline) and make a living in new ways, while using money less, hoping to reverse declining social capital.
Sharing can get really creative: through Waze (which Google just bought for $1bn), drivers share their live data on traffic to help others travel more efficiently. GoGenie shares information about disabled access. Carrotmob organises campaigns for people to vote with their money, giving businesses positive incentives to make sustainable investments. On TaskRabbit, people bid to perform chores and…tasks, while Instacart specialises in matching your shopping list with someone to do your shopping and deliver it to you.
Of course, sharing goes way back. We’ve always been sharing, bartering, lending, gifting, and swapping. Collaboration has been our primary competitive advantage as a species. Before we had money, we had a gift economy – “you owe me one” – rather than a barter economy. Within modern capitalism there have emerged a range of redistributive institutions such as co-operatives (800 million members globally) and credit unions. Good 360 has taken $7bn in corporate donations over the last 30 years and distributed them to charities. We often lose sight of the fact that efficient resource allocation is what the (old) economy is fundamentally driven to do, but often fails. The sharing economy might be best conceived as a system to address market failures in personal consumption; to share market information, lower transaction costs and lower barriers to entry, therefore expanding the market of buyers, sellers, donors and recipients.
In contemporary society, what some have dubbed the core economy – the unpaid care, support and nurturing we provide for one another – structures our lives as much as the monetary economy. Sharing mechanisms have long supported the core economy, through informal networks and more formal institutions: 28,000 people have collectively pooled their skills and support at 300 local Timebanks across the UK, on the basis that an hour of my time is worth an hour of yours, and there is potential for institutions and business to do the same – e.g. Hackney Shares.
We are at a moment of hyperbole, so there is a risk that new tech applications divert our attention from the breadth and heritage of sharing structures in society, and the risks of failure. Many sharing platforms struggle to reaching critical mass in activities which represent a natural monopoly based on a network effect, so efforts are now being made to build infrastructure to consolidate the sharing economy – comparison websites and sector-wide initiatives (…is this meta-sharing?). But the growing consensus is the sharing economy could be as transformative as the industrial revolution; and Natalie Foster says sharing “will be the defining economic story of the 21st century.”
The sharing economy is beginning to look like a panacea: an all-conquering system of innovations which can drive can drive economic growth and social outcomes. It’s more complicated than that, and Part 2 on this blog discusses profiting from a sharing economy.