Harmen van Sprang: “The sharing economy is all about the products and services that lead to a happy, sustainable and connected life”
Harmen van Sprang, was working as a freelance innovation consultant in 2013, when he started going to an informal meet-up called shareNL, which was initiated by the founders of sharing services such as Peerby, SnappCar and Konnektid. His enthusiasm for this emerging field led him to the like-minded Pieter van de Glind, with whom he soon co-founded the eponymous shareNL, an organization working together with city governments, corporates, start-ups and research institutes to achieve a mature sharing economy. Ahead of NRC Live’s Deeleconomie event on 27 October, we sit down with Harmen to talk about the benefits, challenges, opportunities and future of the sharing (or collaborative) economy.
What is the key distinction between the sharing economy and traditional economic models?
I would say that in a sharing economy most products and services are exchanged on a peer-to-peer basis, as opposed to being delivered by a company to a consumer. Another important difference is that online transactions are at the heart of the collaborative economy. Though people do meet to carry out the exchange, the process usually begins on digital platforms. And what we also see is that corporates – the traditional middlemen – have to reevaluate their roles in order to stay in the loop.
How can these corporations make their transition smoother?
Big insurance companies in The Netherlands, for instance, are redesigning their policies to include home sharing on AirBnB or renting your car to a neighbor on SnappCar. The sharing economy may be built on trust, but a solid insurance policy attached to the platform through which the exchange takes place gives people more peace of mind.
Granting paid access to one’s product rather than just selling it is another way to adapt and we see that happening a lot in mobility. Daimler AG, for instance, owns the Car2Go vehicle fleet in Amsterdam. So we have a big corporate renting out the Smart cars it produces to mostly young people, who, at this moment, care more about access than ownership. But companies are also tapping into a future market; as people settle down and have a bit more disposable income to spend, they may decide to buy the same car brand they had been renting.
Teaming up with start-ups already in the sharing climate can be another way to tap into the collaborative economy. Large corporates in The Netherlands are really keen to work with start-ups; it seems to be the new gold rush. But companies should be prepared to add some value, through knowledge or a solid customer base. Otherwise, start-ups will have few incentives to collaborate.
What are the biggest opportunities of the collaborative economy?
There are roughly three types of reasons for transitioning to the sharing economy: financial, societal and sustainability-related. Every participant in this collaborative economy has a different outlook, but I find the social aspect the most important. shareNL strives for the empowerment of the peer, and moving from a sharing economy to a sharing society. It’s all about getting access to – instead of buying – the products and services that lead to a happy, sustainable and connected life.
Some of the biggest social benefits are the connections made by people in local communities, which also become safer and more cohesive thanks to sharing initiatives. And I see that in my own neighborhood. Two years ago, we put an old dollhouse on the street and called it a ‘sharing house’. It’s this living, thriving experiment that’s really successful with not just our neighbors, but also people passing by. My daughters are now used to check the house for new items, and also leave their old toys there for someone else to enjoy.
And what would you say are the biggest challenges to creating large-scale sharing economy initiatives?
A lack of awareness is definitely the biggest obstacle. For instance, we held a really practical workshop at the municipality for people receiving debt aid to tackle their financial problems. These people have very limited resources for the next few years, so it’s crucial that they know about how they can rent a cheap car from, borrow tools or pick up leftover meals.
Other obstacles have to do with the answer to ‘what is the future of work going to look like?’ If the answer is that more people will work as freelancers and service providers, by renting out their homes, driving people around or cooking for others, then regulations concerning social security and taxes have to adapt to this way of working and generating income. A related challenge is keeping the playing field fair for existing operators such as taxi drivers and hotels, who now face increasing competition from sharing economy-rooted services such as car- and home-sharing.
The Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs is currently running a program that gives the sharing economy room to go against the grain of current regulations and challenge traditional industries. One example is AirDnD, an initiative for home restaurants. One could say that these ‘establishments’ don’t meet all the food safety and hygiene regulations, and they should be banned. But one can also argue that there are other ways to guarantee quality, such as customer ratings, which empower peers to decide for themselves.
What other developments would you like to see in the sharing economy space?
Society is now in a state of permanent beta. It’s a living lab, something that will never be completed. Start-ups can move like speedboats, cruising through this fluid environment, while corporates are more like tankers that find it harder to change course.
I think it’s crucial that the government, established businesses and emerging start-ups work together. We believe in doing things with purpose and want to help all these actors play their part in reshaping society. Start-ups are already doing it, but they often need more knowledge and expertise. We also help the government and corporates to see that they need to take action because the sharing economy is here to stay. In our workshops, we always encourage them to start with a pilot project and dare to do something.
The collaborative economy and social entrepreneurship seem to share the goal of a positive societal impact. Do you see these fields becoming more intertwined?
In the Dutch media we always hear about sharing initiatives like AirBnB and Uber, which are heavily funded by big money. Many people love these services, but aren’t too keen on the traditional investment models behind them.
In addition to that, more start-ups are working with a purpose, sharing their knowledge for free and putting money back into the system. And we’re also seeing some overlap between the activities of shareNL and Social Enterprise NL.
In the near future, we’ll definitely be having more frequent discussions about how socially minded a platform is, if the success of our Amsterdam Sharing City initiative is anything to go by. We worked with the whole playing field – from the Amsterdam Economic Board through start-ups to the public library – to develop the sharing, generative economy.
What were the key achievements of your Amsterdam Sharing City project?
We’re helping the municipality with connecting the sharing economy to the Stadspas (City Pass). The Stadspas gives low-income inhabitants access to things like cultural events, sporting facilities and public transport. The holders of a Stadspas can really benefit from access to more services and products through the sharing economy. The same goes for linking recipients of debt aid to sharing initiatives that help them save money.
What’s more, the municipality is piloting car and office space sharing among different districts, and soon they’ll hopefully be able to extend that to Amsterdam’s inhabitants and businesses.
We are also working with Schiphol Airport on how to keep it accessible and avoid gridlocks on the road and railway by, for instance, increasing the number of people carpooling. Schiphol’s CEO even said that he wants to turn Schiphol into the AirBnB of airports.
In addition to this, we also initiated a national Sharing City platform to stimulate city-to-city learning in the Netherlands. After Amsterdam, we started working with cities like The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Eindhoven, Haarlem and Nijmegen. But there’s also increasing global attention. For instance, shareNL co-founder Pieter and I have consulted cities all over Europe, and are going to Seoul and Tokyo next month. And last May, the City of Amsterdam hosted deputy mayors and officials from places like New York, Paris, Seoul and Barcelona, who came together to co-create a global city-to-city learning approach in collaboration with platforms such as shareNL.
Get your ticket to NRC Live’s Deeleconomie event on October 27 to hear Harmen and other distinguished speakers talk about the opportunities and challenges of the sharing economy.