Interviews

"A year from now, Airbnb will have standardized its operations and brought them more into line with local regulations"

  Photo: Mayo Fuster

Photo: Mayo Fuster

30/10/2018
Germn Sierra
Mayo Fuster, researcher and co-organizer of the Sharing Cities Summit at the Smart City Expo World Congres

 

Between 12 and 15 November, Barcelona will host the Sharing Cities summit as part of the Smart City Expo World Congress. This meeting, the third to date, has become an international benchmark for cities to debate the collaborative economy. This year, the approximately 30 cities invited, including New York and Amsterdam, will discuss joint actions to confront one of the great challenges facing them: regulating the activity of big platforms such as Uber and Airbnb, and the policies for promoting collaborative models. Sharing Cities is jointly organized by the UOC and Barcelona City Council. We talk to Mayo Fuster, a researcher at IN3, where he leads the DIMMONS research group, an expert in the collaborative economy and joint promoter of the summit.

 

What is the collaborative economy and what is it not?

Let’s start with what it is not: when there is a process of collaborative production or consumption among groups of people through an online platform we have platform economy, which is not necessarily collaborative, two examples being Uber and Wikipedia. One of the models of this platform economy is the collaborative economy, which is characterized by predominantly peer-to-peer relations; in other words, for the most part, they are not contractual or professional relations. This is an environment where individuals offer and exchange their services and jointly create new resources, but there is no big company behind them centralizing power. In this respect, another element is participatory governance: rules of use are established democratically and users can change them. They encourage transparency, privacy and the reuse of knowledge with open data. Finally, collaborative economy platforms promote the sustainability of the environment where they operate.

So, nothing to do with some of the big companies that penetrated the market under the pretence of a collaborative economy.

Indeed. These companies look after their own profits, they are not transparent, they are not open code, their users can’t make decisions that change how they are governed, and they don’t take into account the sustainability of the places where they operate. The best examples are in the big property rental platform that has changed the housing market in Barcelona.

What obstacles are in the way of developing the collaborative economy: regulation, the struggle against big companies with a similar business, or the financial market?

I think the expansive power of the collaborative economy is more important than the obstacles facing its development. As a production model, and using digital technology, it has had disruptive impacts on many industries and will reach most sectors. That said, in terms of funding, a great deal of investment was diverted from the real estate sector to the field of less participatory platforms, such as Uber, following the global economic crisis, to the detriment of social economy platforms. This resulted in a lack of funding. Lack of regulation also affects the collaborative economy. There is very little clarity and it’s difficult to delimit clear fields of action in such a multifaceted economy.

In terms of funding, do many of the projects depend exclusively on the capital that can be raised by their promoters?

Yes. We have a very recent study at the UOC on the collaborative economy in Barcelona with a worrying example: 40% of companies had funded themselves privately because of lack of credit. Luckily, there are new outlets to resolve this, such as matchfunding, which is crowdfunding under the principle of joint responsibility; an administration such as Barcelona City Council offers applicant projects double or triple the figure they could have achieved on crowdfunding platforms such as Goteo.

Recently, taxi drivers went on strike in Barcelona to protest the number of licences granted to platforms like Uber and Cabify. Is Barcelona one of the leading cities in denouncing what is not a collaborative economy?

In many cities there are demonstrations against Uber or Cabify. Barcelona put itself on the map regarding this issue because an association of taxi drivers took the issue of licences to the European court claiming that drivers on these platforms should be regulated by the taxi/transport company and not as an online company. The court ruled in favour of this association and it was a victory for all of Europe. Barcelona is also a leader in the collaborative model. The European Commission issued a report on the ten most powerful continental experiences of this model and three are in Barcelona: Guifi.net, Toolkit and Goteo.

The law was in Glovo’s favour recently when it ruled that the contractual relationship it establishes with its workers is not false self-employment. Has our justice system become obsolete for such a sophisticated business model?

Absolutely, and not only in this field. In the case of Glovo you are referring to one ruling but there have been several and they contradict each other. I think in the end it will be taken to a European court to be resolved.

Sharing Cities is one of the five themes of the Smart City World Congress this year. What are your objectives?

The Sharing Cities summit will reach its third year and we can say it is the most important meeting between cities there is. 40 cities will attend, with the presence of 22 mayors or deputy mayors. The meeting is jointly organized by Barcelona City Council and the UOC. The main objective is to conclude a declaration by the cities with a set of 10 principles that cities promise to prioritize in the platform economy.

Do you think that the power of global digital companies is so strong today that cities have to approach their development with a shared regulatory strategy?

Absolutely. In fact, in the summit a work group will be organized to strengthen cooperation between cities with the objective of incorporating and prioritizing some standards in the negotiations with big platforms because they are beginning to have too much power. It is more complicated for Barcelona to go alone to negotiate with Airbnb than if it is accompanied by 35 cities. We are seeking this great collaboration to create a lobby. I must point out that the cities that come have governments of all kinds: rightwing, leftwing and liberal. They all agree that platforms are challenging the sovereignty of cities to prioritize their own model. This is not about attacking but establishing some rules of the game that will actually benefit them because the uncertainty they currently operate under in the market is no good for them either

How far away are we from this global collaboration between cities?

I think that within a year we will see platform requirements being standardized. Within a year, the way Airbnb operates throughout the world should be more standardized and have greater respect for local regulations, such as not publishing adverts for illegal accommodation. These platforms are very powerful and have many interests, but if cities reach an agreement their power will multiply. The level of interest in Sharing Cities is so great that we have had to close registration. There is a lot of interest in working on joint strategies.