The Emerging, Collaborative Economy
April 24th, 2011

PSFK's Piers Fawkes interviews Kickstarter's Yancey Strickler at the 2011 PSFK Conference in NYC

PSFK's Piers Fawkes interviews Kickstarter's Yancey Strickler at the 2011 PSFK Conference in NYC

At the recent PSFK Conference in NYC, various presenters spoke about platforms for collaborative production and consumption. Yancey Strickler discussed Kickstarter’s collaborative funding of creative projects, for example, and Joe Gebbia talked about Airbnb’s collaborative consumption of private space, ranging from urban living rooms to forested tree houses. The lineup of speakers hinted towards an emerging, integrated system of collaborative production and consumption, i.e. an emerging collaborative economy. Note that when I refer to this collaborative economy, I’m not talking about the OpenIDEOs and Innocentives that occur between companies and their customers, but about – using the word of PSFK co-founder Piers Fawkes – “disintermediated” collaboration between people, à la peer production and collaborative consumption.

Here’s the story: startup fever has finally gotten the best of you, and you decide to breathe life into one of your crazy, creative ideas. But you have a full-time job, not enough extra cash, certainly not enough time to go hunting for investors, or any of the other resources you’d need for that matter. So, being the avid Smart Mobs reader that you are, you know about Kickstarter, and apply for funding. You tweak your idea slightly after talking to one of their customer service reps (wait a sec, was that Yancey?), post it on their platform, and raise more than the money you need in a matter of days. Then you use DIY online communities like MAKE and Instructables to help you build the thing. Because your thing is socially innovative, you sign the New Consumer Bill of Rights and brand it with COMMON, the world’s first open source brand, along with your personal signature. Finally, on Etsy, the community marketplace for small-scale creators, you not only sell the thing, but get valuable feedback and join a “Team” of creators like yourself. You’ve now collaboratively funded, produced, branded, and sold your dream thing, all with the help of other people just like you. Alternatively, if your thing was an actual, physical thing, you could have done all of the above with Quirky, the social product development platform that carries products all the way from ideation to distribution. Oh, and when the thing gets written up on all the big blogs and you’re invited to speak at the 2012 PSFK Conference in Berlin about the emerging collaborative economy (so meta), you use Airbnb to share a room in a Berlin home and Flinkster (the German version of Zipcar) to rent a shared car. Last but certainly not least, you teach other people how to make the things – and collaboratively make things in general – through Skillshare, the community marketplace for democratized learning.

Of course, more could be added to this story, but the point is: a collaborative economy is emerging. This is beyond instapreneurship, where any Tom, Dené, or Пульо can make anything with nothing more than a design. This is a different kind of economic system that is being born of our current one. This system will initially exist in opposition to the current one but I think, with some creative destruction, will ultimately co-evolve into a new, more collaborative economy. How meaningful that yet again we have unknowingly and unintentionally sewn the seeds for progressive transformation.

It would be beautiful to elaborate a map of collaborative production and consumption platforms, for creators to know which platforms to use depending on what they want to make, and platform providers to more systematically survey the landscape and fill unfulfilled needs.

Still, what does this “different kind of economic system” actually look like? What’s the tangible difference between Kickstarter money and VC money? As it turns out, there’s a very tangible difference: venture capital and Kickstarter engender a completely different kind of relationship between funder and fundee. The former is based purely on ROI, while the latter is based on shared knowledge, learning, consensus, and a shared goal; in short, on collaboration. (And in case this still sounds like a VC relationship, emblem of collaborative production Wikipedia adds that “this is more than the intersection of common goals seen in co-operative ventures, but a deep, collective, determination to reach an identical objective.”) In his talk at PSFK, Yancey emphasized how in order to get funded, Kickstarter creators must be charismatic, honest, receptive, and able to compellingly articulate the awesomeness of their idea. They must also offer rewards, a legendary Kickstarter phenomenon which can be anything from signed copies of a book to hot-air balloon rides; not quite the kinds of rewards VC’s looking for. The difference between Kickstarter and VC is the difference between the tall tail and the long tail – the latter is quite literally more democratized relative to the market population.

COMMON is a particularly poignant manifestation of the collaborative economy, as it represents both collaborative production and consumption, namely of a brand, and in turn the collaborative reaping of brand value. It allows socially minded producers and consumers to produce and consume not just individual, socially innovative products, but whole systems of socially innovative production and consumption; not just Brooklyn Brewery beer here, and Harwood Bacon and farmers’ market oyster mushrooms there, but the bacon that was produced from the pigs that fertilized the field that grew the barley to make the beer, whose spent grain was used as substrate to grow oyster mushrooms, altogether, literally and metaphorically, in a holistic package. This is indeed a new brand of capitalism, in both senses of the word. All of which begs the question: what will be the function of non-open-source big-brands in a collaborative economy? (This is another post for another day, but in the meantime, check enlightened thinking about the future of big publishers.) If transformative change manifests itself at all levels of organization, from its social structure all the way to its product – as does the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s conductor-less structure in its music – what will Coke, or at least “soft drinks,” taste like?

At the end of his PSFK talk, Airbnb’s Gebbia concluded, “I can’t yet say Airbnb will change the world, but I can tell you we’re changing the way people experience it.” Well, I can’t say Airbnb will change the world by itself, but I can tell you that it will in concert with other disintermediated platforms of the collaborative economy.

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