Workshopping the Sharing Economy

July 2015 in the UK saw the ten-year anniversary of the introduction of the ‘community interest company’ legal structure, marked by a celebration at the University of Bristol in the UK. Alternative legal structures for organisations and projects with a mixed social and economic mission are just one piece of the regulatory puzzles emerging from the research on social enterprise and social activism being conducted by Professor Bronwen Morgan and Dr. Declan Kuch under the ARC Future Fellowship project Between Activism and Enterprise.

Professor Morgan and Dr. Kuch, working with Dr. Michelle Maloney of the Australian Earth Laws Alliance, co-hosted two workshops in late July 2015 with the Australian Sharing Law Network. Aimed at sustainability enthusiasts, organisations and projects as well as the professionals that advise and support them, especially legal professionals, these workshops sought to tease out just which pieces of the regulatory puzzles warrant most attention from researchers, and to help design practical support in response.  

The first workshop, Building the Sharing Economy, brought together 26 organisations and people interested in supporting sustainability through cooperative and sharing projects, for a lively discussion on the challenges related to law and governance experienced by these projects. Held in Brown St Community Hall in Newtown on Thursday 23 July, the participants included indigenous organisations, artists, actors, lawyers, social enterprise consultants and a range of sharing projects related to food, housing and employment.

The next morning, a roundtable on Building the Australian Sharing Law Network held at UNSW Law brought together 8 legal professionals from small firms, solo practice and entrepreneurial support services to brainstorm ways of responding to the felt needs and demands expressed in the community-based workshop of the previous day. Together the two workshops strongly demonstrated a shared sense of a gap between affordable and relevant advice on one hand, and the current offerings of professional support for social enterprises on the other.

It is increasingly clear, between recent fieldwork in Bristol, UK, the exciting ICSEM project (which is developing a global qualitative comparative database on social enterprise), and ongoing dialogue with the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership, that there are international and local lessons for fitting support with appropriate legal structures. The project team hope that Australian legal and social enterprise communities can innovate in this gap and recognise that trading social enterprises differ from more traditional charities in their use of commercial exchange but not their ambitions to make the world a more equitable and just place to live.


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