At some point this year, I finally lost track of how many articles,blog posts and PR announcements heralded "the Rise of the Sharing Economy." Or 'collaborative consumption'; pick your buzzword. The headline editors might be lazy, but the sentiment is accurate enough–folks have caught on. If we tap into our networks to share goods and services instead of buying them outright, we can usually get them cheaper and more efficiently. Some of the most-discussed companies of the year follow this ethos. Uber, Airbnb, Solar City, TaskRabbit, ZipCar, Solar Mosaic, the list goes on.
Which is why supremo angel investor Rob Conway declared the sector 2012's hottest. Why Triple Pundit was able to raise $25,000 in crowd-funding to do an series of investigative articles on the topic. Why Fast Company called 2012 the year of peer-to-peer accommodations. Why TIME calls it one of the 10 ideas that will change the world. It's why entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and socially responsible businessfolk gush about the idea, and why the web is overflowing with monotonously-titled articles about it.
So what did they all say? Not a hell of a lot, really. The sharing economy has been "on the rise" for a good couple of years now, so the revelations are similar in shape: That technology has the capacity to link global customers with local services. That renting is cheaper than buying. That access can be more powerful than ownership. That sharing cuts down on waste and energy. All of it good stuff; not all of it surprising. Yeah, this year we saw the cresting of the hype; talk of collaborative consumption finally reached a fever pitch in mainstream business circles. Next year things will get interesting.
Next year, as they say, shit gets real. The trendspotters get tired of bleating the buzz-syllables. The honeymoon ends; the couple has to awkwardly ease into mundane day-to-day life with all of its boring rules and proprieties. See, these sharing-based businesses often clash with established traditional service networks, and regulators often don't know what to make of them. Uber, the "ride-summoning" service, is up to its eyeballs in lawsuits and citations –-it has rammed headlong into municipal ordinances, unions, and the court of public opinion. Next year we'll see how smoothly Uber can work it out.
Airbnb did the sharing culture a solid when it addressed head-on concerns about safety last year. But it will have to find a way to address mounting criticisms too, as its halo wears off. Next year, it will have to clarify its user policies, and, like Uber, decide how best to navigate local regulatory frameworks. Otherwise it might leave users on the hook for thousands of dollars in fines.
Solar City, a company that allows consumers to lease solar panels instead of buying them, and to reap the benefits of clean local power at no upfront cost, will have its big IPO. We'll see if it's actually worth the $1 billion valuation that analysts currently have it pegged at.
Meanwhile, a host of smaller sharing-based companies will see if they can ride the wave of hype onto more solid, sustainable ground. Weeels, a cab-sharing company that organizes trips to and from local airports and produces an app, should be huge in New York, and may benefit by skirting some of the regs that hound Uber; by encouraging ride-sharing, it can boast a greener rap, too. (Motherboard editor Alex Pasternack is a co-founder of Weeels.) Then there's Solar Mosaic, a brilliantly designed hub for crowd-funding community solar projects that looks poised to follow Solar City's success. And there's Krrb, a nice guide to finding local wares; it maps stuff like garage sales and flea markets. There's Getaround, the Airbnb for cars. There's BrightFarms, a truly cool company that wants to install hydroponic farms directly onto the roofs of the grocery stores that will sell the produce it grows.
There are a lot of apps and sharing hubs and fantastic ideas. Next year, we're going to see which ones start to pan out.
But first there's next week. That's when I'll be moderating a panel in New York with some of the prime players in the quickly stratifying sharing economy–next Tuesday at WNYC's Greene Space, I'll sit down with the brains behind Solar City, BrightFarms, Krrb, and Weeels to discuss all of the above, and so much more. The talk is an installment in a series called Clean Energy Connections, put on by Solar One and NYC-ACRE. And it'll be fun.