The Social Business

Libraries – hubs for collaborative consumption?

I fell off my bike yesterday – a victim of icy roads.  Nothing broken, but I can hardly move, so have spent most of the day sat on the sofa.  It’s a bit of a pain, as I’ve got loads to do, but as always it’s handy to stop, think and read every now and then, even if the thinking is through the fug of painkillers and anti-inflammatories.

One of things I did was watch a TED video about collaborative consumption:

The talk is by Rachel Botsman, co-author of What’s Mine is Yours – The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, which is released in the UK next month.

I’m a sucker for neat concepts and smart phrases such as Collaborative Consumption, but Rachel thinks this is an idea which has staying power.  She reckons we’re hard-wired to share, and it’s only recently, in the age of hyper-consumption, that we’ve begun to crave ownership of more goods, rather than focusing on just securing access to goods or services.

In a world with finite resources, there are clear, negative environmental implications of us all racing to own and consume.  And there’s a decent argument for saying that our desire for private, exclusive ownership doesn’t do our communities much good either.  If we don’t need anything from anyone else, we’re less likely to engage with anyone else.

But the reverse is true also.  If we acknowledge our interdependence, and also recognise that sharing things can save money, be more green and perhaps build a bit of community then we may well find that our neighbourhoods feel a bit more like the kind of neighbourhoods that most of us aspire to live in.

As I dipped in and out of Twitter today there was plenty of talk of library closures in the UK.  It’s anticipated that lots will close as local councils struggle desperately to make ends meet.

I don’t want to discuss the politics of that just now, but I do want to reflect on the rise of collaborative consumption and the apparent fall of the public library.  If some are saved and run by volunteers, will they continue to deliver the same service ?  Or might they re-imagine their service as a local hub for collaborative consumption?  Maybe I could borrow a guide book to Paris, alongside a power drill?  A power drill that someone else in my community has offered up for sharing – at a fee – shared between them and the library? It might be mission drift, or it might just make libraries relevant to more people.

Categories: Green issues, Public services, Social change, Social enterprise, Social entrepreneurs, Social Justice

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  1. Hi Rob
    In my recent Guardian Blog I mentioned Yochai Benkler’s view that it is the co-operatively networked individual and voluntary economy of ‘peer production’ that will win out over traditional firms. Rachel Botsman’s is an interesting development of these ideas, arguing that the linked development of online networking and renewed belief in community, along with environmental concerns and questioning of an economy based on buying and selling, ‘are moving us away from the top-heavy, command-and-control forms of consumerism and towards decentralised ideas based on openness, sharing and peer-to-peer collaboration.’
    One example she uses is Zopa, the online network that links savers/lenders directly with borrowers, cutting out the ‘big banks’, increasing the savers’ return to over 8% while at the same time reducing the cost of borrowing by at least 20% – and with a default rate below 1%.
    Social enterprise, so intimately bound up with the idea of active community participation, does need to get up to speed with the emergence of such exciting new business and financing models.
    I really like your idea of facilitating such direct peer-to-peer exchange through real community hubs like libraries, as well as online – the question is I guess whether the strong ‘open source’ peer-to-peer history and ethos of the internet is crucial – and Benkler identifies a number of necessary conditions relating to this such as ‘comprehensive networking’ and near-zero individual transaction costs – or if it works in other cultural/cost contexts too?

  2. Great post Rob. You may be interested in a big society books sharing project I have been working on with Adrian Short called which allow you to lend and borrow books with your neighbours. Sutton Bookshare helps you to lend and borrow books. It’s free, easy to use and open to everyone who lives or works in the London Borough of Sutton. Regards, David Pidsley

  3. One point that interested me from the video was when Rachel Botsman mentioned that ‘Product Service Systems’ – paying for the benefit of a product without owning – had been around for a very long time and gave launderettes as an example.

    It’s a pertinent example because governments, if they chose to do so, could vastly increase this form of collaborative consumption by vastly increasing tax on washing machines.

    The effect of that would be social regression to the point where rich people had their own washing machines while less rich people had to use launderettes – and I think (rightly) all mainstream parties in the UK would oppose that kind of development.

    What that (again rightly) leaves (at least for the moment) is for people to choose whether to consume collaboratively of their own accord. I’m definitely keen to read the book.

    I used to work in libraries and hope they carry on but I’m not a member of one – other than The Poetry Library – at the moment.

    The problem is that I think the amount of money I’d be likely to spend on fines when I inevitably fail to return books on time (or remember to renew it) would usually be greater than the cost of just buying the book.

  4. Linking the ability to network via the web to localised bottom up economic development is described in the P-CED founding paper which was published online, in the spirit of the open source movement which was then in its infancy, for example this paragraph.

    “Top-notch education is leaving the confines of physical campus and four walls. A student in remote Zaire, given an Internet connection, can become a Duke-educated Master of Business Administration, while remaining mostly in his or her home village to the village’s benefit. The prospect of such decentralized localization of education and economic activity allows a great deal of autonomy, freedom and self-determinism in the village’s own character and identity. It need not be a risk to cultural heritage and integrity to benefit economically; the means by which such benefit will occur, how local citizens can have food, shelter, health care, and a basic sustaining human standard of existence can be determined at the local village level and then communicated at the regional, national, and global level simultaneously at virtually no cost via the Internet and a web site. It is this basic level of human sustenance, coupled with self-sustaining enterprise to provide this basic level of support, that I refer to as sustainable development — which is just another way of saying “people-centered” economic development.”

    The approach will be found in all the subsequent plans on the P-CED site. In the national social enterprise strategy paper for Ukraine it will be seen tied directly to tackling the vicious cycle of poverty.

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