The sharing economy is in a regulatory crisis. Airbnb’s hotel tax issues, the cease and desist orders slapped on peer mobility apps Sidecar and Lyft, and other brushes with the law have catalyzed a flurry of organizing and dialogue about sharing economy regulation.
It started with the launch of San Francisco’s Sharing Economy Working Group in April, and was followed with the formation of the Bay Area Sharing Economy Coalition in August, lobbying by the Collaborative Economy Coalition at the Democratic National Convention in September. SPUR’s Gabriel Metcalfe wrote a provocative opinion piece about it earlier this month, and Shareable’s April Rinne and NYU professor Arun Sundararjan offered much commented counterpoints.
This is a sure sign the sharing economy is maturing. It’s big enough for the government to take notice and participants are strong enough to begin working together. Before this space crystallizes further, it’s a good time to reflect on what’s possible. The opportunity to shape the direction of this movement may soon pass. Below I reflect on what I see as the biggest opportunity before us – nothing less than a radical democratization of the economy – and how to make it happen.
Offer the vision
As David Bollier and Silke Helfrich put it in a brilliant essay about the rise of a commons-based society, “We are poised between an old world that no longer works and a new one struggling to be born.” Part of that struggle is that there’s no vision for what’s emerging. It’s not just that the old world doesn’t work anymore, it’s also that the old story that gave it meaning isn’t believable and there’s no credible story to replace it. The story of what our society is all about is actually up for grabs. There’s no bigger “myth gap,” as Story Wars author Jonah Sachs might put it. And there’s arguably no bigger opportunity for change.
The sharing community has two choices. It can ignore this opportunity. It can develop a narrow vision for the sharing economy and offer one among many competing visions. Or, it can develop a vision that shows how the sharing economy addresses the world’s greatest challenges and offers a new, inspiring way forward for society. We have the opportunity to develop the vision, the one that defines “what it means to live the good life.”
Is the sharing economy qualified to be the vision? Yes, I believe so. In fact, I don’t think there’s anything else that can radically reduce poverty and resource consumption at the same time, something humans must do to stabilize our global climate and society.
However, the sharing economy is not only a real solution, it’s also an inspiring true story. People experience it as empowering. It puts people in a new, constructive relation to one another. In the sharing economy, we host, fund, teach, drive, care, guide and cook for friends and strangers alike. This is a world where people help each other. It’s also a world where self-interest and the common good align.
It’s no wonder people experience sharing as empowering. It’s how we raise children. It’s how we celebrate. It’s how we survive disasters. Sharing has played a crucial role in all of humanities greatest accomplishments, from the moon shot to the development of the Internet. Our economy depends on the commons. Business isn’t possible without nature’s bounty, taxpayer-funded infrastructure, and the sense making of culture. Nearly every religion teaches its wisdom. Sharing is bedrock to our well being, but it’s also the path to self-actualization.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell discovered a universal story found in every culture he called the hero’s journey. The hero’s only path to maturity is to leave home, undergo an enlightening ordeal, and bring back a gift to heal society. This dramatizes what we all know about heroes — that they selflessly serve others. Sharing activates the hero archetype that’s in all of us. That’s why it resonates so deeply. And why we hold the deepest reverence for those that help others the most, from Jesus to Gandhi to Dr. King.
For all these reasons, the sharing community would be foolish not to go big on vision, to redefine what the good life means and how to get it. The epic crises we face call for real solutions. And citizens everywhere are desperate to see a real way out.