Airbnb is a trailblazer and leader of the “sharing economy” movement. It provides a platform for people all over the world to share vacant rooms with others, that are in need of a place to stay. But in reality, full-fledged sharing rarely happens, even through the sharing economy platform. You could rent a room from an AirBnb host and make a payment, but it’s really just another economic transaction – just an alternative way to access vacant rooms – unless the hosts and guests actually end up sharing something more than the transaction together, such as experience, knowledge or a fun time. A platform alone cannot make true sharing happen, no matter how great it is. At the end of the day, it’s people who enable sharing, not the platform.
With the Yoshino Cedar House project, it seems like Airbnb is attempting to transform its platform from a supporting device to a catalyst to incubate true sharing. It partnered with Yoshino-cho, a rural town in Kansai (central west) Japan, which has become the world’s first Airbnb “community” host (as opposed to an individual host) of the Yoshino Cedar House.
Yoshino-cho is a small town in Nara Prefecture, in the Kansai (central west) area of Japan. Nara was an ancient capital even before Kyoto, and still maintains a mythological atmosphere. (Nara is home to Horyuji, the world’s oldest surviving piece of wooden architecture.) Surrounded by beautiful forests, Yoshino-cho has long been a self-sustained town of lumber, especially for Yoshino sugi (cedar) and hinoki (cypress). In the 1970’s, there were more than 15,000 residents, supporting the lumber industry. However, the population decreased to less than 9,000 by 2010, as the town struggled to keep up with global competition in the lumber market where mass-produced, cheaper wood prevailed.
Yoshino’s lumber industry has a long history. Nara became the center of Buddhist architecture in the 6th~7th century, which relied almost exclusively on wood. Ever since, Nara forests have been providing high quality lumber to various architectural projects, for more than 1500 years. Hinoki (cypress) is the king of lumber, and sugi (cedar) is most widely used in Japan. Yoshino has both types, and is especially famous for its high quality cedar. Yoshino’s lumber industry is in full circle – they have every expertise, accumulated through hundreds of years of experience, from growing trees, and maintaining forests to cutting, conditioning and applying wood for architecture, crafts and other purposes.
But such abundant knowledge and skills do not get along with economic efficiency. The lumber industry in Yoshino is in decline. The town is distressed and aging. In a fierce price war, people became too busy sealing better deals, which often provided lumber from the other side of the world, and they forgot that they have rich resources right next to them.
The situation is not unique to Yoshino; when the global economy forces every town, every region in any country to compete in a common market based only on efficiency, other values – which cannot be properly priced through a modern economic mechanism – can easily be foregone. Regions that try to preserve a traditional, old-fashinoned industry are especially hit hard.
As endangered species quietly go extinct every day, yielding to economic development, traditional culture, skills and techniques, that have been accumulated through hundreds of years worth of efforts and experiments, keep disappearing every day, in different pars of the world.
Then what is economic efficiency that we admire so much, and what is inefficiency we loathe?
There could be many definitions, but one of the factors that Yoshio-cho and Airbnb and the Yoshino partnership reveal has to do with “people.” The modern economy believes that the system becomes productive when people are removed and replaced by machines or technology. Automation is better, because humans make mistakes, take sick leave, and ask for pay raises. Machines can do reliable jobs 24/7 and do not complain. Airbnb’s platform is enabled by leveraging state-of-the-art technology. It’s so effective because human elements are minimized in the system.
But Yoshino’s lumber industry is all about people. They are involved in all aspects of the industry. From sustaining forestry, which includes literally checking each tree standing to understand its condition and quality, and then to forecast the best application for it’s use, to the conditioning of trees. Trees can contain different levels of moisture or shapes that could limit applications if conditioned poorly. They are involved in the cutting and using of trees because critical decisions need to made to place the right tree at a right place (called “適材適所 (tekizai tekisho”). They are also involved in decisions for the proper type and placement of the lumber for use in foundations, floors, pillars, or roof structures etc…because trees come in different densities, strengths and there is loss of density and strength over time. Trees have certain grain structure and shrinkage rate or ventilation capacity, of which people involved in the industry have gained much knowledge. Quality control is all done by people, who accumulate enormous amount of knowledge from experience. But those human elements are considered “inefficient” in the modern economy.
At the end of the great technological leap, people are starting to ask: so, we’ve become pretty alienated from the production system in pursuit of efficiency. A modern economy tells us to “consume,” rather than to “produce,” because we are inefficient in producing. But is it making us happy? Do we want to keep trying to make our consumption even more affordable, sacrificing everything else?
The sharing economy may have been asking us: “what are we actually sharing, consumption or something bigger? Does consumption sharing make us happier than regular consumption?” Yoshino-cho must have been asking: do we want to abandon our heritage because its considered inefficient under the current economic system?
The fact that the two decided to partner suggests what their answers might be. Airbnb is seeking to encourage people to share more than economic efficiency and its end results – affordable, accessible and endless consumption. It wants to provide a venue for true sharing. Yoshino-cho does not want to give up its rich heritage, but it desperately needs ways to advertise their non-efficiency value – people’s passion, experience and knowledge, nurtured by abundant nature – in an economic market.
“Sharing” emerged as a key to solve the needs of both parties. We are coming to the realization that consumption alone cannot make us happy, and the sharing platform alone cannot make true sharing to happen. We need “people.” We need human elements, which have repeatedly been denied by the modern economic system, as inefficient.
It’s probably not a coincidence that “sharing” and “sharing economy” became hot and resonated with many of us in the midst of accelerated economic efficiency. The idea of a sharing economy excited us because it sounded as if the economy was finally being brought back to peoples’ hands: We now can share something better, bigger than just “consumption!” It gives us hope that human elements are finally back at the center stage of the economy. Indeed, because a plethora of studies suggest millennials are willing to spend more money on experiences, rather than on “stuff.” An increasing number of people are decluttering, giving up owning stuff and going minimalist. Yet another group of people are choosing to live in tiny houses. All in all, more people are freeing up space which was once filled by “stuff.” Freed space can now be filled with a variety of sharing: sharing experiences, fun time with other people. Sharing skills and knowledge. Or, sharing the wisdom of nature.
Although the Yoshino Cedar House project has just begun, if guests and the Yoshino community can actually share experiences, common values, tradition, history, wisdom, passion, or whatever is meaningful to them, and if the sharing platform becomes something bigger than a platform, it will inspire many other rural communities, rich in heritage but suffering in the efficiency war. At the end of the day, economic efficiency has to be a means to fulfill us: we shouldn’t be living to fulfill economic efficiency.