It's not all sunshine, as sharing start-ups tackle big issues at industry meet-up

Bakers who sell home-made sweet potato pies from their homes and struggling city-dwellers who rent out their apartments on Airbnb don't typically have a lot in common--except in some states their money-making enterprises are considered illegal. Yet the "sharing economy" has become the defining buzz phrase that encompasses Airbnb hosts and food co-operatives, grassroots sharing efforts, and new iPhone apps. When you lump a bunch of people under one banner, that's bound to create some friction.

Silicon Valley start-ups, Lyft drivers, petitioners, lawyers, and politicians descended on San Francisco this week to tackle that friction at the first annual Share: Catalyzing the Sharing Economy conference. The conference was presented in part by Peers, a nonprofit that lobbies for and is backed by some of the largest and most well-known sharing companies, so I was expecting a fair amount of cheerleading and a minimal amount of criticism. But that's not the goal, attendees said.

"[Peers] didn't want this conference to be all sunshine and, The sharing economy is magic and perfect,'" said Janelle Orsi, an attorney who gives legal advice to sharing start-ups at UC Berkeley's Sustainable Economies Law Center, during a Tuesday panel. "We can step back and say, What are the things we haven't factored into our considerations yet?'"

Some of those things include: What happens when a company barrels into a city with no thought toward the laws and regulations they might break? How can sharing start-ups avoid being pegged as platforms for bored rich people? How can apps be more inclusive of people of color and tackle issues like black male Airbnb hosts consistently receiving lower ratings than white female hosts? What's the difference between true, community-based sharing and peer-to-peer transactions facilitated by an app? Big questions rarely have simple answers, but at least people are asking.

Still, as Mosaic founder and CEO Dan Rosen noted during a Wednesday panel, grand discussions are great, but the "people who are making these decisions aren't here right now." CEOs from the largest sharing economy companies were noticeably absent from the conference.

Tech isn't the problem

Not everyone attending Share was pro-sharing. San Francisco cab driver Mark Gruber, founder of Green Cabs, took issue with the characterization of critics as old-school industry reps opposed to tech disruption. Gruber was an early fan of cab-hailing apps like Cabulous and advocated for its successor, Flywheel. But he criticizes sharing start-ups for categorizing workers--drivers, hosts, sellers--as independent contractors that lack employee protections.

"The technology is not what distinguishes these companies," Gruber said during a Share session Tuesday. "What's important is how technology is employed in these instances. 3D printers can be wonderful things, but we don't want people making guns with their 3D printers. It's important to look at use. The use of smartphones in people's personal vehicles has degraded worker rights and workers' ability to earn an income."

As the sharing economy is entering its adolescence, it's going through some growing pains. Regulations, insurance, payment, and protections for all involved are becoming more defined. Companies like Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber continue to launch in new cities and have extended their reach into the mainstream--even if you've never used Airbnb, you know someone who has. Old-school corporations are co-opting the new industry with their own peer-to-peer marketplaces, like Coca-Cola's job-seeking app Wonolo and Patagonia's reselling platform.

While there are many, many issues to work out, from definitions to regulations, one thing everyone at the Share conference agreed on: The sharing economy is here to stay, partly because of tech advances, but also out of economic necessity, as wages continue to stagnate and cost of living increases. What the industry and technology will look like and how it will function remains to be seen, but the ball is already rolling, and it's unclear who, if anyone, can stop it.


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