England & Wales

What collaborative consumption means for local authorities

Today I took delivery of a key to the Boris Bikes, the cycle sharing scheme which was launched in London last year. Bike sharing is an example of what Rachel Botsman calls Collaborative Consumption. In the book ‘Whats mine is yours’ that she co-wrote with Roo Rogers. Botsman argues that this new phenomena emerged as a result of the internet and a shift in consumption patterns from stuff to experiences. In this new society it is our reputation as participants rather than our wealth that will be the chief determinant of a well led life.

All this means that rather than buying goods and services outright we share, barter, swap, lend or donate. All the while the motivation is still based on personal needs but not individualistic. Other examples include peer to peer money lending sites like Zopa, or Airbnb which helps homeowners to rent out their property. In both cases there is no professional intermediary (bank or estate agent) and so the real surprise for many is that people trust these platforms, but trust them they do.

It’s a complex idea but there are some principles emerging. If ownership is inefficient then its better to share (the average drill is used for 12 hours in its entire life); the traditional controllers of transactions have to let go and technology can create new ways of accessing services.

So what might this mean for local authorities? At its simplest level it could be using technology to create new communities which might grow into new enterprises. For example; local authorities are continually bombarded with requests for support, help or money. If these requests fit into a ‘service’ that Councils provide then fine, but otherwise they tend to get lost in the system. Councils could provide a public space where community needs can be registered, suggest what the council could do but provide an opportunity for others to see if they can help.

Money is tight, the LGiU recently chaired a workshop on a new blended funding model for flood protection. Put simply rather than paying for flood protection outright, the government will provide some of the money with the expectation that the balance will come from diverse alternative sources. These alternative sources could be donations (money or equipment), loans, land swaps or funds from other parts of government. A website like Zopa would allow local residents to provide capital for a scheme whilst personally deciding how they want to be repaid, for some a good interest rate for others peace of mind.

The ultimate ‘letting go’ would be Council Tax. A collaborative collection system could allow individuals to manage their own payments to the council online and the payments could be made up of cash but also credits for providing services that the council would have had to pay for. It would not be possible to police this system, it would have to be trust based. Advocates of collaborative consumption would argue that people could be trusted and actually the council will be better off than under the current billing system, as the public are far more engaged in the management of their communities.

All of this raises big questions about the role of traditional service providers, how much we are prepared to take things on trust in the delivery of public services and what is a council for if communities obtain services collaboratively? What makes this more than theoretical musings are the obvious connections to the Big Society and the fact that big companies are already adjusting their business models to address collaborative consumption.

You can watch Rachel Botsman’s TED talk here