Sharing could be the secret ingredient to smarter communities, a stronger economy, and a more resilient planet.
Tom O’Hagan ✱ Sept 14, 2021
If humans continue to behave the same way they have always behaved, we’re kinda screwed. We all know this. We all know we need a new way of organising ourselves. We need a new relationship with the planet. We need to learn new behaviours.
But what kind of behaviours? Meditation? Electric cars? Everyone goes vegan? Stop having kids? A 4 day work week?
The answer might be much simpler. We need to learn to share. At least according to sustainability researcher Ray Tomalty — who argues in his journal article Ours Is Better Than Yours — that sharing is the secret ingredient to smarter communities, a stronger economy and a more resilient planet.
Tomalty explains that the behaviour that currently drives our economies is acquisitiveness (‘the excessive interest in acquiring money or material things’). We must acquire more stuff. All the time. None stop. More and more.
We train children to behave like this. We reward adults to behave like this. We have created a culture of consumption. We tell ourselves we must buy new things, needed or not, and to then dispose of those things, worn out or not. Thus keeping the greedy cycle of acquisition rolling.
The good news? It doesn’t have to be like this, and people are realising that. Around the world all types of people are re-evaluating their relationship with material things. Things like minimalism are growing in popularity. People are taking a fresh and critical look at everything around the products — the businesses that make them, the social and environmental impacts.
”The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make. And could just as easily make differently.” - David Graeber, activist and archaeologist
There is interest in products and services that have local content, build community between consumers and producers, and involve some degree of sharing. People are realising that ownership is not all that it’s cracked up to be. The costs can outweigh the benefits. When we own material things, we must also care for, store, clean, repair, refurbish and insure them.
Tomalty argues that most things can be — and are — shared to everyone’s gain: “food, clothes, taxis, bikes, cars, tools, hotel rooms, apartments, office space, streets, sidewalks, parks, libraries, train stations, buses, movies, books, music, stories, memories, efforts, even miseries.”
”There are 80 million power drills in America that are used an average of 13 minutes … Does everyone really need their own drill?” - Brian Chesky, co-founder & CEO, Airbnb
Lots of people already are sharing. The ‘sharing economy’ has been building global momentum for over a decade and is predicted to be worth $335 billion by 2025.
Companies like Airbnb and Uber — now stalwarts of modern life — are based on the simple notion that you don’t need to own something to benefit from it.
Even industries like oil and gas have taken notice at the huge potential benefits of sharing resources. They have realised you can share things that don’t deplete as the number of people using them multiplies. Collaborative consumption over individual competition.
What are the benefits of sharing?
Of course, it doesn’t always make sense to share items. Heavy-use items might be best bought. Some things are fragile, irreplaceable or inexpensive. Some things are difficult to transport. (And sharing things like toothbrushes or underwear would just be weird)
Aside from those kinds of items, there is an impressive list of benefits of sharing:
- Reduces waste the more we share our existing consumer products.
- Improves social equity by allowing those who can’t afford to purchase an item outright the opportunity to enjoy its use.
- Aligns the interests of community with the interests of the environment.
- Presents an alternative, less destructive, model of consumption.
- Creates a sense of community among strangers, which helps to facilitate trust and social inclusion.
- Increases multicultural interactions by enabling and encouraging contact between unconnected groups.
Sounds pretty sweet, right?
”The benefits of sharing go beyond enhancing the use of assets. Sharing encourages community interaction and can lead to greater social inclusion. The rise in the number of digital sharing platforms encourages micro-entrepreneurship, provides employment opportunities and improves digital literacy.” - Hazem Galal, Global Cities and Local Government Sector Leader, PwC
Cars, cars, cars
To Neal Gorenflo (co-founder of Shareable) car are the “gateway drug” to other types of sharing behaviour. They are the ultimate symbol of our consumer-oriented society, but are simultaneously ideal for sharing, because they are both expensive and underused (most sit unused for 90% of the time).
”Historically, cars were the vehicle into hyper-consumption. It looks like they could be the vehicle out of it too.” - Neal Gorenflo
Just like they leading the behavioural shift toward sharing clothes, young people are at the forefront of the movement toward car sharing. They are far less likely to get a driver’s licence and own a car today than their predecessors. Those that do drive do so more sparingly.
”Sharing is to ownership what the iPod is to the eight-track, what the solar panel is to the coal mine. Sharing is clean, crisp, urbane, postmodern; owning is dull, selfish, timid, backward.” - Mark Levine, The New York Times
Sharing economies need sharing cities. They cannot happen in a vacuum. It needs fertile conditions in the environment and community. Car sharing, for example, works best with accessible urban settings where densities ensure a large pool of potential users.
“The sharing economy is making cities redefine land-use strategies, minimize their costs, optimize public assets and collaborate with other actors (for-profits, nonprofits, social enterprises, communities and other cities) in developing policies and frameworks that encourage continued innovation in this area.” - Gregory Hodkinson, Chairman, Arup Group
Urban centres have many walkable destinations, good transit networks and a lack of parking. These factors tend to make car ownership less necessary to a good quality of life and more costly from a personal point of view.
“Today’s urban environments present extraordinary opportunities for how we can share and collaborate. The wealth of ideas, products and skills available in cities makes them a fertile ground for exchange, with new technology platforms connecting users and facilitating transactions at a rate never before imaginable… it also has the potential to address long-term societal challenges such as making cities more inclusive and building social connections between groups that might otherwise never have interacted.” - Cheryl Martin, Head of Industries, Member of the Managing Board, World Economic Forum
This trend toward more close-knit neighbourhoods has broader benefits. All kinds of sharing opportunities thrive in denser communities where people tend to live in smaller living units with less storage space.
Sharing is really hard. People need to trust someone if they are going to lend them a book, let alone something larger or more valuable. People need to trust someone if they are going to share anything. They need to be reassured by good reputation.
People don’t want to share a charging cable for their phone, let alone share their car, food, or books.
Building trust in online communities is trickier because people can have multiple identities that flit in and out of existence, and there is no grapevine to pick up rumours and assess risks. Maybe blockchain technology solves this.
Another challenge is the hostility of established businesses and the legal barriers they are able to put up against emerging competitors from the sharing sector.
Exponential growth, hostile regulations, jealous attention from the taxman and the indignation of established industries all suggest that the sharing economy is becoming a force to be reckoned with.
The pandemic has revealed how strong our communities can be. Could it continue to be the catalyst for sharing throughout our society?
But what does it mean for the design community? How can we help to shape it?
Through coordination, deep thought and intelligent design, how could we champion new, positive behaviours — like sharing — in a way that benefits both society and our planetary home?
We are on the cusp of a major change in our way of meeting personal needs and how we relate to one another and the planet.
I’m excited. Are you?