Time-banks, bartering and space-sharing are the tip of the ‘collaborative economy’ iceberg

The collaborative economy, the sharing economy, call it what you will – it’s been around a good few years now and is developing all the time. What’s especially exciting about it to me is that it is growing amorphously, a sort of self-expanding cloud of crowdsourcing, bartering and anything else that goes against the traditional ‘cash’ economy way of doing things.

I came across a great report this week which rather boldly set out to get more of a grip on it, to wrestle it, perhaps, into something a little more manageable – and fathomable. For PRs and creatives, the report helps put this emerging industry into a bit of a box, and as a result, it makes the idea of tapping into it a bit more manageable, too.

The report was commissioned by innovation charity Nesta (nesta.org.uk), which was set up to help people and organisations to “bring great ideas to life.” Their take on it is that it the collaborative economy is expanding at such a rate that it is becoming difficult to ignore. It’s not just about sharing homes, taxis and power drills, they say: rather, it’s a way of us all being able to use the physical resources, skills and knowledge that reside in every community.

The collaborative economy embraces everything from using a city-wide bicycle scheme to:

* Contributing to a crowdfunding campaign

* Volunteering at a timebank

* Offering to teach someone a language in exchange for IT lessons

* Renting a desk in a co-working space

* Contributing to an open-source design or to Wikipedia

And so on. In other words, just that kind of things that we’ve all been talking about in recent years. But when lumped together, it does seem to represent something of a paradigm shift. As Nesta say, “These seemingly disparate activities share some common features: access instead of ownership; collective efforts instead of solitary endeavours. Many rely on vast, distributed networks of people and goods – and the technologies that can build and maintain such networks. They also depend on public willingness to place trust in people they have never met.”

What I think this also does is offer a new way of looking at the very concept of the consumer. PR companies are most often in the businesses (to be blunt) of putting a product into the hands of a buyer, but this will have to adapt as the world changes. What if the goal is no longer trying to find a buyer for your client, but a collaborator? What if your client seeks not a cash transaction, but volunteer man hours, or community engagement, or brain-power, or the persuasive powers of a group?

Internally, too, there’s food for thought. Might the collaborative economy, for example, lead to a contra deal with a more experienced company on a certain account in exchange for access to a renowned specialist of yours a couple of months down the line? Might you make a substantial saving on taxis by pooling up with the company next door for cross-town trips? Could you share bikes or office space? Might you be able to get a talented group of fans to design the website of one of your ‘rockstar’ clients in return for the feelgood factor of being involved?

I doubt if this is all completely new to you, but if you need a quick up-to-speeder have a look at the report at nesta.org.uk, and also at some of the companies (Zopa, Airbnb and so on) who have well and truly got to grips with the concept. Nesta’s three $64,000 questions about the collaborative economy will get you off to a good start:
* A fairer, greener alternative to capitalism, or capitalism’s newest, most efficient form?
* A new way of organising the economy, or a phenomenon as old as humanity itself?
* A technology that frees us from the power of monopolies and big corporations, or a destroyer of steady jobs and consumer rights?

You can read the full (juicy) report here.

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