‘On demand: Cultural economies of access and ownership’ (RGS-IBG Session write up)

This write up by Brendan Doody (University of Cambridge) and Lizzie Richardson (Durham University) is about the TGRG sponsored session ‘On demand: Cultural economies of access and ownership’ which took place at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2016.

The session ‘On demand: Cultural economies of access and ownership’ was organised by Brendan Doody (University of Cambridge) and Lizzie Richardson (Durham University). This theoretically and empirically diverse session was well attended and attracted an equally varied audience which included social, cultural, environmental, economic and transport geographers. This diversity is reflective of the way in which the ‘sharing’, ‘collaborative’, ‘gig’ or ‘access’ economy is challenging, renegotiating and reworking the ways in which resources are consumed and used across various sectors. In this ‘post-ownership’ story, citizen-consumers are increasingly paying to access goods and services ‘on-demand’, which may be ‘shared’ with other users.

The original call for papers encouraged participants to question and complicate the narrative of ‘post-ownership’ to describe trends associated with the sharing economy. More specifically, it encouraged participants to reflect on three related concerns:

  1. To what extent does access query normative understandings of, and practices associated with, ownership?
  2. What are the implications for access for the qualities and/or quantities of resource usage?
  3. How are emotional and ethical attachments realised through everyday negotiations of access and flexibilities of demand?

Each of the five speakers explored one or more of these concerns drawing on different empirical and conceptual resources.

Brendan Doody and Lizzie Richardson’s paper ‘The urban life of demand’ employed the notion of demand as a way of thinking about the changing nature and intensities of life in the city. Drawing on a range of examples they examined four aspects of experience associated with the city ‘on-demand’: 1) circulation; 2) logistics; 3) authenticity; and 4) familiarity. In the case of familiarity, they noted how as many of these platforms become part of the mundane urban landscape they are creating both senses of connection and disconnection in the city. For example, the growth of and universality of platforms such as Uber provide users with familiar senses and experiences of movement even in cities they have only just arrived in. Meanwhile platforms such as Airbnb and Vrumi where individuals hire rooms or people’s houses either for accommodation or workspaces are rendering once private havens somewhat unfamiliar as users co-occupy these spaces. Overall, the aim of the paper was to provide a preliminary sketch of the city ‘on-demand’ as a way of opening up more debate and discussion.

Robyn Dowling (University of Sydney) and Jennifer Kent’s (University of Sydney) paper explored ‘What does it mean to share a car?’ Drawing on interviews conducted in Sydney, Australia and their earlier work they used a social practice lens to examine meanings, materialities and skills involved in private car-sharing. Interestingly, they noted that a significant attraction of these services for some participants is that a number of parking spaces in central Sydney have been allocated exclusively for these vehicles. Thus using these schemes reflects an unwillingness to share public parking infrastructure. Moreover, these shared vehicles become users own personal spaces and reflecting this people do not want to know who has been in the car before them. Previous users often leave, however, various material traces (i.e., radio station, seat position, rubbish) and thus Dowling and Kent stressed the skills or ‘work’ involved in dealing with these issues. Their paper in this way questioned whether private car-sharing enterprises should be understood simply as forms of collaborative consumption as they also entail varying degrees of exclusivity.

Benedikt Schmid’s (University of Luxembourg) paper ‘Diverse economic organizations: Logics, access and ownership’ drew on ethnographic fieldwork conducted at Hobbyhimmel, an open workshop based in Stuttgart, Germany. For a small fee this non-profit organisation offers participants interested in crafts, art, repair, recycling and upcycling the opportunity to access different work spaces which are set-up with a range of equipment, appliance and tools and other forms of support (e.g., instructions, courses and encouragement). Drawing on theories of practice and institutional logics, Schmid explored the diverse materials, meanings, skills and logics underpinning these alternative economic practices highlighting the ways in which they both challenge and reproduce more traditional economic practices.

Gareth Powells  (Newcastle University) paper interrogated: ‘The shared grid: Materially connected demands and the new deals for energy’. He drew particular attention to the challenge that managing the late afternoon/evening peak (1600-2000) in electricity use presents for energy suppliers in the UK. In the past this peak has been managed on the supply side by reinforcing electricity network. More recently there has been growing political and commercial interest in managing demand as the increased range and diversity of sources of electricity generation will make it less predictable and controllable. Drawing on preliminary research in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, Powells explored customers’ views on shifting from unit to service-based agreements with their energy company. Under this model, customers would potentially pay for services such as comfort (i.e., a home heated to 18-22 degrees) rather than the amount of energy they use and could be rewarded for flexibility when there is load limited supply. The paper is illustrative accordingly of how the UK energy sector is gradually moving away from its traditional logic of efficiency to one of sufficiency.

Lizzie Richardson’s (Durham University) paper ‘Consuming the workplace: Demand and work representation’ considered some of the connections between demand and work that are opened up by practices of ‘mobile working’ afforded by digital technologies. Drawing on ongoing research funded by the RGS-IBG and now the Leverhulme Trust, the paper outlined the apparently contradictory trend in which the form of work – its organisational structure- tends towards increased labour market flexibility/insecurity (e.g., ‘gig economy’ jobs), whilst the substance of work – individual working activity – can tend towards a greater depth and breadth of skills (e.g., the individual flexibility seen in co-working offices).

The session as a whole demonstrated the ways in which geographers can help to question and interrogate extent to which access-based models help to challenge normative understandings of, and practices associated with, ownership, the qualities and/or quantities of resource usage and the emotional and ethical attachments realised through everyday negotiations of access and flexibilities of demand.

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