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.

 
 
 
 

Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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