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The nature and potential of the collaborative economy

Benjamin Tincq and Antonin Léonard, co-founders of OuiShare, in talk with Deskmag's Anna Cashman

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The collaborative economy is expanding, developing, and gaining more traction, and has surpassed the threshold of simply a fad or passing trend. More companies are emerging which are based on the principles of sharing, for both experiences or resources. Coworking and its gradual adaption into widely understood work practices is just one example. As it becomes more prevalent, more conversations regarding the movement take place. This often fosters an inclination to define the phenomenon. But how can we define the collaborative economy? Is it even anything new?

OuiShare is an online platform that aims to host conversations about this 'new' economy, and promote the values this economy underpins. Deskmag spoke with Antonin Léonard and Benjamin Tincq to discover their thoughts on the matter. 

OuiShare started as a blog about collaborative consumption in 2010. Antonin Léonard, who was interested in covering and promoting the developments of the collaborative economy, set up a facebook group and twitter profile, encouraging people to participate in meaningful conversations about the movement.

Two years on, the facebook group has near 1000 fans from all over Europe, and has expanded into a collaborative platform which promotes this economy, and, most importantly, the values behind it.

As more individuals and businesses alike turn to the sharing economy as an effective and fulfilling alternative, more people develop opinions about the phenomenon and are inclined to try to define it. Antonin and his team too thought about a possible definition for this wide and varied economic model. But they have come to the conclusion that it cannot – or at least should not – be defined. We do know however that gain and profit are measured with more than just dollars and cents, and how and why it came about.

What is new about the collaborative economy?

The concepts of sharing and collaborating are nothing new. They pre-date language, and can be observed in the animal kingdom. But this 'new' collaborative economy is adopting a more structured form – characterized by a shift in collective thinking and widespread collective participation – which was engendered by a combination of modern developments.

The global financial crisis was the principal catalyst for this new collective thinking. The reduction in individuals' purchasing power – whether real or perceived – sparked a need for a new economic structure. Moreover, the crisis engendered a reassessment of the structures which uphold the failed economy. Citizens' loss of faith in big corporations, governments, and the financial sector trigger for a crisis of values, which engendered a shift in collective thinking to collective action.

'People are changing how they view their lives, and about how the way they live, work and socialize... This was a fantastic enabler of the 'new' ways of collaborative values,' said Antonin.

'Trust is the entire base of the collaborative economy. And this comes at a time when there is a decreasing amount of trust in organizations, corporations, and governments.’

The internet too played a big role in its expansion by acting as an enabler. It opened the door to wider physical connection. Where only a few years ago the internet and technological advancement was often blamed for increasing isolation, it became the remedy of its own beast by allowing social connections to be made in the virtual world, and, most importantly, to easily be taken offline.

What does the collaborative economy look like?

Given these catalysts, we can deduce that the collaborative economy is the product of two desires. The first, thanks to diminished purchasing power, is driven by resource optimization. It is fueled by people who wish to economize on resources, and who are either motivated by the desire to reduce waste or increase monetary gain in social and sustainable ways.

The second relates to this reassessment of values, and is the desire to share experiences and collaborate with others in the real world by taking relationships offline. Sites such as couchsurfing and Gidsy are examples of this, and their user bases, and companies doing similar things, are increasing in number.

This last desire is the focus of OuiShare. The organization has both a virtual platform and two formats for physical encounters, called OuiShare Drinks and OuiShare Talk.

OuiDrinks events include startup pitches and hosted discussions about particular themes that interest the crowd, with a focus on collaboration. OuiShare Talk is an informal conference, where influential thinkers and proactive members of the collaborative economy are invited to present. As OuiShare's popularity has grown, more events take place in cities around Europe. As well as its home-base in Paris, OuiShare minions have traveled to Berlin, Rome, and Barcelona, and are setting up platforms, with a 'connector' stationed in each city.

'There is more online collaboration after offline events,' he said. 'When I meet someone online, I try to immediately organize to meet them in person. Like we are now.'

Antonin has high hopes for the collaborative economy, but he is not delusional.He doesn't expect that the collaborative economy will replace the consumer economy – and anyone who does is an idealist, at the least. But he is a zealous believer in its potential to enrich individuals' lives and communities at large.

Collaborative Production

People who discuss the collaborative economy often only refer to the shift in consumer behavior. But it is also very disruptive to the retail and industry, and is having – and will increasingly have – an impact on production.

‘(This movement) is having a significant impact on a range of industries, for example the automobile industry and the hotel industry,'Antonin explained. 'And it's not only because of changes in consumer behavior, it's also having an impact on production.'

One example of this disruption comes from Joe Justice, who started wikispeed. Joe went about building an open-source, modular panel car. It has a five star rating, is cheap to produce, and all improvements can be implemented immediately and individually, reducing waste and maximizing efficiency.

It is a pilot project, but the aim to to create an open-source platform for products that anyone can learn and use.

But this is just one example. In Paris another dedicated team called Fairtrade Electronic have committed to building the first open-source and fair trade electronics, starting with the LED, a symbol of efficiency and lighting projects in unelectrified countries.

Fairtrade Electronic aims to ‘transpos(e) the model of open source development of software and tools (Mozilla, Linux, Wikipedia...) to the production of components. The development of production tools will be carried out by a community of passionate developers and users.'

'We think that it is fundamental for society to develop and own collectively the techniques of production of electronics/computer tools that it uses on a daily basis. Freed from patents, innovation is shared and no longer protected. It is thus encouraged, (and) we believe that in the very near future some regional authorities will want to support this mode of production by fixing high social and environmental standards.'

This project, when implemented and if embraced, could greatly reduce our dependence on production oligopolies.

Open Source Ecology has another ambitious project: to build 50 open source industrial machines that would suffice to build a small civilization with modern comforts. Platforms like OuiMedia are helping broadcast these projects so that they gain traction and become a bigger, hard-hitting reality.

There is clearly potential for disruption. But Antonin feels that the challenge with the collaborative economy is creating collaborative economies of scale, and creating them parallel to the old economic models.

‘It will be interesting to see how, and who, creates these open source economies based on contributors who care about it.'

Coworking spaces are perhaps a very good example of how to achieve this, if the communities they house are used effectively.

Coworking spaces meld the desire of sharing experiences and of collaborating with the need to optimize resources and earn a buck, and exist in harmonic tandem with the 'old' economy. They are well positioned to expand and to act as hubs of local communities, whose talent and experience can be exported elsewhere, through networks of communities – whether this knowledge comes in the form of skills or product codes.

As coworking spaces then are becoming more well known and more numerous, the next focus for these workplaces can – and should be – on exporting the talent, knowledge and innovation within them by creating a community of communities. They are in an extraordinary position to do so.

OuiShare's partners with coworking spaces for their events. The next one is in La Mutinerie in Paris on July 5th.

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