The rise of collaboration fuelled by digital platforms is paving the way for a new, more sustainable ‘sharing economy’, argues Telefónica UK’s head of sustainability.

Are we at the edge of a revolution that will see today’s social and economic systems transformed on a scale that changes the face of capitalism for good?

Many sustainability campaigners believe so.

And if their predictions are right, we’re heading for a world returned to some age-old socio-economic models – sharing, swapping, bartering and lending, albeit made possible by the 21st century phenomenon that is anywhere, anytime connectivity.

Collaborative consumption is coming of age, I believe, with digital enterprises such as Zipcar, Airbnb, Zopa and Streetbank at the forefront of a new movement.

It’s a trend that effectively ‘dematerialises’ goods and services – everything from cars to music and financial loans to everyday tools – allowing consumers to locate and share the things they want and need at the touch of a button.

Here at O2 – a digital business intent on putting sustainability at the heart of strategy – we’re excited by the opportunity to help fast-forward the potential.

This month I heard Forum for the Future’s founder-director, the environmentalist and passionate green campaigner Jonathon Porritt speak at Campus Party, Europe’s biggest festival for technology enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, hosted at The O2.

Our relationship with Jonathon and his team goes back some years. When building the sustainability plan we call our Think Big Blueprint, we asked them to help us understand how ICT could promote a healthier balance between rising consumption, the world of business and the greater good of society and the environment.

At Campus Party, Jonathon explained his personal hypothesis: as online access becomes ubiquitous and ICT processing power continues its exponential growth, systemic socio-economic change will follow, driven by collaborative consumption.

I’m an exponent of Jonathon’s vision that digital platforms could make collaboration and sharing as powerful a part of the global economy as acquisition and ownership. It’s a scenario that at O2 we are keen to encourage when, on current trends, mankind is burning through planetary resources at an alarmingly unsustainable rate.

Granted, there will be many ‘what ifs’ along the way, but developments suggest a new order in the making as consumers adopt – and companies adapt to – the power of digital platforms to allow millions to share, swap and lend.

The trend has even begun to infiltrate big business strategies. Avis Car Hire, for example, this year acquired Zipcar – the world’s largest car sharing scheme.

But if ICT is the conduit for change, a radical shift in attitudes will be just as vital – a move from the model in which ownership has long defined ‘success’ in society to one that considers sharing resources an equally accepted norm. As Ronan Dunne, our CEO, often says: we have the technology to effect change, but can we transform cultures and mindsets to make the best use of this amazing capability?

I highly recommend Jonathon’s Campus Party presentation as an inspiring contribution to the debate, as well as social innovator Rachel Botsman’s views on what she terms ‘the new economy – what’s mine is yours’.

For O2’s part, our Think Big Blueprint combines a hard look at the way we do business with support for young people – the digital generation – and a pledge to help customers cut carbon from their daily lives through our products and services.

With Forum for the Future’s help, we’ve understood that the biggest impact we can make is as agents of change. Central to that is our technology – and working with others.

It’s no accident, then, that the first annual progress report on our three-year sustainability plan – published this month – features projects that have digital technology, collaboration and new ways of doing things at their heart.

Our collaborative initiatives range from creating work experience opportunities for young people to helping our 23.8 million customers make more sustainable choices.

Among examples, we’re working with:

  • Bauer Media and other UK employers – helping young people get on the job ladder via, our youth employment accelerator and work skills platform.
  • Handset manufacturers like HTC, Nokia and Sony – to bring to market and advocate charger-free mobiles as the industry standard of the future.
  • Businesses and employees – by encouraging ICT-enabled flexible working as a means to cut travel and carbon from the UK workplace
  • The Department of Energy and Climate Change – by providing energy-efficient smart meter connectivity to millions of UK households.

We’re also backing digital start-ups via the Wayra UnLtd Academy – each with the objective of tackling social problems – and expect our 4G network, smart apps and greater confidence in data sharing to support sustainable development in the UK.

At what pace this will all gain speed remains to be seen, but if the rise of collaborative consumption is a marker, the train may already have left the station.

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