Rachel Botsman Morning Future
Inspiring The Case 7 February Feb 2018 0830 7 February 2018

Rachel Botsman: “The sharing economy? It’s more about trust than technology”

According to the author of the “bible” of collaborative consumption, whom Monocle has defined as one of the 20 most influential speakers worldwide, the sharing revolution mainly concerns human relations

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A master at Harvard, millions of views on YouTube, and a best-selling book considered by many as the “bible” of collaborative consumption.

Rachel Botsman earned the title of guru of the sharing economy when, in late 2009 - long before the outstanding success of Airbnb and Blablacar - she understood that the recent financial recession, which started on the upper floors of Wall Street and ended up upsetting the everyday life of ordinary citizens on the other side of the globe, would leave a profound mark, transforming the global economy and, above all, the behaviour of consumers for ever.

Her book, “What’s mine is yours, the rise of collaborative economy” (published in Italy by Franco Angeli with the title, Il consumo collaborativo) came out in the United States in September 2010, and soon made it to the top of every ranking.

Considered by many to be a prophetic manifesto of how sharing would soon revolutionise the world of consumption, “What's mine is yours” captures the zeitgeist of the first decade of the new millennium, and provides the first comprehensive description of the consumption trends that were to characterise the Millennials - a generation of young people born between 1981 and 2000, who have grown up with the internet and are accustomed to moving in a global universe, but who have had to enter the job market in the midst of a profound recession. Rachel Botsman, born in 1978, falls outside this generation by a hair's breadth. But she understands that the Millennials - who on average are more educated than the previous generations, but face a far more precarious work situation - are the young ambassadors of a consumption revolution that, in just a few years, has encompassed us all, septuagenarians included.

For older generations, mobile phones are an instrument of communication; for Millennials, they are a veritable remote control on the real world

Rachel Botsman

“First of all, Millennials have a very different approach to sharing and to interacting with strangers. They tend to have an open outlook towards the world; they are used to publishing photos and thoughts on the social media, and they share a car journey with a stranger just as they share their photos online”, explains Ms Botsman, stressing a completely different relationship with technology compared to their parents.

“For older generations, mobile phones are an instrument of communication; for Millennials, they are a veritable remote control on the real world. The latter look to their smartphones as to a means of gaining access to what they need, from a room on Airbnb to bike sharing. This type of approach, based on “instant gratification upon request”, is very much in line with the idea of accessing products and services, which, in the sharing economy, fully replaces the idea of ownership.” As Ms Botsman points out, this generation no longer looks to consumption to express their identity; it is as if the global recession has in some way permanently drawn the curtain on the era of possession, celebrating the definitive fulfilment of that “Age of Access” that Jeremy Rifkin described in his best-selling book of the same name in 2000, speaking about the growth of the economy of the Internet and of networks.

Indeed, according to Botsman, a genuine aversion to consumerism plays a key role in the Millennials’ adoption of the sharing economy: “Back in the '80, the '90 and at the start of the new millennium, there was a generation that defined itself through consumption. It was a generation driven by a mind-set of 'me, myself and I’. Today, we are witnessing a return to ‘us’, a renewed confidence in the community. There’s an entire generation that wants to be part of brands and experiences that go far beyond the individual.”

Today, we are witnessing a return to ‘us’, a renewed confidence in the community. There’s an entire generation that wants to be part of brands and experiences that go far beyond the individual.

According to Rachel Botsman, the currency of the new economy is trust; it is the “social glue” of society. So much so that the mother of the collaborative economy has written a second book, entitled “Who can you trust?”, that has been defined by the Washington Post as “a timely and accessible framework for understanding what trust is, how it works, why it matters and how it is evolving”.

“My research focuses on how technology is transforming the trust between people. It is an extremely fascinating field, because there is still so much that we do not know. Human beings make exceptional trust leaps. Do you remember the first time you put your credit card details into an internet site? That is a trust leap.” And nobody - says Ms Botsman - is more inclined to trust than the Generation Y.

Accustomed to travelling far, living in different places and meeting new people, thanks to exchange programs such as the Erasmus programme, the Millennials have become adults in an age of social networks, in which the theory of “six degrees of separation” - according to which any person is connected to any other by less than 5 intermediaries - could not be more evident.

“In the wake of new technologies and reduced resources, they were the first to understand the full potential of networks, often going against everything that their parents had taught them: getting into cars with strangers, going out with people they meet online, and even renting a bed to complete strangers”. By promoting the collaborative economy, Millennials have embraced a tendency to open up towards others; a tendency reflected in the mantra repeated at every festival and concert: “If you're not talking to strangers, you're missing out on the world”.

A new era of trust is opening up before our very eyes.

“The media often report a growing lack of trust. But this is an incorrect interpretation. It’s not that we don’t trust anymore; it’s that trust has changed”, explained Ms Botsman in her TED Talk, whose video has been viewed over 4 million times. “Until the nineteenth century, trust worked through very close parental and community ties. We trusted people depending on their reputation within a community. Then, during the second half of the nineteenth century, with the development of a more complex society, we increasingly delegated this concept to contractualisation as a means of decreeing our relationship of trust with credit institutions and the large companies that were multiplying at that time. From a local dimension, trust gained an institutional dimension.”

And yet, in the twentieth century and in the first few years of the new millennium, we saw how unreliable many institutions, from banks to governments, really were: the domino effect of the 2008 crisis is a textbook case in point. “We are moving more and more towards a system of widespread trust”, says Ms Botsman, “based once again on individual responsibility.” Like before the industrial revolution, this new system is upheld by the concept of reputation. In this regard, the rating system used on sharing platforms such as Airbnb and Blablacar could be the key to a global revolution.

“Our behaviour is influenced by the prospect of being judged,” and Ms Botsman gives a very personal example of this: “In hotels, I sometimes leave the towels on the ground after having a shower; but as an Airbnb guest, I would never do such a thing. Why? Because I know that I’ll be reviewed on the Airbnb website by the owners of the house, and if I get a bad review, I might not be accepted in other houses in the future,” says Ms Botsman. “Is a small example, but it clearly describes an increasingly common attitude that is destined to grow yet further. Online trust will change our behaviour in the real world, making us more responsible in ways that we cannot even imagine”.

Rachel Botsman is convinced that this is only the beginning: “A new era of trust is opening up before our very eyes. I want to help people understand this new historical context, because we can all draw from it. We have a concrete opportunity to build a more transparent, inclusive and responsible society.”

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