Collaborative consumption and the sharing economy are fast becoming household names and taking root worldwide. Companies and investors in the private sector are transforming marketplaces and redefining exchange.
Meanwhile, cities and public sector stakeholders around the world are grappling with new realities: budget reductions, technology-driven innovation, and an increasingly diverse set of demands from their residents. This is redefining the urban planning process itself.
I have recently attended several city-oriented events, including CityLab in New York City, (co)lab summit in Atlanta and VERGE in San Francisco. I’ve been surprised at the knowledge gap that exists between the private and public sectors when it comes to the kind of innovation – and benefits – that the sharing economy represents.
To date, city governments and the sharing economy companies have rarely been seen as partners. More often, city leaders have dealt with transformative new business models from a reactionary position. This is understandable: the rules governing many new businesses were developed for an industrial age in which mass consumption and ownership were the norm, and before today’s technologies existed, so they don’t fit within current regulatory structures. Moreover, regulators must strike a balance between competing pressures – from the public, incumbents and a variety of other stakeholders – to encourage innovation and maintain public safety.
Nonetheless, this often results in a status quo that is sub-optimal for the city as a whole. City objectives such as local economic investment, entrepreneurship and resource efficiency are thwarted. It also leads to ongoing tensions, and awkward results (such as the back-and-forth Airbnb rulings in New York City over the past several months – leaving the company, travelers and many others in uncertain limbo). At the end of the day, what people often hear is “no, you can’t do that” – ‘that’ being anything from renting out your room to peer-to-peer carsharing.
There is a much better way to approach this. It’s time to reimagine how city leaders and other officials can get involved in a way that’s mutually beneficial and enables them to act from an informed, empowered position rather than through lawsuits or polarizing headlines.
Welcome to Shareable Cities. A Shareable City enables residents to efficiently and safely share all kinds of assets – from spaces to cars, skills and utilities – to create stronger, healthier and more connected communities.
In the coming weeks, I’ll write about specific issues in more detail. In this initial post, let’s lay out the basic trends that underscore this concept. Whether cities get their approach to Shareable Cities right will be path-critical to their future success. Why? Because cities that embrace this idea will discover powerful and efficient solutions that could positively change transport, jobs, education, tourism, food and many other aspects of the way people live.
Politics: Mayors will rule the world
Even before the recent U.S. government #shutdown, the trend towards local leaders and local solutions had begun. The defining world leaders of the 21st century won’t be presidents or prime ministers. They will be mayors and other local leaders who can guide the communities they serve in ways that lead to transformative change. Each city’s path will be unique, but the most successful cities will do things that other cities can adopt, tweak, and scale.
Benjamin Barber is persuasively explaining why mayors should rule the world. Bruce Katz is leading the Metropolitan Revolution, showing how the devolution of power in cities globally can lead to more productivity and innovation. The Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilient Cities initiative and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge are just that: city-focused, with mayors as champions with responsibility to see their plans through.
Cities are just starting to wake up to the magnitude and power of the sharing economy. In many places they are waking up quickly. In late 2012, Seoul Mayor Park Won Soon outlined his vision for his city to become the world’s leading Shareable City and a comprehensive strategic plan to realize it. In the United States, 15 mayors signed the Shareable Cities resolution in summer 2013, declaring their support of the sharing economy. However, signing a resolution is the easy part; it is far more important to translate those words into action.
Economics: the city as a resource-efficient, social model
Collaborative consumption models tap into the concept of idling capacity: the underutilized value in assets. When assets sit idle, inefficiency results – lost revenues, more expensive overhead, value left on the table. “Assets” doesn’t mean simply money, cars and homes; it includes our skills, public spaces, rooftops, parking lots and much more.
Idling capacity exists in assets throughout a city, yet in most instances it’s hidden so we don’t see it. We think nothing of cars that sit idle 23 hours a day, and offices that are empty 70% of the time. This includes assets owned by the city itself, which results in a more expensive city to run.
Tapping into the idling capacity of assets costs essentially nothing. It doesn’t require massive infrastructure investments or a rerouting of current systems. A city can save money, create additional revenue sources, or both – simply by using its resources more efficiently. Moreover it can unlock massive wealth in the broader community, by enabling more people to become productively engaged, generating income, and bringing neighbors back into relationship with one another.
Urban Planning: Add a Human Touch
“New urbanism” has been a clarion call of progressive cities for decades. Architects and others who focused on the built environment led the charge. Walkability is a central tenet, along with green building principles and integrated infrastructure. Indeed walkability and LEED certification are helpful ingredients for a city’s well-being. However, by themselves they are insufficient for a city to thrive. Why? Because they lack a human touch. They are missing the spark that prompts community members to interact, and makes it easy to create shared value. (One could easily imagine an entirely LEED-certified city that nevertheless isn’t an enjoyable place to live.)
Cities are people places. They need human scale designs and structures that nurture relationships. Collaborative consumption models can provide this link between impersonal buildings and the social connections that bring them alive. From rethinking assets from office space via platforms like LiquidSpace and OpportunitySpace, to government-supported car and bike sharing programs (such as Boston’s Hubway and Washington DC’s Capital BikeShare) and neighborhood garden matching platforms such as Landshare, a Shareable Cities approach enables residents to reconnect with each other and their surroundings. In the process both government and community members can reimagine and re-animate old notions of urban planning, using an old-fashioned “technology” called… collaboration.
Towards a Shareable City Future
Collaborative consumption provides insights and solutions that enable cities of all sizes to address multiple goals at once. Boost resilience? Check. Increase sustainability? Check. Promote local economic investment, innovation, and community fabric? Check, check, check.
What’s more, that Shareable City concept can be transferred anywhere. Of course each city’s preferences and priorities will differ based on local characteristics. But the principles and drivers are the same: we can now “connect the dots” – sharing haves and needs, and unlocking idling capacity everywhere – more efficiently and personally than ever before.
Cities need to accommodate more people, more “stuff” and more demands. Collaborative consumption offers a simple yet powerful solution. We need greater city and civic leader awareness of it because in today’s hyper-connected global community, our future is shared too.
Next in the Shareable Cities series:
- Regulation, innovation and adaptation: city reactions when rules become outdated
- Idling capacity in an active city
- Shareable, sustainable and resilient: what’s common and what’s unique?
- Mayors and the Shareable City: they’re one of us
- Investing in the Shareable City: hyper-local solutions with global relevance