Friday, June 28, 2013

Why I love the Sharing Economy

Wikipedia defines the sharing economy as the “economic and social systems that enable shared access to goods, services, data and talent. These systems take a variety of forms but all leverage information technology to empower individuals, corporations, non-profits and government with information that enables distribution, sharing and reuse of excess capacity in goods and services. A common premise is that when information about goods is shared, the value of those goods increases, for the business, for individuals, and for the community. ”

Most of us have heard of AirBnB and other hotel alternatives, enabling users to rent a room or an entire apartment. The sharing economy extends to vehicles (options range from finding available spots on car rides to borrowing cars from neighbours. In the retail sector, websites like WishWantWear, Rent the Runway, and Bag, Borrow or Steal rent out designer clothes and accessories for special occasions. Sites like Frents go beyond a particular sector and let users lend and borrow items from DVDs to board games. A great directory for the sharing economy is (Full disclosure: This is a Global Shapers Community project from the Amsterdam Hub.)

What interests me most about this paradigm is the way it changes our behaviour: it maintains the experience of having the things we like to use (from a Missoni cocktail dress to the occasional game of Scrabble) without the cost, physical space, or materials to own these items and only use them once in a while. There is a social element as well: If I’m borrowing items from people nearby, I have a new way to get to know my neighbours. We develop a shared sense of responsibility and identity. It’s a digital way to create a community feeling in neighbourhoods, particularly in big cities where these kinds of opportunities have been lacking.

Changing our behaviour changes the way we think, and ultimately, our values. The use of social media spread the idea that everyone has a voice and enabled young people to demand democratic ideals from their governments. If the sharing economy becomes mainstream, then what will it do for sustainability, community, and the future of consumption? I hope to see the shared economy help us adapt a more sustainable and collaborative lifestyle.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Privacy is the New Currency

Amazing things happen when we share information online:  Wikipedia is as accurate as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Facebook lets us connect with friends and family around the world. Google Maps guide us in new cities. Twitter lets us share news that is censored by the media, as we see now in the case of Turkey. And these platforms are available to anyone, regardless of socio-economic status, because they are free.

We are paying for these platforms with a new kind of currency: our privacy. Big data lets companies (and governments) mine information for correlations, connections, and patterns, which compares individual behaviour with similar individuals and similar patterns. The results could be as innocuous as Amazon’s Kindle recommendations engine or Facebook’s suggestions for friends. They could be used to predict and prevent public health outbreaks, as seen with Google’s flu trends predictor.

The US government claims that big data is preventing terrorist attacks. This information is used to place individuals on “no fly” lists, banning certain people from travelling without telling them why or providing them the means to contest the decision. Credit card companies use big data to predict the probabability that customers will pay their cards on time. It’s been said that they know you’re getting divorced before you do. Target discovered a teenager was pregnant before her father did. With all the information we put out there, it’s easy to piece together our preferences, daily routines, and the most personal aspects of our lives.

I love the benefits of our hyperconnected world. Facebook and Whatsapp are the easiest ways for me to keep up with my friends and family, who are scattered all around the world. I often find out about news through social media first and then check news sites to get more details. And I wish that my Kindle recommendation engine could be even more accurate and useful.

I do not want the government to put people on no-fly lists without any due process. And I’m not sure if I want my Facebook likes impacting my credit rating. How do we create boundaries that are sensible and acceptable? Or is privacy already dead? Am I being na├»ve in saying that I don’t want the government to track my day-to-day movements? They’ve probably been doing it for quite some time, even before the Internet existed. (London has enough CC TV cameras to get a sense of anyone’s daily routine. The US has been surveilling phone calls for decades.)

Are we making it easier or are we making it harder? With the new tools available, we’re certainly putting more information out there for the government to track. And we’re also making it easier to fight back: I can post this blog, we can have a global debate, and if social media could top dictatorial governments, then we could certainly use our voices to create sensible policies around privacy.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Silicon Summer: How Social Media is Revolutionising the Private Sector

Social media have revolutionised the way we communicate. They have changed the amount of content creation, sharing, and information exchange that takes place every day. Anyone with an Internet connection can create or access content in ways that were unimaginable only a few decades ago. This has shifted the potential to mass communicate from large media corporations to individuals. In the era of social media, anyone can become a publisher with the potential to reach a mass audience. When looking at this phenomenon through the lens of network theory, this enabled society to move from a centralised model of communication to a distributed one, where individual nodes (people) can share information freely to other nodes without having to go through an intermediary (traditional mass media.)

These interactions are not only changing our personal lives but also redefining civic engagement. Much research has been conducted on Barak Obama’s campaigns, which generated a grassroots movement with social media as the primary tool of engagement. With the Arab Spring, the sweep of protests across the region proved that young, leaderless activists using primarily online and mobile tools could topple dictatorial regimes. 

There is a quieter but equally powerful revolution is taking place in the private sector. The dynamics witnessed in the Arab Spring between citizens and their governments can also be witnessed amongst consumers and corporations. “Citizen consumers” are using social media to redefine corporate norms and create a new set of expectations regarding corporate transparency and social responsibility.  Today’s consumers, particulary the younger generation, expect corporations to go beyond shareholder value and create value for society as well. The triple bottom line is a mainstream concept for Gen Y and social media is a key tool for this generation to push corporates in that direction.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, which protested against the financial services sector’s perceived corruption and undue influence on the government, used social media to organise protests, recruit supporters, and raise awareness. Thousands of users expressed outrage on Nestle’s Facebook page over the company’s unsustainable sourcing of palm oil for its Kit Kat bars. The telecoms provider Sprint improved its policies to better protect victims of domestic violence after a petition obtained 175,000 signatures.
“Greenwashing” is a common complaint of citizen consumers, meaning companies market themselves as committed to corporate social responsibility but without any actual CSR activities or policies. Through the “wisdom of the crowds” and instantaneous access to information, citizen consumers are well informed and frequently expose companies that attempt to ride the CSR trend through marketing alone. 
But there is an opportunity here as well. Social media can work through positive reinforcement and an Edelman survey revealed that 53% of millenials would promote a socially responsible brand on Facebook. Corporations who integrate sound CSR policies and implement them effectively will find themselves rewarded. 

It is clear that a shift is taking place. Social media provides individuals with the unprecedented opportunity to speak for themselves. By combining their voice (through social media) and their purchasing power, citizen consumers are changing the expectations placed on the private sector.