Our world is inherently Shareable, though it’s easy to take that for granted. We are already connected by climate, roads, fisheries, language, forests, culture, and social networks, all of which are part of the commons. But how is our world becoming even more shareable? What are the quantifiable trends that are making sharing convenient, necessary, fulfilling, even profitable? The scale of the change surprised me, once I started looking. You might be surprised, too. And if you have any more evidence of this shift towards sharing, please share it in comments!

1. Sharing as a Lifestyle. The ways to share in everyday life seem to be multiplying like rabbits, but maybe I’m just paying more attention these days. There’s carsharing, ridesharing, bikesharing, coworking, cohousingtool libraries, all kinds of coops — it goes on, trust me. And ways to share power, dialog, and knowledge, such as workplace democracy, citizens deliberative councils, unconferences, open space, and world café, are getting more attention these days, aided by innovative Web 2.0 tools.

It’s entirely possible to create a complete lifestyle based on sharing. You can live in a cohousing community, work in a coop, grow food in your neighbor’s yard, and get to the open space town council meeting in your carshare. Want to know about the nuts and bolts of how to build a Shareable life? Check out our book How to: Share, Save Money and Have Fun.

Credit: CoHousing Partners

2. Shareable Cities. A revolution is underway in our understanding of cities. The revolution couldn’t come any sooner, considering that 2007 was the first year in human history that the majority of human beings lived in cities. Perhaps as a result, cities are becoming the focal point for our collective hopes and dreams, as well as all kinds of innovation needed to avert a worsening climate crisis. In the past, we tended to see cities as dirty, unnatural, and isolating places; today, citizens and urban planners alike are starting to see their potential for generating widespread well-being, at low financial and environmental cost. There’s increasing appreciation for the benefits of public transit, urban agriculture, making room on the streets for pedestrians and bicyclists, and for civic engagement. The very thing that defines a city — it’s population density — makes sharing easier, from cars to bikes to homes.

Perhaps in response, there seems to be boomlet in technology that helps First World urbanites sense their environment, share, and use resources more effectively. But it may be that the most successful innovations will spring from the megacities of the developing world. In the absence of vast financial resources, these cities may do as Bogota, Colombia did, and prioritize human well being over economic growth. Can a city become a happiness commons?

3. Social Enterprise & Cooperatives. Definitions vary, but in general social enterprises, whether nonprofit or for profit, advance a social or environmental mission through offering a product or service. The industry is small relative to the overall economy, but growing extremely fast in some sectors:

  • Investment in Cleantech ventures nearly trebled to $5.2 billion between 2004 and 2008 (though have declined recently thanks to the Great Recession).
  • Fair trade good sales doubled between 2004 and 2007 to around $4 billion.
  • Over 11,000 worker cooperatives have emerged in just the last 30 years, many them embracing prosocial missions in addition to being managed, governed, and owned by the people who work at them.
  • Social investing could grow to $500 billion in assets under management in 5-10 years, according to the Monitor Institute.

Credit: Leisa Thompson, The Ann Arbor News

4. The Nonprofit sector. USAToday.com writes about philanthropy in a section called “Sharing,” which frames nonprofits as an increasingly important way for people share their wealth and labor.

  • In the US alone, donations to nonprofits more than doubled between 1987 and 2007, to $303 billion.
  • About 75% of all donations come from private individuals like you and me.
  • The number of nonprofits doubled between 1991 and 2006, to 1.9 million.
  • In 2005, nonprofits employed 12.9 million people, or 9.7 percent of the US workforce.
  • In 2008, 61.8 million volunteers dedicated more than 8 billion hours of service, worth an estimated $162 billion.
  • While the Great Recession has put a serious dent in donations, formal volunteering rose slightly in 2008. Measured in informal ways, like helping a neighbor solve a local problem, it rose 31 percent.

Nicola Goren, former acting CEO of Corporation for National and Community Service, said in a speech last year that we’re in a midst of “a bona fide compassion boom.” The Obama administration is encouraging the trend toward mutual aid with their United We Serve program. With engagement and social enterpreneurship growing, Bill Drayton may be right: We may yet evolve into a world where everyone is a change-maker.

5. Microfinance is a powerful innovation that extends small loans and financial services to help the world’s poorest rise out of poverty, serving customers traditional banks ignore. The growth of Nobel Peace Prize winner  Muhammad Yunus, of Grameen Bank, and its success in alleviating poverty in Bangladesh, helped trigger an almost unmanageable surge of money into the sector — currently about $25 billion, but growing fast. Grameen has low-interest loan programs for a variety of poor borrowers, including no-interest loans for beggars, and is owned by the rural poor it serves. Kiva, a US nonprofit peer-to-peer microfinance sensation, facilitates around $5 million in no-interest loans a month to entrepreneurs in developing nations through its website. At one point, Kiva had to limit loans through their platform because the demand to give out loans was so high. Microfinance is yet another way the world is learning to share its wealth.

6. The Internet.  It’s easy to take it for granted, but its potential as a sharing platform has arguably just begun to unfold. The Internet itself would not be possible if people did not share labor, code, and infrastructure. No one owns it or runs it. It’s built and it operates on free and open source software and open standards. Data travels over networks and is routed through servers owned by private individuals and corporations who share transport and routing duties.

This global commons enables the creation of tremendous value. Harvard Business School professor John Quelch estimates that the economic impact of the Internet is $1.4 trillion annually in the US alone. All of that value is created on top of what is essentially a volunteer enterprise, sharing on a massive scale. As late as 1992, IBM did not think such a network was possible. Through its runaway success, the Internet has become the model for organizing life in the twenty-first century, as well as the essential infrastructure and distribution channel for commerce, ideas, work, and play.

And its influence reaches far beyond the online world. The Internet is reprogramming culture to the degree that society will likely be remade in its image, so that we have a better chance at thriving like it does. As you’ll see by the end of this list, this change is already underway, perhaps with an entire generation behind it.

7. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) . FOSS and the Internet have a symbiotic relationship. The Internet would not have been possible without FOSS. And the growth of FOSS relies on the Internet to power its peer production and distribution model. Over 270 million people use the Firefox browser. Half of the world’s Web sites, about 112 million, run on Apache Server. A quarter million websites, including this one, run on Drupal, a leading open source content management system.

That’s just scratching the surface: Today, there are over 200,000 open source projects with nearly 5 billion lines of code that would cost $387 billion to reproduce. Check out the Infoworld’s Open Source Hall of Fame for more on desktop favorites, like Ubuntu, as well as obscure but vital infrastructure projects like BIND.

Today, millions of people and organizations rely on FOSS for their daily work, as do a growing number of governments. It’s a pervasive part of life in the developed world — and because of its low cost, open source may become even more important to developing countries.

Image credit: opensource.com. Check out their Creative Commons image pool on Flickr for great illustrations of the open way.

8. The Open Way. Inspired by the success of FOSS, the values and practices of open source are being applied in a truly dizzying number of ways. In just the last few years, open or peer-to-peer strategies have gained significant traction in science, business, culture, education, and government. The application of “the open way” range from the obscure to the everyday, like the OpenStreetMaps project. It’s a tough trend to quantify, because it is so viral and self-organized. To get a sense of the scope of the movement, go to the P2P Foundation blog or opensource.com.

The Obama administration’s Open Government Directive is currently one of the most visible of these efforts, at least in the U.S. The directive ordered executive departments and agencies to identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value data sets; create an Open Government web page, and respond to public input received via that page; and to develop and publish an Open Government Plan that will describe how they will improve transparency and integrate public participation and collaboration into its activities.

9. Social Media. Sharing is the currency of social media. And as the author of Socialnomics, Erik Qualman, says, social media is bigger than you think.

  • More video were uploaded to YouTube in the last six months than was produced by the three major TV networks in 60 years.
  • With over 400 million users, Facebook would be the fourth largest country in the world by population, one where 1.5 million pieces of content are shared every day.
  • Wikipedia has over 13 million articles, all written by volunteers with an accuracy comparable to the best commercial encyclopedias.
  • In 2008, one of eight couples married met through social media.
  • Ninety-six percent of Gen Y has joined a social network, where sharing is a way of life.
  • Creative Commons has made it easier for creators to share their work.They’ve licensed over 130 million creative works in 50 countries since 2002.

In these powerful ways, social media has taken sharing mainstream.

10. Generation G. Now that a Shareable world has a serious foothold, all that’s needed is a willing population to scale it up. Some people think Gen Y is uniquely predisposed to share, but you’re asking for trouble anytime you paint an entire generation that broad a brush. Indeed, perspectives on Gen Y run the gamut, and it goes without saying that people of all ages have good reason to share.

But with that skimpy qualification, here’s the argument for Gen Y as the generation can make a Shareable world come to fruition. Roughly 100 million strong in the US, Gen Y grew up on the Internet and bring its values and practices into the real world, including sharing. Last year TrendWatching.com called them Generation G (for generous) and said they are accelerating a cultural shift where “giving is already the new taking, and sharing is the new giving.” They may not reach their full sharing potential until later in life, but there are promising indicators:

  • Sixty-one percent of 13-25 year olds feel personally responsible for making a difference in the world.
  • Eighty-three percent will trust a company more if it’s socially and environmentally responsible.
  • Volunteering by college students increased by 20 percent between 2002 and 2005.
  • Eighty-three percent volunteered in 2005.

Credit: Michael Nagle, New York Times

Gary Hamel believes that this massive generational force, which outnumbers baby boomers, promises to transform our world in the image of the Internet, a world where sharing and contributing to the common good are integral to the good life. William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of Millennials Rising, believes that Gen Y is a hero generation, coming of age in a time of crisis and helping society resolve the crisis, largely by applying the tools and mindset of sharing. You can read more about the Internet-shaped expectations Gen Y brings to work and the world here. And for good measure, here’s a sobering sample of the other side of the story.

This essay appeared in Shareable’s paperback Share or Die published by New Society, available from Amazon. Share or Die is also available for Kindle, iPad, and other e-readers. 

Neal Gorenflo


Neal Gorenflo | |

Neal Gorenflo is the co-founder and board president of Shareable, an award-winning nonprofit news, action network, and consultancy for the sharing transformation. An epiphany in 2004 inspired Neal to

Things I share: Time with friends and family, stories, laughs, books, tools, ideas, nature, resources, passions, my network.