Andrew Leigh: sharing the benefits of the sharing economy

How should policymakers respond to the rise of Uber, AirBNB and others in the “sharing economy”? It’s a balance between regulation and strangulation, says the shadow minister for competition.

With nothing but a smartphone, I can order up an Uber car to whisk me to my next meeting or find a bargain bed for the night through AirBNB. If I lived in one of the major United States cities, I could also tap on an app to hire a pair of skis for the weekend through Spinlister, find someone to assemble my flatpack furniture on TaskRabbit, leave my dog with a pet-lover for the weekend via DogVacay, or even get roaming wi-fi from Fon.

Often gathered under the banner of the “sharing economy, “collaborative consumption” or the “peer-to-peer market“, these services are all about linking people who have surplus goods to those who can make use of them. They provide a means for us to make more efficient use of the world’s existing stock of bedrooms, cars, tools and other goods, and help cut down on the need to continually produce more.

Unlike the kind of sharing we learned as kids, money changes hands for a ride with Uber or a night in an AirBNB flat (though there are also free services, such as CouchSurfing). But the transaction happens directly between provider and consumer, with the companies themselves simply offering a platform for bookings and payments.

These services seem like a natural confluence of several of this century’s big trends: widespread internet connectivity and the low-cost transactions it enables; increasing concern about house prices and traffic congestion; the demand for greater flexibility and customisation in service delivery.

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