In the spring of 2005 I was dealing with my first real job in a communication agency.
My office was in a business incubator located in a repurposed industrial site out of town; quite a charming setting, although hard to reach by public transport.
As I stood waiting for my bus to the city after the working day, I would watch rows of cars leave the premises; nearly all of them left in my same direction and had no passengers. That patent waste of fuel, space, money and time (this latter being on me) kept nagging at me for a few days.
As an optimistic 24 years old at the peak of her naivety, I soon worked out what seemed a common-sense solution: I wrote a friendly note introducing myself and my proposal and pinned it to the message-board in the hall of the building, positive that some of the many young and progressive people working there would respond enthusiastically to share car rides and expenses with me.
Sadly, nobody ever reacted and morning after morning I walked past the message board, glancing at the note, asking myself why this wasn’t working.
Were people wary of allowing a stranger in their car, despite knowing she worked at the agency next door? Were they all introvert or jealous of their privacy – who knows, maybe they enjoyed singing All By Myself at the top of their lungs whilst driving to work and didn’t want any outsider to spoil that morning pleasure?
I suspected the medium was inadequate to the investment I was asking for – a hand-drawn piece of paper not conveying enough credibility – or not ensuring enough reach or visibility.
Had I been too discreet, perhaps? should I have placed flyers on every windshield in the parking lot? Was my message lacking validation? I wondered whether it would have worked if the copy included an endorsement, a ‘review’ by someone guaranteeing I wasn’t likely to hijack their car to a shopping mall or IKEA.
Had I known all the geeky people I do today already in early 2005, when social media weren’t even a thing, I would have tried to convince some of them to help me build a website to promote car pooling among workers in that isolated area. Instead, I just went on with my carless life to this date.
Today I am the proud owner of an old-style bike riding her way around Amsterdam and, if I needed a car for a few hours or a lift, there would be several options made available for me by the so-called ‘sharing economy’.
Nowadays cooperative consumption is empowered by digital platforms assisting individuals in sharing all kinds of assets: power-tools, car rides, spare rooms and kitchens, children clothes, food, groceries, time or anything that can be seen as a resource.
In a highly interconnected world where talking to strangers or even asking for their help is no longer a taboo but rather part of our day-to-day (virtual) social experience, words like sharing economy, crowdfunding and open source grew to become part of the current vocabulary of younger generations.
The concepts related to the sharing economy started spreading in the early 2000s – as I was waiting for my bus – but only in recent years have they left the niche of sustainability activism to boom in the shape of successful digital platforms, now available and understandable for broader audiences.
As many observers point out, the urge to optimise resources and find alternatives to self-ownership and traditional consumption was in many cases prompted by the economic recession and its related narrative. The failure of consumerism to deliver part of its promises is leading more and more citizens to look for money-saving solutions such as rental, leasing, swapping and sharing.
Combine this newly fashionable inclination with the pervasive networking potential of social media and the perceived accountability provided by the spreading use of reviewing systems, and what you get is the reach and credibility that would have probably gotten me the rides I needed in 2005.
Amsterdam has been named Europe’s first “Sharing City” this year. The Dutch capital features the technical infrastructure and digital literacy to ensure the right environment for a growing number of initiatives and start-ups associated with the sharing economy.
Thanks to pre-existing public policies encouraging social cohesion and participation as an activator of social capital and local citizenship, and with the active support of institutions such as the Amsterdam Economic Board, these new subjects are flourishing and cooperating with each other.
In my opinion, as these new entities grow in number and audiences, they won’t be able to avoid confronting existing commercial logics and business models. This encounter could lead to external conflict – see the resistance that Uber has encountered by cab drivers and antitrust authorities – as well as internal conflict – could including paid services impair their sharing model and discourage ideological users?
Will traditional market economy adjust to a growing demand on innovation in consumption, or will the sharing economy business community inevitably absorb some of the features of commercial business forms?
Whatever the outcome of potential antagonisms and open questions, the sharing economy is claiming attention and market spaces, diversifying its supply and building up a critical mass of users that will soon allow more in-dept analysis and conclusions.
Meanwhile, I met Maartje Maas, Community Manager at Konnektid, and Annemarie Fischer, who recently graduated with a thesis on neighbourhood-centered sharing platforms and neighbourhood attachment, to find out whether these new subjects are actually making an impact on city life.
Konnektid is an Amsterdam based sharing platform focusing on knowledge sharing. I tried it myself, received some Dutch classes by a surprisingly eclectic neighbour and taught a very smart girl from my part of town how to bake bread – but this is a different story…