The word ‘unprecedented’ is overused… But it seems to sum up the times we live in the best.
Many of us feel powerless: Powerless to help. Powerless to make changes. Powerless in the face of uncertainty.
But we’re not powerless, we’re just overwhelmed. And we can do something to change that. It doesn’t have to be headline-sized, it can be a collection of small, positive steps. As the late Scottish musician Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit wrote, “While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth”. It’s something we can all aspire to.
So here’s a tiny change: go peer to peer. Wait, what? OK, let’s rewind.
If you need a product or a service, what do you do? You go to a company who provides what you want, and you purchase it from them, online or offline (although more likely online at the moment).
The company makes money from you – and you use what you’ve bought. Then the process begins again. That’s the way the world works, right?
It’s certainly the way that many of us are used to being a consumer. But thanks to online platforms and apps, people can now connect and transact with other people, and not just businesses.
This ‘platform economy’ is growing rapidly. But what exactly is an online platform? One way to imagine it is like a huge virtual stage that people can step onto or off – and when on it, can interact with others in a range of different ways.
This imaginary stage has many different areas. In the social media area, platforms allow you to interact socially. The gaming part of the stage lets people play with one another, while search platforms let users look for listed providers, a bit like a directory. Then there are video and music platforms, map platforms, news platforms…
At the ‘business end’ of the platform economy are marketplace platforms: they allow you to exchange goods or services with other people, whether that’s by buying or selling – see Etsy or Depop – or by ‘sharing’.
This is anything which could be described as ‘the Airbnb of…’, like new UK fashion sharing site The Hurr Collective, or more established platforms like Camplify, the campervan platform, Hiyacar (peer-to-peer car sharing), Stashbee (storage), JustPark (parking)… the list goes on.
Exchanging services as opposed to goods is often called the ‘gig economy’ – which might bring to mind ride-hailing apps, but there are many other examples across a huge range of sectors, like Tutorful, Bubble (the childcare app), Rover for dog walking… again, the list goes on.
But what are the benefits of these ‘peer to peer’ transactions? Spoiler alert: there are quite a few.
Firstly, they enable the re-use of existing assets, or the increased use of under-utilised assets. In other words, stuff gets used more so we don’t need to make more stuff. Call it the circular economy, or just plain sensible, the fact is, the world has too much stuff in it, and when people transact with one another rather than a business, it slows down the production of more – you guessed it – stuff. That’s why another name for the sharing economy is ‘collaborative consumption’.
When it comes to services, gig platforms allow people to use themselves as an asset more readily. For example, if you’re signed up to a platform like TaskRabbit or Airtasker, you could share skills to make money or, in the case of a new Scottish start-up Kesero, trade or swap them for credits to buy other services. The choice – and freedom – is yours.
Which leads us to another benefit: empowerment. Sharing and gig platforms allow us to take our destiny into our own hands. To teach French for five hours a week, because that’s what works for you. To clear out your wardrobe and make money by selling what’s in there. To rent out your campervan instead of it sitting in your driveway. No campervan? Rent out your driveway. It’s up to you.
In the platform economy, both providers and users are empowered. As a user, it might be your neighbour you’re transacting with – and not a big company with overheads – so experiences and goods are cheaper and more accessible, democratising what previously may have been out of reach.
Borrow that campervan which you couldn’t afford to buy. Wear a vintage dress that you could never own. Park your car in someone’s driveway because it’s cheaper than taking it all the way into town. In this brave new world, everyone has a chance to be involved.
But the true power of the platform economy is even more exciting than this. Platforms connect users and providers, both locally and globally, offline and online – so that communities, often the victims of economic growth, have the chance to thrive again. And on a much larger scale.
We become networked: connected to our peers, looking up, down, sideways and around us for what we want – not just in one direction, awaiting a one-size-fits-all delivery from a big business.
Not all big businesses are bad, but many are owned by even bigger ones, and when you unpick, you could find they use child labour, or abuse workers’ rights, or put money in Trump’s campaigns. Would you make these choices yourself?
The platform economy might be new, but communities are as old as we are. By empowering them again, we can repair their decline. We just need to get behind this new business model – and see its game-changing potential.
The pandemic has seen the beginning of a shift. Some peer-to-peer platforms are flourishing because of (not in spite of) the crisis. Post COVID, the sharing (and gig) economy will be able to build on the fact that many people have, during this challenging period, turned to technology for the first time to connect with their community online or via an app when they couldn’t physically – and have also become more focused on using resources sustainably.
You have the power to choose how you get the products and services you want, so next time you make a choice, look around you first – look to your peers. Your tiny changes count.