A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 26, 2018

The Death of Ownership

Cost and convenience will drive the evolution from owning to sharing or leasing. But only if ease of use is comparable or better. JL

Sebastian Martin reports in Medium:

Buying things is a cornerstone of our society. Possession is a principle that is found in animals as well. For many items, we have accepted that there are service providers who can be relied upon. People like to retain independence and individuality as well as flexibility. Many services haven’t found suitable models to answer this.We are fine with using a service if it’s available as soon as we need it. Car (and other) sharing will be unsuccessful if it doesn’t provide the same flexibility and independence.

How many things do you own?

Buying things is a cornerstone of our society: we acquire items for survival and indulgence, basic needs and luxury. Some items are consumed in seconds, some last a lifetime.
Possession is a principle that is found in animals as well. Dogs have their favorite toys, crows collect shiny items for their nests.
The fact that we are creatures that want to own has led to the world we know today. On one side, richness and abundance as never imagined, but an imbalance as well — the divide between those that have and those that don’t grows wider every day.
Not only does the imbalance grow, but its extremes grow as well. Those that have now have more than ever. Those that are struggling to survive are having less and less.

Product Life Cycle

We can’t just “throw something away”, the only thing we do is label something as refuse and let it enter another part of the so-called Product Life Cycle. Once we chuck it into the bin, it’s still there, but we have designated it as “unusable”. By the way, this assessment might be wrong. The item could still be working if you repaired a tiny part of it. The item might be working, but not to its full extend and the remaining functions could be useful for someone else. It might not be broken at all but designed in a way that the current user can’t access the right functions.
Before we use them, things have led “a prior life”. They have been assembled in sometimes extremely complex ways and many different locations. With the ease of shipping physical goods around the globe, a simple $10 t-shirt (or its components) might have been on more continents that the wearer has traveled in their lifetime.
Out of the overall lifecycle from basic components to usage to disassembly, the usage period of an item might be the shortest of all.
Imagine the time and resources it takes to make and recycle a simple coffee cup lid, which you are effectively using for less than an hour.
Not only is this “grow and consume” mentality depleting the resources of our planet, it’s the source of wealth and poverty alike.

We see two trends emerging in many industries:
A) converting the business model and mental model of owning things into services, and
B) sharing items inside of a community, sometimes enabled over the internet.

Having things vs. Needing things

Providing temporary ownership of something is not a new concept. Travelers since ancient times have rented temporary shelter in hotels and guesthouses. You wouldn’t think of buying a house at your vacation destiny (if you only used it for a week), you’d look for a hotel. Or, in combination with the second trend, you’d look to share someone else’s rooms via AirBnB.
Hotels provide “Shelter as a Service”: They provide the rooms, the beds, the furniture. They make sure that everything works in order. They make sure that you have the shelter when you need it.
Not everyone has the same need of owning things. If you are always eating out, you don’t need to own a kitchen. If you are washing your clothes at a laundromat, you don’t need to own a washing machine.
Basically, we are fine with using a service if it’s available as soon as we need it.
The advantage of using services is to transfer responsibility over to the providers. They take care that the item is up-to-date, safe and easy to use. Ideally, they are also able to assess when an item needs to be repaired or when to “throw it away”. They might even find secondary uses for it.
For many items, we have accepted that there are service providers who can be relied upon: housing, car rentals/ transportation, food. For others, we are only just starting to explore the possibilities.

Everything as a Service

You wake up in the morning. You didn’t buy the bed and mattress on which you were sleeping, instead you rent them from a specialist. Every year, you get a replacement mattress. They also provide the sheets, covers and linens, picking them up every other week for cleaning.
You have an app that tracks your sleep and gives valuable insights on how you can improve your sleep routine. The bed is fitted with special LEDs and speakers to gently awake you, based on your personal appointments. Everything is provided by Good Sleep as a Service Ltd. You don’t own the bed, covers and linens.
You step into the shower. All surfaces sparkle — they have been cleaned by the shower service personal. The soap dispenser has been filled with your preferred soap. The water temperature is perfect right from the start. The towels are soft and warm. Everything from the shower to the cleanliness is provided by Hygiene as a Service Ltd.
In the kitchen, the breakfast and coffee are available in a small crate. The coffee is hot and has the right amount of milk, the cereal fits into your personal dietary plan and provides nourishment until lunch. Everything is provided by Breakfast as a Service Ltd. You have neither toaster nor coffee machine and why would you?
Utopia or Nightmare?

Independence and individuality

The previous examples present a few “business models” which are not available yet or haven’t spread widely. What did you think when reading about these scenes? Would they work?
A big challenge that I see for “X as a Service” providers is another base human trait: the need for independence and individuality.
We do like to think that we are individuals who make conscious and free choices. Of course, that’s not the case at all. We are shaped and formed by many factors outside of our control.
The point here is that we want to think that we have control, at least in theory. We don’t want to be predictable.
I personally wouldn’t use “Breakfast as a service” to serve the same thing every day.
I might want to eat something different today — toast instead of cereal. But since I am dependent on the service, I can’t decide freely. It doesn’t matter that I eat virtually the same breakfast every day, I still want to retain the option to choose.
The problem is visible now with many software companies switching to “X as a Service” models. Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Cloud are examples from everyday life. You only pay for access, you don’t own the software anymore. This makes you dependent: what if the providers decide to end the service or increase the price? If you buy (and own) a thing, it’s yours. Even if the price increases by a factor of 100, the thing is still yours. But when “X as a Service” is getting more expensive, you might lose your access in a frame of seconds.
Closely related to independence is individuality. We buy things in combinations that are unique for us — it fulfills a basic desire to present ourselves as individuals.
We see this most prominently in clothing. Choosing to buy a certain shirt helps us to define who we want to be as individuals. Incidentally, it also helps to achieve the opposite: we use clothing to indicate our association with a certain group of people, like sports teams or bands.
Yet “Clothing as a Service” could work when we can decide what items we like in detail. I’d be fine with “renting” a winter jacket for the cold months, then giving it back and choosing again the next winter.
This means that “X as a Service” needs to look closely how it integrates customer’s independence and individuality.

Sharing Economy

Related to the idea of using things only when and as long as you need them is the sharing economy.
Instead of a single individual owning something, access to the item is spread to many people. If you have bought a drill, you might be using it for a few minutes each year (the average usage of a drill is around 15 minutes for its whole lifetime!).
In a sharing economy, the drill can be rented by your neighbors or even strangers, extending its usage. As mentioned in the first paragraphs, if we extend the lifetime of a product, we decrease the need for new products which go through a long process of production and waste.
It doesn’t take a degree in economics or ecology to understand that a reduced use of resources and a reduction in waste are beneficial for the planet and all life on it.
Instead of producing 10 drills with an average use of 15 minutes each, we could simply have one drill to share between 10 people in the neighborhood.
Everyone who has lived in a shared flat or who worked in an office knows the problems that true shared use brings.
Kitchens seem to be hotspots for trouble: who is responsible for cleaning and keeping things usable? What happens when someone breaks an appliance? Who used up all the milk?
In a shared space and a sharing economy, we see that people struggle with the concept of responsibility.
Many models for sharing economy haven’t provided reasonable answers for those questions.

The Death of Ownership

We have seen several points that prevent the Death of Ownership for now.
People like to retain independence and individuality as well as flexibility. Many service haven’t found suitable models to answer this.
Sharing thing works best when there is a trusted and trustworthy system of responsibility. This trust takes time to develop.
I assume that owning things will never fully go away — it’d be a major change in societal and cultural behaviors that developed over millennia.
Yet I believe that we can and should build different models to replace the “business of owning”, simply to reduce the impact on the environment and the production that happens right now.
It a vision that I think is attainable: in a future where we can be more flexible in our lives, we need systems that help us “own less”.
Car sharing will be unsuccessful if it doesn’t provide the same level of flexibility and independence as the car in your garage does.


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