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.

 
 
 
 

“Residents were woken by the sound of bulldozers”: in Lagos, gentrification can mean midnight demolition

A displaced family sits on make-shift structures after their home in the waterfronts was demolished last November. Image: Getty.

The ambitious plans produced by the Lagos state government to redevelop the most populous city in Africa are often lauded in Nigeria. Moving around in this buzzing yet often dysfunctional commercial capital is often tortuous, with thick traffic and poor connectivity problems across the city.

The current state governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, wants to remake the city’s image, turning it from a sprawling bottleneck of a city to a better structured and more functional one. But his plans to improve infrastructure and redevelop large parts of the city have had sinister consequences for swathes of the city’s population: the urban poor, who seem to have no place in Ambode’s vision.

The last few years have seen an alarming trend of state-backed destruction of small businesses, markets and especially informal housing settlements, “regenerating” areas with new expensive housing and development. Last year a large fishing community in Lagos informally called the ‘waterfronts’, housed over 300,000 people. But in the last five months, three rounds of demolitions have ruthlessly left more than 35,000 people homeless.

In November, the homes of over 30,000 people were destroyed by bulldozers. Last week a further 4,700 people were the victims of sudden midnight demolitions. According to residents, the destruction was supervised by state officials and police. A High Court ruling the previous January had said that previous demolitions by the state were “inhumane” and against the residents’ human rights, mandating all parties to enter mediation. All the same, residents were woken up by the sound of bulldozers which destroyed their homes, with no notice to collect their belongings.

Demolitions like this have become increasingly commonplace in Lagos, where land is scarce and valuable. By some estimates, over two thirds of people in Lagos live in informal housing settlements. And not only is there a premium on expensive housing projects; many of the state’s big infrastructure plans, like the desperately needed bridge connecting the Island to the mainland, cut through areas filled with such settlements.

After demolitions, many residents simply move to the outskirts of their destroyed communities or to other informal settlements. The cost of setting up shelters to live in is far more is feasible than formal housing costs.

Too often the government prefers to evict and demolish rather than mediate. It rarely provides assistance for tenants to move, or regulates and redevlops those areas with them in mind.  After a kidnapping near the waterfronts, the governor of Lagos, Akinwunmi Ambode, described the communities as “the abode of miscreants/street-urchins, kidnappers, touts, street traders and hawkers”. In his vision of a modern Lagos, slums and street sellers have little place.


A closing market

Government policies have also made it increasingly hard for the urban poor to work. In many settlement areas, small markets spring up to cater to the communities that live there. Small businesses also set up in other areas that aren’t approved, or in complexes rented from landlords who aren’t transparent with tenants about ownership disputes.

On side streets, women sell items laid on fabric or stools. And on the streets of Lagos, young men and women, and sometimes children, weave dangerously between impatient motorists: the gridlocks that hurt the city present a ready market for those selling anything from drinks and snacks, to underwear or household furniture.

Officially a ban on street trading has been in place in Lagos since 2003, but in the last year, in certain key areas, it has been more keenly enforced. Millions of families rely on street trading for income, yet its dangers and problems are clear. Here too, instead of reforming a system that millions of people rely on, the government wants to end it entirely. State officials have in the last year targeted key areas, arresting street sellers and confiscating their goods.

The government claimed that, after the ban, street traders would be able to access loans to start more formal businesses. But poor capacity, access and loan requirements have made it a out-of-reach for many traders.

Gentrification is a hallmark of major cities all over the world. But in Lagos, to many of the city’s poor, it’s manner is particularly violent and cruel.

The governor is keen to be the face of a new Lagos, attracting and administering new redevelopment projects. But he is not prepared to work out how to rehouse or compensate the people whose lives are being torn apart by such plans. He wants Lagos to be more ordered, for selling on the street to move into more regulated areas. But as the space for those areas diminishes to make way for shopping malls, and the costs outstrip people’s resources, there are many reasons why people aren’t selling there in the first place.

Regenerating and reforming Lagos is not a problem in itself. But the disregard for many of the people who live there is fuelling needless suffering.

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