Interview — Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens is a theorist in the emerging field of P2P theory and director and founder of the P2P Foundation, a global organization of researchers working in collaboration in the exploration of peer production, governance, and property.

What are the current discussions surrounding the ‘sharing economy’ that interest you, and why?

One of the issues is the ‘dark side’ of the sharing economy. Obviously the objective function of the sharing economy is in many ways positive — e.g using idle ressources, making sure they are not wasted, bringing different needs together, aligning supply and demand — but the problem is that it’s done under certain conditions and that these conditions can be negative. It has a lot to do with who controls it and who owns it. If you look at Uber — yes it’s a useful service, but at the same time it increases the precarity of the workers. So all the risk negotiations and mechanisms achieved over time by taxi drivers, don’t exist. You could say it’s good because people, who only have a few hours a day, can now make more money than before, but it also creates a social condition where everyone is dependent on small jobs, never sure to have one, and where social security is not the same, or non existent.

There’s also an issue of regulation. What kind of regulations are appropriate? Of course people who work in the sharing economy will say that they don’t need any regulations, but I think that’s probably not a good idea, because people with a self-interest should not be regulating themselves. An extreme example, to make the point, could be if you asked two thieves to regulate, you know, that’s not going to work.

I would like to see rules that protect the workers and consumers, rather than the old industry.

If you just protect the old industry, e.g the taxi system, then you have no innovation. And so new services would not be developed. So I think we need rules, but rules that are very specific. We see a good example of this in Seoul where Uber is forbidden. It’s a sharing city so why would they forbid Uber? Well, it’s the same reason why a community wouldn’t want a Wallmart in their city, because once they have a big supermarket — which again you could say is useful and makes things cheaper — but it also takes about 30% of local flows away from the community, going directly to shareholders, who are 10.000 km away. So that’s why Seoul decided to forbid Uber. Not to protect the taxi drivers, but to stimulate a local sharing economy. And I think this is much more justified and smart than just saying no to Uber to keep things as they are.

What can we learn about collaboration from the ‘sharing economy’?

We’ve been going through the so called ‘neoliberal period’ in which the view of the human being was very one-sided: we’re all rational actors, maximising our self interests,  believing that by doing this things will magically go well. I mean, this is the basic idea of Liberalism, but it has never actually been the case, as humans have always been cooperating in different ways, to different degrees. This kind of ideology just made us blind to it.

I think an important change was, first of all, the internet. When I first discovered it in the early 90’s, I thought it was something I always wanted, you know, to be able to talk, share and work together in an easy way. It showed that it was possible and made people think differently about collaboration. I think that by doing this the internet made us think differently about life in general.

We started asking: if we can share online, and create something like Wikipedia and Linux, why can’t we do that in the rest of our lives?

A second factor was how difficult things were. Today, because of the infrastructure we have, sharing has become easier, than not sharing. So with car sharing platforms, we’re still the same people, but sharing a car has become easy and quick, so we are much freer in the choice between a private solution versus a common solution. So it’s not a question of saying that once we were all selfish, maximising our self interests, and now we’ve become unselfish. It’s rather an issue of recognising that we are complex. If you look at Wikipedia there are 1.000 reasons why people contribute. It can vary from sharing knowledge, getting a reputation, learning and getting a position in the system of Wikipedia. I mean, there’s many different reasons, we don’t really care what the motivation is, all these motivations ultimately come together in creating a common good. So I see a big shift from a system, in which companies compete with each other, and you collaborate within the company, to a system in which everybody collaborate and co-create common goods, and within that there’s competition. So you’ll be competing, but you are competing on the basis of a common platform. So it’s a place where cooperations are the basis.

How can we employ the ‘sharing economy’ to empower urban communities?

I think that there are two models. One in which sharing is driven by entrepreneurial self interest: somebody see a need in the market, make a startup, and develop a business model. The danger of this process is that they’re always thinking about capturing and controlling, because they have to maintain the scarcity. Otherwise there’s no market. For example, I recently had a conversation with somebody from BlaBlaCar and a skillsharing company, where the person from BlaBlaCar said that their challenge was to avoid people connecting with each other, and the other person said that their challenge was to avoid people creating niche communities for their own babysitting skillsharing. So both of them were thinking — while developing this so called sharing (which mostly isn’t sharing, but selling or renting things) — in capturing and making sure people don’t have certain freedoms.

I think another approach is a citizen approach, where you collectively decide what the needs are in a particular neighbourhood, and then implement a sharing solution for this particular need. In that case you may still have entrepreneurs, but the basic motivation would be a citizen motivation. It would start from a citizen motivation and then you’d find entrepreneurs who could realise it, or it could be nonprofit or coops, so you have more choices. So basically I think we should organise ourselves in a way. In Geneva they have a project called collaborating neighbourhoods, and in each neighbourhood they’re asking people to map what’s already happening and then take initiatives as citizens. This is what I would push for — an ‘ask somebody of the commons’ — where citizens come together and a chamber of the commons for all entrepreneurs, who are aligned with citizen needs.

What is the future of the ‘sharing economy’?

It’s important to define what exactly the sharing economy is, but in my view the key is actually the commons. It’s the creation of a shared good e.g open knowledge, free software, open design. It’s much more productive, even competitive, when everyone can contribute something and everyone can use it.

So I see a future, in which collaboration is community driven and where productive communities are contributing to shared resources.

And around that you have entrepreneurship, in alignment with a common good, without destroying it or capturing it, making sure everyone benefit from innovations made throughout the network.

I think particularly, in a time of ecological crisis with the climate change, that the idea that you have a solution for humankind and you privatise it, is profoundly immoral. It also gives the power to withhold it, to say we have this great solution, but there’s a bait on it, and we are shelving it because it’s not making money. So I think entrepreneurship should be the perifery around this basic core of corporations. But I’m not saying this is an automatic future, we have to make sure it happens. The key question for me is: are we creating a commons? Like with Facebook we’re exchanging and communicating, but we’re not really creating a commons.