Sharing economy

“Giving up privileges”

Sociologist Katja Rost discusses the sharing economy, sustainable behavior, status-oriented thinking, and sharing culture at UZH.

Interview: Roger Nickl; English translation by Philip Isler

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People have always shared among themselves. Some find it easier to share, others have more trouble. (Image: iStock / Say-Cheese)

Online platforms such as shareley.ch, swap shops and public bookcases – sharing culture is on the rise. Why is that?

Katja Rost: The culture of sharing is nothing new. People have been sharing things for a long time, for example through the concept of neighborly help. If I’m out of eggs, for example, I can go next door and ask my neighbor for some. But this isn’t as common as it used to be.

How come?

We’ve become more mobile and individualistic. We don’t spend as much time at home anymore. As a result, neighborhood networks have declined. Social capital studies show that this trend started back in the 1970s.

Doesn’t this contradict the supposed boom of a new sharing culture?

It’s not contradictory. There is obviously a need that isn’t being met. For example, it’s no longer possible for people to go to their parents’ hayloft and borrow a scythe that they happen to need for gardening in the city. We have to rely on other, digital networks. And this sharing economy is based on technological advances, which make it possible.

We can swap and share all sorts of things online today. Are these digital platforms mainly an interesting business model, or are they also about a more sustainable and ethical behavior and economy?

This is a widely discussed question when it comes to the sharing economy. Many of the offers probably originally grew out of a sustainability mindset. Over time, however, money starts to become more important than ethics, as the examples of Uber and Airbnb show. For users too, the emphasis is often on sustainability. You don’t always have to buy new stuff, but can reuse other people’s used things and save resources. But this idea only makes partial sense. Take clothing, for example: Swap shops haven’t resulted in people consuming less. Instead of buying three pairs of trousers, people often just end up getting 10 pairs because they’re cheaper. We have a hard time limiting ourselves.

So our behavior as consumers hasn’t changed – even if we live by the sharing economy ideal of sharing and swapping instead of owning and buying?

Our behavior has changed in some areas. Cars have become less important in cities, especially for younger people. Owning your own car isn’t nearly as important as it used to be, and people are more likely to share their vehicles. Many people don’t have a driver’s license anymore, especially in Switzerland. But I’m not sure this is a general trend. If you live in the countryside, you often still need to have your own car. In any case, I’d strongly disagree with the general claim that owning things is no longer as important nowadays. Owning an apartment or a house is still very popular. Many people want to own something valuable – which they then don’t want to share with others. We’re far removed from a culture of sharing in this regard.

Which things are we prepared to share, and which do we keep for ourselves?

We’ll share anything that’s impersonal. You’ll hardly find any underwear in secondhand shops, for example. Incidentally, Swiss Germans and Germans have a very hard time sharing their car with others, while Italian and French people have no problems doing so. 

Why is that?

It has to do with cultural differences. Ownership is very important to German people – my house, my car, my boat. Other cultures in contrast put an emphasis on sociability, community and family. These differences evolved over centuries.

There are various platforms at UZH that can be used to share and swap research equipment, devices or office supplies. There are public bookcases and events such as the annual sharing day (“Bring- und Holtag”), where household objects and office items can be swapped. How do you view the sharing culture at UZH?

Sharing knowledge is one of the hallmarks of a university such as UZH, and the libraries are a part of this: They exemplify a culture of sharing that has existed for a long time. Pooled administrative support, which is increasingly common at UZH, is a welcome new development. The classic secretarial offices for professorial chairs have become outdated, as many administrative tasks – drafting letters, for example – are now often done by the professors themselves. Such offices can thus generally be shared. That’s the theory, at least, but in practice the processes to pool resources are often extremely slow in the departments and institutes. This has to do with people’s possession- and status-oriented thinking – giving up privileges can be difficult, especially if you’re a long-serving professor. This example shows how tricky sharing sometimes is.

How could UZH’s sharing culture be further improved?

I think it’s great that UZH is so committed to sustainability – through efforts to cut down on air travel, for example. In this context, sharing air miles will become more important in the future, and there will be distribution conflicts. It remains to be seen how prosocially we’ll be capable of behaving – for example, a professor deciding not to travel to an international conference abroad so that a PhD candidate may go, as attending such events is more important at the early stages of an academic career. There’s also still untapped potential when it comes to sharing research infrastructure and workspaces at UZH. At the same, there are still many discussions to be had, precisely because we’re talking about giving up privileges.

Katja Rost
Professor of sociology Katja Rost (Image: Marc Latzel)

There are various platforms at UZH that can be used to share and swap research equipment, devices or office supplies. There are public bookcases and events such as the annual sharing day (“Bring- und Holtag”), where household objects and office items can be swapped. How do you view the sharing culture at UZH?

Sharing knowledge is one of the hallmarks of a university such as UZH, and the libraries are a part of this: They exemplify a culture of sharing that has existed for a long time. Pooled administrative support, which is increasingly common at UZH, is a welcome new development. The classic secretarial offices for professorial chairs have become outdated, as many administrative tasks – drafting letters, for example – are now often done by the professors themselves. Such offices can thus generally be shared. That’s the theory, at least, but in practice the processes to pool resources are often extremely slow in the departments and institutes. This has to do with people’s possession- and status-oriented thinking – giving up privileges can be difficult, especially if you’re a long-serving professor. This example shows how tricky sharing sometimes is.

How could UZH’s sharing culture be further improved?

I think it’s great that UZH is so committed to sustainability – through efforts to cut down on air travel, for example. In this context, sharing air miles will become more important in the future, and there will be distribution conflicts. It remains to be seen how prosocially we’ll be capable of behaving – for example, a professor deciding not to travel to an international conference abroad so that a PhD candidate may go, as attending such events is more important at the early stages of an academic career. There’s also still untapped potential when it comes to sharing research infrastructure and workspaces at UZH. At the same, there are still many discussions to be had, precisely because we’re talking about giving up privileges.

Sharing and Swapping at UZH

From hi-tech to literature: There are various services at UZH to share and swap research equipment, devices, household items and books. Some examples:

Technology platforms
The UZH technology platforms  provide researchers with access to state-of-the-art equipment and complex technology. Some of the platforms are also open to researchers at other higher education institutions and industry clients. All users are required to pay a fee.
Further information; Contact: Thomas Trüb

Shared equipment
Various types of equipment and rooms are available for shared use.
Further information; Contact: Johanna Vogt 

Equipment exchange
UZH operates an equipment exchange to promote the use of equipment that would otherwise stand idle.
Further information; Contact: René Tiefenauer

Equipment@Vetsuisse
This Teams channel enables members of the Vetsuisse Faculty to make their lab equipment available to others and share their knowledge and expertise.
Further information; Contact: Hanna Mart

Office supplies exchange
Why pay for something new when other departments might give it away for free? The office supplies exchange is an excellent opportunity to clear out your supplies and get rid of things you no longer need. Check here before ordering new supplies, as you might find what you need. This service is free.
Further information; Contact: Corinne Maurer

Public bookcase in the main building on City Campus
Free book exchange for everybody! Come in and browse.
Further information; Contact: Sybille Dorn

Sharing day (“Bring- und Holtag”) and book exchange
Bring the books, household objects and office items that you no longer need but which are still too good to throw away (September/October).

 

Roger Nickl, Editor UZH Magazin; Philip Isler, UZH Communications

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