OuiShare Research Workshop 2016
Initiated as a OuiShare spin-off, the OSResearch Network has formed last year to map out current research in the collaborative economy. The 1st OSResearch workshop was co-organized by Nesta at ESCP Europe Paris in May 2015. Since then, the “Gold Rush”: Several seminars and workshops series have taken place in different locations in the past year*. It shows the increased interest and relevance for the role of research in the collaborative economy, as academics bring rigor in research methods and analyses and bridge relevant and contemporary issues with advancing knowledge.
The research community wants to support the various stakeholders of the collaborative economy at different levels (grassroots, governmental or business organizations, citizens, etc.), by first and foremost supporting other researchers by collaborating for access to data or project funding applications, writing reports or case studies and so on.
With this in mind, the OSR2016-workshop aimed to simply gather researchers who form this global and interdisciplinary research community interested in the collaborative economy. In the OuiShare spirit, the 30 participants came with a variety of backgrounds and interests such as models of distributed governance, the cultural impact of sharing, platform cooperativism, crowd-financing and P2P lending, co-working and self-organized work, regulation and law issues, open source and open knowledge, blockchain applications, the Makers movement and peer production.
The discussions were structured to address the participants’ research interests by inviting them to share their experience with regards to getting access to data, finding their theoretical framework, addressing societal issues, etc. Three broad topics were chosen:
(1) decentralized models,
One coordinator per topic assisted two rounds of discussion in groups of 5-10 (2×45 min).
Here is a wrap-up from the workshop discussions. In general, there is a strong semantic debate around definitional characteristics of concepts and classifications of sharing activities and platforms. Various methodological approaches were put forward, but dominated with interview techniques. Although the bulk of current research lacks theoretical contribution, it is mostly exploratory. Collaborative economy research is a work-in-progress that might be perceived as fuzzy and buried in descriptive accounts, but it shows the complexity of the phenomenon and the variety of empirical data.
Defined in opposition to hierarchical structures in which power is governed by a few, decentralized models enable all actors to make decisions. In theory, decentralized models remove ownership. But in reality, communities or networks are initiated and led by one/few individuals (e.g. OuiShare) who define values or guidelines from the very beginning. Thus, pure decentralized models can be perceived as an utopia or anarchical models. Researchers can explore the various principles of governance put in practice. How does it actually work? What are the different types of decentralized models?
Another characteristic of decentralized models is their reliance on trust. In decentralized models, trust is build from transparency in a way that any member has open access to all network data. This also enable to develop cooperation and participation/engagement.
The “Big Sharing” (Uber, Airbnb) are only decentralized in terms of self-management: Platform users set their own working plan, prices, requirements, etc. so all members are in a way decision makers. However, these platforms are owned by a small number of decision makers who can change the rules, impose higher fees or even close the whole thing. Therefore, these platforms are not decentralized models. On the contrary, Bitcoin is perceived as a decentralized model in which all transactions are registered by all network users, so that information transparency removes any risk of corruption.
An emerging research question is: How do transparency and privacy concerns influence individual participation? Social media networks already consider user information for economics purposes, which make certain users worried about their privacy. In decentralized models, it is common to comment and evaluate others work. However, this might not be acceptable by all members who do not want others to see the results (cf. Francesca Pick’s talk about the challenges of decentralization). Therefore, decentralized models have difficulties to sustain and researchers should explore the role of individual factors such as personality, expectations, experience, etc. in relation to network members’ involvement in decentralized models. The quantitative approach can yield actionable results for decentralized autonomous organizations (cf. “TheDAO of accrue”, The Economist) that want to increase participation (e.g. voting).
In terms of case selection, there needs to be a distinction between offline and online organizational models. “In Real Life”, anthropological techniques such as observation, participation or in-depth interviews are recommended to be at the core of a community to understand behaviors, beliefs and manners of a small group. Online research should rather investigate larger communities using big data.
In theory, regulation is considered as an established concept, until business and social innovations develop. Particularly, local authorities have difficulties dealing with what the “sharing economy” implies for both entrepreneurs and citizens. Some municipalities experiment different approaches that either aim to foster or refrain innovation. A unidirectional point of view emerges where regulation is identified exclusively with taxation.
The roles of Information Communication Technology (ICT) and peer-production of economic activities in the collaborative economy have long been highlighted. However, policy elaboration and strategies do not only span between top-down or bottom-up approaches. The decision power of rule-makers should be reinterpreted under different lenses. How does regulation influence social innovation? What the new role of policy makers? Who is to decide over regulation?
Research should further investigate the various mechanisms used internally by organizations to distribute responsibilities among the different actors and how these are related to governance. For instance, in addition to the reputation system used as internal control system, most sharing platforms or local (e)communities create their own rules and codes of conduct and have their users agree to these terms. Another research interest is how to foster entrepreneurship at the local level, while collaborating on national or supranational policy levels. Research can also be of help to update traditional indicators used in policy making.
Essentially, the main point from the discussions is that research is scant. There is much political debate and yet regulation seems to be the least researched area.
The discussions on communities are based on theoretical frameworks rooted in Psychology, Economy & Marketing, Geography, Political sciences and Sustainable Development. Many participants argued that research should be trans-disciplinary when investigating communities. However, it turns out to be difficult in practice. Each discipline is concerned with elaborating on a definition of a “community”, as for instance, that it begins with a shared vision or need (e.g. solve a problem, pro-social, make a change) and it is organized through a network, or/and a shared physical space to enable interactions, which gives a feeling of shared identity and social belonging. However, much of the peer-reviewed publications to date are very empirical and lack contribution to theory development.
Participant observation and ethnographic field studies are the dominant methodological approaches. Interviews with platform owners and entrepreneurs are popular too. Only a few workshop attendees had experience with the quantitative approach, although survey studies (e.g. M-Turk data) are often published. Actually, one important discussion point was a problem of data. How to get the information necessary to understand communities? Moreover, online platforms are often reluctant to share their data about usage, network interactions and P2P exchange.
But do researchers actually need to work with the Big Sharing platforms, when the focus is on the community, not the network? Are platforms the facilitator of exchange or the creator of new communities? The concentration of research on platforms was highlighted as risky. It would be more interesting to study slow-growth and low-tech initiatives. Participants showed wide interests into how communities emerge, but also the long-term factors and effects of sustaining a community. This goes back to the popular debate “Growth of platform vs. Dilution of community”.
Another threat is the romanticization of community. Researchers should pay attention to their definition and scope of a “community” and the semantics used in descriptions. Practically, different participation motives are found within the same community. For instance, workshop participants mentioned the cultural aspects, individual character traits and personality, physical distance between community members, physical space available to the community, degree of anonymity, the ICT resources and platform characteristics, the need for one catalyst/connector to initiate things. Therefore, the need for trans-disciplinary research to account for the different forms of communities around sharing and the individual characteristics of their members.
What’s ahead of us?
This researcher meet-up happened thanks to the OuiShareFest who already attracted 3000 attendees, among whom some are actual researchers. More seminars, workshops and academic conferences are about to take place, mostly in Europe and the US. After this morning workshop on the boat, participants were glad for the opportunity to network with others. There were some ideas and propositions to reach out to more researchers and academics. A good place to start is to check-out our Collaborative Economy Research Network list of several groups (Facebook, Google mailing list, and so on)!
In the afternoon, another research-oriented workshop was held at the OuiShareFest: “What’s the Gold, After the Rush?”. Basically, both researchers and practitioners (decision makers, stakeholders, “normal people”) were invited to collaborate on one problem: how to bring research to the world? Pieter van de Glind and the ShareNL team have reported on the lessons learned: here.
For academics working on the collaborative economy, the future holds more research, more publications, and more relevance.
Hugo Guyader, Esther Martos, Genea Canelles
The Collaborative Economy Research Network.
Print version: http://bit.ly/OSRwrapup