Sharing economy, sharing, crowdfunding, bike sharing, coworking, open source, wikis. Collaboration is here and it’s part of our vocabulary, but we still can’t see very clearly what transformations it can bring about. It’s not just about adding “collaborative” to a word. If we want to make things change, first we have to revisit our understanding of economy.
Any manual or academic book will say Economy is the study of how a society manages its limited resources. It concerns solving the scarcity issue. Economy reminds us that there is not enough for everyone. Food, housing, work, money, education, connection, affection: we are alone in a universe of “others,” struggling on our own, each one doing their own thing.
In this world of scarcity, being successful implies having everything that can face shortage in stock. And since everything goes through money, that means having enough money to have access to all those things. It’s being independent. It’s being self-made. It’s not needing anyone’s help.
No wonder we are acknowledgedly living an epidemic of loneliness. Setting new production records every year, we reach equally higher levels of stress, depression, and absence of meaning.
But what kind of economic system creates loneliness as an inevitable collateral damage? The answer is simple: a system that replaces our dependence on others and nature with dependence on money.
While a lot of our time in life is dedicated to activities that can give us financial return, we don’t have enough hours left in a day to take care of ourselves, others, and the environment around us. We no longer have time to grow and make food, to look after children, the elders and the sick, to play, for art. That is good news for the economy, because there is always a new product or service we can buy to fulfill those needs.
In this context, it’s not enough to make new consumer choices. It’s not enough to work with a purpose or be the person that will offer new, more rightful and sustainable products and services. None of that is enough if we keep seeing the world through those same old glasses. To set ourselves free from an economic model that destroys nature and pushes us away from all and any meaningful connection, we have to set ourselves free from its premises. Freedom is not about being able to choose your consumption (“what to consume?”) or production (“what to work with?”), but about choosing how to make things.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, we can only change once we transcend – drum roll – form. If we only focus on content, we may end up in a world filled with corporations to save the whales and organic grocery chains. We will compete for who meditates the longest or exceeds their yearly recycling goals. We will all drive electric cars and park them in our garages under green roofs. And none of that will solve the environmental crisis, inequality, and the epidemic of loneliness.
We cannot solve a scarcity issue with a scarcity mentality. And to experiment non-scarcity, to connect with abundance, we need to change the “how” of things. A new economy will necessarily go through a new form of social organization.
Ok. So how do we do that?
There are basically three forms of social organization: centralized, decentralized, and distributed. While in the first all aspects connect from the same core, in the last they are all connected with each other.
The three types of organization, or social networks, coexist, and the same people can be organized in each of those three ways, depending on how they connect. The diagram above shows that the nodes in each of the three network configurations are in the same position (they are the same people). This way, what will define whether a network or organization is centralized, decentralized, or distributed is not the nodes and their position, but the connection dynamics between nodes and the structures they provide. In other words, it’s their interaction, or what happens between the nodes within a network.
Most human organizations we know – churches, governments, schools, NGOs, businesses – are decentralized. It’s about hierarchy. Information flows through predetermined paths that can be controlled by small or big centers.
An important factor when we look at the types of organization is how they influence the behaviors of people who are connected within it. In hierarchical organizations, which are more centralized than distributed, the only way is up, and not everyone can get there. With this assumption, it is hard to expect any type of behavior other than competition and self-interest. Cooperating with each other would be like choosing what’s good for someone else over myself.
In distributed or horizontal structures, everyone is connected with each other. So there is not a lack of paths. Collaborating with each other is the only way to make something happen out of one of numerous possibilities in the field. In those types of organization, what’s best for the whole is also the best for me.
Digital technologies, especially the Internet, are major catalysts for the global existence of distributed organizations, and they have been completely changing the social field, once they show us it is possible to connect directly to do basically anything. When we interact, we expand flow possibilities, not only in terms of information, but also resources. That’s where sharing economy comes into play.
Economy as flow
Unlike the traditional economy – in which we create stocks to protect ourselves from scarcity – collaborative markets see abundance and promote flow. When there are several cars parked in garages, why not share their use? When a lot of people have some savings, why go to a bank to fund projects? When everyone knows something interesting, why keep “education” within schools and educational institutions?
In collaborative markets, the economic agents change roles: those who used to be gatekeepers – making sure only people who pay can go in, access, and enjoy – become connectors. They create tools, services, spaces to encourage interaction between people and make sure resources flow between those who have and those who need them.
When we talk about horizontal structures, we are also talking about fluid, changing roles.
Take Wikipedia for example: when I use my free time to edit an article voluntarily, I’m adding my share to a body of free, real-time knowledge available to everyone, including myself. I am a maker and consumer at once; a contributor and receiver.
The good news is, there are many examples of that new economic mentality. From Landshare, which connects people who own land and people who can cultivate it; to Tem Açúcar, which encourages neighbors to share, trade, or lend and borrow what they have or need.
What those projects, businesses, organizations, and movements have in common is being horizontal and collaborative. They are quickly emerging and spreading around the world. And while they are still invisible or seen as irrelevant by skeptics, that’s precisely because they don’t follow stiff models of old institutions. Nevertheless, that is how they are capable of changing our views on the economy, politics, society, and our lives. It’s a quiet revolution.