Social Enterprise: A Sharing Economy?

Social Enterprise: A Sharing Economy?
Jonathan Coburn, Director, Social Value Lab
08.08.14

Rise of the Collaborative Economy

Over the last five years there’s been a groundswell of interest in what has variously been called the ‘collaborative economy’ or ‘sharing economy’.

You might not yet be familiar with the term, but it’s changing everything from the way we access everyday goods (most of us have used the likes of Ebay or Gumtree), to the way that we earn and borrow money (check out Zopa), where we take our holiday (see Airbnb), how we use transport (see nextbike), and so on.

Just go onto google for a few seconds and you’ll find the internet awash with new platforms designed to enable peer-to-peer exchange. These platforms are bypassing traditional institutions and causing (healthy) disruption to industries traditionally dominated by big corporates.

In her great book ‘What’s Mine is Yours’ Rachel Botsman has tried to make some sense of this growing movement, describing different types of exchange based on: redistribution, whereby pre-owned goods are redistributed from where they are not needed to where there is need (everything from food to baby clothes to books); product service systems, where people or organisations that own an asset can put it into shared use (everything from cars to power tools); and collaborative lifestyles, involving the sharing or exchange of less tangible assets (time, skills and space, etc.).

There are a few things at work here that are giving rise to these new models of economic exchange. We’re seeing a shift from a culture of ownership to one of access (how many of us really want to own a car when all we want is to get from A to B or to own a power drill when all we need is a hole in the wall). We’re seeing people live increasingly frugal lifestyles (often not out of desire but of economic necessity) and at the same time showing increasing environmental concern. Enabled by social technologies, we’re also seeing more and more people fulfil their innate need to connect and share with others.

What it Means for Social Enterprise

Ok, so what’s all this got to do with social enterprise?

Surely none of the above should feel new. For many decades (and centuries) enterprising folk in Scotland’s communities have come together to co-operate, pool and collaboratively consume resources, and in doing so make life better for each other. Think food co-ops, credit unions, toy libraries, time banks, co-working spaces, and the like. But how many of these traditional forms of ‘collaborative consumption’ could extend their reach and impact by embracing new technologies and new ways of thinking and working?

While many of the new kinds of online marketplaces and forums for exchange are becoming increasingly successful there is also the danger that they will transform into the profit-consumed entities that they set out to replace. There’s plenty of inspiration out there for social enterprises that are interested in establishing ethical marketplaces providing the rental and exchange of goods and services across peers, small enterprises, and communities. Who is stepping up to seize these opportunities though?

At the same time we’re seeing social enterprises (and the wider third sector) become increasingly stretched and financially fragile. Intuitively we know that assets and resources within the sector could be better deployed: putting the idle capacity of vehicles, land, equipment, buildings etc. into collective use (where these are used infrequently, the costs of purchase or maintenance are high, and outright ownership isn’t essential); and pooling or exchanging resources such as staff skills, time, money, and services (where these are relatively easy to share or distribute). Surely there are many ways to unlock resources, drive down costs, and stimulate innovation while keeping money circulating within the social enterprise community?

Despite these opportunities there doesn’t feel like there is yet a collective understanding of the possibilities, a sufficient breadth of vision, or an evidence base to frame understanding or drive action.

Now feels like the right time for some real ambition in this area, some radical thinking. We see the tip of the iceberg with great new initiatives to pool the sector’s resources (e.g. Scottish Community Banking Trust) and aggregate supply (e.g. Run Native), and with many Social Enterprise Networks which are actively exploring opportunities for inter-trading.

But where can we take this and where do we start?

Taking Some Initial Steps

Social Value Lab is committed to helping progress this agenda. As a first step, we’re partnering with Nesta (with support from their Bright Ideas Research Fund) to start developing the evidence base and give this agenda some visibility.

Our first project will focus on examining opportunities to build a stronger collaborative economy within the social enterprise sector. We’re looking to:

§  Identify any opportunities to unlock, pool, or make productive use of the idle capacity/resources that exist within the sector.

§  Better understand the benefits, drivers, enablers, and barriers to sharing and exchange within the sector.

§  Identify existing areas of innovation and new models of exchange that might be more widely applied to the sector.

§  Provide a set of ideas and proposals to move the agenda forward.

In particular, we’re going to test whether four important ingredients are in place: if there is significant idle capacity or untapped resources that can be better deployed; if there is a sufficiently strong commitment to the shared use of resources; if there exists adequate trust between social enterprises; and if there is a critical mass of social enterprises willing to participate in new forms of economic exchange.

We’re going to examine these issues and source inspiration widely, but are looking to Glasgow as a test-bed to explore our ideas and assumptions. We’re pleased to be working with GSEN and other local partners on this.

How to Get Involved

At this stage we’re just keen to hear about your work. Are you involved in an innovative initiative to pool or share resources among enterprising charities or social enterprises? Have you come across inspiring examples of related work from elsewhere? Do you have evidence to highlight the potential for economic exchange within the sector? 

You can share your ideas and insights with:

Jonathan Coburn

Director, Social Value Lab

jonathan@socialvaluelab.org.uk

0141 530 1479

Further updates and findings will be shared as the project progresses.