Moving Beyond the Sharing Economy: The Case for ‘Sharing Cities’.

© CUNY 2012 The Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture

© CUNY 2012 The Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture

What can be bad about an economy that’s called ‘sharing’? Sharing is the antithesis of our current dog-eat-dog economy right? With a booming global population and mass-migration to cities, surely anything that encourages getting-along with each other is a good thing?

But the sharing economy is under attack – though surprisingly not from market-is-gospel neoliberals. It’s being rejected by people who put ‘all for one and one for all’ at the center of their politics. The sharing economy, they say, is nothing more than sly companies profiteering from the skills, possessions and spaces that people would otherwise never think of making money from. Let’s take a closer look at why we must move beyond the current concept of a sharing economy and make the wider case for Sharing Cities.

In our forthcoming book Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities (McLaren and Agyeman MIT Press 2015), when we talk of Sharing Cities, we deliberately embrace the ambiguity of the verb and adjective of ‘sharing’. We argue that a reinvention and revival of sharing in our cities could enhance equity, rebuild community and dramatically cut resource use. With modern technologies the intersection of urban space and cyber-space provides an unsurpassed platform for more just, inclusive and environmentally efficient economies and societies rooted in a sharing culture. In the book we set out a case for moving beyond the bounded and ultimately limiting concept of the ‘sharing economy’ to both understanding whole cities as shared spaces, and acting to share them fairly. In brief outline, our case for Sharing Cities runs as follows.

Humans are natural sharers.

Sharing is, by all accounts, an evolutionary trait (Schmidt and Sommerville, 2011). Shared efforts allowed our ancestors to band together to hunt, farm and create shelter, and reciprocal forms of altruism arose naturally from repeated interactions in such collective groups where reputation matters for survival (Ridley 1996). Hunter-gatherer societies depended on sharing and cooperation and this behavior instilled a natural preference for fair shares and broadly equal outcomes (Tomasello and Warneken 2008). The earliest cities developed in a number of places, from Mesopotamia to Asia to the Americas and were always about sharing, with their public spaces serving as focal places of exchange, encounter and entertainment. One of the largest with around 50,000 inhabitants at its peak was Mohenjo-daro, in present day Sindh Province, Pakistan. It existed from about 2600 BCE, and had a population of 50,000 or more. It had a marketplace, shared well, a communal housing structure and public baths.

Traditional or ‘socio-cultural’ sharing, as happened in hunter gatherer societies and early cities, still happens everywhere in both the global North and South, but it has largely broken down in modern cities in the face of ‘bling’ culture, commercialization of the public realm, the increasingly rapid pace of economic and technological change, the rise of our competitive nature and the destabilization and fragmentation of human identities these trends have engendered. Writer and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan (2014) suggests  that rather than stimulating innovation and inspiring us to do better, competition can generate fraud, cheating, stress and inequality whilst suffocating creative instincts. The problems of competition are exacerbated in todays globalized markets, cultural industries and sporting contests, where a ‘winner takes all’ structure (Frank and Cook 1996) awards the lion’s share of the rewards to a very few elite participants who gain celebrity status and advertising endorsements that multiply their direct earnings many times over.

The future of humanity is urban.

Nowhere in human culture is the centrality of collaboration and sharing more obvious than in the city. The city is not just a venue for the sharing of spaces, ‘things’ and services, but is historically a shared entity in itself; the product of shared creation or co-production. Demographic, economic and cultural forces are bringing us together in larger and larger urban regions, particularly in the global South. Around 53% of the world’s population currently lives in cities (World Bank 2012). According to The Economist (2012) this will rise to 64.1% in the developing, and 85.9% of the developed world by 2050.

Contrary to what many might argue, this is not a disaster for humanity, as the physical nature of urban space facilitates – and in some ways, necessitates – sharing: of resources, infrastructures, goods, services, experiences and capabilities. The effects of population density and highly networked physical space are converging with new digital technologies to drive and enable sharing in cities – particularly in novel ‘mediated’ forms. All three come together to provide critical mass in both demand for, and supply of, shared resources and facilities. New opportunities for collaboration and sharing are arising at the intersection of urban space and cyberspace.

While San Francisco is at the forefront of the modern wave of collaborative consumption with high-tech sharing companies, new sharing start-ups and the development of new norms amongst Millennials, Seoul, South Korea is one of the first global cities to officially endorse the sharing economy, but also, to move beyond. The city, which is home to more than 10 million people living within 234 square miles (Johnson, 2013), is striving to cultivate a sharing culture and build the public’s trust in sharing enterprises and activities. Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon, a political independent and long-standing human rights activist, is a strong driving force behind this official embrace of sharing. In September of 2012, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced its plan to promote a sharing vision through “Sharing City, Seoul” (Ejang, 2013). This city-funded project aims to make sharing activities accessible to all citizens by expanding physical and digital sharing infrastructure, incubating and supporting sharing economy startups, and putting idle public resources to better use. According to Kim Tae Kyoon, director of Seoul’s Social Innovation Division, Sharing City could help citizens regain some of the community that rapid urbanization and industrialization have lost. He told Shareable that the ultimate goal of the project is to “share lives among dispersed people, recover trust and relationships, and shape a warm city in terms of people’s heart (Johnson 2013).”

Sharing Cities prioritize social justice.

While there is a growing realization that with new opportunities for sharing we have new opportunities to enhance trust and rebuild social capital, the sharing economy is also creating new spaces in which commercial interests can casualize labor, privatize public services and capitalize on growing land values through gentrification.

David Golumbia argues:

“Siding with upstart venture capital is not my idea of giving ordinary people “a leg up.” The “sharing economy” doesn’t have much to do with individuals. Instead, it represents corporate capital doing what it typically does: Monetizing parts of the social world that have previously avoided it” (cited in Burns 2014).

Similarly, SolidarityNYC:

“There’s a spectrum of sharing economy groups, from cooperatives to private companies like Airbnb. Airbnb is portrayed as helping cash-strapped individuals, which may be true in some cases. But in the long-term, it will likely exacerbate New York City’s housing crisis, by allowing landlords to charge more in rent because their tenants can turn to this secondary market to make up the difference” (ibid).

In such ways the emerging sharing economy can deepen inequalities and deliver injustice. City leaders therefore need to support and emphasize communal models of sharing that build solidarity and spread trust. In other words, social justice doesn’t simply happen; sharing systems must be designed around equity and justice: these cannot be retrofitted. In Medellín, Colombia’s second city, architect Alejandro Echeverri worked with former mayor Sergio Fajardo on the city’s transformation, which came out of the department of urbanismo social (social civic planning or social urbanism). During the mid-1990’s, Echeverri explains: “a small group began to think in terms not of top-down policy, but of one that would begin with the poorest neighborhoods…it was both a concept and a physical strategy” (cited by Vulliamy 2013). Social urbanism focuses on spatial justice: striving to bridge the city’s socio-spatial divide and achieve inclusion through prioritizing historically neglected neighborhoods on the urban agenda. For Medellín, this has meant a substantial shift in public investment in the form of infrastructure, and public services, buildings and spaces, all of which have received high quality architectural design.

Increasing trust and collaboration

Like any other practice, sharing with equity and justice, can naturally shift cultural values and norms – in this case towards trust and collaboration. Benkler (2004 341 citing Kahan 2002) argues: “Both analytic models and empirical evidence support the proposition that as kind, sharing, and reciprocal behavior increases in society, so does the tendency to trust others, reciprocate, and behave pro-socially”. In other words, “by practicing sharing people come to value it more, or come to learn to trust other participants” (ibid). Trust in strangers, say Botsman and Rogers (2010), is not an abstract unfounded naivety, but a product of the right circumstances and transparency. Rating systems online provide the equivalent of personal recommendations, and, in a world where only 14% of us trust advertisers, but 78% trust peer recommendation (p203), this is incredibly powerful.

A Right to (remake) The City

This can deliver a further dividend, in that increased trust increases the motivation for social investment in public goods and the public realm or urban commons (common resources, managed and sustained by our collective activities). Such an enhanced public realm can in turn directly facilitate more and more efficient sharing, with significant democratic benefits. This requires seeing beyond a ‘sharing economy’ to seeing whole cities as shared entities with shared public services such as healthcare, childcare, education and libraries; shared infrastructural resources such as shared streets, mass transit, electricity, water and sewerage and shared spaces, such as public spaces and green spaces. But we need go further in seeing not only a ‘Right to the City’ and to the urban commons but a right to remake them (Harvey 2012) as being fundamental to any form or urban social contract worthy of the title ‘sharing city’.

Through various methods of urbanism – guerilla, DIY, tactical, pop-up, and open-source to name a few – city dwellers are reimagining and redefining their environments. By their nature, such movements interpret the collective urban commons as a shared space, but rather than accepting places as they are, they are redefining what they can become (Massey 1995). Indeed, space as possibility (Agyeman 2013) is another way of framing a Right to the City, a recognition of Harvey’s conclusion that such a Right should be seen not as “an exclusive individual right, but a focused collective right” (2011 137).

Transforming the political domain

Increasing trust and collaboration also establishes a precondition and motivation for collective political debate which recognizes the city as a shared system. The same measures that enable sharing online, also – if civil liberties are properly protected – enable collective politics online. We see the increasingly blurred nexus between urban- and cyberspace enabling transformation – this time in the political domain. These spaces are fundamentally important for forms of participation invented and controlled by the people. However, at the same time as neoliberalism is forcing a a ‘trenchant reregulation and redaction of public space’ (Low and Smith 2006 1), it is also threatening the same in cyberspace. Net neutrality is essential to the Sharing City. It is based on the principle of equality: that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and governments should not discriminate on the basis of (legal) content or introduce different charges, whether by type of user, particular content, particular site, platform, application, type of equipment, or mode of communication.

Towards a sharing paradigm

It is in the anticipation of such transformations that we suggest that the ‘Sharing Cities’ concept should become the guiding purpose of the politics, planning and policymaking for the future city. Adopting what we are calling the ‘sharing paradigm’ offers cities the opportunity to lead the transition to just sustainabilities. The sharing paradigm is based on the fundamental understanding that our wellbeing depends on building and developing human capabilities for all, and the fundamental resources we have available to do that – from breathable air to education, and from energy resources to health-care – are better conceived and understood as shared commons than as private goods.

We may collectively decide that the best way to manage and allocate certain resources is through market economies, or perhaps through public management, but our starting point is the recognition of their collective, shared nature. The sharing paradigm therefore foregrounds ways of thinking based on sharing resources fairly, rather than by ability to pay; treating resources and the environment as the common property of humankind; nurturing the collective commons of human culture and society and stimulating human flourishing by establishing and enabling the expression of individual and collective capabilities.

Leadership for Sharing Cities

City authorities are essential actors in such a transformation. Sharing advocates such as Janelle Orsi et al (2013), April Rinne (2014) and Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers (2010) have all suggested a range of actions cities might take. Here we summarize and elaborate on their suggestions to paint a picture of the leadership role of the city authorities in a Sharing City.

A Sharing City will need a public commitment to its vision, backed by the necessary strategies, institutions and resources.

It will need also to systematically map the assets owned by the city to identify those that could be shared, and opportunities for community engagement; and review all operations and policies to identify where it utilize collaborative economy platforms to meet its needs or goals (also including shareability criteria in local procurement tenders and other municipal contracts).

It will actively invest in public services and enable co-production in city-led services, protecting and enhancing of public common resources and services, from libraries to public spaces, and from health to education.

It will need to develop appropriate indicators for the city as a whole and its districts – such as a ‘neighborhood shareability index’, and establish means of monitoring progress, perhaps piggybacking on smart city investments.

It will engage the public in governance, for example, through participatory budgeting. It will also design and ‘police’ the public realm in ways that enable participation and create physical, virtual and psychological spaces for insurgent counter-cultures and interculturalism.

It will enable collaborative economy operations in the city, reviewing and reforming regulation and policy as necessary across areas such as taxation, planning and zoning, insurance and licensing; and investing its own capital in the sharing ecosystem, to support incubators and accelerators, research, capacity-building and shared infrastructure; and particularly to provide finance for non-commercial approaches to sharing.

And it will act as a ‘meta-intermediary’ or sharing hub, publishing online directories, linking sharing activity operators together with one another and with citizens, perhaps also aggregating and guaranteeing reputation for its citizens, underpinned by enabling open, affordable high-speed (mobile) internet access for all residents.

The Sharing Cities concept offers a radically different vision compared with a global race to the bottom to attract footloose investment capital that many cities are currently engaged in. It redefines what ‘smart cities’ of the future might really mean – harnessing smart technology to an agenda of sharing and solidarity, rather than one of competition, enclosure, deepening inequality and division.


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