I was reading a blog post on collaborative consumption with considerable amusement. Couched in typical management terms, the post talked about an economic model based on sharing, bartering, pooling and finally optimizing resources. The post said the collaborative consumption revolution could become as big as the industrial revolution. Help conserve the scarce resources on Earth. At this point I decided to give Pinky Aunty a call. If they were stealing her ideas she should atleast know. Pinky Aunty in her inimitable style asked me – So will they be sharing table salt too? You know that’s the kind of stuff that typically runs out. I was not sure if the systematic collaboration revolution comes down to such granularity , but salt is an apt symbol of the collaboration that has defined our mohollas for a long time. Where you opened the door to a worried Pinky aunty asking if she can borrow some salt. Or sugar. Or your axe. Or bicycle. In return she offered spicy achar, her imported sewing needles or a formidable pair of scissors. No wonder when collaborative consumption is being voted by Time in the top ten ideas that will change the world, we are a mildly irritated by the hullabaloo. We have always been doing this. We have been taught to do this. Share. Give. Receive. And grow together.
The Indian padosh or mohollas are the best examples of cooperative communities and local networks. Think of the row houses sharing a common courtyard. Or the apartments arranged so close to each other you can actually jump on to your neighbour’s balcony. Our indigenously Indian upbringing have meant we have coped quite well in these communities. Resisted the nosy aunt or the bossy uncle. Or the upstart boy who insisted on playing music at top volume. And made the most of the collective good. We have pooled together resources and skills. Spontaneously. Or driven by rudimentary forms of co-operative societies. I grew up in a small steel township. While the fathers were busy at work, the mothers led by a staunch Pinky Aunty formed a WVS – Women Voluntary Service. They baked cakes, made delectable Achar, procured magnificent fabric or handicrafts from their native places and then went on to trade these stuff at optimum prices. Looking back, they never really made much profit because the stuff mostly got exchanged between the ladies running the community. Or given away to the local orphanage. However the community thrived by leveraging the combined strengths of these extraordinary women. As kids we emulated our mothers. We pooled our books together and created a local library. We rented our bicycles in exchange of a Michael Jackson record. A little bit of humanity. Some amount of economic sense. And we together seemed to have everything we needed to be happy.
Ofcourse as I have grown I have contrasted the eastern style of community living with western individualism. As an individualistic person myself, I have often argued in favour of individualism. Sow your own seeds. Reap your own fruits. The obvious fallacy of this approach is man is not self-sufficient. As a disjointed individual, I do not have all the survival tools in my kit. That is where I have to buy services. Or goods. And this is where wastage starts. Driving to office in a big car that can seat 5. Throwing away food available in those big saver packs because my family of two cannot finish it. Reducing my bargaining power because I buy in small portions enough to sustain me. Tilting the market in favour of sellers. When with 7 billion people it should have been tilting towards the buyer. And then Pinky Aunty starts making a lot of sense. Pool your car and reduce your carbon footprint. Form buyers’ co-operatives and shop in bulk. Rent out rooms. Barter goods. Trade skills. Create a local network which can support and canvass for the common cause. Strength lies in numbers.
Having said all this, collaborative consumption atleast in the human society will largely remain unstructured and driven by good will than by business sense. Human societies are complex, organic communities and putting rules or business models around shared consumption may not seamlessly work. What will work though is a deeper appreciation for inclusive thinking which has always defined our societies. Which the rest of the world is now learning. And rebranding as a disruptive technique. Meanwhile I have run out of coffee. Wonder which of my neighbour’doors can I knock on?