SOCIETY | Dec 7, 2018

Back2Basics: Sharing Economy

The meaning of the words "Sharing Economy"

Sharing Economy: economy of sharing. The basic issue is (apparently) simple and can be summarized with a question: we need the drill otherwise who makes the hole?

Almost 15 million happy Italic drill owners use it – throughout their entire life – for an average of 30 minutes and 20 holes. In practice, almost two euros a hole. So, if each household in a condominium agreed and used a “shared drill” (the condominium drill?), family spending would be optimized, people would have a better drill, and so on.  But we know, a man does not feel like a real man without his drill in the toolbox, and it does not matter if putting in a wall plug means ending up with a hole the size of the Channel tunnel. The problem is that if the same reasoning is extended to companies and means of production, it is clear how the scope of the theme is much broader than the already extended ego of the Italian male drill-owner.

Think of small-sized Italian farms, which often have means that are oversized with respect to their use and the consequent burden on accounts that sometimes risks leading them into bankruptcy, but which cannot overcome the cultural barrier that prevents them from sharing their threshing machine with the neighbor on the farm next door.

Sharing: where is the problem?

In short: the idea that sharing a product or a service is a good way to optimize costs is obvious and excellent, but its translation into practice is very much more complex than may seem.

  • In terms of method, the cooperative dimension is in itself a concrete response. A response based on a solid and structured organizational model and cultural dimension. A response which – moreover – offers a substantive solution to many of the issues that the Sharing Economy raises.
  • In terms of substance, in fact, there are very practical problems: do users share the resource together or at different times? How do they agree on who should use it? Who makes it available? How is it paid for? Who makes it work? Who is responsible for it? Who manages the necessary data and who exploits them? And to do what? Just to name a few.

All problems that unite the sharing of an unused room of your apartment with an industrial press, with the obvious appropriate differences. All problems, however, that can also be addressed thanks to networking technologies. It is no coincidence that the Sharing Economy, basically known since the times of barter and widespread since the Middle Ages with the commonalities of Italy’s rural areas, today finds a new sense, new spaces and new meanings on the net.

However, as always happens, there is a concrete risk that a seemingly simple matter will become dramatically complicated. A bit because we like to complicate things, a bit because moving from a community in which an oven is shared among a few hundred fellow villagers who are all more or less mutually related to a system that shares resources with hundreds of thousands of completely unknown users scattered around the world is not really trivial. And inevitably, partly because it is the fashion and partly out of ignorance, we end up defining (and sometimes – see the Italian situation – regulating) as Sharing Economy phenomena that are completely unrelated to the Sharing Economy.

Sharing Economy or not?

An example? BlaBlaCar, a well-known service that allows car pooling (that is, sharing of the transport costs for a car driven by a private individual moving between home and work), has nothing to do – in terms of substance and method – with the systems like MyTaxi or AppTaxi used by taxi drivers. While the former can refer to a system of collaborative consumption of a resource,  which is generally a form of Sharing Economy, the latter are nothing more than the re-edition in a digital sauce of a service previously provided through other channels – radio taxis – which has nothing to do with the Sharing Economy. And then moving from car sharing to social eating: with the same service offered and platform used, distinctions have to be made on how it is offered, because occasionally sharing the costs of dinner with a group of friends or complete strangers is something very different from systematically offering a home restaurant service every evening. If in both cases the same platform is used (for example Gnammo), in the first case it is Sharing Economy, in the second case it risks being unlicensed catering.

In short: trying to unite services that have in common only the use of a digital platform to connect users with each other is not only wrong, but conceptually dangerous, because it creates a generalization which, if extended to a regulatory dimension and broader reasoning concerning the protection of work, the responsibility levels of operators and protection of the consumer, can only produce distortions. Many service operators today are completely inappropriately considered to be players of the Sharing Economy, and considered as such also from a legal and taxation point of view.

What are the impacts of sharing on the economy?

The impact of the Sharing Economy on the economy and society is still, nevertheless, minimal compared with the potential that could be developed by a sharing economy which – also relying on technologies such as Blockchain and, why not, approaches that learn lessons from the cooperative dimension with all its specificities – really promises to differentiate itself in a clear way from what some have already defined as the Gig Economy, that economy of “odd jobs” which, far from exploiting the potential of digital platforms to develop an ecosystem that permits reformulation of the concept of possession, does nothing but rely on the exploitation of labor.

What is certain is that the question is central and that its solution depends on the ability of all the players involved (institutions, trade unions, employer structures, representative bodies) to identify ways which, while not penalizing traditional operators, do not end up by slowing down the development of new actors: such a situation would only benefit international operators which, confident of often more advantageous regulatory systems and models, would end up transforming Italy into a colony. And this would damage old and new companies. In short, squaring the circle will not be simple, but it is certain that we cannot afford to stay out of the game, because – as Enrique Ernesto Febbraro said – when it rains, I’ll share my umbrella, if I don’t have an umbrella, I’ll share the rain.

Stefano Epifani