Peers Inc: How People and Platforms Are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism, by Robin Chase; Headline/PublicAffairs, £14.99/$26.99
In the 1930s, a company in the S&P 500 could expect to stay on the US blue-chip index for 75 years. Today, the average stay is about 15 years. And, in half that time, a social network can go from zero to a billion active monthly users.
Welcome to the sharing economy, where the companies are fast-growing, driven by hordes of connected customers, and are out to change industrial capitalism as we know it.
New platforms such as Uber, the app-based minicab service, and holiday rental site Airbnb are shaking up sectors from transport to tourism. Even the centrepiece of the global economy — money — has not escaped the disruption, thanks to the cryptocurrency bitcoin.
Last year was a breakthrough year for companies in the collaborative economy. They raised a combined $3tn in funding in 2014, according to Peers Inc, an attempt by entrepreneur Robin Chase to capture the zeitgeist.
Chase made her name as a mom-of-three in Massachusetts who in 2000 co-founded Zipcar, a car rental upstart and one of the pioneers of the sharing movement. She also tried and failed to set up GoLoco, a carpooling service.
In Chase’s vision, the new economy is based on people (the peers) choosing to participate in a platform because a company (the inc) has made the process cheap and straightforward.
These companies thrive on excess capacity — say, a car, sitting on the driveway for 97 per cent of its lifetime. The collaboration of the peers, offering myriad assets in different locations, gives the companies phenomenal flexibility and explosive growth potential.
That is a challenge for old-style industrial businesses, particularly those stuck in the quarterly reporting cycle.
It is also a challenge for society, meaning fewer jobs and less job security. Self-driving cars, properly commercialised, would put at risk the driving jobs that make a living for millions.
“We need to create new social mechanisms to spread out the gains of the new platform economics — perhaps even a basic income allotted to every person,” writes Chase. “Without this, the social consequences could be dire.”
Underpinning Peers Inc is the sort of messianic vision that could come only from a founder. For Chase, the shift to a collaborative economy is not about moving with the times and embracing fashionable tech disruption. The threat of climate change means this is a question of life and death, she writes. “We need Peers Inc because sharing of physical assets requires the least amount of stuff to sustain the greatest number of people.”
Peers Inc is perfectly timed and convincingly argued. It is also exhausting. In little more than 250 pages, Chase crowdsources case study after case study. I counted 81 companies, start-ups and platforms mentioned in the opening third of the book. Despite being a business journalist, I had not heard of half of them. That is a lot of new information to take on.
Readers also may find Chase’s “Hey reader!” style cloying. She does not need to point us to her “favourite chapters” or tell us how she is making a “strong case”.
We, the peers, can see that for ourselves.
The writer is the FT’s motor industry correspondent
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