The Sharing Movement in its Maturity – towards a ‘Disruptive Normality’

All successful innovations move from a heroic, disruptive beginning to a phase of maturity, where they become the new normal. An evolution that proved true for both last century’s technological innovations as well as more recent social ones, this trajectory also applies to the multiple innovative ideas and practices I call the sharing movement*.

During this journey in which the innovations mature, the initial ideas and practices may follow different trajectories: they can maintain, lose, or entirely betray the motivations and qualities that initially characterized them. As expressed metaphorically in the title of the Ouisharefest 2016: After the gold rush, this evolution is also reflected in the sharing movement today, where sharing ideas and practices are evolving in different directions and the core question seems to be “what’s next?”

While some of these initiatives have been integrated into the existing system in ways that diverged from their original concepts, others managed to maintain and regenerate their original values. It is this second, and highly promising thread, which indicates the viability of a disruptive normality.

They are disruptive on one hand because they change the state of things locally. However, by sending out the message that this kind of change is possible, such local initiatives can also have a global impact. Despite that they may stand in contrast to ideas and practices still dominant in the wider systems, they can be considered ‘normal’ since, in their local context, they are adopted by a large number of people in their new everyday life.

My presentation at the OuiShareFest 2016 therefore asked: how can the sharing movement evolve towards a disruptive normality?

To answer this question we must first clarify that ‘sharing’ here must be understood in the larger sense as collaborating. ‘Sharing’ is not limited to the various shared uses of products and services, but also involves the production of relational goods such as trust, friendliness, empathy, mutual attention and care. These elements, on one hand a pre-condition for successful collaboration, are on the other hand also a product that is re-produced and amplified through sharing activities.

Given this, I propose three main developments that describe the sharing movement’s evolution:

  • At their origin, sharing ideas and practices were collaborative and capable to produce relational goods.
  • In their evolution, they followed different paths: while some of them lost their collaborative dimension and capability to produce relational goods, others maintained them, finding more mature and accessible forms of collaboration.
  • These new forms of collaboration, and the relational goods they generate, stand in contrast with the current mainstream ways of thinking and doing. Their existence can therefore be considered a concrete expression of disruptive normality.

The success of the sharing movement’s evolution can be measured by the extent to which the resulting organizations are collaborative and produce relational goods. Where this is not the case, we can conclude that during the process of maturing, the original ideas have been drawn into the ‘trap’ of the dominant culture that consists of economic neoliberalism, environmental unsustainably and social desertification.

On the contrary, if in their mature state they continue to produce relational goods, we can say that they participate in building a disruptive normality.

Therefore it is crucial to ‘normalize’ the collaborative component, meaning that it becomes accessible to larger numbers of people and durable over time, when considering the trajectory of an innovative idea. Although different points of view can be adopted and different scales can be chosen, a point of view that seems crucial to me is those of the people involved and the molecular scale of the collaborative encounters where they meet and interact.

Every collaborative organization is based on a specific network of encounters: interactions between individuals who freely decide if and how to do something together (as, for instance, to share products and services). The motivation that drives them and the conditions in which these encounters take place however change over time.

Following the innovation trajectory introduced before, we can observe how at the beginning these encounters happen between highly committed people who are capable and willing to overcome all sorts of difficulties. They then eventually spread to and become accessible to larger groups of people. These are generally speaking less committed to the cause than the initial ones and act within the framework a new kind of normality, previously defined as disruptive normality. To make this expansion possible, ideas and practices, as well as the social, cultural, technical, economic and institutional environment where they take place must co-evolve and become more favourable. In other words, a new ecosystem must emerge in which this disruptive normality may exist and thrive.

These enabling eco-systems are not natural entities. They result from a multiplicity of design activities at different scale and with different aims, but converging in one point: their intention to conceive and enhance accessible forms of collaboration as a strategy to produce, re-produce and amplify those relational goods that our fragile contemporary societies desperately need.

* Movement here standing for groups of people who, converging on similar ways of being and doing, make unprecedented possibilities visible and tangible

Guest post written by Ezio Manzini

EzioDESIS Network, University of the Arts, London, Politecnico di Milano