Uber and Airbnb are not the real sharing economy – think MTR, recycling and generosity instead

David Dodwell says the conversation on the sharing economy in Hong Kong should move beyond the two controversial big players to ideas about how people can collaborate to use resources more efficiently in their daily lives

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 May, 2018, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 May, 2018, 10:34pm

Hong Kong lags behind the region in terms of the development of its “sharing economy”, according to 87 per cent of people joining the Post ’s working lunch on the subject on May 8. But somehow, I don’t trust that answer.

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

I may be biased by the fact that the discussion featured the Post’s tech editor, a Hong Kong legislator representing the tech sector, and provided a platform for Uber and Airbnb – everyone’s most fashionable e-business.

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Uber and Airbnb may have started life as icons of the “sharing economy”, but today they are simply large and powerful international businesses fighting regulatory hurdles to their business model against similarly powerful local entrenched business interests.

The sharing economy is about organising our lives and our cities more sustainably by using our resources and services more efficiently

The idea of Uber enabling car-pooling or letting car owners earn some money on the side, or Airbnb helping families earn some money by letting out a spare room has long faded – in Hong Kong at least. I don’t agree with the Hong Kong government blocking these companies’ development, but let’s not delude ourselves that this is anything 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 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 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.

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In theory, Uber could indeed be part of Hong Kong’s sharing economy. Thousands of wealthy Hongkongers drive daily into town and bury their cars in an expensive car park for eight or more hours. Or they leave the car unused at home while they take a taxi or public transport to work. Those car owners could hand their vehicles over to an Uber driver, giving someone a chance to earn a living from an otherwise unused resource, and simultaneously saving on the need for parking space.

The MTR is our true champion of the sharing economy

But the true sharing economy option for transport in Hong Kong is not to own a car at all, and instead rely on our world-class public transport system. The MTR is our true champion of the sharing economy.

Bicycles might work in big flat cities like Beijing or Amsterdam, but in rainy, hilly, sweaty Hong Kong, it strikes me as a fashionable, well-meaning but silly idea.

Sharing umbrellas and boots could be a good idea. However, everyone needs an umbrella at the same time and for most of the year, it goes unused. Hardly a business proposition about to set the sharing economy alight.

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But there are lots of good sharing economy ideas. What about “nearly new” wedding dresses? Or ski gear, fur coats, 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 the gear that goes with it, and would be happy to call someone who could lend me one for the day for a modest fee. If I am feeling lazy, perhaps I can hire a DIY guy to do the drilling for me.

What about sports facilities that sit empty between tournaments and school buildings that are largely unused through holidays? 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 take back their products and recycle them at the end of their useful life. Like the 20-year-old refrigerator that I am about to replace. Or single-use plastics.

Watch: ‘3,6000 tons of surplus food is discarded in Hong Kong everyday,’ says local charity

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 move beyond stale conversations about Uber and Airbnb.

But to give them their due, it is true that we should press the government to ensure bureaucracy and antique regulations do 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 hoard our stuff and that sharing some of it might provide a more sustainable way to live – and perhaps earn us some money, too.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view