“The sharing economy lacks a shared definition”, according to Rachel Botsman, and I agree. Terms like “sharing economy”, “peer economy” and “collaborative consumption” are used interchangeably. But do they mean the same thing? And more importantly: do they mean the same things for everybody?

Much more than sharing

In my eyes, the best frameworks to break down these complex (and confusing) concepts are (again) given by Botsman, an expert on the collaborative economy. She argues that what we usually call the “sharing economy” – bikes, homes, tools, cars and so on – is merely a part of collaborative consumption, which is just one piece of a broader puzzle.

The real transformation is much deeper than just consuming differently; it also includes the way we teach and learn, design and produce, interact with each other and even relate to money. It is not just a more efficient way to do business and take advantage of market opportunities, but a new paradigm, a new way of seeing the economic relations of our time.

This bigger picture could more accurately be described as the “collaborative economy”. And that’s what I’m more interested in.

Different realities

I come from Brazil, where we live a reality that has been called many things over the years. Underdeveloped. Developing. Third World. Take your pick. But the term I prefer is “peripheral”. That’s because we are not in an intermediate state in our development that will soon lead us to become “developed”. We are not in the centre of the global consciousness. We are not leading the agenda. In fact, it seems like the global agenda is leading us.

Here, like in many other peripheral realities, the collaborative economy has emerged in a slightly different and deeply transformative form. And I think that happened exactly because we come from a different background and have a distinct perspective on the world we live in. If we compare the US and Europe, cradles of these – and many other –new business models, it’s obvious that we perceive and experience the world crisis in a very different way.

Crisis and scale

Let me pause here for a second and say: yes, the world is in crisis. We have seen major improvements in many ways, but we are still very, very far from becoming a functioning, fair, harmonious society. Two billion people still live on less than $2 a day, while the richest 1% owns almost more wealth than the other 99% of the population. More than 70% of workers are unhappy in their jobs. We consume 50% more resources than the ecosystems in our planet are capable of regenerating.

The way I see it, this crisis is much more than an economic one. It is about our values, our lifestyle. And it is boosted by a problem of scale.

Imagine if you took 100 random people and put them in a spaceship going nowhere, just flying around the solar system with limited resources. It doesn’t seem very logical that these people will compete fiercely for these resources and try to establish an infinite exponential growth system within the spaceship, right? Well, it seems to me like this is precisely the situation we are in. We live on a lump of rock floating in space and not going anywhere, with a limited amount of resources at our disposal.

The problem is in the scale. Our spaceship is so big that it is impossible for each individual to perceive (a) the distance between their own actions and their consequences and (b) the scale between their actions and the sum of all other individual actions.

We are all in this crisis together because we share the same home. It’s time to treat the ship and its passengers a little better.

Closer and more connected

In many ways, the collaborative economy brings a movement mindset – as Jeremy Heimans brilliantly explains in his article and TED Talk the concept of new power. He argues that we must be capable of mobilizing crowds not just to consume, but to take an active part in important matters.

For that, we must reduce the scale of transactions, projects, decisions and financing back to the individual level. Peer-to-peer interactions, sharing behaviours and other new trends have the ultimate goal of making people closer, more connected and engaged. Bring the scale back to us.

That’s why the collaborative economy is not about sharing goods, but rather about sharing values, ideas, power and solutions for a more sustainable future. The difference is that in the peripheral nations we experience these problems in our everyday life. There is no outsourcing, no masking, no sweeping under the carpet.

Here, these collaborative ideas are inseparable from the ideas of social equality, ecologic responsibility and positive impact. The “sharing economy start-ups” are created by social entrepeneurs. They are born with a deeply meaningful purpose, not just a good business opportunity. Shared value and social business are a common language among these innovators.

A means of survival

The idea of online platforms helping people to connect and share is a wonderful development. I truly believe it’s leading the world into a better future. It is a revolution for many of us, but mainly for those who always had access to many kinds of resources.

In all slums – or favelas – the culture of sharing is rooted in everyday life. When you don’t have much, your biggest resource might be the network of people around you. For these communities, collaboration is not a choice, it is a means of survival – maybe even the only possible means other than violence. Many of the concepts we are discussing and prototyping have been at work in these places for decades, simply out of necessity.

In Brazil, we have a huge wave of people looking for purpose and transitioning to work in the collaborative economy. We have experienced a lot, in a constant search for a better balance in our job, mission, passion and personal life. The maker movement, organic food, local markets, fair trade, sustainable growth, non-hierarchical systems, civic engagement, activism, new educational models, urban occupation and social inclusion are all parts of our network of entrepreneurs.

The shared spaces – especially what we call collaborative houses – are a major part of it. There are dozens of different models for collaboration, varying from the most professional service to an open house where anyone can have the door key. These spaces allow for the formation of interdependent networks that can transcend the physical space and become a deeply connected group that supports one another.

Another big experiment is exploring the root of the client-provider relationship. Many projects choose radical transparency, make their accounts public and let the customer choose how much to pay. We are experimenting with crowdfunding platforms and giving consumers the chance to become part of businesses via small monthly financial contributions.

The real challenge is changing the ways of learning, producing, financing and consuming to more direct, impact-driven, sustainably planned frameworks. For us here, it’s clear the collaborative economy is not just an efficient tool or a market opportunity, but a paradigm shift that will allow us to build a better and fairer future for everybody. And we’ll do it together.

Have you read?
Why didn’t a cab driver think of Uber?
Why your assets are safer in a sharing economy
The next big thing in the collaborative economy

Author: Teo Benjamin is Project Manager at Benfeitoria, Brazil, and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.

Image: A man places his hand on a giant globe REUTERS/Kacper Pempel