How the Internet is revolutionizing reuse


Peer-to-peer apartment rental company Airbnb isn’t a green company. Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky is the first to say so, and did, in an interview with me at our RoadMap event on Thursday. But the emergence of an industry around peer-to-peer renting, led by companies like Airbnb, car sharing company Getaround and many others, is leading to a new type of sharing economy that could one day potentially lead to more goods used more efficiently, and less goods bought and produced. It’s the age-old hippy mantra of re-use over consumption, with a new web twist.

Chesky describes it as a move away from ownership and more toward access, and he thinks people are being more defined by their experiences and less by the things they own. Today, when you move apartments, you bring a whole bunch of stuff with you, but architects and designers actually like to design furniture and objects to fit into rooms that stay with those rooms, Chesky told me backstage before our interview (he and his co-founder are designers from the Rhode Island School of Design). He thinks that one day, it could be normal that when you move to a new space you leave all the items in it behind.

Like Airbnb with apartments, peer-to-peer car sharing companies are leading to cars used more efficiently and as a service, instead of the traditional idea of car ownership. According to the University of California Transportation Center, car sharing leads to the reduction of personal vehicles owned, or in other words, when someone joins a car sharing network, they commonly get rid of their own car.

Reuse of things

Chesky sees Airbnb as more similar to the peer-to-peer car sharing companies like Getaround, rather than Zipcar or CityCar Share. Zipcar and CityCar Share buy, own and operate fleets of cars and park them around cities for use by the hour. Getaround, on the other hand, enables people who already own cars to rent out their cars to neighbors and strangers in the network, much in the way that Airbnb does with apartments.

On a side note, Airbnb could one day connect with car sharing in some respect. The company has been querying its users to see if they’d be interested in renting out their cars along with their apartments, and Chesky told me on stage that Airbnb users seem to be interested in car sharing.

The connection would be about giving Airbnb users more access to more things that are being underutilized. “We create a more efficient economy for people to leverage their unused assets,” explained Chesky in our interview. The things that can be shared best in this new trend of collaborative consumption are things that are expensive and are used infrequently — i.e., homes/spaces and vehicles.

Green by-product

Companies like Airbnb and Getaround didn’t start out to be companies to be green. But it seems like a by-product of the service. In much the same way that GPS and navigation devices can lead to less fuel used for driving places — because drivers are commonly taking the most direct route to get where they’re going — the sharing economy could lead to more sustainable living.

It’s about “using what you already have. This is a wave that is going to happen. Imagine all the assets you have; there’s probably someone in the world that wants access to that.”

In a world that has now surpassed 7 billion people, there are a finite amount of resources. Shifting our economy from one that was based around accumulating goods and owning things, to one that is about accessing goods more efficiently, could be a very important way to reduce waste and share limited resources.

Connectivity makes it happen

Of course, cheap silicon, fast broadband, mobile devices and social interaction over the Internet is behind this trend. The sharing economy was created by the web, because digital technology has a unique way of being able to divide goods up between people — an online reservation system, a digital key fob that opens a shared car door, web reputation systems and profiles pioneered by sites like Yelp and eBay.

Peer-to-peer rental sites are also examples of the way that the Internet and mobile are disrupting older infrastructure-heavy industrial business: housing, cars, brick and mortar stores. Chesky said that he hasn’t gotten much pushback from the hotel industries, but a site like Airbnb is disrupting the entire idea of what it is to be a hotel.

At the end of the day, it will be the companies that aren’t marketing or selling services and products as “green” that will likely have the greenest impacts. Not many consumers will buy products that are greener, they’ll buy Tesla’s Model S or the Nest thermostat because it’s cooler and a better device. People use Airbnb because it provides a new way to visit cities, find spaces and sublets and meet people, but they inadvertently are contributing to the new web-based reuse revolution.

Image courtesy of ninasaurusrex.

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