Hong Kong start-ups embrace the sharing economy for a better future

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 February, 2015, 6:05am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 3:29pm

When banker Ryan Jeon and his wife decided to take their two children on a holiday in Japan over Christmas, they discovered that the bags they had weren't enough to hold everyone's gear. But instead of buying new luggage, Jeon turned to the Rent-a-Suitcase service.

"I have suitcases for business, but family suitcases you don't really use that much," he says, adding that it's not worth buying a large suitcase for just two or three family trips a year.

Of course, the lack of space in Hong Kong doesn't help either.

Jeon came across Rent-a-Suitcase while browsing on the internet and, noticing that it used a brand which he was thinking of buying, figured this presented a good opportunity to take the bags on a road test.

After their experience, he's convinced. "It makes sense economically [to rent]," he says. "If you're comfortable with not owning stuff, it's great - there is less wastage."

That's music to Rachel Cheung Hiu-tung's ears. She founded Rent-a-Suitcase in August to offer short-term use of sturdy suitcases and lightweight, mountable cameras that can capture action videos as well as still images. Operating out of a small space in Causeway Bay, the service has proved quite popular with young and old alike.

"It's such a vicious cycle," Cheung says about buying cheap suitcases. "Because these are not durable, consumers wind up having to buy new ones while the old bags are thrown out, adding to the burden on landfills. Moreover, suitcases take up a lot of space, which most Hongkongers lack."

Rental of expensive hi-tech mountable cameras has also been a hit because most people only use them for a few days at a time on holiday.

Cheung's venture is among the latest to join the so-called "sharing economy" in Hong Kong. Also variously described as "collaborative consumption" or "asset-light lifestyle", it is built on the idea of providing access to resources rather than ownership.

This sector can be loosely divided into three categories. There are the platforms based on sharing existing resources such as Airbnb (accommodation) and Uber (taxis). Other sites such as Jupyeah and Oh Yes It's Free are designed for swap or barter of used items. The third type involves sharing skills or services (outfits such as TaskRabbit) or capital (crowdfunding sites such as Fringebacker or Kickstarter).

Sophisticated information technology that enables a seamless experience for both user and provider is a key factor in the growth of these ventures, some of which have had a disruptive effect on conventional businesses.

The success of local van-hailing platform GoGoVan, for example, has led to the closure of several call centres providing similar freight transport services.

GoGoVan co-founder Steven Lam Hoi-yuen says call centres, which relied on telephone operators to connect available van drivers with customers, could not compete with his start-up's mobile app, which was able to link them directly with people who needed freight moved.

"I foresee the sharing economy will be a norm in many parts of the world," Lam says. "Imagine a building where the residents are informed of the whereabouts of a spanner which they use freely; nobody would need to own a toolbox at home any more. How good would that be?"

Of course, that means many manufacturers would have to come up with new business models in response to the change in consumer behaviour, he adds.

Lam reckons Hong Kong lags behind the mainland in this area, however. "There are platforms [on the mainland] where you can get all sort of services - manicures, cleaning and anything under the sun - with the touch of a few buttons."

Bobo Rok of LuxTNT agrees. She set up the site offering rental of high-end designer bags, shoes and other accessories, partly in response to the rise of "fast" fashion.

The trend of chain retailers producing cheap, throwaway versions of runway looks for the mass market is unhealthy, Rok says. "It's really unethical to copy other people's design. It's a big source of pollution too - people throw out the outfits after only one season."

However, Rok believes people want to wear the best, which is how she set up her business to provide access to luxury goods and original design at more affordable prices, as opposed to fast fashion chains like Zara and Forever 21. "That way more people would be willing to try it rather than just buy one-off [cheap fashion]," she says.

Her base is in a shared working space in Kennedy Town run by The Hive, which also operates branches in Wan Chai and Sai Kung. The premises suit her in several ways.

"I can meet similar people who are [running new businesses] so we don't feel too lonely. Also, the rent is so much cheaper - there's no way I can rent anywhere else for the same price."

Another important aspect of these collaborative, co-working spaces is that they are not only about sharing physical environments, but also ideas and experiences. Innovation Lab, Cocoon, Wynd and Hong Kong Commons are among ventures that have emerged in recent years.

In particular, The Good Lab, a nonprofit working for social innovation, doesn't just promote the concept of sharing and collaboration - it lives up to the spirit. Its co-working spaces in Cheung Sha Wan and Mong Kok serve as hubs for social entrepreneurship.

Inspired by South Korea's Sharing City initiative, Good Lab's director Ada Wong Ying-kay believes a sharing economy can yield benefits that are social as much as commercial.

For me, the sharing economy is not about Airbnb and Uber attracting big money. What is more crucial is that it enhances sustainability and mutual support within the community
Ada Wong, Director, Good Lab

"For me, the sharing economy is not about Airbnb and Uber [attracting] big money. What is more crucial is that it enhances sustainability and mutual support within the community," she says.

"Hong Kong people are known for being big producers of waste and many do not realise the imminent problems relating to depletion of resources that we and future generations face. It's time we consider the issue and do something about it before it's too late."

Like Wong at The Good Lab, local academics Terence Yuen Yiu-kai of Chinese University and Chow Sung-ming from Polytechic University are promoters of social innovation in the sharing economy.

Last year, the three published two Chinese-language books - Sharing Cities and Sharing Hong Kong - to raise awareness about the global trend and possible directions that Hong Kong could take to better utilise valuable resources.

The books highlight local sharing initiatives that have improved people's lives, from the community kitchens of Food Angel to open-data platforms including news site Bastillepost and Green Map Hong Kong, a database of practical know-how on how to live green.

There's also Light Be, which matches owners of vacant flats with low-income families in need of housing.

To build on their books, the writers first organised Sharefest, a series of workshops and seminars at Polytechic University.

Later, they held a series of talks at The Good Lab that culminated with a "hackathon", where participants came up with ideas for new initiatives. Among the most promising is Space Buddies, an Airbnb-like model which seeks to connect people who have multipurpose spaces with others who need venues to hold meetings, parties or similar functions.

However, government support, which is crucial for a flourishing of the sharing economy in Hong Kong, has been minimal so far, Wong says. Without the right regulatory framework, for example, practical initiatives such as tool libraries and bike sharing schemes would not be possible.

Many public spaces could be utilised for hosting markets for creative products, Wong says, which can be a great way to improve the domestic economy and fight corporate monopoly. However, the authorities' grudging policies on the use of public space is hindering many community activities, she says.

"All the government wants now is to build some tiny flats to pacify [demand for housing]. But everyone needs quality of life and the convenience brought about by the collaborative lifestyle can be a great way of enhancing it," Wong says. "People who have heard what the sharing economy is capable of love the idea. All we need is more awareness and support to push the whole system forward."