Fluid ownership in the sharing economy

The Devolution of Possessions

By Heidi Ashby, UBS Y Think Tank

“This year I have a Mercedes, last year I had a BMW, the year before I had a scooter but I got rained on a lot…”

Imagine a world in which everything can only be owned temporarily. Goods or services cannot belong to an individual or organization for more than one year or they will disintegrate or reassign themselves to another person or group. All goods and services have a fingerprint, with details of current and previous owners and duration of ownership. Each of them becomes like a library book that has the names of all the previous borrowers on the inside cover, carrying stories with them from user to user. As with the provenance of an object in the art world, the history can influence the good’s appeal. At times the history of the good becomes more important than the good itself. Such an approach would alter how we consume, do business, value ownership and measure or perceive wealth. Goods and services would be worth more than their intrinsic value and fluid ownership and object histories make this non-intrinsic value more visible and important.

In reality, this scenario is probably far-fetched. But our relationship to what we own is changing dramatically. In the future, such radical solutions may come to seem more normal. The sharing economy is revolutionizing the way we consume, produce and provide services, altering the structure of employment and transforming traditional ideas of ownership. In a recent PwC study of the sharing economy, 57% of US consumers surveyed agreed that due to the influence of the sharing economy access was becoming the new form of ownership and 43% agreed that ownership was becoming a burden.

This doesn’t mean ownership as we know it is disappearing. Without it, the sharing economy could not succeed. Instead it promotes more detached forms of ownership, more willingness to let go of a tool in the toolbox or give up a room in one’s house. It invites people to temporarily forgo ownership of an item or asset such as a house or a car in search of something more important. Ownership as a term implies something strong, a sense of singular and individualistic possession – “I own this and you do not.” But the sharing economy introduces something lighter, more diverse and yet to be defined. While a scenario of purely temporary ownership, like the one above, might sound ridiculous, it exaggerates this loosening of the ties we have to material things.

Motivations for participating in sharing can be practical and individual or ideological and social. While some participate on the basis of principles and values most tend to do so out of a desire for instant gratification and ultimate convenience – how many times would I really have to use something? How fast can it get here? For the latter, access becomes a more important measurement than ownership and the need itself moves from the object to the action. As the typical sharing economy example implies, “I don’t need a drill, I need a hole in the wall.”

How many things do I have access to and how conveniently? Renting, lending, loaning or gifting extends to objects that might otherwise be overlooked like clothes, tools, even meals. All of a sudden a student with no income can access an Alexander Wang dress for her graduation ball or a 17-year-old can safely hitch-hike across the border without paying an expensive train fare. Items that might otherwise be unobtainable become accessible, if only for a short amount of time. These approaches are not new, but innovative technologies have heightened their prevalence in different sectors and popularity among consumers. Apps or platforms enable users to share data detailing their needs and wants with others who have the ability to fulfil them.


A new breed of consumers demands different experiences from the goods and services that they utilize, an added value of sorts. In a world of too much stuff and far too many options, providing compelling experiences presents an interesting challenge for companies to gain a competitive edge. In the quest for experience, utilizing platforms and mobile applications from the sharing economy creates more social value and unique experiences.

Airbnb connects travelers to willing locals, providing an authentic taste of life in a particular place. Lyft and BlaBlaCar take users from A to B while also providing an opportunity to engage with strangers. In Europe, for instance, car ownership has declined in the past year, while European transportation systems provide increasingly convenient and reliable alternatives, as do carpooling and carsharing applications. Famous car manufacturers like BMW, Audi and Volkswagen have developed their own car sharing services. BMW, BMW i and MINI recently released ReachNow, a luxury car sharing platform that allows you to easily find, hire, drive and drop off a BMW vehicle. Similarly Audi’s “Audi Unite” labels itself a “collaborative car initiative that refashions mobility.” These innovative moves hint at a future without car ownership for those who cannot afford a car or don’t want to buy one.

Car sharing highlights the possibility of another form of ownership not explored in the opening scenario – fractional ownership, or ownership divided between a group of people. The concept has long existed in the real estate world, in the form of timeshared apartments or shared services in residential buildings such as laundries or pools. Theoretically, it should be possible to apply this concept across a greater range of sectors.

What are the implications of increased temporal or fractional ownership of goods? From a company perspective, both possibilities will be hugely disruptive for many sectors but predominantly those in manufacturing. Here companies typically rely on the continuous creation of new models and new products to appeal to consumers. What if this is no longer what consumers are looking for? The key challenge for these companies is finding ways to reinvent their “maker” ability, taking used items and turning them into something new and innovative with an entrancing story behind them that accompanies the buying experience. Consumers will become prosumers, recognizing their own capabilities in the production of goods, demanding companies to employ co-creation models that invite consumers to engage.

With the removal of the secondhand stigma, we will likely see a proliferation of rental and reselling platforms. Instantaneous delivery services will provide such companies with a competitive edge as the demand for instant gratification grows. In terms of joint purchase, new forms of collective digital identity will allow groups to buy or rent. Groups of individuals may form “thing communities” to collectively purchase or rent objects from online platforms. The sharing of more valuable items may also present considerable challenges with regards to tax, insurance, and other financial obligations, and the way these are shared or transferred from one person to another.

For individuals the largest implication is a move away from individualistic lifestyles. It challenges them to reconnect and rely on each other. Goods such as hygiene and beauty products are unlikely to be shared outside of the household but ownership of larger more expensive and reusable items may alter dramatically. Overall, the sharing economy is likely to enable the rise of many different forms of ownership, in line with changing ideas of family or partnership, life trajectories and societal expectations.

What does this mean for the future of wealth? As people invest more in “authentic experiences” than tangible capital, materialistic consumerism could be replaced by a quest for adventures, interactions and encounters. New generations could begin to attribute wealth to accumulated experience, for example the number of countries travelled to and times they interacted with other cultures, number of majestic views seen and felt, the number of music festivals attended, the number of items lended or number of BlaBlaCar adventures that resulted in a friendship. Imagine wealth being determined by the contents of one’s photo album or smartphone camera roll instead of the car they drive, the house they own or the boat the sail on. Wealth in this future consists of our accumulated experiences, the stories we can tell and how they are consumed and evaluated by others. The more you do, the wealthier you are. The rise of the sharing economy could sever the perceived link between wealth and material things.