Alex Stephany on Taiwan and the sharing economy

In the last few years, we have witnessed the disruption of several major industries. Now, when we go on holiday, we no longer have to look for a hotel; we can Airbnb. When we go across town, we don’t have to wait for a taxi; we can Uber. Times are changing and they’re changing fast. Spurred by the proliferation of new technologies, the “sharing economy,” as the phenomenon behind these changes is known, has ushered in a new era of efficiency and micro-entrepreneurship. And it is here to stay.

This was the message that sharing economy expert, author of “The Business of Sharing” and entrepreneur Alex Stephany delivered at the Rakuten Future Forum Taiwan on May 27 – and he spoke optimistically of Taiwan’s potential to join the movement, too.

Taipei (iStock)
Vibrant retail and commercial scene in Taipei

According to Stephany, “The sharing economy is the value in taking underutilized assets and making them accessible online to a community, leading to a reduced need for ownership of those assets.”

Like many others, he believes we are surrounded by underutilized assets, from our homes to our cars, and if those assets can be utilized through sharing, then more efficiency will be generated.

Stephany cited reports suggesting that in major cities more than 30% of traffic is the result of drivers searching for parking. In response to this situation, JustPark, the UK company Stephany led until 2015, began offering a quick and easy solution: a shared parking service. By sharing resources, Stephany explains, efficiency can be maximized and a better experience can be provided for everyone.

Services like Airbnb and Uber also encourage what Stephany calls “micro-entrepreneurship.” Individuals can rent out what they aren’t using and make a side income. They can leverage what they already own and avoid the risk of starting a new business while getting a taste for entrepreneurship.

As more people in Taiwan open up to the idea of starting mini-businesses, the more momentum the sharing economy will generate, Stephany explains. Feeding what is called the “network effect,” each individual that enters into the sharing economy increases its overall strength. The power of the sharing economy approach lies in the scale of its marketplace – and not in physical assets. This represents a radical shift in mindset from the traditional approach to business.

Alex Stephany addresses the audience at the Rakuten Future Forum Taiwan.
Alex Stephany addresses the audience at the Rakuten Future Forum Taiwan.

Taiwan, like many Asian countries, may still be in the formative stages of this new economic model. It’s likely that some people are worried whether the ease of sharing assets or starting a mini-business might result in market oversaturation, or the diffusion of legal responsibility. If conventional business entities aren’t in charge anymore, will individuals renting out their own homes or cars be sufficiently accountable? Will users?

Stephany believes they will. People “behave differently” when dealing with another individual, he says. Just think about renting a car. If you were to rent a car directly from an individual, you would feel a greater obligation to care for that car than you would if you had simply rented it from a faceless corporation. This idea is at the heart of the sharing economy. It is founded on creating connections between people.

And, of course, those connections are just as valid in Asia as they are in the United States, where Airbnb, Uber first emerged. It is surely just a matter of time, Stephany and others argue, before the consumers and entrepreneurs of Taiwan and the rest of Asia stake out their share in the shared economy, too.

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