Innovation, Sustainable Consumption and 'The Mesh'

I've just glimpsed a world in which the elusive notion of "sustainable consumption" is both possible and profitable. It's a world where products are built to last, shared among both friends and strangers, made more affordable to all, support local communities, and are recycled back into more useful stuff. Best of all, it's a world that's already here, and is growing and thriving.

You may be wondering what I've been smoking. The better question is what I've been reading.

The answer: an engaging and inspiring new book called The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing.

The book, published this month, is by my friend and mentor Lisa Gansky, a self-described "marketect" who's a master at spotting and capitalizing on consumer trends. Gansky is behind a succession of breakout companies, starting in the 1990s with GNN, the first commercial website, which sold to AOL, and more recently Ofoto, the photo-sharing company, sold to Kodak. In between, Gansky has worked with the founders of Yahoo!, AOL, Google, PayPal, and Mozilla, among others. (I last wrote about Gansky four years ago, about the ecotourism nonprofit she co-founded that is transforming lives in Chile.)

Her new book zeroes in on an emerging market transformation, a revolution taking place that even its participants don't yet see. Mesh businesses, says Gansky, are those that offer something that can be shared within a community, market, or value chain, including products, services, and raw materials. They harness advanced Web and mobile data networks to track goods and aggregate usage, customer, and product information. Because they focus on shareable physical goods, including the materials used, they make local delivery of services and products -- and their recovery -- valuable and relevant. And their offers, news, and recommendations are transmitted largely through word of mouth, augmented by social network services.

Why call this new wave of businesses "The Mesh"? In her book, Gansky explains:

A Mesh describes a type of network that allows any node to link in any direction with any other nodes in the system. Every part is connected to every other part, and they move in tandem. ... Mesh businesses are knotted to each other, and to the world, in myriad ways. Some connections are formed directly, such as an agreement among companies to identify a market and make coordinated offers. ... Other connections are formed indirectly through third parties, such as aggregated consumer data or via customers' social networks.

Mesh businesses exist thanks to hundreds of billions of dollars in available information infrastructure -- telecommunications, mobile technology, enhanced data collection, large and growing social networks, mobile SMS aggregators, and of course the Web itself. They efficiently employ horizontal B-to-B services, such as FedEx, UPS, Amazon Web Services, PayPal, and an ever-increasing number of cloud computing services.

Zipcar and other car-sharing services are the prototypical Mesh businesses. As Gansky points out, they don't make, sell, or repair cars; they share them. That turns a pricey asset, a vehicle, that might otherwise sit idle 95 percent of the day, into a highly leveraged service delivery system, made possible by members connected through smart phones and websites to an ever-growing network of vehicles. In some respects, it's not unlike the "load management" airlines use to keep their flights full and profitable.

"It takes the friction, the pain, and the annoyance out of needing to do a carshare or a ride share or find some product or service that I'm in need of as I stand at some street corner in some city," Gansky explained to me recently. One result: people abandon their second -- and sometimes their first -- cars in favor of car sharing.

But it's not just cars. Mesh businesses are sprouting across a wide range of sectors: homes, fashion, energy cooperatives, office space, music studios, tool libraries, food and wine coops, and many more. Gansky has cataloged hundreds of Mesh organizations -- both for-profit and nonprofit -- on her website, from tiny cooperatives to Netflix, a billion-dollar share platform that transformed the video and film distribution industry.