Assets to access

Assets to access

Think back to your old record or CD collection, proudly displayed next to your stereo. You owned these – they were yours, painstakingly bought and collected. If you lent them out to a friend, they were gone from your collection.


Now think of the way many of us listen to music today, via streaming services such as Spotify. You no longer own the music, or even possess a digital copy as you did with services such as iTunes. The data is stored away on some server farm and streams to thousands of listeners simultaneously. Your subscription gives you access to the complete catalogue, with tens of millions of tracks, for the duration of your membership.

Pay As You Go

This shift from assets to access is becoming increasingly visible in other kinds of infrastructure. Getting your first car was a rite of passage and a sign of achievement. After all, your car is not only a means of transport but it also says something about who you are. And yet today’s youths are becoming less and less interested in car ownership. Why go through all the trouble?

Automotive transport offers a variety of car-sharing schemes. The Car2Go system in cities across Europe allows you to use small electric cars that can be picked up and left them anywhere in the city, and paid by the minute. The pioneering Greenwheels car-ownership system allows you to reserve cars by the hour in every city and most train stations across the Netherlands, making for an efficient train-car combination. Many people have gotten rid of their car altogether; others have downsized into a one-car family.

The Shift from Assets to Access

Assets to access is the shift from owning goods to using and sharing goods: you replace having an asset with access to a service. We see this shift in the sharing economy, where it happens with living space, transport and tools. We are, in the words of author Clay Shirky, “replacing infrastructure with information”: you don’t need more cars on the road, you just need to know where cars with available seats are going and where you can catch one. Car-sharing is even disrupting traditional rental services: one sharing scheme allows free parking when you are on holiday, and if it is rented out to incoming travelers, you share in the profits.

It’s a matter of turning an underutilized asset – and as most cars only have one occupant, they are heavily underutilized – into an opportunity. The same is true of your spare bedroom or the power drill in your garage. This sharing opportunity can be free, as it is in some idealistic community platforms such as Couchsurfing and the Burning Man festival, but increasingly it is an additional source of income.

Assets to Access 2
To join the sharing economy, turn an underutilized asset, like cars, into a sharing opportunity. Click To Tweet

The fact that the leading platforms which facilitate this sharing, most notably Uber and Airbnb, are valued in the tens of billions of dollars shows how much potential this will unlock in the near future.  Will the Chinese consumer first want to experience the pain of owning a car with no place to park and horrendous traffic jams to deal with, or will she immediately leapfrog to car-sharing? While car-sharing is still only an economic ripple in saturated markets where most people already own cars, all eyes are on China for this billion dollar question.

The shift from assets to access is not limited to material goods. It is also happening on an educational level. Most of education was based on memorizing facts: you had to seal the learned facts in your head which then became your knowledge assets. Today, all you need to know is where to find the information: you need access to relevant databases or online repositories. The skills required in education are shifting from memorizing and learning to knowing how to navigate your way around information, and to use that information as knowledge.

Thinking in Terms of Assets to Access

We can distinguish three abstract elements in the paradigm shift from assets to access. The first is to distinguish between solid and fluid. Records and CDs are solid, while streaming is fluid. Cars are solid, but the distance you drive is fluid. Goods you own are solid – you have to purchase them, store them, maintain them, and eventually upgrade or replace them. The use of borrowed or rented goods is a fluid, temporary interaction.

The second element is the shift from underutilized to utilized. This can happen in a commercial or non-commercial way, through renting or sharing. This is more than just a more efficient use of commercial assets, such as empty hotel rooms or airplane seats. The spare potential in the use of consumer assets – spare rooms, private cars and tools – is increased through information-sharing on platforms. It is about replacing infrastructure with information – a category shift.

The third element in the shift is that the asset in question does not even need to be material. It is a question of it shifting from stock to flow. In education, it is the shift from large swathes of memorized facts to a flow of information, and the capacity to find information and turn it into knowledge. For a company or organization, the shift can be from thinking in terms of stocks of ownership of knowledge or data to open flows of ideas and data.

Assets to Access 4
Assets don't need to be material. They can simply be open streams of information, data, or ideas. Click To Tweet

It's Your Move

The shift from assets to access turns us into consumers living virtual lifestyles. What does this mean for companies and for business opportunities? Primarily it means that if your business model is based on the ownership of products – whether it’s clothing, cars, electronics, or books – then you should be ready for challenges that will come from the sharing, using, or access economy models. Now is the time to investigate the disruptive sharing systems that are being developed in your field.

Ask yourself to what extent you still rely on a traditional ownership model. Are your pricing structures, product specifications, ecological footprint, and marketing and sales based on the model of the customer as individual owner? What creative new sharing, renting, using, or access models of ownership could you design for your product? Perhaps your product could be of much higher quality if you would retain ownership of the raw material. Perhaps the payment for your product will take the shape of a subscription, leading to continuing revenue after the initial outlay.

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Be ready for challenges that will come from the sharing economy. Click To Tweet

The shift from assets to access is not only for the consumer. It also applies to your company or organization. “Asset-light” strategies have become an important opportunity in business. Companies have learned that only strategic assets – those that provide a competitive advantage – are worth owning and even for those, preferred access might be sufficient. The shorter the balance sheet, the higher the flexibility.

Nowadays, it is possible to build a “virtual enterprise” that deploys a supplier network instead of its own factories. One that uses e-commerce and a franchise formula instead of its own retail stores.  One that leases its offices and uses Cloud services as IT. For these enterprises, extending their activities by also operating and monetizing consumers’ assets is a relatively small step. For instance, think about hotel operators branching out into an Airbnb-style service for privately-owned vacation homes. What forms of “consumer-to-business-back-to-consumer” sharing, renting, using or access can you create?

Read More About This

Jeremy Rifkin. The age of access.
Clay Shirky. Cognitive Surplus.
Clay Shirky. Here Comes Everybody.
Molly Turner. THNK forum. 2014

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