The ideas of the ”mesh” economy and ”collaborative consumption” are to create services built on shared access and shared maintenance of goods. Lots of businesses are based on this: Hotels, rental cars, car sharing, and airlines… What’s new is how digitization, urban density and a tight economy makes it possible to share many more things: Tools, sports equipment, car rides, little chores like shopping or assembling IKEA furniture.
In a sense it is a very efficient market: if someone has idle capacity, it can be offered to others and used easily and quickly and with a minimum of regulatory hassle and paperwork. Wonderful!
However, there are a few dilemmas that arise as the exchange becomes less formal, and you start doing a lot of peer-to-peer exchange and bartering.
In many ways it's the good old moonlighting economy, but digitally enhanced – and the trouble with moonlighting is that you can’t collect taxes from it, and there’s no way to enforce society’s normal regulation.
So, if you believe in having a well functioning and adequately funded public sector, good roads, public healthcare and education – or if you believe in regulation to keep track of pollution and unsafe working conditions – or if you believe in trade unions to protect decent wages and blatant exploitation of those who are too weak to negotiate – well, then you might feel that a growing informal sector is undermining the rights that others have fought hard to ensure over the past century.
It’s a paradox that the mesh economy is seen as a way of strengthening local communities and building stronger social interaction – but at another level, you can argue that it short-circuits the building blocks of society as a whole.
I have no doubt that the current commercial system, and our current way of regulating business and interactions is too rigid and often counter productive. Mesh-style initiatives are needed to challenge and explore.
But going local shouldn’t mean ignoring your obligations to contribute to society at the greater level.