Slowly but steadily, Vienna's collaborative economy is growing. Photo: Vienna Shares
In Austria’s capital city, proponents of the collaborative economy face several obstacles to widespread adoption. These include low awareness of alternative markets and sharing resources; media skepticism; and the municipal government’s focus on the "smart city" model.
I spoke by Skype to Katarzyna Gruszka, a PhD student at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, about Vienna’s nascent collaborative economy. Gruszka helped develop, and is the researcher for, Share Vienna, a project of the university’s Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development (RCE Vienna). During the coming months, Gruszka will gather data on perceptions of the collaborative economy through a series of interviews. Share Vienna’s community partner, Umweltdachverband, will use what Gruszka learns to organize workshops aimed at spreading the word about sharing in Vienna.
[For a list of resources on the collaborative economy in Vienna, see below.]
Anna Bergren Miller: Tell me about Share Vienna. What is it? What is your role in the project?
Katarzyna Gruszka: First, Share Vienna is a research project about the collaborative economy. That's important because it is not an organization; we don't hold events or anything like that. It's purely from the academic side. I am a project assistant at the Vienna University of Economics and Business [Wirtschafts Universität Wien], in a group called RCE Vienna [Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development Vienna], and I am also doing my PhD.
The framing of Share Vienna comes from my PhD area. I am, broadly speaking, looking at sociological transformations, and at changes in behavior. I was always interested in the topic of—first it was collaborative consumption, but now I prefer to use "collaborative economy" to make it more inclusive.
In Vienna, there is special funding from the city itself for for one-year research projects. Share Vienna is sponsored by this funding. When I was writing [the research proposal], one of the focal topics [of the call for proposals] was the "smart city." Not only its technological aspects, but also social innovations.
Share Vienna was initiated by me, and [I secured] the funding, but I'm not officially the project head. The project head is the head of the group that I am working for, even though I am the only person at the university working on this.
We have a partner, Umweltdachverband, which is basically an umbrella of different NGOs. They do a lot of projects in the area of education. Our organizations were cooperating before, and I suggested that we could include Umweltdachverband as a partner.
Share Vienna is designed around two big tasks. One of the tasks is more research-focused. I am responsible for this. And then we have the second part, which will be organized by our partner. This will be in the form of two to three workshops with people who I first involve in the research part.
Tell me more about the research part of the project.
I'm using the Q Method, which is mainly used for concepts that have a fuzzy definition, or [when] there is some debate around the concept itself.
The collaborative economy fits perfectly with this. It's very interesting to read, not only from the academic side, but also on OuiShare, Shareable, Collaborative Consumption, or in the media in general, about this topic. You can see how slowly the issues that are related to defining the concept are reaching the mainstream media. You see that people very often [think,] "This is only Uber, and this is only Airbnb, and this is only capitalism in new clothes," and so on.
I prepared the concourse for the Q study—the statements that people are subjectively putting into a grid—on the basis of a review of both academic and non-academic literature.
Right now I am just starting to get participants for the study. I am involving organizations and companies that could be counted as [within the] collaborative economy, and organizations like community networking groups as well. I have only four done so far, but I started literally last week.
Once this is done, in the spring we are going to have the second part of the study, which is taking the people who did the Q study and making a set of workshops with them. In those workshops, what we want to do is to think about, for example, a webpage or an app, something like this, could bring everybody together here in Vienna. This would be the best idea, I think. And also how to encourage more people, motivate more people, to rethink what they do with their stuff, and to maybe consider some form of sharing or collaborative economy.
The workshops are going to be organized by our partner [Umweltdachverband]. They have much more experience [than I do] in bringing different stakeholders together. They are going to try, in the end, to have a concept for how we could facilitate [the collaborative economy] a bit more in Vienna. From my side, I think the important thing is to make sure that people do not only see those flagship venture-capital businesses as equal to the collaborative economy.
[Umweltdachverband also has] some people who are [using] game theory to different concepts to the public. I'm really looking forward to what we are going to end up with there. But we won't know until August. In Vienna, the projects [funded by the city] launch in September, but the first two or three months were basically me preparing the concourse for the study.
Foodsharing Wien educates community members on, and coordinates opportunities for, foodsharing. (Foodsharing Wien / Facebook)
Do you anticipate any criticism of the sharing economy as anti-capitalist or as a threat to established businesses?
I'm following this mainly in the English-speaking part [of the world], but in the German-speaking media recently there has been a wave of coverage of this topic. And I think that the German-speaking world is really skeptical in most cases.
Interesting. You don't see as much skepticism in the English-speaking media.
Yes. In the German-speaking media, the issues of regulation, taxation, and so on [are] much more put to the fore in the discussion. So even if you have introductory coverage in a magazine, this is going to be there. But it's also because discussions of the topic have been there for such a long time that it's possible to voice some criticism, and not just focus on, "Okay, it's a great concept." I agree that this is a great concept, but it has stronger and weaker elements in it. This is definitely voiced here.
Of the people who have responded to my invitation for the study, so far [all have been] from the non-profit side. Some bigger companies that I tried to contact—not only Viennese companies, but bigger companies whose services are available here—so far I got, I think, two responses to my emails, both negative. I hope that there will be some representatives interested in this study from companies like Zipcar.
I'd like to hear more about where your research might be going in terms of strategizing ways to get the word out in Vienna, or to organize something like a map of sharing activity in the city. Are there any particular cities that you're looking at as models?
I am not looking at any particular city as a best practice example. But from [what I know] so far, I can say that the US is at a more complete level of functioning than what we have here. [As for] European cities, Paris is going crazy. Berlin is also much much more open, or is where you can see those activities.
In Vienna, our—I wouldn't call it a problem, but the topic is very fresh in Vienna. I started to become interested in it a year ago, and during this year I got involved in co-creating OuiShare Austria. I met so many people who are [part of] smaller initiatives. But, I kid you not, we had the first Vienna sharing community meeting two days ago.
You can see that there are a lot of initiatives, but unfortunately there is not much cooperation. You can see a trend among people from the community to try to change that.
How did the meeting go? Who was there?
We have this very nice association called Vienna Shares. They initiated the meeting.
That's exactly what they were saying in the beginning—that they see that there's a lot of activity, but they would really like us to get to know each other and do some more stuff together.
The meeting was not so well attended. I don't know, on the other hand, what "well attended" would be, because it's difficult to say with no reference point. There were people from, for example, neighborhood sharing platforms. Teilbar, or Frag Nebenan—these are functioning very well.
I was there for Share Vienna, and representing OuiShare Austria as well. Another friend, who is the Ouishare connector from Vienna, started all of this. Who else was there? There was, for example, a representative from the Green Party.
There were people who aren't necessarily related to a specific initiative, but who would just like to start doing something good. One of the participants [said], "You know, I've been working in the financial sector, and now I want to do something that [connects] me a bit more to people and that makes me feel like I do something good." I think there were maybe fifteen people, or seventeen people.
We had a round of introductions, and we tried to get really hands-on about how to engage people who are outside our usual circles. The RCE, the group I'm working with at the university, organized two Share Fests in June, because we had a nice space available from one of the local city councils. I invited all of my friends [to the first one], and there were people from, more or less, everybody's circles. It was great, but you could see that people were coming not necessarily because they wanted to come to a Share Fest, but because a friend of theirs was organizing it.
The second one, I didn't really tell my friends about it—just to test it, to see what would happen. There were still quite [a lot of] people. But that's also because it was organized on a Saturday, when Viennese markets are pretty lively. Random people were coming by and asking, "What is this? Is it all the time here?"
You could bring whatever you don't need, and that could still be used by other people, and take whatever you want. We got flooded with a lot of stuff at the first Share Fest. [For] the second one I even wrote, "Please don't bring anything."
Vienna Shares is doing a really cool thing in terms of spreading the word. [Vienna has] a lot of second-hand pop-up flea markets, or just pop-up markets, with young designers and things like this. [Vienna Shares] has one stand there that's a NoMoneyZone. People come [to the markets] to buy stuff. But then you suddenly have this stand that's like, "I can get something without any money here?" This is a good strategy to find people who normally would not bump into the topic.
Vienna Shares sponsors NoMoneyZones at local markets. (Vienna Shares)
Do you see the city of Vienna getting involved at some point?
I think that [the fact that] research projects like mine are sponsored by the city is a sign of openness. There is, for example, another study funded by the same body about carsharing—so the topic is, for sure, taken into consideration.
Vienna is, at the moment, much more [focused on] branding itself as a "smart city." In 2010, it was number one in the ranking of smart cities [by the World Smart Cities Award]. The [city has] a smart city agency, and the smart city is a bigger topic than, for example, the shareable city.
But one good thing is that the criticism of [the smart city] concept as being predominantly technologically-focused is very present here. For example, in my research proposal [I defined the] sharing idea [as at] the intersection of smart economy and smart people, which are elements of the smart city. They are open to such things.
[Recently] a district office for Local Agenda 21 [formed in response to the UN sustainable development plan] [announced that] it wants to organize a big event in spring focused on sharing. This is the first time ever this is happening. Definitely, there is more activity going on. It's an interesting place to be now.
Anything else you'd like me to know: about your research, about sharing in Vienna?
We need some sort of—like you said—map of the initiatives. Just to see what is there, because this is also a big problem.
For the Share Vienna project, I started to collect different initiatives into a database. There really are a lot of very interesting initiatives. Of course, it also depends on how you define [the collaborative economy].
For example, there is a huge movement of food co-ops, which I personally still count. Or there is a very strong culture of second-hand markets. Here, judging from what my friends do on the weekend, people like to go flea markets. I am originally from Poland, and at least in my circles it was not such a normal thing. The culture of second-hand stuff is a bit stronger [in Vienna], I would say.
There are a lot of pretty original initiatives. For example, we have an organization called Leila, which is a library of stuff. They were created a year ago. A lot of new things popped up within the last year or year and a half. The first online renting platform was created less than two years ago. So it's all very, very fresh.
Unfortunately, I have no information on how many people [participate in the collaborative economy]. That's a bit tricky to get. But today, for example, I was talking to someone from one of the platforms for exchanging stuff within your closer neighborhood. She told me they have almost 1,000 users on a platform developed by her and some people who treat it as a hobby. They just had this idea: "Okay, let's do it, let's throw it [out] there and see what happens." I think it's pretty impressive that it has almost 1,000 users with no marketing campaign. And it's not just their friends [using it], as she also pointed out.
I hope that the general public here is not going to fall easy for certain initiatives that are seen in [much] of the media as flagships of the sharing economy. But we'll see about that.
Vienna's strong flea market culture points to a bright future for collaborative consumption there. (Katharina Stutz / Flickr)
Shor, Juliet. "Conclusion: Creating a Movement." In Debating the Sharing Economy. Great Transition Initiative, October 2014.
A note from Gruszka: The following represent only a small sample of sharing activity in Vienna—just the tip of the iceberg. I've left out some of the larger players, including crowdfunding platforms and coworking spaces.
- Share Vienna
- Vienna Shares
- OuiShare Austria
- Foodsharing Vienna
- Leila library of goods
- LETS Wien local exchange trading system
- Maker Austria maker spaces
- Share & Care gift economy network
- Talente Tauschkreis Wien skills exchange
- Use Twice rental platform
- Frag Nebenan neighborhood network
- Teilbar neighborhood network
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