[SCMP Column] Sharing economy

May 12, 2018

Hong Kong lags the region in terms of the development of its “sharing economy”, according to 87 per cent of people joining the SCMP’s working lunch on the subject last Tuesday. But somehow, I don’t trust that answer.

Why not? Because I sense this view is rooted in our fascination with e-businesses, and our frustration with regulatory obstacles sitting in the way of lots of young Hong Kong e-entrepreneurs, rather than with any clarity about what the “sharing economy” is truly about.

I may have been biased by the fact that the discussion was moderated by the SCMP’s tech editor, included a Hong Kong legislator representing the tech sector, and provided a platform for Uber and Airbnb – everyone’s most fashionable e-business.

Uber and Airbnb may have started life as icons of the “sharing economy”, but today they are simply large and powerful international businesses fighting about regulatory hurdles to their new business model against similarly powerful local entrenched business interests. The idea is long faded of Uber enabling car-pooling or letting car-owners earn some money on the side, or of Airbnb letting families earn some pocket-money by letting out a spare bedroom – in Hong Kong at least. I don’t agree with the Hong Kong government blocking these companies’ development, but let’s not get bamboozled into thinking this is anything to do with the “sharing economy”.

If we wanted an e-business discussion, and wanted to examine how dangerously Hong Kong is jeopardising its competitiveness by being slow in encouraging innovative e-businesses, then that would be a good conversation to have – but that has little to do with the “sharing economy”.

For me, the “sharing economy” is about organising our lives, and our cities, more sustainably by using our resources, and our services more efficiently. It is about not wasting stuff. It is e-relevant because the new technologies, in particular the aggregation of big data and apps to exploit it, are opening up fascinating new ways of being more efficient, and of marshalling our resources and our services more effectively.

But in many ways, the “sharing economy” is as old as the hills. When my father in the wake of the second world war rented some land from the local council as an allotment to grow vegetables he was using a poorly exploited resource – council land – to supply our family and neighbours with extra food at a time of extreme austerity. He enjoyed gardening – just as early Uber drivers enjoyed driving – and was happy to put his spare time to good use.

In theory, Uber could indeed be part of Hong Kong’s “sharing economy”. Thousands of wealthy Hong Kongers drive daily into town and bury their cars in an expensive car park, where they are left unused for eight or more hours. Or they leave the car buried and unused in a car park under their home while they take a taxi or public transport to work. If Uber were really about a “sharing economy”, those Hong Kong drivers would hand their cars over to an Uber driver as they arrived at work, giving someone a chance to earn a living from an otherwise unused resource, and saving on the need for car parking spaces at the same time.

But in reality, the true “sharing economy” option for transport in a city like Hong Kong is not to bother to own a car at all, and instead rely on our world-beating public transport system. Our MTR is our true champion of the “sharing economy”.
Bicycles might be a good idea in big flat cities like Beijing or Shanghai or Amsterdam, London or Paris, but in rainy, hilly, sweaty Hong Kong, it strikes me as a fashionable, well-meaning but silly idea.

So too would sharing of umbrellas and gumboots be a good idea as our rainy season arrives. The only problem is that everyone needs an umbrella at the same time, and for most of the year it goes unused. Hardly a business proposition set to set the sharing economy alight.

But there are lots of good sharing economy ideas. What about “nearly new” wedding dresses? Or ski-ware, or fur coats, or baby clothes, or spare food? What about books (and why doesn’t Amazon let you pass on an e- book from your Kindle when you have finished reading it?)?

Just as interesting would be sharing DIY equipment. I don’t want to store a drill and all the gear that goes with it, and would be more than happy to call someone who can lend me one for the day for a modest fee. And if I am feeling lazy, perhaps I can hire a DIY guy to do the drilling for me.

What about the Hong Kong Football stadium that sits empty at least five days a week, or school facilities that sit empty through school vacations? Surely these are expensive resources that should be used as intensively as possible.
In a true sharing economy, closely linked with the “circular economy”, we should also be demanding that manufacturers agree to take back their products and recycle them at the end of their useful life. Like my 20-year-old refrigerator that I am about to replace. Or single-use plastics.

If our conversation is to be about how we use everything we have around us more efficiently, then fascinating new opportunities abound that are becoming possible with the emergence of new technologies. Let’s please move beyond stale conversations about Uber and Airbnb.

But to give them their due, it is true we should battle government to ensure that bureaucracy and antique regulation does not get in the way. And perhaps the biggest battle of all must be with ourselves, to accept that we don’t always need to horde stuff to ourselves, and that sharing some of it might provide a more sustainable way for us to live – and perhaps earn us some pocket money too.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

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