How the 'sharing economy' could upend capitalism

Innovation Hub

The gig economy.  The “collaborative” model. Whatever cliché you want to use, Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase suggests that large-scale sharing has just gotten started.

“This has the potential to reshape our cities in a dramatically positive way,” she predicts.

To Chase, “the sharing economy” is more than just a groan-worthy trend. She’s a believer in the very real power of sharing – allowing our most valuable resources to be snapped up by anyone, anytime — and the idea that that power is still vastly untapped.

“We’re entering a time when we can share dramatically larger and larger things,” she says. “Our knowledge, expertise, location…it’s a very important and profound new possibility that’s really transforming how we’re building businesses today.”

Although Chase has her roots in transportation (she’s an engineer who also co-founded French peer-to-peer ridesharing service Buzzcar), she wants to expand the idea of “sharing” beyond the road: we can also trade music, writing, and networks.

But Chase is thinking bigger. She envisions unlimited access to “fancy test kitchens, a place to stay, a gym, or a theater…even an expert on some crazy [topic].”

So for those already on board with Uber and Waze, it will soon become just as easy to get your hands on a lab coat or a whipping siphon as it is to call a cab. “We used to think, ‘I can’t share my car because I won’t have it when I need it,’ she explains. “But we know that when we put 1,000 of them downtown, there’s always a car when you need it.”

“Imagine that for all sorts of resources,” she says. “You don’t have to own it, because you know you can stick out your hand and get it.”

In her book, “Peers Inc.,” Chase describes how today’s tech platforms let individuals take on tasks that were once only feasible for massive corporations — saving us time, money, and environmental damage.

Take Airbnb, for example: what took InterContinental Hotel Group 65 years to accomplish — offering 650,000 rooms in 100 countries — Airbnb did in 5 years. And if one app can fundamentally upend the hotel industry in half a decade, it’s not hard to imagine that a “peer economy” (Chase’s preferred term) might change the entire conversation around industrial capitalism, inside and out.

“This new collaboration is going to happen no matter what. From the company’s perspective, it’s really resource efficient, it’s really resilient. They get amazing innovation and creativity at low cost.”

To Chase, this isn’t a corporate pipe dream. It’s a tidal wave. It’s coming, and we can either drown in outdated, profit-based regulation … or learn to swim.

“The people who finance the company are making the rules of engagement. And, that is a very dangerous and horrid proposition,'' Chase says. "This is happening … are we going to share in these productivity gains, or not?”

A version of this story first aired as an interview on PRI's Innovation Hub.

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