Building A Sharing Economy With A Social Purpose

The commercial sector has been highly successful in exploiting the power of digital technologies to enable people to participate in the ‘sharing’ economy. We’ve seen massive investment in new marketplaces to share homes and cars, enabling people to make and save money.

Meanwhile, where there has been debate about the social – rather than economic – value of the sharing economy, it has largely focused on how these commercial platforms impact on issues such as workers’ rights, affordable housing or tax collection. Indeed, this week the independent review of modern working practices by Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, was finally published.

There is no doubt these are important issues to resolve, but it has consistently surprised me how little attention has been given to how peer-to-peer platforms could be harnessed to deliver public benefit. If we know that the sharing economy can lower costs, increase the pool of people providing a service and make visible previously invisible assets – why hasn’t this been seized as an opportunity by the public and third sector?

Last November, a survey of UK adults found that while just 9 per cent of Brits used a ‘sharing economy’ platform for ‘a good cause’ in the last year, and nearly a quarter (22 per cent) would be interested in using one in in the future. This shows that there is an appetite for digital platforms that do more than just get you a cab ride or a bed for the night.

Nesta recently set out with a mission to support and finance the growth of innovative sharing economy platforms that could address the real needs of people, families and communities, and working alongside public services.

We’ve been inspired by GoodSAM a service that alerts nearby first-aid responders automatically when the emergency services are called to a cardiac incident. GoodSAM saves lives by shortening the time that life-saving treatment can be administered and there is potential for expanding this service to cover other kinds of emergency. We wanted more examples like this and so launched the ShareLab Fund. This was a call out to any organisation with an idea – or an existing service – that was able to show how the collaborative economy could be used to open up under-used resources, time and talents and to do real good in communities up and down the country.

We were overwhelmed with the response and perhaps unsurprisingly, there were a wide range of applications to ShareLab that focused on alternative ways of connecting carers to people who are in need of care. This is a crucial issue in a time of an ageing population when families often live far away from ageing relatives and there has been a reduction in state provision of care – alongside a scarcity of quality in-home care workers. One pioneer we’re backing in this space is TrustonTap – a platform that bypasses the traditional care agency model and connects self-employed care workers with people in need of care in Oxfordshire.

We are all aware of the success of platforms like AirBnB, so ShareLab is also supporting ShareSomewhere to apply this broad concept underused community spaces.
This initiative is hosted by Youth United, a network of the UK’s largest and most established voluntary and volunteering youth organisations. This group are developing a platform that makes it easy for voluntary and community groups to hire out low cost and under-used spaces on a one-off basis. It is running pilots initially across Manchester and Cheshire and is planning to expand UK-wide. With many community spaces highly reliant on renting out their space to remain open, making it as easy to book a community space online as it is to book a bed for the night, feels like a pretty good ambition to have.

Transport is another area where the commercial collaborative economy has seen a wave of disruption; with platforms like Uber and Lyft mainstays in the market. This has created many challenges; not least the employment status of people who provide car rides to paying customers.

LiftShare, however, looks at this from a very different angle and will be using its ShareLab funding to test how a variety of Community Transport services in the Norwich area can collaborate; working together to fill empty car seats, serve more routes and, in doing so, help make more journeys available; reducing social isolation felt by vulnerable people.

Drawing inspiration from the established blood banks services ShareLab will also support Hearts Milk Bank to develop app for their existing breastmilk donation service, which will simplify and expand the donation of safe, screened breast-milk to premature and sick babies in UK hospitals.

These are just a few of the examples we are working with through the ShareLab Fund, to date. Others include work on homelessness, a taxi cooperative, social impact procurement and refugee language teaching. There is no shortage of creative thinking around alternative ways to approach social challenges, but this is just the beginning.

We need many more ideas like these to grow and develop sustainably to make any real difference. We hope that through ShareLab we will show that collaborative platforms can be as revolutionary for the social sector as they have been for their commercial counterparts.

You can find out more about all eight of the ShareLab Fund initiatives here.

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