Trust, a Key Ingredient to Help Wounded Countries Heal

In places wrenched by violence, corruption and division, sharing plays a role in restoring community and reducing polarization.

What makes the sharing economy tick? If you simply consider the technological nuts and bolts, an easy answer is the ubiquity of smartphones and wireless networks, as well as the emergence of big data and cloud computing. Together, they make a solid tech foundation for quick online peer-to-peer collaboration.

What makes the sharing economy really grow, however, is an essential human emotion: trust. It’s a critical ingredient that lets us take a ride from a stranger or rent a room in the house of someone we‘ve never met without it feeling creepy. Trust what makes the sharing economy possible, and it’s a key element that could allow sharing economy companies to play a small role in helping countries torn apart by decades of violence and corruption. In central and south America, for example, many citizens in their 40s and 50s grew up in non-democratic regimes, where sectional conflicts, bribery, inequality and favoritism were common and suspicions went deep.

“If you’re living in these type of situations, your level of trust is much lower,” said Albert Cañigueral, a Barcelona-based sharing economy expert, during a recent interview with Reinvent. These situations created an atmosphere of suspicion, particularly in business, where “you will need to be more careful in the types of exchange you are going to have with other people,” he says.

In the sharing economy, the critical exchange of services often occurs face-to-face between strangers meeting for the first time, who are frequently from different social classes and backgrounds. These simple commercial interactions can be far more valuable than the sum of a monetary exchange. “Technology is not neutral,” Cañigueral says. “The technology is neutral when you don’t use it. At the moment you use technology it stops being neutral, because you are using it in one or another direction.”

Now, he adds, we have to figure out how to combine the world-shaping technologies with our critical social needs. “We are in the middle of a big transition … based on these technologies and this new power and these new capabilities.”

Cañigueral notes that the sharing economy could have a big impact in places like Venezuela, where a devastating recession paired with rampant inflation and a lack of food, electricity and medicine, has left the country reeling. The daily interactions of strangers that make up the beating heart of the sharing economy can perhaps play a role in restoring a sense of community and diminishing this toxic sense of polarization.

There is research to support his view, and social scientists note that countries where citizens trust one another typically have better economies and fewer social ills. There is also lower crime rates and more confidence in the integrity of political leaders.

A 2007 Pew Research study found that, among the 47 countries polled, China had the highest level of social trust, followed closely by Sweden. Almost eight-in-ten Chinese (79%) agreed with the statement “Most people in this society are trustworthy.” Swedes were at 78%. On the flip side, social trust runs low in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, although there is substantial country variation in each of these regions.

Sharing economy companies understand the importance of that trust. In 2013, for instance, Airbnb added identity verification to its platform, which was designed to provide a foundation of confidence and reduce the uneasiness that can occur when strangers do business. Interestingly, a study conducted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem shows that one of the most important aspect of gaining the trust of a stranger is simply including a sunny and appealing photo of the host. Sometimes it’s easier to trust someone if they look like a non-threatening neighbor or friend.

All of these developments are early signs of change, but they are hopeful ones, too. As the world continues to struggle with divisiveness and strife, perhaps the sharing economy can, in its own small way, play a part in making the place we call home feel less like a war zone and more like a community.