Skip to main content

What materials and procurement can learn from the sharing economy

By focusing attention on the desired result instead of the tool, companies can reduce waste and spend less on equipment purchases.

In 2011, Time identified the sharing economy as one of its “10 Ideas That Will Change the World.” It is based on the idea of pooling underused assets — cars, homes, skills, DVDs or even money. Many prominent purveyors got their start during the financial crisis between 2008 and 2010, pushing the idea that access trumps ownership and using technology to facilitate peer-to-peer connections.

Now, in 2015, we have the circular economy and the push for wholesale changes in the way we use everything. This is not the end of the sharing economy. Quite the contrary: As the sharing economy continues to play out in communities, technology and businesses, it’s providing critical insights into a better path forward.

A new way of thinking: I need a hole, not a drill

One thing the sharing economy can teach us is that we don’t all need our own “stuff,” especially if we only use that stuff occasionally. Like the power drill in my garage that I have used twice over the last 16 months. In Portland, Ore., the North Portland Tool Library is trying to help folks like me. There, it is taking the model of the library and applying it to those tools you don’t necessarily use frequently or that simply don’t make sense for you to own. So instead, it created a neighborhood library of items like drills, circular saws, ladders and other tools that might be needed seasonally or for a project.

That new way of thinking is at the heart of the circular economy, too: reimagine ownership in order to get the most out of our resources.

Technology is leading the way

Without question, the advances of technology are driving the sharing revolution — and that’s a lesson that can be applied to the circular economy, too.

In the sharing economy, technology has enabled those with known “idle capacity” (of their cars, their homes, even their professional expertise) to sell that spare capacity. Try to imagine Airbnb or Uber without the underlying technological platforms. Tracking and sharing the underused assets such as homes and cars would not be possible.

This dynamic greatly expands as you layer in elements of the Internet of Things. In the sharing economy, GPS, cellular technology and radio-frequency identifications (RFIDs) will allow for greater tracking and management of assets. Think of a SmartGarage that tracks when a car has been returned, monitors the car’s maintenance and schedules a needed tuneup before it gets redeployed. Now imagine if that same machine-to-machine communication can alert the repair shop about what the car needs and begin printing a replacement part via a 3-D printer.

As technology improves, it is opening new doors to other means of sharing resources and creating value.

Sharing meets circular: U.S. BCSD’s Materials Marketplace

The U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development is pioneering a new tool called the Materials Marketplace that works like an online “swap meet” for businesses. Participants can post materials that are available or desired, identify reuse opportunities and exchange any underused or unwanted materials.

By changing the very idea of what waste is — encouraging all materials with value to be used — projects such as this yield both environmental and economic results. The goal is to have 20 cities with active marketplaces by the end of 2015, keeping 5 million tons of materials out of landfills and creating 2,500 new jobs.

The Materials Marketplace project and ones like it are borrowing from the technologies and concepts that drive the sharing economy and using them to close recycling loops — getting more value from materials and erasing some of the linear elements of the existing economic model.

This article originally appeared at Dell's Tech Page One.

More on this topic

More by This Author