Shareable’s mission is to empower everyone to share a more joyous, resilient and equitable world.
Cooperative Consumption is one of the macro trends covered in our new report 10 Years of 10 Trends, which revisits some of the most significant cultural shifts we’ve explored over the last decade. At the center of that trend is the sharing economy, a topic we discussed with Neal Gorenflo of Shareable, an online hub for the “sharing transformation.” Gorenflo, who co-founded the nonprofit after a soul-crushing life in the corporate world, envisions a new “peer culture” and an economic model that’s based on networks rather than hierarchy and access over ownership. Gorenflo predicts that in the wake of giants like Airbnb and Uber, the sharing economy will see a grassroots-driven “revolution in community ownership and shared value.”
Can you describe what Shareable does?
I started Shareable with a few others back in October 2009. For five years, I held a salon about sharing and collaboration in San Francisco once a month. Shareable emerged out of that experience.
Shareable’s mission is to empower everyone to share a more joyous, resilient and equitable world. We have two main programs. We have the most-read online magazine about the sharing culture and economy in the world. Last month 100,000 people came to read Shareable. We have an international audience, and we’re known for inspiring and empowering content. We also offer a lot of practical guides about how to make this sharing happen in your life; and we have the largest “how to share” library on the web, around 300 how-to’s: how to start a worker cooperative, how to do a clothing swap, how to do a repair café.
The other thing we do is organizing. In 2013, we launched Sharing Cities Network. The goal here is to create a global network of sharing movements and connect sharing leaders locally and also on a global scale, so they can learn from one another and grow sharing and alternative economies around the world.
What drew you to the sharing economy?
I had this kind of satori moment. I was on a business trip. I was working for a Fortune 50 transportation company on a merger/integration project. I was staying over the weekend at this airport hotel. I went for a jog and stopped in a parking lot and started to cry. I had this realization that on the one hand, I wasn’t really doing what I wanted to do. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t feel like I could realize my creative potential within this setting. I felt alienated from myself, my purpose, my community, my friends and the people I loved the most, since I was traveling so much.
I realized that every step of the way in my career, I was struggling alone, that it had been a solo performance. I felt a deep sense of loneliness, helplessness and hopelessness underneath the surface of this on-paper successful person. I realized that my condition wasn’t unique, especially in the developed world with the competitive economy that we have and the toxic and alienating consumer culture we live within. We judge each other in these arbitrary and destructive ways based on where we live or what we own or how much we earn. That was a crushing realization: to feel such a mass of humanity was laboring underneath this condition unnecessarily. That’s what really motivated me.
Around 2008, it was a perfect storm of things starting to come together as well. The economic crisis was a big catalyst: When people are pressed to meet those basic needs, they start to rethink their lives. When they can’t make rent or put food on the table, can’t find the job they need, they start to question the whole system and start experimenting—that’s our audience. It’s been a couple of years, so it’s changing and getting more diverse. But early on, it was white, young, urban, very educated—folks with graduate degrees is the biggest category—and broke.
So it’s the notion that the traditional 20th century approach to industry is reaching its limit, and at the same time, technology now makes an appealing alternative really simple?
Exactly, but also social conditions. It’s a new generation coming up, the first generation raised on the Internet and a changing value culture as well. Net culture is becoming the dominant culture. So if you want to understand where things are headed, you have to understand Net culture, this whole authenticity thing and peer relations and consumer culture. The way you currently interact is about judgment and finding the pecking order. It’s about what you own and where you work and your salary and the Zip code you live in. In a peer culture, you approach each other in a different mode, which says, “Hey, what are you really interested in, and maybe I can help you realize your dream?” This is what I’m passionate about—maybe there’s a way you can support what I’m doing.
It’s a more fun and productive and constructive kind of social relation. There is a new social order. Sociologist Barry Wellman calls this “networked individualism.” There’s a change in our social structure away from groups toward networks.
The guy I worked for traveled 25 out of 30 days a month. And he has a family. That’s ridiculous, that’s not human. That’s not the kind of world I want to live in. People are just exhausted. To put it in economic terms, the old factory-model society, the hierarchical model, has reached its productivity limits. Sharing is a way out that’s based more on networks than hierarchy.
What are the drivers that are pushing sharing forward and making it more widespread?
There is a group of folks who really focus on their life experience and their quality of life. That’s what they value. It’s more about relationships and your experiences than stuff or money. The kind of experiences that people want and that impact them the most are often those that cannot be bought with money. It’s almost the opposite. The more away from money it is, the more transformative it can be.
In a fundamental way, the social contract is broken. Because people don’t trust the government, and they don’t trust the metanarrative of society any longer. The story of the American-style good life has no credibility any longer for people. There’s also a break with employers. Companies that care about people and community are gone. So people are freed. In a way, they’re in a newly precarious situation. But what comes along with this is a freedom to evaluate their lives and decide for themselves what gives them the most satisfaction. So it is within this crisis that this is happening.
Which ideas have proved to be very successful and which have not been in this space?
When we talk about a sharing economy, we have a different definition than the media. It’s not just Uber, Airbnb and Lyft. It’s also the tool library and the credit union and the cooperative and the co-working space and open software, open hardware. But what started to get all over the news were the Airbnbs of the world. They did two things that got them a lot of press: They raised a tremendous amount of money. The second is, they broke a lot of laws. So they were very disruptive. This built the cycle of more money and more attention and more users.
When they started out, I was a user and I thought it was a transformative experience. As these companies have taken on money, they’ve become less transformative. They’ve been very successful in a certain way, in a traditional way. On the other hand, it’s a failure and even a kind of con that they have used the language and rhetoric of sharing to build huge businesses and make themselves rich, the founders and investors.
But Economy 2.0 is right around the corner. People are starting to build platforms where the users have ownership and control. They have a say and a real stake. There’s Ethereum, Swarm, and there’s Reddit, which just raised $50 million and wants to give 10 percent of their company to their users. They’re figuring out how to do it. They’re working with crypto-equity to make dealing with ownership in the enterprise scalable. It’s automated. I think this is going to be a really interesting chapter. It’s just starting to unfold.
Do you think consumer attitudes toward sharing-based businesses are changing?
As you head up the adoption curve, past the early adopters and the early majority into the late majority, people become more pragmatic. People begin looking at it as, “What’s in it for me?” But while there is this huge concentration of attention on just a few companies, a real sharing economy is actually emerging from the grassroots and scaling in a different way, not through VC investment but through replication. Things like co-working: Eight years ago there were just a couple of spaces in San Francisco. Now there are over 3,000 around the world.
So there are two distinct sharing economies?
Yes. There are the for-profit ones, or the aggressively capitalistic ones, and then there are ones where their social enterprise is for real. They may be for-profit, but they’re a social enterprise and vetted in their local communities and committed to their users.
How do you think regulations will evolve when it comes to companies like Airbnb and Uber?
On the one hand, they’re in some cases getting a pass because they’re innovative and they supposedly represent the future. I think those days are coming to an end. The scrutiny and the dialogue have advanced enough that people understand what these services are about and the trade-off. What seems to be happening is that more demands are being placed on them—they will have to play by the same or similar rules as other people providing similar services.
At the same time, they’re forcing soft but real reform. For example, in San Francisco, taxi service has dropped off like 65 percent. They’re like, “We need to update. If you want the taxis to survive, we’ve got to get new regulations and better technology so they can effectively compete.” They’re forcing the incumbent to up its game. That’s positive, because San Francisco is horribly bad for taxis.
We’ve seen mainstream brands starting to tap into the sharing trend through partnerships. Do you think anybody’s doing an especially good job of that?
It’s pretty early for corporations to get into this. Just about every major car company has an investment in ride-sharing or car-sharing. They see the writing on the wall: declining miles driven and car ownership, especially the future buyers. So they’re preparing themselves.
Near Me is a marketplace in a box, and they want to work with big brands. There’s a really good argument for big retailers helping their customers manage an asset through the whole lifecycle of ownership, from purchase to repair and maintenance to maybe renting it out to someone to resale and disposal. Then you have all these touch points with your customer, and you’re getting fees all along the line.
So there’s a bigger lifetime value, more stable revenue stream if you’ve done that. Then the incentives start to change about what kind of products you sell. So if you are working on this model, that big-screen TV is going to be built differently—it’s going to be built to be more reliable and maybe even modular, so it can be broken down and parts reused and more easily repaired. This is where the sharing economy and the circular economy overlap.
How do you think the sharing economy is reshaping the way our society understands ownership?
I think it’s disrupting ownership in a very real way. Even though this first crop of companies may be really aggressive and greedy, they’re doing a very valuable re-education. It’s a very simple idea that people latch onto: the value of access versus ownership. Access is better than ownership. It’s cheaper and more convenient, and you can get more variety and better quality.
A lot of the sharing economy is very much grounded in capitalism, but people are spending a little as opposed to a lot and creating new possibilities where there weren’t any before, right?
The labor market is becoming more unstable. People are moving to cities, and they have less space. So people are forced to think about dropping their fixed costs. You want to drop your fixed costs because your income is unpredictable. So you lower your fixed costs as low as you can and you live in a smaller space. You can’t store things. So it’s just much better to get access to the things you need when you need them, pay just for that time, than to own and take on that additional risk and burden of owning.
What are some of the newer areas the sharing trend is moving into?
One place where we’re uniquely positioned to help is getting social movements to adopt the sharing economy as part of their platform. Political parties and NGOs and movements are integrating these ideas. More and more they are becoming part of a prescription for change from all quarters. An example of that is Friends of the Earth in the U.K. They have included sharing in what they do. So has the Center for a New American Dream. And Annie Leonard, who wrote The Story of Stuff, is now executive director of Greenpeace, one of the largest environmental NGOs on the planet. So the sharing economy could become a very important part of their platform.
Urbanists and planners are starting to adopt these ideas and integrate them into their prescription for change and what they want to do in the world. They take a commons perspective: that there are certain things that are owned in common between citizens that should be protected, and we should extend the common and we should share resources and manage them directly as citizens. Rather than allowing elected officials or distant government bodies to decide how resources are used.
Have you seen any mainstream businesses drifting in that direction?
There are socially responsible businesses. Where I live, there’s the Social Venture Network. But the point is, it’s not just business that is reacting or adopting; it’s also civil society.
What do you see for the sharing economy in 2015?
A sharing economy 2.0. It’s the revolution in community ownership and shared value that is starting to unfold just now. There are different patterns emerging for hacking traditional cooperative structures to distribute authority and ownership on a platform and an enterprise. That’s what we’ll be focusing on, and I’m really excited about it. This will be a really fundamental change in one of the most important institutions in our economy.