The Pervasive Sharing Economy

When we talk about the sharing economy today, Uber and AirBnB are the inevitable go-to examples. Automobiles are underutilised resources. Connect drivers and passengers via their mobile devices to an online marketplace and utilisation, hence efficiency, soars! Unoccupied rooms and residences are underutilised resources. Add mobile connectivity and an online marketplace and the value of countless beds across the globe is instantly unlocked for guests and hosts alike.

Sceptical? Have a glance at the list of startup unicorns and you may be surprised to find that it includes car sharing startups in China, India and Europe in addition to the US. General Motors, a company that long ago conspired to derail public transit to boost private vehicle ownership, just bet $500M on Lyft anticipating the end of said ownership!

General Motors, a company that long ago conspired to derail public transit to boost private vehicle ownership, just bet $500M on Lyft anticipating the end of said ownership!

Of course automobiles and real-estate are high-value resources. They’re the obvious low-hanging fruits of the emerging sharing economy. Other fruits about ripe for the picking today are the Uber of Bicycles and the AirBnB of Parking Spaces. In fact, the latter was our first client when we started reelyActive back in 2012. Alas, four years ago it was a challenge connecting both cars and parking spaces, but today the expanding coverage of Low-Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) such as LoRa and SigFox, and the falling prices of compatible sensors, significantly reduce the technological and economic obstacles for these applications.

But what lies beyond vehicles and real estate? The Internet of Things and Pervasive Computing are about extending connectivity to the everyday objects with which we interact in far greater number and frequency. If we extend the trend presented above, could we not expect progressively more “ordinary” products to be shared rather than owned? Might we go so far as to argue the emergence of a Pervasive Sharing Economy as an inevitability of Pervasive Computing?

Might we go so far as to argue the emergence of a Pervasive Sharing Economy as an inevitability of Pervasive Computing?

In August of 2015, we had the pleasure of presenting the closing keynote at the Ambient Intelligence conference in Waterloo, Ontario where we argued that “our present concepts of property and privacy will be strongly challenged as the notion of utility permeates our everyday lives”. In closing, we asked the audience, by show of hands, three questions.

  1. Who does not own their principal residence?   A good proportion of the hands raised.
  2. Who does not own their principal mode of transport?   Again, a good proportion of the hands raised.
  3. Who does not own their clothes?   [Laughter]   A scan of the room revealed not a single hand raised. Oh, wait, were we serious?

We were serious. Think about it. Your clothes are a resource utilised far less optimally than your vehicle or home. Just take a conscious look at your closet (or that of your spouse) and do the math. We then asked a final question: If there were a service that always provided you with the right clothes at the right time, and collected those you had just worn, would you be prepared to give up owning clothes? A surprising number of hands raised, many without any hesitation.

The Pervasive Sharing Economy therefore shows all the signs of consumer demand, but is the technology actually in place? Well, last week we ordered our second-generation Smart Shirt from fellow Montreal startup Hexoskin, knowing that it can indeed be detected by any of our Smart Spaces. Proof of concept complete. In the case of Clothing-as-a-Service, the only questions are how long before the technology pervades into your everyday clothes and how soon will sensor infrastructure pervade throughout the places you frequent?

While it’s too soon to place a General Motors sized bet on the future poster child of the Pervasive Sharing Economy, we’re nonetheless confidently betting that a widespread Smart Spaces sensor infrastructure will be a key enabler, just as LPWAN and mobile are today for that child’s parents and grandparents, respectively.

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