GLC ’14: Don’t Bogart that Sh*t, Dude! Trends in the Sharing Economy

(l-r) Chase, Simonton, Gorenflo, Fenton
(l-r) Chase, Simonton, Gorenflo, Fenton

 

The off-playa world is starting to look a lot like Burning Man, and not always in good ways. Converging economic and environmental pressures are making it harder to get by. But at the same time, more resilient social structures are cropping up to counteract those forces. Out of necessity, we’re starting to share more. That’s a Burnerly principle, but businesses are starting to catch on. Skill sharing, crowd funding, ride sharing, barter systems, all those things are taking off in today’s economy, and Burners couldn’t be better positioned to help and participate.

Will Chase moderates
Will Chase moderates

 

This was the topic of a Saturday afternoon GLC panel populated by Will Chase, Burning Man propaganda minister; Casey Fenton, founder of Couchsurfing.com; Neal Gorenflo, co-founder of Shareable.net; and Patty Simonton, North American Catalyst and Venture Support Lead at StartSomeGood. (All of these people, like all people, are also more things than fit in their job titles.)

Casey Fenton’s motivations for starting Couchsurfing were as much philosophical as financial. Yes, one goal was to reduce the cost of traveling by making it easier to crash with friendly people while away from home. But another was to understand how people are living, to see if there were any ways that real financial need could also serve a human social need for community. Lo and behold, it could. Casey quickly found that a key feature of a system to facilitate sharing was giving people the ability to share who they are and their philosophy. That’s how you match people with kindred spirits with whom they’d love to share. The goal is to establish trust. The more trust people have, the more they can share.

Patty Simonton’s organization, StartSomeGood, is a crowd funding site designed for change-making ideas. So it’s not for personal projects, it’s for projects whose goals are to do some good. A key insight she’s had about crowd funding is that it’s a way to build community, not just raise money. Because of the way crowd funding campaigns draw people into the story, their donations are more than charity; they’re buy-in. They want to see the project through. It’s a way for them to take part in changing the world, and that makes all the participants part of a team.

 

Patty Simonton & Neal Gorenflo
Patty Simonton & Neal Gorenflo

 

Neal Gorenflo identified as a “corporate refugee.” “I wasn’t willing to compromise on having a full life,” he said. And the values of sharing, which he saw exemplified at his first Burn in 2004, gave him the hint. “Sharing is a way to connect with and unlock our creative potential,” Neal said. By the time he got around to creating Shareable around 2008, he found that “we really didn’t need to start a sharing movement. There was all kinds of sharing going on.” They just needed to raise awareness of that and connect people to it. That is pretty much how the Burning Man Project understands its role, too.

But while Burning Man has opened participants’ minds to these values, Neal points out that we don’t need to worry about proselytizing them to other people. Sharing is just the right way to live, and people are figuring it out. “You have it a little backwards. You want to take your values out in to the world? I would say, man, the world is coming to you.” We just have to use the strong network we have as Burners to push this shift along.

 

Some people in the audience were skeptical, having bumped into seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their communities to instituting the kinds of shared programs and services the panelists discussed. In response the panelists suggested persistence, patience, and ingenuity. It might not seem like this new world can be built yet, since it’s sometimes easier for the powers that be to say “no” instead of figuring out how to innovate.

But Burners are good at figuring out how to do impossible things. The more we hammer away at this, the more the power structure will bend to it. After all, humans built that power structure, too. Our dominant idea of what human individuals are and are capable of has been around for a while. Hopefully the new needs and capabilities of this new, Internet-connected era will give our notion of humanity — and human relationships and communities along with it — a much-needed update.

 

Will went down the list of the 10 Principles and showed how pretty much all of them are reflected in the sharing economy. It’s part of a global trend toward urbanization, as Neal pointed out. Now that the majority of people on Earth live in cities, the dynamics of human populations are trending towards those we find in Black Rock City and want to emulate around the world.

You can follow the ongoing coverage of GLC here on the Burning Blog and on Twitter using the hashtag #bmglc14.

About the author: Jon Mitchell

I'm the managing editor at Burning Man. I wrote this book and this record. I co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012, which lives at templestories.com. I've been a Burner since 2008.

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