Sharing is natural human behaviour. Since the beginning of time people have shared food, shelter, skills and technology with their friends and neighbours. Now technology is bringing people together across towns, cities and continents in a new ‘sharing economy’, covering everything from home-swapping to driveway-letting and from car-pooling to skill sharing. The sharing economy is coming of age in the UK.
By Debbie Wosskow
According to recent figures from PwC, sharing economy businesses are set to reach global revenues of US$335 billion by 2025 (equivalent to £9 billion). So it is no surprise that government is showing an interest. Last year, I was commissioned to undertake an independent review on the sharing economy. In my report I outlined the UK’s role in the global sharing economy and made recommendations for how policy-makers can better support collaborative consumption platforms and users 17. I was delighted to see many of the recommendations taken forward in the 2015 Budget.
One of my recommendations was the implementation of a pilot ‘sharing city’ scheme. This is not a new concept: sharing has already been integrated globally into the DNA of cities and regions such as Victoria (Australia), Amsterdam and Seoul – and it was something I wanted to see trialled in the UK. This vision became a reality after Chancellor George Osborne announced that the government would be running two pilot sharing city schemes, one in Leeds City Region and the other in Greater Manchester, to be launched in 2015/16.
Below I examine the characteristics of sharing cities, their potential future in the UK and the scope for London also becoming a sharing city.
While still an evolving concept, a sharing city is essentially one in which residents are encouraged to share as part of their daily lives.
In practice this means that resources such as transport, office space, accommodation, possessions and skills are brought together in a network that residents can easily access. For example, local council buildings could also be used for community group meetings, or car clubs could become integrated into a city’s local transport network.
Encouraging sharing in communities has wide and numerous benefits. For the Sharing Cities Network, an initiative connecting sharing activists in cities across the world, sharing creates, “a more joyous, resilient and equitable world”. 18 But how do sharing cities work in practice?
One extreme but well-established example of the sharing economy in practice is in pioneering Denmark. Scandinavia countries are strongly co-operative and egalitarian, so it is no surprise that the origins of the sharing economy are found in Copenhagen. In the 1970s the city launched co-housing communities, which saw several families living separately but within neighbourhoods with extensive indoor and outdoor communal spaces. These spaces were specifically designed to encourage social interaction and the sharing of activities such as eating together and maintaining the grounds.
The benefits of this lifestyle, I would suggest, are obvious. Teamwork is encouraged; household items can be shared, reducing expenditure and excessive consumption; and everyone in the community learns responsibility by helping to maintain the communal areas.
If sharing cities were already in place in the 1970s, how much more potential is there now, when online platforms have revolutionised the sector?
The explosion of the sharing economy sector in recent years is thanks, in large part, to the near-ubiquitous presence of the Internet. Digital platforms are an ideal way of widening sharing networks, building trust between strangers and encouraging them to participate in sharing. Self-professed sharing city Seoul, South Korea’s capital, quickly identified this and the opportunity represented by digital sharing platforms back in 2013 with the launch of ShareHub.kr. This government initiative acts as a directory of sharing services in Korea. It is promoted through campaigns and seminars both on and offline, which encourage the sharing of time, space, talents, goods and information.
A sharing city is one which goes a step further than simply facilitating sharing: as Seoul shows, it must also actively encourage it and be willing to update regulation and modernise institutions to encourage sharing.
What about the United Kingdom? In the next twelve months, the UK will embark on its own sharing city pilots, in Leeds and Manchester. In Leeds, the focus will be on transport, where a smart phone app will allow residents to access a fully-integrated transport system. This system will make car clubs and bike sharing as easily accessible as buses, trains and taxis. Local authorities will also be establishing a platform which allows residents to share skills and equipment such as vans or lawnmowers.
In Manchester a sharing economy model will be applied to health and social care. The aim is to develop community assets, then use technology to better connect residents to these services through community hubs. Another scheme will encourage volunteering, with a focus on building communities which can better tackle the root causes of social isolation.
The future of sharing looks bright in London, too. Londoners are already embracing sharing economy platforms, with Airbnb, Love Home Swap, Zipcar, Hassle and TaskRabbit among the bevy of sharing platforms which have found success in the capital, particularly in and around East London’s Tech City cluster.
London is also a city where the scope for wider adoption of sharing economy models is huge. As London grows, assets and resources are under pressure, and a shift from fixed ownership to flexible access is already visible. Car ownership rates are low and falling, bike-sharing has been a notable success, and high accommodation costs are putting a premium on efficient use of homes, offices and public buildings. At a time when public spending remains constrained, sharing community assets and capacity could support public services and create a better city for everyone.
There is still work to be done, of course. Regulation needs to be updated, insurance companies need a better understanding of the sharing economy’s disruptive business models, and citizens need to develop their understanding of and confidence in the sharing economy – to enable participation to spread beyond early adopters. Some cities are taking the lead in untangling the issue of regulation. In 2013, US mayors signed the Sharable Cities Resolution, which aims to make American cities “more shareable, encourage better understanding of the sharing economy and create local task forces to review and address regulations that may hinder participation in the sharing economy”. 19
The launch of Sharing Economy UK (SEUK) – the UK trade body for sharing economy businesses – represents a step in the right direction, as do the pilot projects in Leeds and Manchester. I hope that London will join them in creating working examples of sharing cities in the UK.