Could architecture become part of the sharing economy?

1 May, 2015

I’m a 60-year old architect running a successful practice but I can’t help wondering if architecture will continue to remain aloof from new models of business which seem to be infiltrating every aspect of our lives. If people are prepared to share their cars, homes, and even their money won’t they one day expect to share professional services too?

Before answering that, let’s be clear about what the term actually means. The sharing economy, also referred to as the collaborative economy, crowd economy, peer -to -peer economy and gig economy, is a peer-to-peer marketplace coordinated via internet-based platforms.

It’s been the focus of much recent media attention because of the extent to which it’s disrupted traditional business (which have shop-fronts, back offices, and tiers of human administration).

In the sharing economy, the business is run from a digital platform, usually a website or app. By replacing layers of human involvement with efficient algorithms, these platforms allow amateurs to compete with established businesses at prices far below previous market rates.

Two of the best-known companies are Airbnb and Uber, which allow customers to rent empty bedrooms and car seats respectively.  Only 6 years old, Uber was valued at $40 billion last December while Airbnb was on target for a $20 billion valuation in its last funding round. The sharing economy has been a phenomenal success wherever people have been able to use their own private goods for financial gain.

So far, this model has been much less successful for professional services, but this doesn’t mean that digital platform businesses have no implications for architecture.

As the ‘sharing economy’ grows, it normalises the use of digital platforms. The public are increasingly used to having an array of options at their fingertips, filtered by price, proximity, reputation and other factors.

This availability and interactivity makes traditional forms of business communication look outmoded and unresponsive towards customers. The old Howard Roark paradigm of architect as all-powerful creator sits uncomfortably in this new environment.

As a result, it seems likely that architects in relatively affluent parts of the world will find themselves increasingly in competition with architects from less-prosperous areas. In this case, the fact that architectural services need not be tied to physical location could be a disadvantage.

Though the architectural profession has inherent defences against ad-hoc competition and limitations on supply, digital platforms are gaining momentum as legitimate places of business, erasing geographic competition boundaries and putting downward pressure on costs.