Making Collaborative Consumption Work

A Singapore built on greater trust and cooperation between citizens could well be within our reach, if we are willing to embrace collaborative consumption in a big way.
Making Collaborative Consumption Work

From a farmer trading his excess eggs for another’s milk, to hopping into your neighbour’s car for a lift, the sharing of resources is an age-old practice. Similarly, if you are craving for a good book and know your friend has it, you can borrow it from her instead of buying it, saving yourself a few bucks.

But if your neighbour is not going in your direction or your friend has already lent out that book, it might seem you are out of luck. Or perhaps not – all thanks to technology, sharing nowadays has become easier, even fun. For instance, instead of riding with your neighbour, check out for its community of thousands of commuters to see who’s going your way. Meanwhile the lucky folks living in the London borough of Sutton can borrow from a wide selection of books loaned by other residents through an online book-sharing scheme.

More than about helping people save money and cut wastage, this modern kind of sharing is shaping out to be a formidable force of change, for the economy as well as society.

If these sound too good to be true, you might want to consider experiencing for yourself this phenomenon of sharing that is taking the world by storm, better known as “collaborative consumption”. Rachel Botsman, who coined the term in What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, the book she co-authored with Roo Rogers in 2010, describes it as “traditional sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting and swapping, redefined through technology and peer communities”.

More than about helping people save money and cut wastage, this modern kind of sharing is shaping out to be a formidable force of change, for the economy as well as society. It is, said TIME magazine in 2011, one of the “10 Ideas That Will Change the World”.

How it all began

While Ms Botsman’s definition may be recent, the revival of resource sharing in the modern-day economy dates back a few decades ago. Car sharing started in Europe in the 1980s, and the idea was borrowed by two mothers living in Massachusetts to start Zipcar in North America in 2000. In 1999, U.S. company Napster was founded to enable individuals to share music files.

But it was the global economic crisis of 2008 that got people thinking harder about innovative ways to slash spending, or simply to survive. Sharing became one clear answer. In hard-hit Greece, there are now several Internet-based community groups that host exchanges for goods and services (food produce for computer technical help or language lessons, for example).

In a bigger way, sharing-based businesses such as Airbnb – an international shared accommodation scheme for travellers – and Buzzcar, a car-sharing service in Paris that lets you rent your neighbours’ car when they are not driving, have taken off to become household names – and major money spinners.

Airbnb, for one, was last valued at as much as US$2.5 billion in 2012. For your average Joe, resource sharing can make living in an expensive city more affordable. The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), for instance, has found that the city’s residents are saving money by sharing expensive items, such as cars, rather than owning them; or are earning extra income by renting out their home when they travel. Airbnb hosts in the Californian city earn an average of US$5,000 a year from renting out their housing space.

Besides helping to reduce consumption, resource sharing also leads to less items entering incinerators and landfills. Vehicle sharing cuts congestion of roads and parking lots.

Making Collaborative Consumption Work
"MY OFFICE IS YOURS: For computer geeks, HackerSpaceSg offers anything from a sofa space to a dedicated desk in its community-operated office at Bussorah Street.

Social power

While the concept of sharing is nothing new, what makes collaborative consumption transformative, is its use of technology that enables sharing to take place even among strangers.

For Mr Bryan Walsh, a writer with TIME magazine, the real benefit of today’s sharing phenomenon is social. He wrote: “In an era when families are scattered and we may not know the people down the street, sharing things – even with strangers we’ve just met online – allows us to make meaningful connections.”

Under the Sutton online book-sharing scheme, for example, residents meet up in real life to agree on the loan terms for books after having initiated contact online. The Sutton council, which worked with software developer Adrian Short to develop the scheme, adopts a “hands-off ” approach so the system can function on its own based on trust between the residents. The success of the scheme has led the council to develop a book-sharing programming code with Nesta, a UK charity organisation promoting innovation, which could be used to spark off similar initiatives in other communities and schools.

Technology builds trust between strangers by making it possible to monitor each individual’s track record in sharing across multiple digital services.

Ms Botsman called this the “reputation economy” in a WIRED article last year. The better your virtual reputation, the more trustworthy you would seem and the more “social capital” you would have online, so others will be more likely to share with you. Conversely, you would want to take good care of others’ goods so as to earn a better reputation. Collaborative consumption thus reinforces trust.

In nearly a dozen cities around the world, that social connection is also moving from the virtual world to the physical. Meet-up groups like Sharers in San Francisco and Wikinomics Collective in London have together attracted hundreds of members – business owners and individuals – who want to participate in the mass sharing movement.

“During commercial transactions, you deal with a ‘what’ instead of a ‘who’. The exact opposite is the case for collaborative consumption,” observed Jeffrey Andreoni, writing on OuiShare, an online community portal dedicated to promoting a collaborative economy. The result, he said, is a new model where people feel they can rely on one another, even if they connected online originally.

Making Collaborative Consumption Work
FREE ACCOMMODATION:, a social networking site with over 5 million members worldwide, connects travellers with hosts who are willing to offer free stays in their homes.

Singapore – a sharing society?

It is time to consider how the culture of sharing can help us improve social relationships, encourage empathy and build bridges in communities all across Singapore. This shift could be especially important at a time when “NIMBY-ism” and spats between neighbours seem to be increasing, and where the kampung spirit that helped overcome those difficulties in the past may be declining.

Additionally, as sharing rather than owning could help to increase people’s access to goods, this could in turn ease some social tensions between this country’s “haves” and “have-nots”.

There are uplifting signs that collaborative consumption may have a shot at succeeding in Singapore. Just a few examples can show the breadth of sharing that is starting to expand.

An early market entrant is, which connects people who want to share a ride to the office or the mall by enabling carpooling and taxi-pooling through its website and mobile app. Commuters can also band together to lease a bus for rides from home to the office and back, with about 10 such routes formed so far. Started in March 2012, now has over 10,000 users.

There are also new players, like iCarsclub, which links car owners with other drivers. Owners can set their rental rates and advertise when their cars will be available on weekends and public holidays. Renters can go online anytime to make a reservation, and pick up the car from where the owner has left it. Insurance is included in the rental.

It is time to consider how the culture of sharing in today’s society can help us improve social relationships, encourage empathy and build bridges in communities all across Singapore.

“Singapore is the best place to test our idea because of the high demand [for] private cars, [coupled with deeper] trust between people and overall [safety],” iCarsclub co-founder Jamie Wang, who hails from China, told technology news portal Tech In Asia last year. “Once our idea is validated in Singapore, we can easily replicate our business in other cities similar to Singapore.”

So far, Mr Wang told Challenge, customer reaction has been quite positive, with over 200 cars and 600 drivers signing up even though iCarsclub was only launched last December. The founders have worked with online insurance company to design a new insurance model that protects car owners and renters on their peer-to-peer rental scheme. They have also come up with a keyless technology to track speed, mileage, location and even accidents.

Besides transport-sharing services, sharing of space is also becoming popular here. Coworking Singapore is one example of an organisation offering space for entrepreneurs, freelancers and other mobile workers who want to share the same workspace, build friendships and exchange ideas. Along with a shared or dedicated desk, members have access to a conference room, lounge, pantry, high-speed wireless Internet, printer and locker. Another company, Cowork@SG, has taken the concept even further by setting up flexible workspaces in four locations scattered across Singapore, as well as organising events for its members.

Entrepreneurs or organisations with a social or environmental mission can approach The HUB, which provides space for co-working, events and collaboration. “It is inspiring to be surrounded by people doing good work,” says member and consultant Solonia Teodros. The HUB has 260 members as of February.

Making Collaborative Consumption Work
DARE TO SHARE: Collaborative consumption has the potential to strengthen trust between people, giving them the confidence to share their living space or possessions with strangers.

The Public Service is at it too

Some government agencies are also taking to the sharing idea.

To encourage employers to set up shared offices in communities across Singapore, the Infocomm Development Authority issued a call for collaboration in April last year, inviting industry players to conduct pilots in setting up Smart Work Centres.

Another agency, SPRING Singapore, has a part in funding Rent Tycoons, a site that enables peer-to-peer renting in everything from computers and tools to fashion, jewellery, wedding gowns and party items like popcorn machines.

Such support from the authorities is heartening for entrepreneurs spearheading collaborative consumption in Singapore, which is still in its infancy. “Government endorsement will get people thinking such activity is legitimate and [could go] mainstream,” said co-founder Soh Chong Kian. For instance, “government assistance in identity verification for online collaborative consumption can allow people to connect with the confidence that the other party is legitimate.”

As new models of collaborative consumption evolve, the Public Service is likely to get more involved in one way or another. Experiences in other locations and research by organisations like SPUR provide examples of superior practices that the Public Service can leverage in dealing with this trend.

Government agencies need to make sure their monitoring, regulating and taxing activities help rather than hinder the sharing economy.

One requirement is in planning and setting up rules that actually work. For instance, car sharing was held back in California for years because insurance regulations didn’t allow it. “What companies within the sharing economy need from government is to be allowed to operate,” SPUR noted, and government agencies need to make sure their monitoring, regulating and taxing activities help rather than hinder the sharing economy.

What is very important for the government, Melissa O’Young wrote on Shareable (an online magazine about sharing), is to play a role in clarifying the legal rights and responsibilities of people participating in collaborative consumption. Updating regulations is also critical, she said, since businesses and technology change so fast. Only through regulatory changes in California, for example, have peer-to-peer lenders like Zopa been allowed to operate and car owners enabled to keep their insurance when they rent out their car.

In Singapore, the growth of peer-to-peer car sharing services could be limited by current regulations that only allow private car rentals on weekends and public holidays. But changes may be on the horizon – according to Mr Wang, iCarsclub is in discussions with the Land Transport Authority to open its services to the weekday market.

Also, not all forms of sharing behaviour are welcomed by the authorities here. Room rental services such as Airbnb are currently illegal in Singapore. The Urban Redevelopment Authority told The Straits Times in 2012 that “private residential properties can be rented out or sublet – but only for periods of six months or more” because ‘‘transient occupiers may disturb and inconvenience other residents.” Despite this official stance, intrepid landlords and tourists in Singapore are reportedly going ahead anyway, with the hope that regulations will catch up with the trend one day.

All in all, the Public Service should be prepared to handle a few ruffled feathers in its efforts to encourage collaborative consumption. If shared goods are damaged by people operating under rules set up by government agencies, the agencies could end up being blamed for the problem. Meanwhile, for rules governing Airbnb-type arrangements, the Public Service could take the chance to engage the public in discussions about whether such rules ought to be relaxed to allow leasing.

Privacy laws may also need to be tweaked to allow websites to start distributing personal details about the sharing behaviour of collaborators, for example. But would Singaporeans be willing to compromise their privacy in exchange for promoting sharing? Perhaps this can be another opportunity for more dialogue between the Public Service and the public.

Making Collaborative Consumption Work
WELCOME TO MY HOME: Airbnb may be illegal in Singapore, but that has not stopped enterprising individuals from renting out their housing space to tourists.

The ownership mentality

Rules aside, embracing sharing as a cultural norm also requires us to overcome the ownership mindset.

Despite the small steps collaborative consumption has made here, generally “consumers in Singapore are not used to the concept of sharing since we tend to like new shiny stuff,” Mr Eugene Tay, director of environmental solutions company Green Future Solutions told Challenge. In other words, the concept of ownership has become so ingrained in our culture that it could be difficult to think about sharing.

“In many societies throughout the world, material ownership is connected with developing one’s identity and, therefore, constitutes an integral part of the culture,” reported CSRWire, a portal for social responsibility and sustainability news. Singapore is perhaps one of those societies. Many people here buy apartments almost as much for status as for a place to live, and the same status could come from individual ownership of other items – a fancy car, for instance – rather than from the sharing of resources.

Still, trends could shift. As Mr Walsh explained in the 2011 TIME article, “we yearn to trust and be trusted – one researcher has found that people get a spike of the pleasant neurotransmitter oxytocin when they’re entrusted with another’s goods. That’s the beauty of a sharing society…”

Despite the obstacles, it seems that collaborative consumption is here to stay – and grow. With its potential to strengthen social bonds and connect communities at a time when they are drifting apart, the social benefits may well help overcome weak neighbourhood links and reduce tensions caused by income disparities.

Seeing how several sharing efforts are already sprouting on the ground, perhaps the best support the Public Service could offer is to allow the seed of collaborative consumption to continue growing without choking it with overly strict regulations and laws.

    Mar 18, 2013
    Richard Hartung
    John Heng
    Yip Siew Fei
    Ng Shi Wei
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