Designing for Collaborative Consumption

TEDxKreuzbeg by Igor Schwarzmann / CC BY-SA

Last night I had the honor of speaking at TEDxKreuzberg, which was a lot fun and the perfect opportunity to polish up some ideas and practice pontificating in front of a crowd. My talk was about Designing for Collaborative Consumption, and it was inspiring to hear such positive feedback to the design challenges and concepts in general. You can find the text of my talk below.

Thanks so much to the organizers Peter, Christoph, and Hans, and to the host, betahaus, for such a lovely evening!

Designing for Collaborative Consumption.

Firstly, I’m a remix kid. I come from the generation of sampling. So the talk you’re going to hear is a remix of arguments made by lots of great and interesting people, notably Aristotle, the Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, Lawrence Lessig, Sean Bonner, Fight Club, Bruce Sterling, and the authors of a book that helped bring these ideas together, Collaborative Consumption.

I hope to remix these thinkers to provide some context and examples and then push the concepts further by offering some design challenges.


The 20th century was the era of hyper-consumerism. I won’t be the first nor last person to say we’re still in deep in extreme consumption and overproduction. You know the stats: basically, the world is ending, and we, the insatiable consumers of the world, are at fault.

We want things, we buy things, we throw away things. And what’s worse, this endless cycle pitched at “good for the economy.” It’s our duty to BUY BUY BUY.

If you have to buy things all the time, then there are traditionally two types of solutions for what to do with all the junk you collect. You either dispose of it – by selling or throwing it away – or you store it.

Designing for the Dump:

The first solution, disposal, is very attractive to business folks. It’s a very lucrative. It means that you will buy an inferior product one day, turn around to throw it away the next, and then buy a new thing, preferably the upgrade from the same company. (cough, Apple!)

The name for this unsustainable design principle is planned obsolescence. Objects designed for a limited lifetime. And unfortunately, it’s the most predominate business strategy of our time.

We can see the remains of this throw-away culture in the paper coffee cups we drink from every day, to the shitty IKEA furniture that falls apart one year later, to the smartphones we replace faster than we can remember their names.

Designing for the dump means an overflow of junk in our homes, on the streets and landfills the world over.

Rise of the Self-Storage Industry:

So, maybe you’re a little more sensitive about throwing away good stuff the day after you unwrapped it. You want to keep it for a rainy day, or for the memories, or in the hopes that one day you’ll repair it and you’ll be so grateful you have it.

Enter the self-storage industry. It’s booming profits off the charts. Not only in the hyperconsumption nation of the US, but also in a country I always thought was more thrifty and consumption-conscious: Germany.

If self-storage is any measurement of junk we own and don’t need, then what does it mean that within 10 years, Germany went from having 0 self storage facilities to 70? In Europe, it went from a handful in the UK to well over 1500 across the continent.

We’re buying more stuff. So much so, we can’t even manage to keep it all in our homes, and have to pay a premium rent to store it elsewhere.

No matter where our stuff is, we still have to exert a lot of energy and euros to just maintain our collection of must-haves objects. As Bruce Sterling says, every moment devoted to stumbling over and tending to your piled debris are precious hours in our mortal lives, and time not spent with family, friends, your society, yourself.

Fight Club: The things you own end up owning you.

With so much effort invested in junk, you have to ask yourself: who is being owned by whom?

So, with all this doom and gloom, is there any reasonable way to take action? And even if a few dedicated, environmentally-aware kids take a stab at changing this horrible scene, can we even make a difference?

There is one clear advantage we have, in our generation: the power of the network.

We can be leverage our networks. Unlike any generation that came before, we can better provide and share infrastructure thanks to network technology. We can buy, build, and collaborate locally and efficiently. We can shop smarter, share better, and use our networks, both online and off, to reduce waste, improve the economy and environment, spare our bank accounts, and even have a good time and make new friends doing it.

That’s collaborative consumption, and I want to talk about its wonderful opportunities.

So, I’ve said a lot of scary and depressing stuff. But there is good news. Values are shifting.

Think about this co-working space, betahaus. You can rent a desk and share office infrastructure together with fellow digital nomads. No one, besides the people who actually the run the space, have to own any of the equipment, and even they can lease or rent it from other companies.

Let’s take an example of an office printer for a betahaus resident. Maybe once in a great while you actually need to print something. Do you really want to own a dedicated device for printing stuff? I mean, you have to refill it, repair it, and lug it around whenever you move, and one day, dispose of it.

A huge advantage with a place like betahaus is that they make it easy and attractive to share these resources, and by doing so, they make it more efficient (and let’s be honest, more fun and social) for all of the people working here.

Let’s think for a second about other types of resources. Who needs to own a moving van? Not many folks. That’s why services like Robben & Wientjes, the moving truck rental company in Berlin, are successful. The same holds true for platforms like the US-based Zipcar, a car sharing service. Or airbnb and Couchsurfing. Or even the Bahn bikes, Mitfahrgelegenheit, and stuff-sharing sites like NeighborGoods.

All of the many, many sites out there now make it easy to offer, find, and share goods and services: flexibly, agilely, and socially.

Here’s another example: the common household drill. How many of you own a drill? Can you even remember the last time you used it? Did you know that on average, a household drill is used a total of 5-10min its entire lifetime? That gives you what, like 20 holes max? Is that really an efficient object to purchase, maintain, and care for?

What if instead of all that time it spent idling on the shelf, it could be generating value, either by renting it out for cash or just helping out a neighbor?

Products like household drills, or moving vans, or a bike in a city you’re visiting aren’t necessarily desirable to own. Instead, isn’t it just better to accessing them? Aren’t the rights to use and access something more important than owning it?

I think this is a mantra for our times:
On the whole, you find wealth much more in use than in ownership.

You know who said that? Aristotle. A Greek philosophy who wrote that more than 2000 years ago.

Actually, the stuff I’ve been saying about sharing drills and expensive machinery and even lodging won’t have sounded foreign or even futuristic for many of the generations that came before us.

Practices like barn raising or the rise of cooperative individualism from the Great Depression are just a few examples.

The values of sharing resources goes back a long way.

What I’m talking about isn’t new, but I’ll argue that nowadays, thanks to networks, we can do it even better. And there are business strategies and creative opportunities to be had in modern collaborative consumption in addition to sharing economy.

Characteristics of Shared Objects:

So, can we distill any important characteristics of Collaborative Consumption? What are the rules of the game? Here’s a start.

Critical Mass
Firstly, you need enough goods or services on offer to make the platform attractive enough for users. Supply draws more demand. Couchsurfing isn’t going to work with two couches on offer.

Idling Capacity
This is about spare cycles. All the unused, material surplus that bolsters collaborative consumption. And it not just about products that sit unused on storage shelves, but also untapped skills, times, spaces. These resources have to be available, like in the drill example, and sharable.

Commons Governance
For these platforms to work, you need appropriate mechanisms for collaboration within legal, social and technical frameworks. There are great tools for this, and definitely the potential to develop more. Conflict resolution has to be cheap and easy, and resource providers need ways to participate in the decision-making process.

This is one of the most important pillars of collaborative consumption. Without trust, you don’t have continued and meaningful participation and growth. Trust has to be cultivated and facilitated. It’s not just available instantly, but grows organically through the service and positive experiences. Clearly defined boundaries of who’s participating and a way to key at bay trolls, spammers, and frauds, and other elements that harm the community. This requires effective monitoring and reputation management, plus graduated sanctions for people who violate community rules.

Design Challenges:

Building upon these principles and characteristics, I want to offer you a few design challenges.

Create open layers
Think about interoperability across key components. How can you use open standards to enable remix, modification, and improvements across products? How can open layers be applied to motors, power cords, outlets, connectors, joints, nibs for maximal customization and range of use?

Build modularity
Relatedly, shared objects should be easy to repair and amend. You shouldn’t have to throw away your entire phone because it’s scratched. Building modularity means fostering generativity.

Value added through usage
I think this is one of the most powerful design challenges. Think about an object that doesn’t depreciate with use, but is instead improved by it. One example is a baseball mitt. When you first buy it, it’s very stiff and hard to catch a ball with. Over time, with use, it becomes more flexible and a better product.

That’s just on the physical layer. What about value added on a data layer? Think about how objects can learn from behaviors the more they’re used. Like by collecting more data points. Or where the user contributes metadata, like marginalia, reviews, and fact checking for books.

Personalize shared objects
Are you familiar with these phones that hold multiple SIM cards? Those are really common in places like Africa where one device is used by multiple people. But each person inserts their own SIM card and all their address books and personal settings are ready for them. The personalization follows the user, not the device. Can we apply this to other devices and services? Cars, printers, refrigerator, coffee machines, or even drills?

Diversify Libraries
Libraries are not just for books. Think about other ways to pool resources, be it for commercial or community aims. You could have tool libraries, or ones for electronics, cooking appliances, moving boxes/materials, jewelry and accessories, holiday decorations, toys, you name it.

There is lots of potential. There are many business opportunities, as well as many challenges for creative and adventuresome people.

Let’s break the mold.

Don’t design for the dump. Don’t design for 20th century hyperconsumption. Design for things to last, to be shared, and to be part of the future, a future of collaborative consumption.

Comments (9)

  1. Great info Michelle! We have shared this post on Twitter using #CollCons

    Can’t wait to hear what follow-up ideas emerge from your talk. Please keep in touch via #collcons.

    CollCons Team

  2. Pingback: Putting people first » Designing for collaborative consumption

  3. Hi Michelle,

    Your talk and post have raised some really interesting moral questions for me. I thought I’d share because it is important debate to have.

    So when I published WHAT’S MINE IS YOURS: THE RISE OF COLLABORATIVE CONSUMPTION I decided to fight and get the info-graphics and IP under a creative commons license. I wanted to start a movement, for the ideas to spread, for folks like your to pick them up and build on them. And I won!

    The issue most traditional publishers have is not that they don’t want to see ideas spread but that in the blogosphere ideas get misrepresented and don’t halo back to the authors or the book despite the presenters or bloggers good intentions.

    As you know, the principles you cite above, the examples, even the lines from Fight Club and Aristotle come from either the book, my articles or speeches. And you have tried to attribute them so. Thank you!

    But what do we do when these things start getting re-posted and the connection to the source is lost? When people think the ideas on WIRED, and the infographics, the brand colors the bullet points and the principles and points you state are your original thinking.

    Its’ a problem right? Because then the publishers can turn around and say “see, this is why we don’t like content under a commons license.” They can point to repostings such as Wired and say there isn’t even a link back to Speaking agents can rightfully say “people are taking your content.” Now I believe wealth is created through abundance and take a different view but I have to say even I get a twinge watching the tweets around your talk and people not realizing how much thought and years spent not earning a penny I had to invest in making the ideas graphics and ideas so simple that they could be repurposed.

    What’s happening around the spread around Collaborative Consumption and people openly rifting on the ideas is exactly what I wanted to happen.

    I raise this because I think it’s an important challenge to get right to encourage more authors and thought leaders to put their work under a commons license yet to ensure things don’t get misrepresented..

    What are your thoughts?


  4. p.s Just to be clear I am huge advocate of creative commons and for ideas spreading. It is not about credit – my intent of raising the above was to try to help solve some of the problems authors have and to figure out solutions….

  5. Dear Rachel,

    Thanks so much for leaving such a thoughtful comment. It’s a honor to talk with you directly, as the author of the book that indeed crystallized many ideas presented here. When I was preparing the talk, I was thrilled to see that your site offered “Spreadables” under a CC BY-NC-SA license so that people could do exactly what I did: reuse and build on the material to illustrate further points and continue the debate, all while attributing the author and following the conditions of the license.

    I complied with the license in the Acknowledgements section of my presentation and licensed the derivative work under CC BY-NC-SA as well. And since I borrowed terms from your book so prominently, I also made note of it in my first slide (not required by the CC license, but I thought it was fair and right), plus in the opening paragraph of my talk.

    I deeply believe in giving attribution and acknowledging sources. That’s why you’ll see mention not only of your book, but many other people that inspired me throughout this post and elsewhere on this blog. Heck, that was the first thing I said in my talk!

    I respect all the photographers who’s images I used (and attributed), and also thinkers like Bruce Sterling, Elinor Ostrom, and Sean Bonner, who’s writings about Viridian Green, commons governance, and technomads/Cult of Less respectively have been a great influence on me. (The Fight Club line I picked up from Sean Bonner’s Ignite talk about Technomads). What’s more, I also have been thinking about “couchsurfing for tools” and similar services almost exactly years ago!

    It was truly a marvelous surprise to see a posting in WIRED about the talk. I agree it was not ideal they didn’t mention your book, as I think your writing really helped distill the term collaborative consumption and describe its current manifestation. However, WIRED doesn’t have the legal obligation to cite the book, nor even me, in their post. They are quoting under fair use, which allows them to take a modest amount of a work and quote it for purposes of commentary. They don’t need a CC license to do this. That’s granted to everyone by default, even under all-right-reserved copyright.

    So to the question of encouraging publishers to embrace CC: it’s hard, I know. I’ve spent a lot of time writing up case studies for Creative Commons exploring these very points. But It’s a great thing when authors like you take a stand and encourage their readers not just to consume but to engage in a dialog. That’s why, it seems, you made the Spreadables. And why, I hope, you wrote the book!

    If it wasn’t to get people talking about your ideas and arguments, then why publish? If it’s about traffic and conversation, doesn’t every mention of Collaborative Consumption increase the value of your book? Even without a direct link, your domain rules the phrase and Google ranks your book (according to the search I just did) the highest, even above Wikipedia, which is very rare. Plus, the next hit I see in the results *is* from Bruce Sterling, but it’s the one about your book posted in August 2010.

    In other words: I guess it matters what you want to achieve with your book. Did you write it to start a global conversation and change people’s perspective? If so, you’re doing well! Keep it up. If, however, you wrote it so that you could claim the top rank in Google and co-brand every mention of the term “collaborative consumption”, then that’s your right, but I think it would be a pity and a real missed opportunity. Especially in light of the subject-matter of the book, i.e. about sharing and working together for a better future, it would be a shame to let people that care about what you say feel censored or hesitant to continuing writing about the topic.

    As mentioned, I feel I fulfilled my legal and moral responsibility to give credit where credit is due. I understand where publishers and authors may not wish to use Creative Commons or have questions about it fitting their needs. That’s fine. That’s a voluntary license system. But I say if anyone is interested in real impact, then CC and sharing are the way to go. There may be some missteps and imperfect attribution along the way, but on the whole, people will know where good ideas come from. Even Aristotle still gets his credit more than 2000 years later. ^_^

    • Dear Michelle,

      I raised the question not our of concern for credit or linkage back to the book (or Google rankings!) I don’t know if you noticed but I also got the publishers to put in a library card to encourage the books to be passed on. Without a doubt, I wrote the book and have dedicated myself to building a global movement for the ideas to spread. I want to encourage debate and for people to build on the ideas. My point for writing to you is I am genuinely interested from someone who believes in remix culture where you think the line lies. Its an important conversation to have….

      Please be honest here, what new content/thinking do you think you added to the speech? Does this even matter? These are genuine questions not negative accusations!

      Graphics aside (I love seeing people use these in a wild array of contexts), if I took say the four key principles of Crowdsourcing and stated them as is (as you have done with idling capacity, critical mass etc) and use those as content for a talk is that remixing or duplication? If I wrote them in an article and credited Jeff Howe but then one blog removed the attribution got lost, is that okay? If I started to use the same cultural references in speeches as say Clay Shirky is that original or copycat?

      The thing is when people such as myself who genuinely believe in an open commons raise these questions the response I get back is a little defensive and to question my intent for raising the debate (as you did above) and to take it back to the conversation around credit. And that is not the conversation we should be having….

      I understand that authors are hesitant to put their work under a commons license because they have genuine concerns around how they can make money from IP that can be easily duplicated. Its the one blog removed problems Creative Commons needs to help solve.

      Does this make sense?

  6. Rad post Michelle!

    Below is another Tyler Durden quote that’s close to my heart. For me, it means that what you build yourself or with your community to be shared doesn’t have to be perfect or polished or even finished.

    That’s the starting point. The quote and ideas it evokes takes me here: Leave space for the users to improvise, make a contribution however trivial or whimsical. And the thing made should reflect the personality of the community that made it and have a persistent yet evolving and alive story attached, a story that grows with use, modification, and as it changes hands. In this way, objects connect us instead of separating us by symbolizing status. These are things that evolve and let us evolve.

    So yes, build durable things for shared used and long life, but also value what is improvised in the moment that can be built upon. So here’s the choice quote:

    “Fuck off with your sofa units and string green stripe patterns, I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let… lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may.” -Tyler Durden

  7. Just passing though and I believe I see the O’ Reilly affect….

    Rachel, Do you intend to register ‘collaborative consumption’ as a service mark (just as O’ Reilly did with Web 2.0).. so that any live events, trade shows, expositions, business conferences or blogs need to attribute you and your book?

    The term ‘collaborative consumption’ has been around alot longer than your book –

    Marcus Felson and Joe L. Spaeth, “Community Structure and Collaborative Consumption,” American Behavioral Scientist 21 (March-April 1978): 618. 27.

    .. authors who were already talking about car sharing back in 1978. Your ideas are not new, and simply relating them to new start up’s doesn’t make them new. The literature on sharing and reciprocity, as noted by Price (1975) has probably been the most basic form of economic distribution in hominid societies for several hundred thousand years.

    Collaborative Consumption is not a brand!

  8. We agree 100% with these principles and that’s why we recently launched

    This websiite/facebook applications enables you to share items between your facebook friends.

    As you mention access is more improtant than ownership and collaborative consumption heavily relies on trust. is different from other sharing websites because it uses your list of friends on Facebook. And you can also select who within your friends you want to share your items with. Hence you end up sharing your items with people you trust.

    It’s worth giving it a go. Try it on and happy sharing

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