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“Collaborative consumption” sounds newfangled and 2.0, but strictly speaking, the concept has been around for a long time. If you’ve ever rented a room, borrowed a friend’s bike, or (at risk of dating myself) swapped CDs with a buddy, you’ve collaboratively consumed. Why, then, is the term getting so much coverage these days? Instant global communication and the resulting communities have allowed for creative re-imaginings of collaborative consumption on an unprecedented scale. Hailing from the US, Airbnb, GetAround, and TaskRabbit have applied the sharing formula to houses, cars, and day-to-day chores. It’s no surprise that Chinese companies are also riding the wave; but success here could require people to open their minds as well as their wallets.

Airizu, a room rental website that matches owners with renters, might be best described as China’s Airbnb. Although it can boast over 200,000 nights booked since its founding in late 2011, it is still playing catch-up with its American counterpart (which now has over 10 million nights booked, though to be fair, it was founded in 2007). Airizu’s co-founder Adrian Li said that a unique cultural challenge for his business in China is a lack of trust. Adrian, however, was not referring to his customers’ uncertainty in trying out a new company, but rather their reluctance to rent out their rooms to strangers.

Distrust of strangers is a deep-seated cultural particularity of China that threatens to derail collaborative consumption businesses here. After all, collaborative consumption is defined by sharing your stuff – most likely with people you don’t know. Airizu is relatively well-positioned, since it can take advantage of millions of empty apartments in China that people bought speculatively for the sole purpose of renting out and eventually selling. However, Wodache and PickRide, Chinese real-time ridesharing services, face definite challenges in regards to mistrust. Owning a car in China is both a monetary and an emotional investment. It is not uncommon to see two cars parked in the middle of a busy thoroughfare while their owners argue over a scratch that many would shrug off as imperceptible. With that level of concern, people might not be ready to let strangers hitch a ride in their car, let alone take the wheel a la GetAround.

Another determining factor for these companies is innovation. Although China is notorious for copying products, ideas, and even entire stores, there are many instances in which Chinese companies build upon good ideas to make them great. One example of this is Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like service that allows its users to embed photos, videos, and sound clips in their posts. If Airizu, Wodache, and PickRide can distinguish themselves with services that cater to specifically to their Chinese user-base, they could get a strong foothold in China before the inevitable arrival of foreign competitors.

In the US, collaborative consumption’s recent popularity could be partly attributed to economic downturn. What better way to save money (and make some on the side) than to share stuff with your neighbors for a modest fee? China’s economy is also experiencing slowdown, albeit not as severe as that in the US. It remains to be seen whether or not this downturn will push Chinese to step outside their sharing comfort zone in order to save a few RMB. The future of collaborative consumption in China could depend on it.

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Note: Jason Lim has also written on the trust issue in regards to collaborative consumption in China.

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