How can cities use the sharing economy to solve urban problems?

The sharing economy at work. Image: Getty.

Technology is creating a new “sharing” or “collaborative” economy. Sites like AirBnB and TaskRabbit, and the ever-increasing number of crowdfunding platforms, are changing sector after sector of the economy.

Up till now, little attention has been paid to how these platforms can help to address environmental and social challenges. Yet, there are a range of ways in which the collaborative economy can help solve city challenges in particular – from reducing isolation to harnessing digital democracy platforms or involving citizens in spending decisions.

Pioneering cities like Amsterdam, Paris and Seoul, for example, have already driving through dedicated strategies for the collaborative economy. In embracing the principles that underpin the sharing economy and using their capabilities for urban challenges they are , in turn, building their reputations as “sharing cities”.

Sharing cities are not distinct from “smart” and “sustainable” cities: in fact, they clearly overlap with them. The main distinction is that sharing cities are currently self-identifying, sometimes with express political leadership.

For example, take Seoul, where Share Hub supports the city – led by mayor Park Won Soon – in its “Seoul Metropolitan Government Act for Promoting Sharing”. Amsterdam, on the other hand, which has been named the first “Sharing City” of Europe, was kick-started when grass-roots activity coalesced to form a movement. In this case the movement was initiated by shareNL, a knowledge and network platform for the sharing economy.

Lessons learned

For London or any UK city to do the same, it should begin with being clear on what type of relationship it wants to create between services delivered by the city and the collaborative platforms. At its simplest, this relationship can take two forms:

  • Citizen-to-city approaches that focus on integrating collaborative economy activities into how the city operates core activities, such as budgeting and planning; or
  • Citizen-to-citizen initiatives that focus on supporting platforms that enable citizens to help each other and improve life in the city, but are not integrated with city services.

Having an explicit and published vision of how the city will support the sharing economy, alongside a set of indicators to plot success, is a basic starting point. Ensuring regulation is up-to-date, flexible and can accommodate ad hoc disruptive business models is also a significant step to enabling a sharing city – demonstrating how the city welcomes new market entrants. And a city can only meaningfully support the acceleration of innovation in the sharing economy – and indeed other sectors – if it can provide leadership and coordination across city hall.

Building a public story about the positive value that can be created through the use of digital tools and technologies has been a key starting point for some cities. And there’s no doubt that for city leaders, political ownership of the sharing economy agenda is a key driver, when well supported by practical and policy interventions.


Efforts in Paris is a good example of this. In 2014, the city sought to open up its budgeting process through the “Madame Mayor I Have an Idea” initiative. The city has, overall, committed to opening up 5 per cent of the city’s investment budget (from a total of €426m, over the course of the current mayoral term) to ideas and votes by citizens.

Rolled out in two stages, the first version saw fifteen proposals put forward by the Paris City Council and some 40,000 votes cast. The next year, once a new dedicated website was launched, Parisians suggested over 5,000 ideas and more than 58,000 people voted – building public awareness and putting the infrastructure in place has been pivotal.

Collaborative economy platforms can also help mobilise people's knowledge, everyday possessions and time to make communities healthier and more connected. As part of its Sharing City agenda, Seoul has initiated projects that tap into dormant assets across the city, ranging from housing to hammers. Take, for example, its “Tool Kit Centres” which offer communities a shared space stocked with items such as tools and suitcases for residents to borrow. Importantly, Seoul has also opened up over 800 city-owned spaces for creative and productive purposes: new ventures need lots of things to flourish, with space to work and grow being key. 

Ultimately, there are many ways that collaborative economy platforms could be used to tackle the needs of people, families, communities and local governments. Closer to home, projects already underway in the UK that tap into the use of collaborative platforms for social good include the likes of Casserole Club and Shareyourmeal, which are being used to address loneliness and isolation, often amongst the elderly.

But for initiatives like these to scale in urban environments, city hall leaders and government policy-makers must be out in front. One positive step in this regard could be to convene important sectors of the collaborative economy – transport, space, time, goods and food – in an industry body or representative structure (or informal sectoral champions). Not only could such a group highlight barriers to policy-makers, the insurance industry and regulators alike; it could also generate awareness of the potential social value collaborative economy platforms could have for our cities.

Peter Baeck is head of collaborative economy research, and David Altabev a senior programme manager, at Nesta.

On 1 November 2016, Nesta will be hosting ShareLab, a one-day event bringing together over 200 policymakers, entrepreneurs, innovators and researchers to better understand how public services, civil society and the private sector can engage with, develop and harness collaborative platforms for good.

 
 
 
 

Pembrokeshire's innovative new eco-hamlet is great. But it should be the size of a city

The eco hamlet. Image: Western Solar.

The opening in January 2017 of an “eco-hamlet” for council house tenants in West Wales is great news. I have nothing but praise for a development which builds houses with a low carbon footprint, using locally grown wood, to make homes which are well insulated and powered by solar energy. It was also quick to build, with large sections being made in a factory and then assembled on site. And it was relatively cheap – at around £70,000 to £100,000 per building, it is certainly comparable to the costs of more conventional builds.

These houses are an inspiration to the construction industry and an aspiration for the home owner. After all, who wouldn’t like to live in a house that had yearly utility bills of £200, rather than the national average of £1,500?

So the problem is not the six wonderful solar houses at Glanrhyd, Pembrokeshire, or the lucky people who will get to live in them (and enjoy shared use of an electric car). The problem is that we’ve seen all of this before – but nothing changes. What we really need is far, far more of them.

Pentre Solar in Pembrokeshire. Image: Western Solar.

I’ve been involved in sustainable construction for nearly 25 years and seen many inspirational developments like Glanrhyd. There’s Julian Marsh’s home in Nottingham, Susan Roaf’s Oxford Ecohouse and the Hockerton Housing Project, to name but a few. The list is long.


Yet while many individuals continue to build these innovative and inspirational structures, we have a construction industry which still responds to these buildings with disdain. One executive from a large well-known house building company told me recently: “This is a new, expensive and untested technology. We just can’t risk building something so new with all the risks to the consumer and at a higher cost.”

But the situation is even worse than the disdain from the mainstream construction industry. Rather than being welcomed, the latest versions of these sustainable buildings are challenged at every turn. The initial response to the Welsh eco-hamlet plans were concerns about the materials, the technology and the design. The houses at Glanrhyd then had more than 20 planning conditions placed upon them. The CEO of Western Solar, the company behing the hamlet, freely admits that nearly half of their research budget went on solving problems they encountered along the way.

Thinking and building big

So it seems this kind of development just isn’t celebrated enough. There is a general atmosphere of mistrust from construction professionals. It is seen as too complex, too expensive, too risky. Yet there are positive reactions, too. Welsh politician Lesley Griffiths had this to say about the new houses in Glanrhyd:

This scheme ticks so many boxes. We need more houses, we need more energy efficiency, we want to help people with fuel poverty. It’s been really good to hear how they have sourced local products. It’s great they’re using local people to build the houses.

Surely we need to take the eco-technology we have and start rolling it out on a much larger scale. To do so would be a massive step in meeting the significant housing shortage (an estimated 125,000 extra new houses are needed every year). It would also address the disrepair of our current housing stock, and help refit the millions of houses in good repair but requiring improved performance in order to achieve the government’s 2050 carbon reduction target.

We must not forget that the 2050 Climate Change target is not some arbitrary political policy, but one based on the environmental challenge facing all of us. We need to play our part in slowing down the speed of climate change and adapting to the changing natural, social and economic environment.

The solar houses in Pembrokeshire are wonderful. But until we start building huge numbers of buildings with similar credentials, we are just celebrating a cottage industry rather than restructuring our urban environment for an uncertain future.The Conversation

John Grant is senior lecturer in natural and built environment at Sheffield Hallam University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.