Harriet Dean-Orange is finishing a long shift at the hospital when her phone beeps with a notification. It’s from her OLIO app: a neighbour would like to take the fresh bread that she posted earlier. On her way home, she delivers the bread and is met in the hallway with the wafting smell of cumin and coriander. “I’ve just made some lentil soup, would you like some?” says her neighbour. Without hesitation, Harriet agrees and the exchange is complete.
Harriet is an avid user of OLIO, the new food-sharing app that, according to CEO and founder, Tessa Cook, will revolutionise household food waste. “In five years’ time we will look back in horror at how much food was thrown away. ‘OLIOing’ will become second nature,” believes Tessa. The OLIO app simply sends notifications when your neighbours are giving away edible unwanted food and allows messaging to arrange pick-ups.
OLIO is just one example of a host of apps that belong to the burgeoning sharing economy. In fact, you may already be a part of this new socio-economic ecosystem, without even realising. From Airbnb to TaskRabbit, these companies have become household names, and are the so-called "darlings" of the sharing economy. Uber, on the other hand, is its Darth Vader and remains controversial, mostly due to the UK Employment Court's recent ruling that Uber drivers are no longer considered "self-employed" – and being self-employed is a huge part of what the sharing economy represents.
Sharing economy expert Alex Stephany, author of The Business of Sharing and ex-CEO of JustPark – an app that allows you to rent private parking spaces – explains: “The sharing economy is creating value in unused assets and making them available online to a community. Assets can be tangible, like a car, or intangible, like someone’s time.”
Of course, sharing itself has been with us since time immemorial. “Sharing is caring” your mother may have drummed into you as a child. From swapping toys at school, to car boot sales, to borrowing sugar from your neighbour, sharing is not a new concept; it’s the technology that is making it more accessible. Sharing is being repackaged and rebranded as cool and hip.
After the world was rocked by the economic crisis in 2008, people began to search for new ways to make and save money, says Stephany. At the same time, Facebook and social media boomed, smartphones put the internet and GPS in our pockets, and clever app technology created the perfect climate for easier, faster, cheaper and more convenient ways of connecting. It’s no coincidence that Airbnb, the first shared accommodation platform, and the term "sharing economy" were born in the same year that Apple opened its App Store.
Fast-forward to 2016 and the sharing economy is growing at a rate with which most established businesses and market research companies can barely keep up. NESTA has estimated that 25% of UK adults share online in one way or another. A recent study indicates that the UK has emerged as a hub for the sharing economy, worth around £500 million, which may rise to £9 billion by 2025. And globally, the sharing economy is set to rise to £230 billion by 2025, from £9 billion today.
Apps and the sharing economy seem to have grown symbiotically. “Apps are the mesh that connects communities,” says Tessa Cook, “Nowadays, almost all people carry a smartphone with them. OLIO could not have existed five years ago. With geolocation services, notifications, the camera integrated into the app and easy messaging, using an app for OLIO was obvious.”
Experts say there is no limit to what we can share via apps. Alex Stephany believes that “The sharing economy has a cool caché around it; innovative businesses are doing some simple but smart things like allowing you to borrow your neighbour’s car, and early adopters and the media have got very excited about it. These businesses are sometimes creating authentic and fast-growing offline communities… the other night I went to a stranger’s house to see a live gig using Sofar Sounds [a website that connects musicians with gig hosts].”
The sharing economy is shaking up conventional business models, challenging the hotel industry in particular. Love Home Swap is an app that allows you to "home swap your way to a holiday". Members have access to more than 100,000 properties in over 160 countries around the world. Northwest Londoner, Becca Gatrell, chose Love Home Swap because of its good reviews. “It was great because someone looked after the house and the cats while we were away. The app made it easy to message on the go.”
The best thing about the sharing economy is that, besides connecting you with people, they can also save you a lot of time and money. Think about how, in the old days, when we needed to travel across country and we had no money, we would have hitchhiked, relying on the kindness of a stranger to pick us up. Now all we have to do is open BlaBlaCar’s app and see if someone is going our way; it's an opportunity to meet new people, for just a small contribution towards fuel.
Nimber applies the same logic to sending packages, letting you ship something with someone already going that way. Nimber’s CEO, Ari Kestin, says it’s the Tinder of package delivery. “Ultimately, it’s all about matching people together.” The app offers competition to more traditional courier companies, prices are much cheaper and as an added bonus you can make some extra money, which Ari refers to as “monetising your movement”.
As well as monetising our movement, we can get our under-utilised "stuff" to work for us, too. Childhood memories of hand-me-downs smelling of mothballs are etched in many adults' minds – and who hasn’t borrowed their best friend’s fabulous cocktail dress? Vinted is an entire social network for secondhand clothes, where you can swap, buy and sell, thereby decluttering your wardrobe at the same time.
This is one step up from secondhand-goods platforms like Freecycle, Craigslist and Gumtree, says Debbie Wosskow, CEO of Love Home Swap and Founding Chair of Sharing Economy UK (SEUK), the regulatory body of the UK's sharing economy. “Sites like eBay and Craigslist were built on sharing principles but didn’t have anything like the security, safety and transparency that sharing economy apps do. They are more user-friendly and, in some cases, provide more immediacy to enable people to make a difference to each other’s lives at a much faster pace.”
All sound too good to be true? Sharing apps rely on people using them – it’s all to do with getting the word out and, more importantly, trust. When we stay at a stranger’s house, or borrow their car, or take their unwanted food, how do we know we’ll be safe? How do we know we’ll be getting what we agreed? That’s where social media and peer reviews come in. “There’s no hiding anymore,” says Ari Kestin, “It’s simple. We must provide a good service.”
This is only the beginning. There’s still plenty to work out. Sharing apps are only as finite as our imaginations: utopian visions depicting a move towards equality, a levelling of wealth, and a sustainable economy that fosters responsibility. Information will flow, communities will connect and people will have more meaningful experiences. Sharing will be just a way of life.