Can thinking about markets help design systems for stewardship?
The LOTE4 conference in Matera was centered on stewardship, but often the focus was drawn towards stewardship’s capitalist cousin, the ‘sharing economy’. Perhaps Zipcar founder Robin Chase (@rmchase) nudged us in that direction.
She anchored her session with a neat definition of the sharing economy as activity using ‘excess capacity’. In the hackneyed AirBnB example (apologies - I’ll be using this as well understood example all the way through), the excess capacity is people’s unused spare rooms, which AirBnB turns into socially beneficial resources – but there are Silicon Valley startups trying to do the same for everything from photography equipment to dog sitting. In the same session, she also introduced the notion of market failure in the sharing economy.
In this post I want to use this idea of the market to highlight the differences between stewardship and the sharing economy, and think about how Robin’s idea of market failure can help design tools for non-profit collaboration such as stewardship.
The language of markets and economies wasn’t warmly received at the conference, perhaps because it recalls financial catastrophe and spiraling inequality. More of the same, not part of the hunger for something new that was imminent and immanent in the caves of the unmonastery.
Brett Scott muses on connected issues in his book ‘Hacking the Future of Money’, asking readers to ‘put on finance goggles’ to take up ‘economic circuit bending’. This captures something important, an idea, like Robin’s, that you can use the tools of economics even if you want to achieve something that’s radically new.
I think of stewardship as a DIY bricolage of barter, altruism and tradition, perhaps with shades of a conventional business model or public funding in the mix too. It transcends public and private sectors.
It’s a response to a perception that the public sector is remote, unable to adapt to local conditions, missing the cohesive effect that comes from a community doing things for itself. A sense of an impending, epochal failure in the public sector was woven into the fabric of discussions at LOTE.
The sharing economy belongs with the ‘smart city’ - both terms do double service as marketing jargon that belie corporate interests, while also usefully denoting a real phenomena.
There is a strand of thought, discussed at LOTE, that connects the sharing economy with the increasingly precarious and unfair economic structure we currently endure. I can buy into the idea that the sharing economy is a consequence of a neo-liberal economic agenda, but not so much that it’s a cause – equality or job security wouldn’t be improved if AirBnB shut down tomorrow.
We also thought about the sharing economy ‘crowding out’ previously altruistic acts - offering a friend a bed for the night etc. As some who let my spare room a lot through AirBnB, I could never have afforded to do that altruistically. Robin suggested that the sheer number of transactions Zipcar sees mean there must be something more than just substitution going on.
Whatever your conclusions about the ethics of the sharing economy - and I realise the political debate has a lot of subtlety to it that I haven’t gone into - it’s interesting to think about the crossover with notions of stewardship.
That crossover is in taking fragmentary bits of excess capacity and making them socially useful. But if you look through ‘market goggles’, they are also radically different.
Failure in the market for spare rooms (sharing economy) happens if someone who wanted to let a room, and someone who would have like to stayed in that room, fail to find each other. It could also fail if two people who let out rooms could swap and both be happier - this is thinking about the sharing economy in terms of Pareto efficiency.
We can see how different stewardship is. Take the example of a library closing down. Market failure for stewardship happens if people in community have spare time they would like to use running the library, perhaps tailoring it to their local needs, but don’t realise that they could do so, or if a number of individuals realise separately, but never meet each other.
My work, looking at asset mapping of communities through social media, tries to solve some of this problem: generating information about what resources there are in the community, and who is interested in supporting them. Much of the information is out there, but dissipated across many weakly interconnected networks. The problem is to liberate it.
In the imaginary library we need to ensure fairness. Volunteers might start to feel it was unfair if someone used the library every day but never contributed. In this case they might ask them to help out. Perhaps we want to waive this rule for people who are too old to easily to volunteer, or perhaps someone wants to contribute by giving books instead of spare time.
One of the problems discussed a LOTE is that often stewardship projects are powered by one person who makes a heroic contribution and then burns out – another issue of fairness. To be sustainable, people who make large contributions need some kind of recompense to support themselves.
This conversation about who contributes and benefits could be very difficult to settle, but this give and take is exactly the problem that market type mechanisms are designed to solve.
In fact, it’s very similar to the problem that @matthias’ Makerfox solves, by giving abstract, non-monetary value to goods and services and algorithmically solving the demand and supply problem. Maybe money is part of the mix, maybe it isn’t. For example, exchanging money for human organs is illegal in most countries, but economists still like to think about a market and how to make that market work as well as it can - and win Nobel prizes for doing so.
You could solve these market problems with vouchers or local currencies, but as AirBnB or Makerfox demonstrate, web platforms have a big part to play in reducing friction and making these markets more efficient. Stewardship is a fuzzy concept, and the many permutations of fairness norms and conceptions of value, time, money and goods mean that many implementations are possible.
In it’s most philosophical sense, this is using the information processing and sharing power of the web to solve Hayek’s knowledge problem without resorting (exclusively) to money.
Which brings us to what I felt was the most thoughtful objection to economic thinking - @patrick_andrews’s idea that assigning abstract numerical value, the value of clean air in dollars or a volunteer’s time in euros, is intrinsically immoral or amoral. Thinking through this ethical problem is clearly a part of the design process. This is not something (all) economists are oblivious to, with Edward and Robert Skidelsky making an interesting recent contribution with a book and LSE lecture considering the issue.
Whether a market analysis appeals or not, it may well be an effective way to communicate with policy makers, for whom market based thinking often comes naturally. When justifying public expenditure, quantifiable benefits are very powerful, even if we know that qualitative outcome is what matters.
I would prefer that letting spare rooms could have been solved in an open, not for profit way - but that hasn’t happened. Even so, the fact that AirBnB works so well means that people are using the excess capacity in housing better than they were before.
Platforms will surely evolve to increase the use of stewardship (perhaps by a different name), there are already lots of promising starts in the area. But, unlike AirBnB, these systems will have a more open and participatory ethos, since that ethos lies at the core of stewardship itself.
Moving beyond technology to consider the systemic issues of politics and ethics requires multiple perspectives, and ‘market goggles’ are an excellent tool for understanding systems of value exchange like stewardship.