The corporate war against an online sharing economy

Imagine a world with no traffic, no public transport and fewer privately owned cars.

In this future, the roads are dominated by an army of automated taxis that ferry people from place to place, using sophisticated algorithms to ensure its being done in the most efficient, expedient and direct way possible.

Passengers are grouped based on their destination and with few overheads and a shared service, this direct mode of transport costs less than the current price of a train ticket.

This kind of rhetoric featured in the US media last week on the back of news that Google - a company pioneering self-driving cars - poured $258 million of capital into Uber - a transport company attempting to displace the taxi industry.

By the end of the story, it’s hard for any commuter not to hold out hope for this future. But there’s a catch to this narrative. It’s tempered by the fact that innovation in this space is tackling regulation at every corner and heavy lobbying from the incumbents companies.

Uber’s not alone. Crowdsourced accommodation service, AirBnB and UK peer to peer lending firm, RateExchange have received a similar reception in trying to grow their business. Can you guess what they have in common?

Sure, they’re all start-ups, and yes, they’re all disruptive and involve crowdsourcing. But, they also all harness a growing, game-changing trend known as collaborative consumption.

Turning back the clock

In a nutshell, collaborative consumption pushes the idea of humanity using communication tools - like the internet - to pool and share resources. In a sense, the trend is taking society back to a time before money - where hunter-gatherer communities swapped what they had, for what they needed, in order to survive.

From as early as 2010, author and speaker Rachel Botsman has been leading the discussion on this topic. She says that trend has “absolutely exploded” within the past few years.

And there’s plenty of figures to back up her claim. For instance, AirBnB hit a milestone 4 million rooms booked earlier this year, reporting that 3 million of those were booked in 2012. Meanwhile, the peer to peer lending market was recently reported to be worth £550 million and set to be worth $1 billion by 2016, according to a report by the FT.

However, while the evidence points to collaborative consumption fast becoming a mainstream trend, it’s not quite there yet. It’s still perceived as a fringe behaviour and despite all of the media attention it's getting, it’s still treated as such.

Botsman’s reasoning for this: marketing and advertising.

"Public stigma will always be a challenge,” she says

“We've got to overcome 60 years and billions of dollars of advertising teaching us that ownership and brand are the ultimate aspiration."

The generational shift 

But she adds the transition is happening, and it may be bolstered by the generational shift.

“You have whole generations growing up, who have a very different attitude towards owning and sharing,” Botsman says.

“They're sharing videos, they're sharing content, they're sharing ideas and they're sharing contacts all online, and now these behaviours are just extending to other parts of their lives.”

So, what does Botsman think will happen next with this trend?

“At the moment, people tend to engage in one segment of their life. For instance, they are really active with this idea of sharing transportation, but they've never heard of peer-to-peer finance,” she says.

“One of the big changes that is coming up, is that you're going to see more and more people move across sectors and realise that all of these behaviours are connected.”

Botsman also predicts that the “public safety” argument that infers that all of these companies pose some kind of risk to everyday consumer will start to dissipate.

Perhaps most importantly, Botsman also anticipates that incumbent companies will step up their efforts to stamp out and stifle start-ups that build a business model out of this idea. Be it through marketing or perhaps even stronger lobbying campaigns.

This conflict is set to escalate and it sets the scene on what we’re bound to see over the next decade. A battle on who really decides the future: consumer behaviour or the companies that try to control it.

You can hear Rachel Botsman speak about the collaborative consumption trend at the CEO Magazine, Executive Conference 9-11 October at Hamilton Island Yacht Club.