4 Lessons from the Sharing Economy

What government can leverage and learn from the peer economy.

by / September 23, 2013

I’m finishing up my last slice of pizza as I pull out my smartphone and request that a car picks me up. Four minutes later, I get an alert that my car is on the way and I walk outside to see a Honda Civic sporting a big pink mustache. I get into the front seat and fist bump with my driver, who happens to be an off-duty Washington, D.C., fireman. He takes me to my hotel, another fist bump is given and I walk out with my credit card charged 20 to 30 percent less than a normal taxi.

What is going on? Welcome to the sharing economy.

This example is one of my recent uses of Lyft, a ride-sharing company based in San Francisco that employs average people to use their own vehicles to drive people around. In one week in D.C., I had drivers who are restaurant managers, a firefighter and government contractors who outside their day job drive other people around for money (and for a little fun).

Lyft is just one example of a trend governments need to pay attention to: the peer-to-peer sharing economy. The peer economy is based on the concept of leveraging underutilized resources — many people have capacities sitting unused (talents, hours in a day, cars, etc.) that now can be quickly matched to demand to help others.

For instance, Airbnb helps users rent out extra rooms (or their whole apartments) to visitors. BetterLesson.com lets teachers share lessons plans with one another. On DogVacay.com, regular people sign up to take care of others’ pets. TaskRabbit is a service where people run errands for one another, and Kaggle allows problems to be solved by data scientists across the globe. There’s even a new organization called Peers that’s helping to advocate and empower the peer economy.

So what can government leverage and learn from the peer economy?

  • Assist but Don’t Overregulate — Many peer economy companies operate in a gray zone. It’s easy for cities to quickly react to complaints from large industries with vested interests (e.g., hotel lobbies have caused problems for Airbnb in New York City). The first motto of cities is “do no harm.” Try to think of ways you can help the peer economy.
  • Leverage with Citizens — Think of ways you can solve government problems with a peer economy approach. Perhaps you need a piece of land surveyed. Instead of a full bid or contract, could you put the opportunity out in a verified peer economy approach? Need housing after an emergency? In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Airbnb offered its services for free and helped connect impacted citizens with places to stay.
  • Use Internally — Major cities and counties have tens of thousands of employees. What if you could utilize that peer power? Can you encourage employees to post their best practices and example documents on sites like BetterLessons.com? What if, like Clarity.fm, you could set up an expert exchange where staff members could meet with internal experts to solve problems?
  • Test the Services — Until you try these services, they sound a little weird. So a simple way to start is to test the services to understand them. NASA used Kaggle for the Mapping Dark Matter contest in which it received new data algorithms from 73 teams worldwide. Going to a meeting across town? Have your staff take Lyft instead of a cab. Next work trip? Use Airbnb. If you need documents carried to another office, try using TaskRabbit. By using these services, you’ll be in a better position when regulation discussions occur, and you’ll devise new approaches to citizen services.

At GovLoop, we see the power of people connecting and sharing to solve problems. Our members have come together on everything from renaming an intranet to providing peer mentorship to helping one another navigate large project issues.

The beauty of living today is that the technologies — from always-on Internet capability to mobile phones, GPS and social log-ins — make it even easier to facilitate deep connections and sharing to solve huge problems. That’s something cities and counties should care about — and help make happen.

Steve Ressler Contributing Writer