The brands of the sharing economy: interview with Albert Cañigueral

Vivir mejor con menos: Descubre las ventajas de la nueva economía colaborativa ('Living better with less: Discover the advantages of the new sharing economy') by Albert Cañigueral is a book born out of the direct experience and the daily work of its author, who defines himself as "a multimedia engineer fascinated by the application of the Internet's disruptive models outside the Internet."

In the first few pages, he tells the story of how it wasn't until he escaped his regular environment, and went to live for a couple of years in Taipei (the capital of Taiwan) –which he looked at with the eyes of a foreigner– that he came to understand some of the nonsensical aspects of our globalised society, in which "the social perception of the individual is generated by means of her possessions," a principle that is not brought into question because it is part of our most deep-rooted beliefs. He tells us how he came to experience the fact that the access to things is better than property, and that it's much more enriching to invest in social relations than in souvenirs.

If we add to this a reading of Schumacher's classic, Small is Beautiful, and a critical reflection on the unwanted consequences of capitalism and hyperconsumerism, we have enough reasons to justify the title of Albert's book: without a doubt, one lives better with less.

Albert is one of the great Spanish experts in the sharing economy, and he lives by teaching about it, offering consulting services to companies and administrations, and by means of his blog, Consumo Colaborativo ('Sharing Consumption'), the main information source on this type of economy in Spain. In his book we can find many examples of new startups that use these models, and a reflection on how the sharing society will be in the upcoming future, judging by how fast it's moving. I love the confidence he transmits when he says that "this has no turning back."

Q. Albert, after reading your book, I'm left with the feeling that the 'sharing economy' is an enormous umbrella term that encompasses many initiatives that differ greatly from one another. Could you explain to us what the common theme in the sharing economy is – what is it that unites a neighbourhood initiative like Social Toy with corporations like Über or AirBnB? 

A. Being an umbrella term has its pros and its cons. What unites these projects is the fact that technology is facilitating the encounter and communication among different participants in order to solve a certain (material, service or knowledge) need. This interchange can be free (e.g. couchsurfing), involve an exchange (e.g. HomeExchange) or have a cost (e.g. AirBnB). Above all, it means rediscovering the power we have as citizens when we all connect and are able to establish an adequate level of trust.

Q. You avoid the use of the term 'revolution' and you prefer to speak of a 'digital rebirth,' and yet, this economy is like a hurricane that transforms the profound logic of the sectors it's introduced in. Who's going to want to pay the banks' hidden fees in money transfers once the new P2P platforms become generalised? Or, following your example, what foreigner is going to want to eat frozen paella at the Ramblas when, for the same price, she can share some delicious home-made food with local people? Is this not a revolution?

A. As I comment in the book, a revolution generally implies violence – think about how the French revolution ended. It also implies going "against" something or someone. The case of the sharing economy presents a disruption that makes certain ways of doing things obsolete, but in the great majority of cases the entrepreneurs are not going "against" anything, but rather, they are creating a new solution because there is a culture and a technology that makes it possible.

Q. In your book, you talk about GDP's limitations when it comes to measuring welfare in different nations. What new ways of measuring this come with the sharing economy?

A. Basically, we have short-sightedly focused on measuring the consumption and production of goods (GDP). There are many activities that are good for society but appear uneconomic in the eyes of GDP. The most simple thing to do would be to measure the use and recirculation of certain goods (how much is Bicing used in Barcelona?, how many objects change hands in Wallapop?...) The complex part is measuring the social and environmental benefits. Some people work on measuring the Social Return on Investment (SROI), for instance.

Q. Another central belief in the dominating economy, which you talk about, is the idea that resources are scarce for most of us, but absurdly abundant for a small minority. In the book, you present a scenario of absolute abundance of immaterial goods, and relative abundance of material goods for everyone. How does the sharing economy create abundance?

A. By sharing. It's obvious when it comes to things like knowledge and ideas. If we share these ideas, they multiply instead of diminishing. The same occurs in the digital sphere, like with music on Spotify and Amazon Unilimited (which has just been released in Spain). When it comes to material things, it's all about making goods and services more accessible, and beginning to understand their consumption as (cheaper, shared) use, instead of property.

Q. It's true that the sharing economy, instead of destroying brands, has created some very powerful examples, like AirBnB, Blabacar or Über, which are beginning to monopolise sectors at a global scale, as is the case with the great brands in traditional capitalist economy. However, there are some differences. For instance, there seems to be a bigger emphasis on brand culture –purpose, values or shared principles–; there is a growing need for good storytelling –telling one's story properly in order to "seduce" one's community– and there is also a need for shared responsibility with those people in your community in order to create the brand's reputation. If you had to define the sharing economy brands from your experience as a consultant and expert, what would you highlight the most?

A. It's often said that the sharing economy is in its puberty, and so it's changing almost every week and becomes difficult to define. As you correctly say, it tends to emphasise storytelling (especially in the case of American brands), it offers very warm costumer service (especially focused on those who produce the platform's value) and a level of transparency that is much higher than what is often found in traditional companies. In any case, in these companies, all that glitters is not gold, and there is still a lot of improvement to be done. I think that the next evolution within the sector will come from empowering its participants even more (as investors and as part of the managing committee in charge of making decisions).

Many thanks, Albert, for sharing your time and knowledge with us. 

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