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.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.