Monday, September 20, 2010

Buzzword 2010.6 - actually just a prefix: Co-


This is the first Buzz prefix in quite awhile - I think the last one was micro, way back in 2007. Buzzword 2010.6 is Co- as in co-housing, co-working, co-ops.

"Co-" is also the second buzzword this year to come with its own manual (Can you name the first? Do so and win a prize)** I've just finished reading What's Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers. It's a field guide to several trends that have been unfolding over time, somewhat unnoticed. The authors have gone the business book route - putting new names on familiar behaviors and handily providing lists of key principles. While the style of the book is tired, the ideas are important.

Botsman and Rogers present a business case for sharing. Actually, they present several business cases and dozens of examples. From car sharing to couch surfing, co-working to peer-to-per rental they've got the statistics and the examples to convince you that the key concept we learn in Kindergarten is now establishing itself as a business model. Here are some of the stats:
  • Established companies that focus on "rent not own" are making millions of dollars. Netflix comes in at $359 Million, ZipCar at $130 million (2009 figures)
  • The Peer-to-peer lending (Zopa and Prosper) is expected to grow to $5 billion by end of 2013.
  • Carsharing is predicted to be $12.5 billion industry.
They attribute the rise in these behaviors to a few key trends - planetary angst (my term, not theirs), the need to save money, and a desire to meet like minded people. The authors do a good job of assigning technology a supportive, but not central, role in these changes.

They divide the space into three types - Product Service Systems, Redistribution Markets and, Collaborative ifestyles. In my mind these three trace the arc from making things differently to buying/selling things differently to using things differently. Examples of each:
  • Product Service Systems - this is the switch from buying to renting, which also often changes the product into a service. Think bike sharing. Instead of buying a bike, you pay a service fee to join and use the bikes as you need them. Carsharing. Netflix.
  • Redistribution Markets - say good bye to "buy once and replace." These markets - from Freecycle to Craigslist, eBay to Share Some Sugar) let you borrow, barter, re-sell, re-use. And also meet your neighbors.
  • Collaborative lifestyles - this is everything shared office space (co-working), garden lots (LandShare), Skills (SkillShare), time banks and parking spaces (ParkAtMyHouse). It also includes travel communities such as those on Couchsurfing or AirBnB.
The book offers up several key principles that underlie all of these business models and practices - including a revitalization of the Commons and the role of trust. They name the entire phenomenon Collaborative Consumption. As a business book WMIY provide human faces to the various activities, gives enough examples and numbers to make the reader believe that something significant is happening, and provides a chapter on implications for brands and consumers and manufacturers. The website offers some useful timelines of the evolution of different sectors.

I, of course, am interested in how this all relates to philanthropy and the public good. Many of the companies and efforts highlighted in the book are clearly contributing to a community and/or keeping a lot of junk out of landfills. I am (literally) a keyfob-carrying member of at least one of these communities. As a long-time member of San Francisco's nonprofit car sharing service I can attest to the cost-savings, feel good element of this system. I also am a member of the card-carrying community of public bus riders in San Francisco. I need both. I have far more human interaction (not all of it pleasant, nor all of it bad) with my fellow bus riders.I almost never interact with anyone else in the car sharing community. When it comes time to vote, I vote with the bus riders not with the car folks.

Collaborative consumption tools, systems and service producers give us options for how we consume things - and this is a good thing. Botsman and Rogers' book succeeds as a business book and the trends, opportunities, and implications for business are important. If you are not familiar with any of these services you should read this book. If you are familiar with only one (I'd bet it would be NetFlix) then you should read this book to see how much more is out there. I admire the problem solving nature of the AirBnB founders and have had great conversations over the years with Couchsurfing's founder about community.

And I think we really need to consider these developments in the larger contexts of public policy, mass consumption, and the still-prevalent throwaway culture in which we live. I first learned about WMIY through the online magazine There you will find some rich discussion of the kinds of companies and consumption featured in WMIY, as well as some deeper looks at what this movement (if it is one) might mean from a public sector, philanthropic and community perspectives.

The elements of this book that resonated most strongly with me in terms of public goods and community building are those sections that touch on community farmers' markets, underground food sellers, the Tenderloin National Forest, and community-based art projects that deliberately cross cultures, economic class, language groups and geography.

Oops, wait a minute, most of those examples weren't in this book. They are in my city - in every city I've ever been in (and every rural community too, for that matter). They look like DIY Urbanism and Brooklyn FEAST and Boston Skillshare. These are similar efforts to those in WMIY - but they focus not on consumption patterns but on living better together, mutual aid, and mutual beautification or cultural creation.

Collaborative consumption - especially that really produces more sustainable patterns, uses fewer nonrenewable resources, and saves money is a good thing. These companies and organization are not necessarily going to produce community, cross racial or economic lines, ease religious differences, or build public goods that benefit all. I'd like to see the community builders, public agencies (and yes, the companies) that prioritize these public goals adopt some of what these new companies have learned. Botsman and Rogers' book can help that happen.

From all of this, we get Co- as a buzzword. To a large degree, it's a key part already of the nonprofit and philanthropic sector - be it community or cooperative or collective or collaborative. If, as Botsman and Rogers claim, Co- becomes more and more of the consumer and commercial world, we may all be better off. Certainly, we need to understand how and why those shifts are happening and what they mean for the production, financing and distribution of public goods.

** It seems fitting to offer up my review copy of What's Mine is Yours to the first person to correctly identify the first buzzword of this year that came with its own manual. Do so by submitting the buzzword AND the name of its manual in the comments below. Be sure to give me a way to contact you so I can mail you the book. Then we can track it through BookTracker - check this out!


Chris Syme said...

Thanks for the review. Just bought the book on my Kindle.

Ankita said...

Buzzword: network, The Networked Nonprofit, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine

Lucy Bernholz said...

Chris - enjoy the book. Too bad you can't share a kindle copy....(smile)

Lucy Bernholz said...


Yes! Thanks for playing. @sigeneration won yesterday - through Twitter - but I haven't heard back yet with a mailing address. Hang in with me, if I don't get that address today I'll send the book to you (you can email me your mailing address, please)