5 June 2015

Are Britons ready to trust the sharing economy?

By Eamon Jubbawy

Hours after winning back the keys to 10 Downing Street, David Cameron told the nation that the UK stood on ‘the brink of something special’.

Referencing the dire state the economy was in back at the start of his reign in 2010, Cameron continued the positive economic narrative outlined in his election campaign.

If the shoots of recovery are to take firm roots it’s likely the burgeoning sharing economy will play a major role. PwC believes the sector could be worth £9 billion to the UK economy by 2025.

But for the UK to truly benefit from this ‘on-demand’ economy and to continue to grow, there will need to be a shift in the UK’s traditional reserved, conservative nature. A huge demographic of people who may be reluctant to share their assets, possessions or skills will need to be persuaded that the sharing economy deserves their trust.

The British are viewed by the world as masters of small talk – our ability to talk about the weather to complete strangers is legendary.

But talking to the person on the bus stop about rain clouds is one thing; letting them borrow your convertible car to drive around in the sunshine is another matter entirely. Compared to many nations, we are much more reserved when it comes to genuinely interacting with and trusting strangers or our wider communities. Unlike many of our continental cousins, we are a nation of buyers, not renters.

Sharing economy services such as Airbnb and Uber may be built on clever technology, and offer a fast, cost-effective solution, but to become truly embedded in the mainstream they need to persuade entire demographics, and not just early tech adopters, that they can be trusted: this means convincing the population that staying at a stranger’s flat is as safe as at a Holiday Inn.

The good news is that almost a quarter of the UK population has engaged in some type of economic sharing. This is proof that the appetite is there for embracing new technology and peer-to-peer platforms.

The next step is to encourage those who have not yet dabbled, to dip their toes in the waters. Thankfully, the last term of the coalition government saw some encouraging moves from Westminster that indicate the sharing economy is to take a more central role in UK life.

The 2015 Budget saw promises to make it easier to sub-let property, the addition of sharing economy job opportunities to JobCentre offerings and changes to procurement rules that would allow civil servants to use sharing economy platforms to save money in regards to accommodation or transport.

Most significantly, money was pledged to create ‘sharing cities’ in Leeds and Manchester to trial sharing initiatives relating to health social care, transport and shared public space.

It is vital that Cameron’s government fully back these proposals and do all they can to make these initiatives work. They can go a long way to changing ‘shy’ British cultural attitudes to sharing and help build more trust in society which will in turn lay down the foundation of further economic growth in the area.

This is crucial because a thriving sharing economy brings benefits to individuals, who can profit from underused assets; businesses who can share resources, cut costs and work more efficiently; and public sector bodies who can get more value for taxpayers’ money.

Sharing economy startups have created communities which encourage ‘strangers’ to interact on a personal and financial level in a way unimaginable just a few years ago.The online profiles and social networks used as a core starting point for sharing economy platforms can bring people closer together and help a new sense of trust blossom.

In communities where individuals’ personas and reputation become visible to more and more people, there is a strong incentive to treat others well. The sharing economy removes the anonymity of 20th century corporations and makes transactions go back to the ‘face-to-face’ ethos of pre-industrial societies.

This is a benefit we don’t hear enough about when the sharing economy is discussed. A more trusting society is more likely to work well. From business to social collaboration, digital tools can help us return to communities with faces.

Continued government support of the sharing economy, both through public support and legislation, can play a huge role in bringing us closer together.

Most British people of a certain generation will have likely heard their grandparents talk about how ‘back in the day’ they would have been able to leave their front door unlocked at all times, or leave their bike unchained outside a shop without worrying about the consequences. The trust that they placed in the local community was central to the way society used to function.

Modern Britain is more cautious. But whilst we may never return to the semi-utopian era of unlocked doors our grandparents spoke of, we can strive for the next best thing: a digital set of keys to the nation’s front doors.

Eamon Jubbawy is Co-Founder at Onfido