Zipcar and the Sharing Economy: What Can Government and Education Learn?

As governments around the world work their way out of the financial crisis, one thing is certain: Sharing resources, functions and services is the new normal. This is even truer in the consumer marketplace, where the “sharing economy” has spawned a new type of customer who prefers buying in “pieces” rather than “wholes.” A big example is car sharing, where people purchase time blocks (an hour, a day) for a car instead of purchasing their own car that would often sit idle. Zipcar, the world’s largest car sharing company, runs the web-based platform that facilitates the sharing and benefits:

  1. Consumers can “get wheels when they want them” and lower their average monthly cost – while enjoying the benefits that come from having a car.
  2. Zipcar can leverage economies of scale to spread the cost and usage of vehicles across a large user base – while earning revenues that sustain the enterprise.
  3. Society can make more efficient use of vital resources (with less congestion and less pollution to boot) – while fostering a more sustainable environment.

It’s a win-win-win model. And it’s a movement that’s growing.
Many pockets of government haven’t sipped the Kool-Aid yet. As I work with government officials around the world, I hear this refrain over and over: “We’ve been sharing and working together for a long time – we’ve been there done that – what’s new?” Well, besides the urgent budgetary pressures to do more with less, what’s different now is that the intersection of sensor technology, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and data-mining/matching – wrapped within web-based platforms - create a “deeper and wider” range of sharing for government and education organizations:

  • An organization can track the whereabouts and usage of an asset in real-time – enabling a deeper level of 24/7 sharing (without paper-based tracking, phone calls, pleading and cajoling).
  • An organization can track more types of assets – from open shelter beds to accounting systems to broadband networks to fleet vehicles – offering a broader range of asset sharing.
  • An organization can synchronize usage of an asset with people who want to use it more efficiently and dynamically – growing the customer-centricity of sharing

Scott Griffith, Zipcar CEO, noted in a recent McKinsey article that technology is what makes the Zipcar model sustainable and scalable. Without technology, car sharing would require “a lot of overhead and a lot of self-reporting from members.” Sounds like a sector of the economy that starts with “G” doesn’t it?

Yet forward-thinking government leaders are taking note – and taking action. Take Cook County Illinois For example, where city (Chicago area) and county officials are jointly purchasing and sharing information systems, hardware and consulting services, while also working to co-locate city and county government offices.

As the “sharing economy” gains steam more broadly, and particularly in government and education, what can public sector leaders learn from the Zipcar example? How can Zipcar’s customer-centric service culture be applied in government and education? What areas of operations and resources can the public, non-profit and education sectors share? What types of “platforms” should government create to enable sharing? How should we change our organizations and cultures to prepare them for the sharing economy?

Intriguing questions aren’t they? If you want to dig in more, join an upcoming free webinar hosted by the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School. The webinar will feature Dan Curtin, Vice President of Operations and Service Quality for Zipcar, and Greg Wass, Chief Information Officer for Cook County, Illinois, as we look at how government is applying the Zipcar and “sharing economy” model to transform operations and citizen services.

Then, on June 20 – 22, join us live at Harvard for the 2012 Public Sector and Education Shared Services Summit: Pathways to Transformation where senior level CEOs, CIOs and CFOs will be exchanging ideas on the future of shared services.

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