Sharing cities: The magic of indirect reciprocity


The sharing economy is entering the mainstream, with corporates like BMW getting on board. But how far can sharing cities boost local economies and communities, asks David Boyle?

One of the peculiar findings of the UK census in 2001 was that half the UK population lived within half an hour of where they were born, and that this proportion was rising fast.

This caused some scratching of heads, but the reason is pretty clear.  House prices are now so high that both partners have to be in full-time work to afford a mortgage.  That means they need to live near their parents or in-laws to provide childcare during the day.

The implications of this are quite far-reaching.  For one thing, it isn’t exactly globalisation. For another, when house prices are ruinous and when the economy is faltering – both of which conditions may now be semi-permanent – we really need each other.

The Labour government tried to clamp down on informal childcare, even by grandparents. But in practice, babysitting is what makes the world go round.

It is mutualism in a sense, and it used to thrive in the poorest communities.  The tragedy is that the poorest communities, after decades of regeneration, often lack the trust and social capital to make it possible any more.

That is why interest is rising in how new technologies can be used to extend these kind of networks into other areas. Like time banks or crowdfunding or couchsurfing or food sharing, and whatever other innovative sharing idea human ingenuity can imagine –  like Sorted (errands), Bla Bla Car (long journeys), even Borrow My Doggie.

It doesn’t actually require technology. Babysitting circles pre-date computers, let alone the internet, but being able to do things online certainly helps – for some reason, it seems to provide the basics for trust to be possible.

Nor is sharing a very new idea. The very first detailed description of life in London, by William FitzStephen in the 1180s, describes a public cookshop by the Thames at Walbrook where people came to share the cooking of their meals.

The Sharing City
But the so-called ‘sharing economy’ is taking American cash-strapped cities by storm, led by cheerleader Gavin Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco, and author of Citizenville, about how the digital economy is reinventing government.

His successor Ed Lee has just set up a Sharing Economy Working Group, charged with having ‘a comprehensive look at the economic benefits, innovative companies and emerging policy issues around the growing sharing economy’.

The San Francisco area has already given birth to Airbnb, which lets people earn money by renting out their rooms to travellers, Taskrabbit for local errands, Getaround and RelayRides for local car-sharing.

The web magazine Shareable held a summit on sharing in the city in 2011, and has worked closely with local officials to extend the idea to sharing parking spaces, workspaces, urban agriculture and tools.

What is fascinating about the sharing economy is that it borrows from some of the free market enthusiasm of Silicon Valley and knits it together with some of the basic values of mutualism, and there appear to be economic benefits for the cities that encourage it too.

San Francisco estimates that Airbnb brought $56m into the city via the hosts renting out rooms, and supported local businesses to the tune of $43m. Compared with tax breaks, subsidies or wholesale regeneration, it is extraordinarily cheap.

It is also based on the assumption that we use our resources extremely badly.  There are empty rooms and parking spaces everywhere.  We use our power drills on average less than one day a year, and our mowers only maybe seven times a season.

We have a great deal of perfectly good junk which can be sold on, traditionally through car boot sales, or online through Freegle, the UK version of Freecycle.

If you add in the capacity to do a bit extra for neighbours – and the fact that 15 million tons of food gets thrown away in the UK every year – then you get an innovation like Casserole Club.  This encourages people to cook an extra portion of the main meal, and emerged in Reigate and Banstead thanks to the digital consultancy FutureGov.

Or FareShare, which used food that would otherwise be thrown away to produce 10m extra meals last year.

These ideas are also on the political agenda in southern Europe, where dwindling funds are forcing local government to think about how they can help local people share more effectively.

In Spain, as in so many other places, the sharing economy has emerged partly out of the counterculture born of protest, but partly from more practical ideas like, which shares school textbooks.

Spanish cities have also been backing the time bank phenomenon, which has emerged independently from similar ideas in the UK and USA.  There are now nearly 400 time banks in Spain, and a similar number in Italy, which are finding ways to share skills and time in communities, just as they are in the UK.

One of the main organisations involved is the Barcelona-based NGO Salut y Familia, which now has 16 time bank offices across Barcelona and has been spreading their expertise to Portugal and Chile.  It is also involved in using their growing network to train people in basic skills and to help them get jobs.

The Italian time banks have recently spread to Bulgaria and Greece.  The UK-based consultancy Spice is busily spreading similar systems in partnership with a range of public sector partners, from the City of London Corporation to the Welsh government.

In France, the economist Philippe Aigrain has become the inspiration for the sharing economy, part of a phenomenon known as economie solidaire. Ouishare is also one of fastest growing business websites in the country, and 60% of the population now use second hand markets and 37% use group purchasing.

The private sector has also recognised some of the possibilities: BMW’s DriveNow offers carshares in cities.

David Boyle

David Boyle

David Boyle is a director of the New Weather Institute.

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