Designing sharing

Brief evening stopover at nef, for the launch of their latest report ‘Design for Sharing’ which looks at the rise of the sharing economy. Given I’m frequently driven to the conclusion that the biggest issue we face is how to resource social and environmental intiatives that need to happen but which will always struggle to turn a profit, this was a subject tapping into some recurring thoughts.

Anybody working in organisations with social or environmental aims today knows well enough that grant funding of all sorts is becoming more difficult to obtain. And it comes with larger demands placed upon it, both because of huge cuts in the supply of public sector funding and because of an increase in demand from organisations seeking investment.

As a different way at looking at the things – for sure doing good in the world requires some sort of ‘resource’. But it doesn’t always require cash. We can provide friendship, help, companionship and be very sure it will feel worthwhile. We can share what we own at no more cost than the loss of the use of our possessions for a while. We can volunteer our time, skills and energy. And, for some, digital networks are enabling  a lot more of this kind of time and asset sharing than has ever occurred before – creating what has been dubbed the ‘altruistic economy’ of social sharing.

But as the nef report points out there is plenty in the sharing economy which is not, as might be imagined, about stepping outside the cash economy. Instead, access instead of ownership characterises many of these businesses – with new ventures popping up to lend out, for a fee, cars, flats, music or even people. nef thinks much of this is problematic – the marketisation of ownership, for those who are already asset rich. Isn’t this just the further intrusion of monetization into social interaction? What I once would lend, I now hire. So EcoModo (lend your stuff for money) gets a thumbs down, though Streetbank (lend for free, and with a nice line in creating social connections) is a better idea. And TaskRabbit is ominously seen as the development of a contemporary form of domestic service, “neighbours” (read, people with more time on their hands than you) on-call to do your  shopping or run errands when, and only when, you need them done.

Other recent upstarts look more like existing business moving online, though in some – AirBnB, Uber – it’s true  this is accompanied by a big expansion in potential suppliers, as the costs and ease of renting rooms or giving lifts comes crashing down. Hence run-ins with incumbents whose means of earning a living are suddenly under threat. And what if easier access to rental cars or taxis means less incentive to use public transport, as nef claimed is happening?

I think some of this is a bit harsh. If access not ownership leads to less stuff per person, that does sound like progress towards more efficient consumption to me. Zipcar is fantastically convenient if you live anywhere near a docking spot, and feels like it could well be part of a city-scene that squeezes out car ownership. Or take nudie jeans – use and return for repair/re-use rather than use and throw. And are we reallty going to defend the right of London black cabs to drive around searching out fares in such an inefficient way – creating the biggest single source of air particle pollution in the city as they do?

But all this could become much much more interesting if networks arose on a much more lcoal level, for people to exchange goods, skills and time between themselves. Especially if these then connected with alternative currencies or linked to the existing idea of Time Banking. So an exchage payment is made, but in something other than the main currency of the economy. That would have the potential to bolster  local community resilience. And perhaps the most interesting question then, is what these new exchange options could do for life patterns – will they make it easier to ‘disengage’ with the mainstream economy, into a lcoal, alternative economy? And could people make that change? As an adjunct to existing life, out of choice? Or because of no other option? Could a large-scale uptake develop from a confluence between those for whom some form of alternative economic engaggement is a necessity, due to their exclusion from the mainstream employment market, and those for whom this is rather more of a choice –  the alternative economic acticvity of the Aftermath project.

As an indicator of the forces driving decentralisation and more localism – beyond just political sourness with Westminster or grandstanding celeb Mayors – the uptake of hyperlocal exchanges may be as good a measure as any.

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