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Humans Are Wired To Share

31/08/2015 9:45 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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In 2010, author and writer Rachel Botsman gave a TED talk on what she called the "rise of collaborative consumption", otherwise known as the sharing economy.

Her thesis was that humans are wired to share, and the growth of mobile and social technologies would offer us new platforms for co-operation and the distribution of resources, disrupting business and changing the nature consumerism in the process.

She was right.

Just five years later, there are now 17 collaboration economy companies valued at over $1 billion. This is no longer a rising trend but a juggernaut, and it's here to stay. This quiet revolution that is taking place on the streets and homes of communities around the nation.

The genius of the collaborative economy is that it is squarely focussed on finding ways to meet our needs from resources that are essentially lying around, begging to be put to use.

For example, did you know that (in the U.S. at least), the average household car sits idle for 23 hours per day? Or to use one of Botsman's examples, just think of all the books and DVDs sitting on your shelf at home, which you are unlikely to ever use again, but which any number of people might be keen to get their hands on.

This peer-to-peer economy takes valuable, idle resources and places them in the hands of those who need them. It's such a simple idea, but as Botsman points out, harnessing the latent value of the piles and piles of "things" that fill our lives has become possible in an unprecedented way because of the digital networks and technology that have emerged in the internet age.

Consciously or not, we have wired our world in a way that makes sharing possible on an unprecedented scale. I have a keen interest in the sharing economy, partly because I'm a millennial and it's in our generation's DNA to engage with the possibilities that the digital world offers.

Its success reflects a shift in the thinking of younger generations, with an increased focus on access to the things they want, rather than on ownership. We see this in the housing market, where younger people are opting to rent for longer (particularly in areas they see as more desirable) rather than buy a home.

This is partly a matter of necessity -- house prices seem to be going in one direction in Australia, while wages are stagnating. But it is also reflective of a shift in mindset -- why commit to long-term ownership of something that you may not actually want or need on an ongoing basis?

Why buy a designer dress you might wear a handful of times when you can rent one for a few days from Rent My Rack at a fraction of the price? Why buy a car when you live close to town, with good access to public transport, and when you can hire one for a few hours whenever you need it from a car-sharing service?

Having witnessed fallout from the "greed is good" 1980s and the 'throw-away' society that followed, I think Millennials are shaking off the possessive materialism of decades gone by. Hoarding and buying new things is out. Making better use of what we've got is in.

I am also interested in the collaboration economy from a government perspective, where the focus to date has been mainly on regulation: how (and how much) should governments get involved, particularly when some of the protagonists are turning over millions in revenue, employing thousands of staff and participating in industries where other players are subject to strict rules and regulations.

Finding the right regulatory balance and ensuring a level playing field is important work. But an equally important -- and far more exciting -- question for governments is: what can we learn from the collaboration economy?

I think the key lessons are twofold.

Firstly, governments can look at latent resources in the community and see if we can reduce government costs by making use of them. Earlier this year we announced that, instead of purchasing and maintaining our own car fleet, my department would trial the use of car-sharing services like GoGet and Hertz. The early signs are promising, especially in metropolitan areas.

Secondly, we should make sure that the resources at government's disposal do not sit idle, but are put to the best possible use for the benefit of the public.

Take parking spaces, for example -- a hot commodity, especially in urban areas. Our department currently leases around 400 car spark pots in the CBD, Parramatta and Gosford alone, but many of these spaces are under-utilised before, during or after work -- not to mention when those cars are in use.

We are also calling for expressions of interest from the private sector to facilitate a car space management trial -- a program that will aim to open up unused government car spaces to the public.

These are small steps, but I'm excited to keep learning from the collaboration economy, to find ways its emerging wisdom can help us all -- governments included -- to put the things we have in the hands of those who need them.

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