By Elizabeth Krueger, MBA Candidate
On September 13, 2012 Van Jones held a PresidioPRO Master Class on the collaborative economy, speaking to a packed room at Hub SOMA. It was the third time I’ve seen Van Jones speak in person, and he is always able to engage his audience with a combination of humorous insight, serious reflection and call to action. Here are some of the key points I took away from the session.
Van started with a call to the participants, particularly the Presidio students in the audience, to remember why we started at Presidio and take our dreams seriously. He said that as a group, we’re “special” and likely have been for years, not least of which because we consistently consider the future of “humanity and children of all species” every day. This and other things that make us “special” are symptoms that we have a dream that is trying to express itself. It’s up to each of us to take that dream seriously and create our destiny. Van was serious about the challenge ahead of us, because we have to insure there will be a 22nd century for humans on the planet. “No pressure,” he says.
The Old Economy
In looking at why the “old” economy failed us, Van says it was based on four faulty pillars that finally gave way. Here they are, along with a brief description of how they went to extreme. (Van also spoke about this at the recent TEDxPresidio.)
The old economy was based on:
1. Consumption, not production
Shipping production overseas is OK, because we have malls and can shop online.
2. Credit and debt rather than smart savings and thrift
Down payments were replaced by credit cards for any “carbon-based being.”
3. Ecological destruction not ecological restoration
As described in The Story of Stuff, we kill living stuff, process & shrink-wrap it, sell it to people to use and dispose of it quickly, and repeat the process.
4. Radical individualism as the only solution to problems
Get into trouble? Fix it yourself. Everyone suffering in his or her own hell.
What could possibly go wrong? What were we thinking? What would work better? How about the opposite?
1. Make and build stuff, especially locally
2. Practice conservation & thrift
3. Generate ecological restoration – de-carbonize and dematerialize
4. Create a nation of neighbors, aka a collaborative economy
A Collaborative Economy
Some in the audience seemed to know about the collaborative economy, and others were less familiar. Van gathered a list of examples from the audience:
1. Sharing space (e.g., airbnb) and cars (e.g., RelayRides)
2. Community asset mapping (who has what & where are they located?)
3. Cooperative ownership models and CSAs (community-supported agriculture programs)
4. Coworking spaces (e.g., The Hub)Crowdsourcing innovation (i.e., getting people together, generating and sharing good ideas)
A collaborative economy has the potential to re-humanize the economy. We’d rely less on financial capital and more on human capital; less on what’s in your wallet & more on who’s in your network. We can be a nation of neighbors and share our stuff, using social capital – our networks – to replace financial and natural capital.
Sounds powerful, but there are potential downsides to the collaborative economy – especially to workers, the poor, and regarding circles of trust. The potential down sides are infrequently discussed, but need to be, so we can design solutions to avoid these pitfalls.
Our consumer and entrepreneurial selves think the collaborative economy sounds great. We can get free stuff, and we can create the next cool tool or platform to make it work. As workers, however, we have to wonder what will happen to our jobs when we need far fewer cars and drills and other items that we had jobs making.
TaskRabbit is an example that allows “sharing” of a sort, but matching people who need stuff done (e.g., errands, dog walking) with people willing to do stuff by bidding for these “micro” jobs. This may provide income, but there is no job and no benefits.
The collaborative economy has the potential to provide fewer jobs and lower wages – not such a good thing for workers.
Is this the “access” economy or the “excess” economy, that works best for those who have more than they need? If the idea is to leverage social capital in the form of networks, how does this economy help people whose networks are poor as well?
People are working on ways to provide technical tools and “trust criteria” to indicate how trustworthy someone is, when we don’t know them. Trust is critical to sharing – we won’t be willing to share if our stuff doesn’t come back, or come back in good condition. However, the brain science shows that people tend to distrust people from certain categories, even unconsciously. The risk is that the “trust tools” become another system that enables signaling within our own groups, and some people will be excluded.
The down sides to workers, the poor, and circles of trust are real problems. Good solutions to the collaborative economy must address them, or we will fail.
Van message challenged me with these thoughts:
“The American dream of last century is in peril. The idea that you can work hard and get somewhere - that everybody counts and everyone’s dreams matter - is in peril. That’s worth fighting and dying for, or more important, worth living for. It will take tremendous work to bring it about this century.Just as practice trains the body to do things over time we couldn’t do at the beginning, our heart is a muscle that can expand and do these things. We embody the values that will not only let us live our own dreams, but also allow others to live out theirs.”
I need to get back to work on my destiny.
Connect with Elizabeth on Twitter @elizlk
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