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Sharing is a big deal these days. Sharing is a growth industry, a new field of study and of practice; it presents a realm of career opportunities, a new way of life, and a concept around which we are restructuring our world. Sharing is the answer to some of today’s biggest questions: How will we meet the needs of the world’s enormous population? How do we reduce our impact on the planet and cope with the destruction already inflicted? How can we each be healthy, enjoy life, and create thriving communities?

You might be asking: “What’s so complicated or special about sharing? Isn’t sharing just sharing—something we are all supposed to know how to do as civilized humans and kindergarten graduates?”

It’s true that sharing is a relatively simple concept and a basic part of human life. What’s new is that people are applying sharing in innovative and far-reaching ways, many of which require complex planning, new ways of thinking and organizing, and new technologies. In short, people are taking sharing to new levels, ranging from relatively simple applications of sharing to community-wide sharing initiatives — and beyond.

Taking sharing to new levels will require stepping outside of our usual boxes and acquiring new tools and skills. Many of us were raised in a world of tract housing, packaged foods, mass production, and cheap goods. We enjoyed our ability to buy everything we could ever possibly need, and fill our homes full of every “convenience.” It worked beautifully, until many of us woke up and smelled the carbon.Or we just couldn’t afford our lifestyles anymore—financially, socially, or emotionally.

Over the past five years, I started to pry myself out of my “convenient” and “self-sufficient” lifestyle. I moved into shared housing, started sharing meals and growing food with neighbors, dabbled in carsharing, started sharing an office space, and joined a cooperative grocery. Now I’m starting to think that the secret to the good life lies in sharing and community-building. I have connected with people in new ways, saved a lot of money, found new hobbies, and I eat great food.And I’m not the only person to realize these benefits. Sharing and community activity are on the rise.

I’ve discovered that as we progress into higher and higher degrees of sharing, the time and resources needed are greater. At the same time, we get much more use and value out of each shared object, and we meet the needs of a much larger group of people. As a result, the benefits of the whole are increasingly greater than the sum of its parts. Here is a closer look at other kinds of sharing that can happen at each level.

Sharing to the First Degree:

Requires Cooperation + Minimal Planning

At the most basic level, sharing arrangements require little planning, time, or money. They can start or stop almost any time, sometimes quite spontaneously. Take carpooling to work, for example–that’s something you can start doing tomorrow with one other person. Many of us already do share at this level. And as sharing increasingly becomes the societal norm, we will all probably share more in these ways:

  • Potlucks or meal exchanges with neighbors or co-workers
  • Borrowing and lending goods
  • Babysitting exchange
  • Dog walking exchange
  • Harvesting and sharing fruit from neighborhood trees
  • Sharing computer code or content

Sharing to the Second Degree:

Requires Cooperation + More Extensive Planning

Compared to sharing at the first degree, these sharing arrangements generally involve a larger number of people and/or sharing things with more value. They entail a higher degree of cooperation, more planning, a greater investment of time or money, a certain amount of administrative detail-work, and likely a written agreement among sharers. Sharing ownership of a car with a neighbor, for example, takes shared transportation to this second level. Other examples:

  • Sharing an in-home care provider for children, elders, or people with disabilities
  • Sharing rental housing or ownership of a single family home
  • Sharing yard space for food cultivation
  • Babysitting co-op with multiple families
  • Neighborhood tool lending “library” (which could be a shared shed where neighbors store their tools, or a list of tools each neighbor owns and is willing to lend)
  • Food-buying club
  • Neighborhood home repair group

Sharing to the Third Degree:

Requires Cooperation + Extensive Planning + Infrastructure

What’s next after carpooling and co-owning a car? How about a carsharing club? At the third degree of sharing, you might have ten neighbors sharing three cars. These neighbors will probably adopt systems for communicating, making decisions, managing money, keeping records, and so on. They will likely create a small non-profit or limited liability company (LLC) that will hold title and insurance to the cars. They’d probably adopt some technologies, like an online calendar for scheduling and numerical keypads that open and start the cars.

As a result of creating such infrastructure, third degree sharing arrangements often have an identity independent of their individual members. In other words, even as members come and go, and even when there is complete turnover, the sharing arrangement remains and becomes a lasting community institution. Here are some examples:

Sharing to the Fourth Degree:

Requires Cooperation + Extensive Planning + Infrastructure + Community-Wide Restructuring and Mobilization

Now we’re getting really ambitious: Picture a community where there are shared cars parked on every block. You reserve a car using your cell phone, punch in a code on the car door, get in, and go! Whether this is publicly or privately managed, launching such a program involves significant investment of time and resources and a rather complex system of administration. Taking sharing to the fourth degree can require getting government buy-in, mobilizing multiple players (legislators, investors, banks, developers, planners, etc.), or even restructuring our communities. While a shared car on every block is a dream yet to be realized, organizations like Zipcar (a business) and City Car Share (a nonprofit) are taking steps in the right direction. Other examples of fourth degree sharing include:

Developing Our Sharing Toolkits

Getting to the second, third, and fourth degrees takes work—but it’s work that people do every day. One part of this work is cultivating the personal and communication skills useful in sharing, such as the ability to say what we need and how we feel (not as easy as it sounds), and to hear the same from others. As we begin cooperating to higher degrees, we’ll develop skills to sort through diverse needs, feelings, beliefs, and communication styles and find sharing arrangements that work for everyone involved.

Beyond personal development, there’s the need to design our sharing arrangements in ways that balance everyone’s needs for personal space, solitude, predictability, security, spontaneity, and our old favorite, convenience. At first glance, sharing might seem to threaten each of these needs, but a well-designed sharing system could actually enhance them. Some cohousing communities have achieved this beautifully, through a careful balancing of personal living spaces and well-managed community areas.

Then, in addition to protecting our individual needs, there is the challenge of preserving and nurturing that which is shared. This means grappling with the “tragedy of the commons” –the theory that individuals, acting in self-interest, will make choices that result in the eventual depletion or degradation of shared resources. It’s a challenge, and our resource-depleted planet is the poster child for such a tragedy. Thus, as we design systems for sharing, we will incorporate values, standards, and management that ensure the sustainability of what we share. At the same time, in a more sharing world, the way individuals make choices will likely change. To the extent that we see our personal wellbeing enhanced by sharing and cooperation, we will look more often at the bigger picture, and make choices that help the commons to thrive.

Finally, there are technical, logistical, and structural tasks required in order to take sharing to new levels. Sharing is a growth industry because so many people will participate in these tasks: the software engineers who are creating the web platforms for sharing, the architects who design community-oriented housing, the city planners who design cities around sharing, and the lawyers who help community groups adopt legal structures and agreements for sharing. They will work alongside mediators, facilitators, educators, realtors, developers, accountants, entrepreneurs, scholars, and others who can contribute to the creation of a more sharing world.

Together we will develop the strategies, structures, ideas, and technologies that will usher sharing into every realm of life and take it to the nth degree.

–Written with Emily Doskow

Janelle Orsi


Janelle Orsi

Janelle Orsi is the Director of the national nonprofit Sustainable Economies Law Center, and she is a "sharing lawyer" in private law practice in Oakland, CA. Her work