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The potential of a Sharing Economy

A different approach

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A new report describes numerous was that urban leaders can encourage a shareable economy through policy change. This Big City has interviewed authors of the report:

This Big City: Could you start by telling the readers of This Big City a little about the sharing economy, and why you think it represents such a big opportunity for cities?

Neal Gorenflo: For us, the sharing economy is a people’s economy. It’s financed, owned, and controlled democratically by the people it serves. It’s a third way of provisioning life situated in relation to and in between the market and state.
However, It inverts the normal state of affairs where the economy is the end of all ends in society. Instead, a sharing economy is a means to an end. It has the potential to increase our freedom by reducing the resources need to provision our lives. The end being that people are free to pursue whatever gives them the most satisfaction most of the time.

That typically revolves around family, community, spirituality, health, art, learning, civic life, etc. In other words, those activities that offers increasing returns to satisfaction over time. In contrast, accumulating goods offers decreasing returns over time. That’s why consumer culture is a dead end. So the bottom line is this — the big opportunity for cities is to empower citizens to create a new, more liberating and celebratory experience in cities.

For us, the sharing economy begs the question, “what would life in cities be like if we we’re largely freed from what we know as work today?” I think we’d spend our time doing what we love with the people we love in the places we love. We’d spend our time contributing to our communities. I can’t think of anything better. What else should cities be for?

Anyway, that Shareable’s vision. Some would define the sharing economy as a technological thing, as access over ownership. That’s a part of it, but again, technology and access are a means, not an end.

The report looks at four areas – transport, food, housing and jobs. Are there any other areas where the sharing economy could change the way people live?

Yes, definitely, this was just a beginning. Food, housing, and transportation are the three biggest household expenses in the US. And jobs are how most people earn income. These are good places to start.

We could look at other industries like energy, telecommunication, and finance. There are sharing economy solutions for those too. We need a section on how to open up the political process. For instance, we advocate for participatory budgeting, where citizens decide how the city budget is spent in their neighborhoods. And for culture and leisure, we could look at the enabling infrastructure like policies for expanding public space.

Your report mentions that legal barriers are holding back the sharing economy. How, if at all, can people get around this?

The report is a guide, but it’s also a call to action. Sharing is a big opportunity for positive change. For example, take carsharing. Every shared car replaces 13 owned cars. 50% of new carsharing members join to get access to a car who didn’t already have access to a car. And for every 15,000 cars taken off of the ownership rolls, a city can keep an estimated $127 million in the local economy annually.

What if most of the economy operated this way? We could radically decrease resource consumption while radically increasing access to resources, and strengthen the local economy. There’s no other strategy that can address society’s two biggest challenges — poverty and climate change — at the same time. We can pursue prosperity through sharing instead of growth.

And here’s the thing, most of our recommendations are uncontroversial, nonpartisan, practical solutions. Despite the high profile regulatory battles of home and ride sharing companies like Airbnb and Sidecar, the path to a sharing economy is largely open. Shareable just launched The Sharing Cities Network to bring people together around this vision.


Many laws are set on a local level, and you mention that US cities such as Cleveland, Austin, Chicago, New York and San Francisco are doing a good job of encouraging urban-scale sharing. What can other cities learn from them?


Which projects featured in the report are your favourites?



Download the Policies for Shareable Cities here.


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