Closed loops in the sharing city?
Sharing is caring – but is it always sustainable? The sharing economy is altering the way we look at ourselves as consumers and our idea of the market, but it also raises other questions: what role should the city take in this, and how can we ensure that the result is truly sustainable?
The sharing economy is a buzzword in the modern urban society of the mid-2010s. We all know more or less what it is about: individuals and communities sharing, borrowing, renting and passing on stuff and services, through car sharing, tool pools and clothes swaps – something that we hope will result in a resource-efficient, sustainable and modern lifestyle. Some call it a trend, but there is nothing really new in the idea of borrowing instead of owning – the history of public libraries goes back to at least 500 BC…
But, we are now seeing a rapid shift. Initiatives for the sharing economy are multiplying, especially in the cities, not least due to rapid ICT development and the emergence of digital platforms and apps. Rapid urbanisation, combined with the challenges of increased consumption and waste, and growing social inequality, mean that sharing our common resources makes sense.
IIIEE researchers Yuliya Voytenko and Oksana Mont have just started a large project, “Urban Reconomy”, which will investigate the role of sharing economy organisations in cities.
“We would like to explore how sharing and collaborative production initiatives are organised in cities, which actors are driving the process, and if these initiatives do indeed contribute to closing material loops, as is often claimed,” says Yuliya Voytenko.
So, who are the driving actors? They range from enthusiasts and social entrepreneurs working on a volunteer basis to business developers who see an opportunity to profit from demand for products and services with a stronger social, economic and environmental profile.
“These groups have different interests and therefore the outcome of their work is also very diverse. Some well-known examples include commercial platforms such as AirBnB, which offers accommodation in people’s homes, and Uber, which connects drivers with passengers. Both AirBnB and Uber originate from the San Francisco area, which has many sharing economy success stories. On the other hand, we also see non-profit platforms that often operate on a small scale, but nationally, such as Skjutsgruppen in Sweden, which matches drivers and passengers, and even internationally, for example, the accommodation sharing platform BeWelcome”, explains Yuliya Voytenko.
Urban sharing has various built-in challenges. When platforms turn commercial, there is a risk that they give lower priority to sustainability issues. There are neighbourhoods in Berlin where most apartments are used as full-time AirBnB accommodation, resulting in gentrification and poor community quality for the tenants who choose to live in their apartments. On the other hand, ideologically strong platforms often struggle to survive financially. One local example is the clothes library, Klädoteket, in Malmö, which has now closed after a few years trying to survive without any financial support.
A third key actor on the urban sharing arena is the city itself – a large public driving force with responsibility and the potential for strong impact.
“We are very interested in the role of the city. It can facilitate sharing and collaborative consumption and production by offering meeting arenas, public spaces or financial support. The city’s challenge is to ensure that sustainability issues are not left behind by the sharing initiatives. This is a key theme for my new research project “Sharing and the City”, which I plan to start in a year or so”, states Yuliya Voytenko.
Two local examples from Sweden are Stenkrossen in Lund and Stpln in Malmö – cultural centres hosting various creative spaces for clothes upcycling, bicycle repairing, 3D printing and more. Here, the cities provide the base while content and activities often depend on a combination of external funding, volunteer work and user interests.
“Cities can also integrate the ideas of the sharing economy into the building and planning of neighbourhoods, making sure that there is infrastructure in place for sharing economy activities. Not only for traditional Swedish shared laundry rooms, but also common spaces for sharing garden tools, toys and games, books or furniture between neighbours. This is currently considered in the development of the new residential area, Brunnshög, in Lund, where we helped to survey future tenants to find out what shared functions they would appreciate most”, says Yuliya Voytenko.
In their research, Oksana Mont and Yuliya Voytenko will visit seven European cities: Malmö, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Rotterdam, London, Barcelona and Berlin to investigate their sharing systems and their respective levels of maturity and diversity.
“We know already that these cities have different profiles when it comes to the sharing economy. In Barcelona, economic challenges drive sharing and collaborative production initiatives; in Berlin there is a strong hipster culture promoting alternative lifestyles, and London has a long history of innovation. We hope that our study will help city governments and other actors in their search to develop a sharing economy that truly supports the principles of sustainability and resource efficiency.”
Text and photo: Sara Bernstrup Nilsson
Learn more about this and related IIIEE projects
Urban Reconomy: sharing for circular resource efficiency
- IIIEE Researchers: Oksana Mont and Yuliya Voytenko
- Project period: January 2015 – December 2018
- Budget: SEK 4.6 million
- Funding Agency: Formas
Sharing and the City
- IIIEE Researcher: Yuliya Voytenko
- Project period: January 2016 – December 2019
- Budget: SEK 3 million
- Funding Agency: Formas
IIIEE MOOC: Greening the Economy - Sustainable Cities
Video lecture by Yuliya Voytenko on the theme Cities and the Sharing Economy
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