Ownership

Recently, we seem to have been having a lot of conversations about Ownership (packing up 7 years of jointly accumulated stuff will have that effect on you), and discussing why it’s been so important to societies in the past, and what the repercussions are for the future.

Asserting a claim to assets, such as land, food, money, art, have all historically been external symbols of status and power, and the resulting financial wealth has consistently been the only real way for people to become active players in society, with the voices and influence to affect change. Why do large corporations have so much sway over big Government? Because they have so much money, land or other resources of course.  It’s nothing to do with the social contribution they make, or the quality of their ideas, products and services.

From an internal perspective, material possessions have also been the traditional standard for measuring self-worth and self-esteem, with the amount of things you own, or money you have in the bank, being the measure of how valuable you are as a person. For example, when people express interest in your salary, it’s often not about straightforward information gathering, it’s about figuring out social status and hierarchy.  (As an aside, the great people at Bundle are working hard to change this taboo, making money-talk objective and honest.)

Additionally, assets are frequently indicators of identity, letting other people know where you are from and what kind of person you are. How many iphones were first associated with Creatives, with Blackberries reserved for Corporate-types?

As a result, ownership has always been seen as a critical rite of passage, and a way of life that is at the heart of how most societies have functioned. Even among co-ops, or communes, where ideologically every member of the group may be philosophically equal, there is still a strong link between physical objects and power, and social hierarchies still form, based on who got what, and how much of it there is to go round.

However, things are beginning to change, with new trends emerging based around the ideas of sharing and reusing, new types of transactions and currency, as well as alternative understandings of “value”, “wealth” and “worth”.

Change derives from the increasing understanding that the pattern of accumulating personal assets is fundamentally unsustainable. The earth has finite resources, and there simply isn’t enough to continue to support the kind of industrial production that our current and predicted future levels of consumption demand.

As a result of this environmental awareness, our social awareness has also increased, and the idea of civic and global responsibility is no longer something consigned to the world of non-profits and public sector authorities, but is instead reflected in our everyday behaviors and personal values, where altruism is both recognized and admired. As a result, ownership is becoming less important, both because physical assets are worth less and less, and because they are increasingly hard to obtain, with price as well as emotions, such as uncertainty or guilt, becoming barriers to purchase. Every purchase decision is becoming more educated, and harder to justify.

The reality is that most of us only need stuff for very specific things. Naturally there are some things, such as having a consistent roof over your head, that are going to address more permanent needs, whereas the need for a hand blender to make a batch of soup, is considerably less frequent.  Nevertheless, the idea that you need the same stuff all the time, and/or need to accumulate wealth for wealth’s sake is false. Even longer term wealth accumulation, such as putting savings into a pension scheme, is actually about the need to be secure in old age, rather than the money itself.  To follow this example through, if there were re-imagined social services, community support, and a values system oriented to taking care of the elderly, then care need not, by necessity, derive from ownership.

What’s interesting to see happening today, is the number of people who are proactively choosing to share resources, and as a result experiencing the benefits of strong, altruistic communities, positive relationships with friends, family and strangers, and the realization that their needs are strikingly similar to the needs of others. As a result they perpetuate a positive cycle of finding new ways to meet them primarily through collaboration, group-ownership, and other kinds of cash-free transactions.

Cooperative ownership or social ownership is in fact nothing new, with the earliest formally organized co-ops dating back to the 1830s. However, what is different today is the notion that it might no longer be desirable to own something, let alone own it and then not use it. The types of people who are opting into what Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers called Collaborative Consumption, are not people who have been alienated economically by mainstream society.  Instead, they are highly educated, cosmopolitan and entrepreneurial. They simply are no longer aligned to the traditional capitalist values system, and recognize success and prosperity according to radically different criteria.

They are also often Global Lifestylers. People who are reconsidering ownership both because it’s impractical to transfer all of your assets around the world, and also because the value and usage of them is so uncertain when you are constantly moving between currencies, taxation systems and cultures. As such, Global Lifestylers are challenged by how to find access to what they need; from accommodation through transportation, insurance and financial services. Owning the rights to these things in one specific location is unsatisfactory when you live from two or more. Alternative systems of cooperative ownership, peer-to-peer lending and time/usage-based services are therefore considerably more attractive both on practical and ideological levels.

As a result, we’re looking to challenge the old model of ownership, and arrive at alternative solutions, which ensure that our needs as individuals are met, prevent us from becoming slaves to our stuff, and do not require that our lifestyles be negatively compromised. We don’t want to continue defining ourselves according to our assets and the relentless pursuit of more, instead we want to be resourceful, innovative, and flexible, engaging with as many people as possible, and with as few restrictions as we can manage.

At the moment, we’re particularly interested in the accommodation/property piece of the puzzle, as a home is frequently people’s most prominent and valuable asset. We’re looking for ideas that build on things like the Adopt a Hacker project in New York, the Creators Inn in Sweden, or the Lost & Found experiment in Melbourne, where accommodation can directly impact the networking, business and co-working opportunities, as well as providing considerable access to local information.

To add your voice to this discussion, please drop us a note.