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Don't Own, Share: Can Collaborative Consumption Change Your Life?

01/09/2014 14:47 BST | Updated 31/10/2014 09:59 GMT

Set up online sharing clubs where local communities can share things - skills, DIY or gardening tools, car journeys, household appliances or social contacts ... anything!

Austerity, technology and concern for the environment have come together to create a climate where many more Londoners can share, rather than own.

In your street, say there's an accountant with a garden she can't maintain. Say her neighbour's a businesswoman with a tax return and two young children. Just opposite there's a pensioner who likes gardening but lives in a flat, and a student looking to earn some cash as a baby-sitter.

Thanks to a new skills sharing website, the accountant does the tax return, the pensioner does the gardening, the business woman pays for childcare so the student can earn some cash.

I was introduced to the concept by Scott, a Battersea resident who works in tech start-ups which re-define co-operation. It's what he calls 'collaborative consumption'. His energy and passion got me thinking: what else could co-ops do for London's young professionals?

Thousands of Londoners live in house-shares. Hundreds of drivers already share cars - Zip Car started in Battersea. Recently, we've started sharing Barclays bikes too. We share knowledge through Yahoo answers and Wikipedia, and cut-price entertainment through Netflix and Love Film.

We're less materialistic than a generation before because we pack light, live in smaller apartments, move homes every year or two or take a job abroad. So instead we share.

One of Battersea's best known websites, NappyValleyNet.com, is part of the mix. Post a question and dozens will answer, knowing that when they have a question, you'll answer them.

Just think of the underused assets in the average home, the spare Black & Decker drills and baby clothes, the social contacts and skills. As well as being the youngest constituency in the country, Battersea is also the most educated.

It is possible that a move to sharing, rather than owning, could change the way we relate to each other. Your reputation for fair dealing and generosity would become crucial. As citizen co-operation grows, the power of large corporations may decline.

Other collaborative consumption entrepreneurs I met want to use technology and people-power to cut out the middle-men. To remove letting agents from the property rental journey and to allow groups of individuals to buy fresh food direct from farmers.

Where does all this leave the philosophy of collaborative consumption? Is it just efficient capitalism, or is it more left-wing? Is it both? Where is it cooperative, where is it altruistic, where is it neither? Progress will not be evenly spread. Access to the new wave of collaborative consumption is limited by the digital divide.

John Burns School - where I'm a governor - is high performing yet teachers say a third of children have no internet access at home. London's communities are often very affluent or very poor, but most residents have something, including skills or experience, to share with others.

What can London government do? Perhaps the most important thing will be to create the conditions for collaborative consumption to take root. At a local level, councils can help, for instance by making spaces available to car clubs or supporting projects that help local communities set up online sharing clubs for different neighbourhoods.

At a national level, barriers to each of us taking part must be removed. A man in his thirties recently told me of his trials setting up a limited company and a business bank account to collect small payments from a mobile phone project: "It took weeks, I hardly had time to think about the main idea!"

To help start-ups, a future Labour government could allow individuals to make and receive micro-payments within a set limit, before tax or regulation.

There are competing strands to collaborative consumption, but I hope some of the exciting new young start-ups can show that owning and sharing are not separate ideas. They work best together, in co-operation.


Emma Jane Clark (right), Managing Director of Gertrude and Ivy, helped set up Silicon Junction, a community of creative and digital businesses in and around Battersea and Clapham Junction.

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This is one of a collection of essays presenting a cooperative solution to some of the major problems facing Londoners today. Gareth Thomas MP and Steve Reed MP will launch Co-operative Capital on Tuesday, 9 September, 2014.