The Culture of Collaboration
The following is a condensed and edited transcript of my talk at PR Beta in Timisoara, Romania on May 3, 2012. It has been updated and formatted for this post.
THE ACCIDENTAL ‘COLLABORATOR’
Not so long ago, I visited Maxime Leroy, a friend who was studying at Parsons New York. Anyone who has traveled to New York City would know how expensive hotel rooms in Manhattan are, and if you are a student (like I was back then) with a tight budget, your options are quite limited. Fortunately, one of Maxime’s classmates was going away the same week that I was arriving, so I decided to take over his classmate’s apartment for a week, and ended up paying half the price of what I would have spent for a hotel room.
A week later, I went to Boston. Since it was my first time there, I did not want to be introduced to Boston as a tourist. I wanted to immerse myself with the place as if I were a local. So instead of staying in a hotel, I decided to go to CouchSurfing and found a Boston resident who was kind enough to let me use his spare room and host me for a few days. Not only did he give me a place to stay, his company and his stories made my stay more genuine – allowing me to see a side of the city I would never have known if I had remained as a tourist in a hotel room.
In these two instances, not only did I find a cost-effective way to travel, I got to see these two cities in a different light and more importantly, I connected with the locals. Furthermore, during this trip, without even realizing it, I became a participant in what is called the Collaborative Economy.
Collaborative Economy is built around the idea of shared consumption and production. There are two keywords here: Collaboration and Sharing. Collaboration is the act of creating or producing something with someone, while sharing involves the joint usage of something. Collaboration and sharing mean different things but because both are intended to result to a common good for the parties involved, their implications are the same. As such, collaboration and sharing in this context will be used interchangeably. Another important term is Peer-to-Peer (P2P), which traditionally refers to a computer network in which no central server is involved. But in this context, P2P refers to a model in which people can connect and collaborate with each other.
What I did in New York City, where I rented someone’s spare or unused room is an example of a P2P accommodation. This is the same transaction that occurs on Airbnb, a social platform that “connects people who have space to spare with those who are looking for a place to stay” (Airbnb Website). It is a collaboration between strangers opening up their homes, and the strangers who are willingly staying in them, like me.
Although Airbnb is known to be the first online platform to specialize in such, there are now many similar websites around the world, with 2012 even being dubbed “the year of peer-to-peer accommodations” by Fast Company. But P2P Accommodation is just one part of the collaborative economy.
Mitfahrgelegenheit, a German carpooling platform for instance, allows you to share a ride with people who are going to the same destination as you. But why just share seats when you can share the car itself on a platform like RelayRides?
How about sharing your next meal on SuperMarmite? This French platform allows you to check out what people in your neighborhood are cooking and have the opportunity to purchase a portion. Or if you are an aspiring cook and opening your restaurant is out of the question, the platform allows you to find people in your area who may want to try the dish you cooked.
If you are a freelancer or self-employed, renting an entire office space does not make sense, so you can try using coworking spaces instead. Spotz, a company in Maastricht (the city I currently live in) allows you to subscribe as a member, like you would in in a gym, and gain access to working facilities.
There are also crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, allowing you to raise funds through small contributions from the public, instead of depending on a big shot investor. These platforms also connect you with different projects and help fund them. The idea behind these platforms is to allow everyone to participate in projects that they have an affinity with and help make these projects happen.
These are just some examples of collaborative consumption and production. Collaboration continues to shape the way we conduct business, the way we work, or to put it simply, the way we live.
Collaboration continues to shape the way we conduct business, the way we work, or to put it simply, the way we live.
THE BIG SHIFT
How did this collaborative economy emerge?
Human beings have always collaborated with each other. It is in our nature as social beings. We have always been part of tribes and belonged to communities. We give, we take. Collaboration has allowed us to progress. Human civilization would not have been possible if we did not form communities and collaborated with each other.
But then came the world wide web, transforming collaboration as we know it, facilitating and making it more efficient and practical. Airbnb is the new version of our grandparents hosting travelers on the road. Ride-sharing, you can say, is the modern day hitchhiking.
What we are seeing here is a big shift, a switch from Hyper Consumption which relies on owning things, to Collaborative Consumption which is based on sharing things. (Rachel Botsman, ‘What’s Mine Is Yours‘)
The traditional business mind frame relies on owning the product in order to get the benefits. We largely purchase products to get the experience. For example, we own a car but on the very basic level, what we really are purchasing is the experience of being transported from point A to point B conveniently. Collaborative economy distinguishes between the product and the experience we get from it. We gain access to the experience, bypassing the hurdle of having to own the object first before being able to use it. And not having to own the car saves us from the troubles of ownership such as maintenance and repair, therefore making it economical.
Collaborative economy distinguishes between the product and the experience we get from it. We gain access to the experience, bypassing the hurdle of having to own the object first before being able to use it.
ADVANTAGES OF COLLABORATIVE CONSUMPTION
- Economical: It is cost-effective since you only pay for what you need or the time you are using it.
- Sustainable: It makes the most out of the product’s lifecycle by having multiple users and encouraging less production. Less production means less waste.
- Social: It relies on people working together, fostering community ties. It depends on trust between strangers.
- Practical: Through the internet, communications and exchanges have been made fast and easy.
So a collaborative economy is no doubt beneficial for consumers, but what does it mean for the traditional business model that relies largely on ownership (to maximize profit)?
Collaborative economy is not a threat to traditional commerce that relies on ownership, but rather something that must exist with it. I will never advice sharing a toothbrush or underwear for example for obvious reasons. But I would still rather own my laptop, than have to rent or share it with anyone. The point of collaborative economy and why I believe we need to embrace it is we have reached a point in time where we have too much, and it is taking a toll on the environment, on our wallets and our behaviors. There will always be things that are better with individual ownership, but some things, depending on circumstances, are simply better shared.
Some things are simply better shared.
THE RESURGENCE OF ‘WE’
What is truly wonderful in the emergence of this collaborative social movement is that it marks the resurgence of the we mindset. It is no longer just about me or the things I own, but about the community and the things we share. Our interconnectivity online translates to real life connections and actions. And that, perhaps is the real power of collaboration, as it empowers us to make positive changes together.
Couchsurfing for instance, the platform that I used to find a host in Boston, is not about finding a free place to stay, but a host to connect with. It is about developing a relationship and making new friends.
Kiva, a microlending platform, allows you to help entrepreneurs from developing countries by lending as little as $25, which will be paid back once the recipient’s business flourishes. This is not about aid, but empowerment through entrepreneurship.
Phylo is an online game developed to help scientists map diseases within the human DNA. Even without a scientific background, you can help advance health science by simply playing online.
Then there is Sparked, an online “micro-volunteering network that allows people to volunteer on-demand and on-the-spot using mobile phones and the Internet”. It is not just about giving money, but sharing your skills to help non-profits and charities. If you are good at blogging, you can write, if you are good at design, you can create a banner and so on.
And of course, one of the best modern examples of collaboration is Wikipedia, which relies on people who voluntarily participate by submitting entries and editing them, helping advance knowledge.
These are just some examples. With collaboration, the possibilities are endless in helping improve not just our own lives but those of others too. In the words of Herman Melville, “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.”
We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men – Herman Melville
COLLABORATIVE CITIES DOCUMENTARY PROJECT
In closing, I would like to share a project I am part of, directed by Maxime Leroy, the friend I visited in New York. Collaborative Cities is a participative web documentary that will take us to the most vibrant cities, exploring with you inspiring places where people and communities are creating and participating in collaborative services and experiences. Read more about it, here.