Project Description

Which opportunities do cooperative models and blockchain technology offer to the sharing economy? In cooperation with researchers at the IÖW in Berlin and at the Fraunhofer IBP in Stuttgart, the ifm investigates forms of decentralization in the sharing economy on different levels and examines their effects. The junior research group is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) for a period of five years as part of the "Social-Ecological Research (SÖF)" priority in the "Research for Sustainable Development (FONA)" program.

Problem Description and Research Question

Digital platforms for sharing, swapping and other ways of collaborative consumption are widely associated with positive economic, ecological and social effects. However, existing platforms that centrally own and provide the necessary infrastructure (data, software and service solutions) are perceived increasingly critical in public debate. Due to their central position, these platforms could skim off rents from transactions, with the result that the anticipated positive economic distribution effects would only occur to a limited extent. Furthermore, the users’ behavior is criticized: findings suggest that they are motivated primarily by economic and functional considerations, which would minimize the anticipated positive social effects and reduce the ecological impact, since savings resulting from the use of sharing models would often be offset by further consumption (so-called rebound effects).

As an antithesis, different decentral models combining alternative organizational forms and new technologies are discussed and tested. These alternative models follow a more decentralized approach which is pursued at different levels. At the technological level, decentralized concepts for data storage and transaction are developed (e.g. blockchain); at the organizational level, cooperatives are founded; at the individual level, providers and purchasers of services become active as entrepreneurs and set up intermediary platforms themselves.

Up until now, there is no systematical research on whether these negative and positive effects of centralized and decentralized platform models actually exist. Thus, the junior research group aims to close this research gap and answer the following research question: Which opportunities do new forms of organization and technology offer to the sharing economy? For this purpose, the group will systematize the multiple forms of platform organizations, analyze the context conditions, estimate the effects of individual models and identify governance mechanisms for the diffusion of favorable models.

Project Aims & Contribution

The interdisciplinary junior research group pursues the following objectives:

  • We want to understand which forms of platform organizations exist, how they work and what their effects are. For this purpose, we develop a systematization of platform organizations.
  • We want to assess the economic, ecological and social effects of these different forms of organization. To do this, we develop an impact model and conduct empirical studies.
  • On this basis, we want to develop governance mechanisms and funding approaches for the diffusion of favorable digital sharing platforms. By doing so, we want to contribute to the social-ecological transformation.

Overall, the aim of the junior research group is to point out development paths and design options for the digital sharing economy, which are suitable to promote a transformation towards a sustainable society. To do this, the project will generate basic knowledge about the design of platform organizations and their effects. On this basis, recommendations on how to promote the diffusion of forms with positive effects are derived.

Among other things, the practical benefits of the project arise from findings on when platforms have a positive impact on sustainability, and from the knowledge generated on behavior and consumption patterns of users of platform organizations. Practice partners, other platforms and multipliers can build on this knowledge to develop strategies, concepts and business models.

Research Approach

The research group will examine the design of platform organizations on different levels:

  • Individual level: One perspective considers the distribution of ownership and entrepreneurial responsibility among participants and users and the associated changes in the roles of individuals.
  • Technological level: A second perspective is concerned with the use of decentralized and autonomous technological solutions for the implementation of transactions. Particularly, potentials of the blockchain technology are analyzed.
  • Organizational level: The practice of other organizational solutions based on the principles of self-organization and decentralization imply a third perspective. Here, the focus will especially be on cooperative and cooperative models. Also, research is done on whether and how existing institutional conditions promote or hamper the diffusion of such forms of organization.

These development prospects have different macroeconomic, social and environmental effects:

  • Ecological effects: The environmental impact on the natural environment are assessed taking into account rebound effects. For this purpose, existing methods on life cycle assessment are developed further.
  • In addition, possible social and economic effects such as distribution and welfare effects as well as effects on competition and market structures are evaluated.

The project comprises qualitative and quantitative empirical studies as well as conceptual and model-theoretical work and is conducted in cooperation with partners from practice. These partners can be involved in different ways and with varying intensity. Together research questions can be developed and investigated, empirical studies and stakeholder dialogues can be carried out, and implications for policy and practice can be derived. You want to become part of the research network? Do not hesitate to get in touch with us!


Project Information

The junior research group is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) for a period of five years as part of the "Social-Ecological Research (SÖF)" priority in the "Research for Sustainable Development (FONA)" program.

Project period: 01.06.2017 - 31.05.2022

Partners: Institute for SME Research and Entrepreneurship at University of Mannheimg (ifm), Institute for Ecological Economic Research (IÖW) in Berlin, Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics (IBP) in Stuttgart.