Do you suppose the founders named it “Airbnb” because they envisioned pulling billions ‘n’ billions of dollars out of thin air?
Ok, while I poke fun, I do confess that there is much to love about Airbnb, the online platform that enables travelers to book private rooms and homes in lieu of hotels. I like that Airbnb has turned countless people into casual home-based hoteliers. But, unlike conventional hotels, Airbnb wouldn’t have many assets to sell if liquidated. That rumored $20 billion company valuation relies largely on the loyalty of users. Like I said, thin air.
Especially because I can think of at least three replacements for Airbnb that would inspire greater loyalty of the masses. In a moment, you will meet Co-bnb, Munibnb, and Allbnb. None of them exist, but they are potentially very real.
The notion of “the commons” lies at their core. So far, my favorite explanation of the word “commons” comes from writer David Bollier, and I paraphrase: A commons arises whenever a group of people decides to collectively manage a resource with a special regard for equitable access and long-term stewardship. Much preferred to “a few guys manage a resource with a special regard for making billions of dollars.”
Today, we rely on software platforms for access to work, to information, and even to each other. Tech platforms are where we metaphorically graze our sheep and gather as communities, but usually while paying “rent” to large companies. Oxfam reported that the world’s 85 richest people have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world. We have a choice: Keep using platforms that widen the wealth gap, or build tech platforms as commons. So here are a few examples of the latter.
Co-bnb, as I’m calling it, could be an online marketplace owned and democratically controlled by the people who rent space to travelers. You can call it a “freelancer-owned cooperative,” a term possibly coined by Josh Danielson, founder of Loconomics.com. Loconomics just bought out its shareholders and became a cooperative corporation to be controlled by the freelancers who use the platform to offer services such as babysitting, home cleaning, and dog walking. The mission of Loconomics is to enhance the viability of freelance work, a task most reliably led by freelancers, themselves.
Soon, 40 percent of the US workforce will consist of freelancers, many of whom will cobble together income from multiple sources. We can’t allow companies like Airbnb, Uber, and TaskRabbit to take 5 percent to 20 percent of freelancer earnings. If those companies remain the gatekeepers of critical work opportunities, they’ll continually adjust search algorithms, fee structures, and terms of service to extract more out of workers. In “The Sharing Economy Just Got Real,” I outlined how companies like Airbnb could become or be replaced by cooperatives. Shared ownership and control are critical if we are to get real about the “sharing” part of the so-called “sharing economy.”
Munibnb came to mind when I realized that a home rental platform could be used to steward other resources that—to some extent—belong in the realm of a city-managed commons, such as housing supply, public infrastructure, and the wealth that travelers bring into cities. Imagine that 20 or more large cities collaborate to develop software (“Munibnb”) with all the functionality of Airbnb, and then mandate that all short-term rentals be arranged through the municipal platform. Cities are well positioned to hack this because they have regulatory power. Airbnb couldn’t compete, because use of Airbnb would be illegal (as it already commonly is under land-use laws that prohibit the operation of hotels in most residential areas).
Cities play a key role in managing housing supply. Regularly hosting short-term guests removes rooms and units from the housing market, intensifying scarcities and driving up market rents in cities like San Francisco. Through a Munibnb, a city could easily set and enforce a cap on rental nights; set fees that fluctuate with housing scarcities; and generally manage the short-term rental market to ensure equitable flow and supply of resources.
And importantly, fees normally collected by Airbnb could stay with hosts or go to the city. Why should we watch millions of traveler dollars leak from our cities into the hands of wealthy corporate shareholders, especially when a Munibnb offers another way?
Allbnb would be similar to Munibnb, but made popular by the fact that all city residents get annual dividends. Every Alaskan receives an annual dividend of around $1,000 to $2,000 from the Alaska Permanent Fund, which collects fees on mineral extraction. Mineral extraction isn’t as fuzzy a metaphor as grazing sheep, but there is something extractive when strangers roll into our neighborhoods, take up our street parking, and contribute to housing scarcities. “Allbnb” could be a municipally chartered trust with the purpose of fostering a vibrant city with a diverse housing supply. The distribution of dividends ensures more equitable sharing of traveler-sourced wealth, and it strategically aligns city residents behind the goal of protecting housing. When housing is scarce, Allbnb could exact a high fee on each rental, bringing higher dividends to residents and pressuring hosts to open their rooms to long-term tenants.
I estimate that Allbnb could bring between $10 and $30 per year to every San Franciscan. It sounds small, but we can begin to manage many resources using this model. We would each receive dividends from many sources, adding up to a kind of universal basic income. Peter Barnes, in his wonderful book, “With Liberty and Dividends for All,” proposes that we pay universal dividends on the use or pollution of key resources, like the atmosphere (speaking of pulling billions out of thin air). Allbnb could pilot that dividend model at a small scale.
People don’t usually think of cooperatives, cities, and trusts as big tech innovators. But if we allow for-profit companies to monopolize the field of innovation, then all innovation will be tilted toward the interests of for-profit shareholders. Let’s re-orient tech toward everyone.