What's mine is yours for a small price in sharing trend

An illustration picture shows the logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone next to the picture of an official German taxi sign in Frankfurt, September 15, 2014.

Last Saturday, Ms Kyle Shay, 42, opened her house to nine dinner guests who tucked into a hearty meal of gnocchi and carrot cake.

But this wasn't a regular gathering of friends: The guests signed up online and paid US$30 (S$38.50) to be there.

Ms Shay, a project manager, had put her menu on the website Feastly, which links home chefs to diners craving an intimate home-cooked meal. She received good reviews for her efforts.

"It's a way to validate my recipes and I'm practising to be a good host," says Ms Shay, who hopes to open an Italian deli.

Sharing a meal with strangers is just another business idea within the sharing economy, a social economic system that has grown out of technology that connects people and allows them to share goods and services.

Sharing-economy websites include Open Shed, which allows people to rent household appliances for a day; Skillshare, which lets people log on to learn a new skill; and Fon, which enables the sharing of Wi-Fi connections.

Then there are trail-blazers like Uber, where car owners become cabby for a day, and Airbnb, where home owners rent out rooms or entire houses to visitors.

The idea behind it is simple: Share your excess resources or talents and earn some money.

The concept took off after the 2008 recession, says Ms Lisa Gansky, an entrepreneur and author of The Mesh: Why The Future Of Business Is Sharing.

She says the downturn made people more aware of the true costs of things and pushed them to look for ways to offset the cost of owning something.

Advances in information technology play a part in the growth of the sharing economy, which experts value at US$15 billion globally. That is set to grow as more people embrace the idea.

Ms Gansky says this is due to the lack of trust in large firms.

"People are very interested in trying new kinds of services from companies that are not the big brands that have disappointed customers in recent years."

In the United States, companies like Target and Home Depot come to mind for their recent credit card breaches, resulting in millions of credit card numbers and customer details being exposed.

But why would one trust a random stranger to provide transport, food or even lodging?

Ms Anna Brook, head of communications at JustPark, a platform which allows people to rent out their parking spaces, believes many sharing-economy companies "exhibit an extraordinary capacity to self-regulate".

Users on these platforms are often asked to log in via social media accounts so other users can get a sense of who they are dealing with.

Users also get to leave comments and reviews, which tell others what they are getting into.

Barring fake social media accounts and vindictive reviews, "this transparency keeps people in line", says Ms Brook.

Another reason the new sharing economy has gained traction is the pull of a more intimate social experience.

For example, people get to meet and exchange travel tips when they connect on Weeleo, a peer-to-peer foreign currency exchange service.

Ms Gansky claims users of such services not only found them cheaper and very convenient, but they also preferred the "very personal experience", something which large retailers or service providers may not be able to give.

Real estate agent Peter Klebenow, 48, who is a fan of Uber, says of the service: "I use it all the time. Drivers are much friendlier, prices are much better than a taxi and you don't get into a cab with a plastic sheet as a window."

Culinary instructor Jessica O'Neal, 32, says she uses services like Uber and Airbnb and has hosted seven Feastly meals. "It's a great way to meet new people."

But when new companies muscle in on the turf of existing firms, there is bound to be pushback.

Uber, for example, is an innovation that is "enhancing consumer choices and options for how to travel from point A to point B", says Dr Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Centre at the University of California, Berkeley.

However, the company, which operates in about 40 countries, has fought regulatory battles in many cities, including Seoul, faced protests from angry taxi drivers in France and the US who fear their income eroding, and was banned last month in German cities Hamburg and Berlin.

In Singapore, UberTaxi was launched last month and fares are charged according to rates set by the Land Transport Authority.

Another sector of the sharing economy that is causing friction is the short-term rental of homes, which some say has forced up rental rates in cities such as San Francisco as owners remove properties from the long-term rental stock to short-term rental platforms.

But there are ways of addressing such issues, says Ms Yassi Eskandari-Qajar from the Sustainable Economies Law Centre.

Regulations can be put in place to cap the number of house guests that residents can have a year or their income from rentals.

"I believe that smarter policies can allow cities to embrace the sharing economy while also protecting the public's welfare," she says.


This article was first published on Oct 6, 2014.
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