Have we reached peak sharing economy?

3 Nov 2016

From left: Nellie Bowles, Robin Chase, Jules Coleman and Nilofer Merchant. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

At the Collaborative Economy session at Inspirefest 2016, a panel of entrepreneurs dismissed the idea that we have reached peak sharing economy – but the same people are making the same apps over and over again.

When we hear the term ‘sharing economy’, we immediately think of the dominant apps and services on the market, like Uber and Airbnb, that make billions each year off an existing infrastructure.

According to a PwC report, the sharing economy – comprised of services offering accommodation, car sharing and online staffing – is expected to reach parity with the traditional rental sector in 2025 with, each being worth $335bn.

Within these enormous sectors, peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding is estimated to undergo the biggest growth, by 63pc between 2013 and 2025.

But with so many apps and services now plugged into this sharing economy, is there a possibility that we are already reaching the point of ‘peak sharing economy’, where the supply outstrips the demand?

That was the question posed by journalist Nellie Bowles to the experienced Collaborative Economy panel at Inspirefest 2016 last July.

Among the panel were entrepreneurs with decades of experience between them, including: Zipcar’s co-founder, Robin Chase; entrepreneur in residence at Index Ventures, Jules Coleman; and the author of Onlyness, Nilofer Merchant.

On stage at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin, all three panelists differed on how we should define an ‘on-demand’ sharing economy, with the ‘on-demand’ aspect proving troubling, particularly to Chase.

“It makes us seem so demanding and privileged,” she said.

Having offered her own thoughts as part of her keynote prior to the panel, Chase believes that “everything that can become a platform, will become a platform because it is so much more efficient and can grow quickly”.

Apps for white guys who need a mother replacement

So where does the idea that we have reached peak sharing economy come from?

For Merchant, the problem lies in one of the fundamental issues that tech companies in Silicon Valley – and elsewhere across the globe – are having trouble with: diversity.

With so much money sloshing around for fledgling tech companies, Merchant identifies the problem that a predominantly white male group of investors is likely to fund and develop ideas that they are familiar with.

“If we have mostly white males funding mostly white males coming out of Stanford University… and who are used to having their mother do things, then every app you create is a food delivery service, or a dry cleaning service.”

From an Irish perspective, Coleman has experience working right in the heart of the sharing economy, having co-founded the home-cleaning app Hassle.

Autonomous vehicles to define sector

When it comes to what she thinks will guide much of that estimated $335bn economy in the years to come, Coleman finds it hard to look past autonomous vehicles.

“Autonomous vehicles [are] the next step in eradicating a lot of jobs,” she said.

“In the 1990s, it was outsourcing and offshoring; now it’s automation, and this is coming for a lot of sectors very quickly.”

For your average start-up looking to move into the sharing-economy model, Coleman added that there is now a worrying tendency to pick the “low-hanging fruit” as the initial capital requirements are typically meagre.

However, the online proliferation of interests shows that there are plenty of niche interests out there for sharing-economy companies to tap into.

“We are now at the long tail of interest…and now there’s Reddit and whatever your interest is in life, there’s a subreddit with between 50,000 and 100,000 people actively participating,” she said.

“Something might not become mainstream, but there will still be a large community talking about it.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to get half-price Super Early Bird tickets before prices go up on 15 December.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic