Amsterdam is Europe's first named "Sharing City." (Moyan Brenn / Flickr)

In their new book Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities, scholars Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyeman outline the synergistic potential of two contemporary trends: urbanization and the rise of the sharing economy. Cities are uniquely positioned to mobilize the redistributive capacity of tech-enabled sharing platforms, they arguebut only if sharing is understood as a political, social, and cultural as well as economic behavior.

To this end, McLaren and Agyeman eschew the term "sharing economy" in favor of the broader "sharing paradigm." This reframing emphasizes the transformative nature of the (re)discovery of sharing, and encourages activists and entrepreneurs alike to look beyond profit-generating apps to a more holistic stable of solutions that embraces shared production in addition to shared consumption.

Sharing Cities is framed around a series of place-based case studies, each of which points up one or more themes of the contemporary debate over sharing. Importantly, McLaren and Agyeman's cases include non-Western and developing cities in addition to the usual suspects (San Francisco, Copenhagen).

I recently spoke to McLaren and Agyeman by Skype about Sharing Cities and their vision for the future of sharing. We talked about how the book came about, how and why they chose their case studies, and where they hope their analysis will lead.

Anna Bergren Miller: In Sharing Cities, you write in terms of a "sharing paradigm" rather than the "sharing economy." Why?

Julian Agyeman: Do you want to know a little bit about the history of the book, first? A couple of years ago, Duncan and Friends of the Earth were trolling around some big ideas on cities. Duncan had been commissioned to do some work on this, and started talking to me. I had just become interested in this notion of sharing, and I didn't know where to go with it.

Duncan and I, and one of my students, did some research. I realized that there's a lot in this—a hell of a lot. What we realized in the report, as well, is that the current discourse about sharing is very much an economic discourse, and that was bounding the discussion.

We thought: cities have always been about shared space. Let's dig into this a little bit more. The report got quite a good following, and I sent it off to MIT Press, and they were interested. So we worked on a proposal, and it turned into the book we have today.

[Sharing Cities has] only been out a few months. I think it's going to make a really big impact. Duncan, do you want to go on about the sharing paradigm?

Duncan McLaren: As you say, the idea of the sharing "economy" is a problematic framing. Talking about the sharing 'economy' makes us think about the economy as the important space. It puts society and environment into secondary positions.

[But] from a sustainability perspective, the economy only works if we have a healthy society. And we can only have a healthy society insofar as we have a healthy environment. So, in a sense, starting with the economy is starting at absolutely the wrong end.

Worse, it creates a misplaced commercial focus: all about finding the "Uber for x"—the next sharing economy unicorn, the billion-dollar company. That puts you in a position where you're looking for economic solutions. Whereas what sharing really offers is a set of communal and civic solutions.

The final thing the economic framing does is [turn] our attention to companies, to businesses, to financiers, to solve the problems we face. It sweeps away the vast experience that cities and public authorities have working with sharing—not just modern bike share schemes, but a long tradition of working with public transit, with libraries, with a whole host of shared services and shared spaces. So I came to the view that the sharing "economy" framing was taking people's heads away from this, stopping us thinking about cities as agents that could really intervene on the sharing front.

Despite the word "paradigm" being horribly overused and jargonistic, that's really what sharing is. It's a paradigm shift for how we think about human activity and human relationships.

JA: And it's a framework for understanding all of those things that Duncan mentioned that are more communal, more civic, more about reinventing the popular, the participatory—the good things that we like about cities.

Medellín illustrates the potential for sharing in cities in the developing world. (Ívan Erre Jota / Flickr)

Why "cities"? What do you say to critics of the contemporary political economy who advocate a return to a smaller-scale communities?

JA: When you look at cities, their original foundation was of shared places: the market, the polis. These were about sharing ideas, about sharing commerce. You had shared baths, shared living quarters. The history of cities is about sharing.

Cities are the appropriate scale to think about sharing ideas. I couldn't see, in many ways, a national government being the appropriate scale. If you look at Benjamin Barber's work, If Mayors Ruled the World, cities are doing amazing things in regards to climate change, in regards to environmental management, in regards to public transit. They're the appropriate scale.

Our argument is: instead of cities throwing up their hands, and saying, "We can't do anything about Uber and Airbnb," we're saying, cities need to be more proactive, and they need to use their current regulatory structures, and develop smart regulations into the future, to utilize this creativity such that everyone benefits.

A good example: look at what's happening in San Francisco at the moment with Airbnb. Unscrupulous landlords are kicking out tenants, renting their places out on Airbnb, changing neighborhoods, driving up rents and house prices. In Amsterdam, they think to themselves, "Airbnb, it's a great idea, but we don't want our neighborhoods fundamentally changed. What we want is for people to be able to make a little bit of money, but we want to keep neighborhoods, we want to keep a rental sector." So they agreed 60 days of Airbnb per home. That's what progressive cities can do.

We're not looking at cities to stop this idea. What we're looking at cities to do is to try and guide activity into the communal, reinvent the commons, or revitalize the commons, so that we are looking at a more energized form of participation in cities.

DM: As I understood it, your question was also about: "Why not re-localize down to the community scale, back to the country?" There are two things I want to emphasize. Cities have a real advantage because of the density of living there. It makes it possible to use environmental resources incredibly efficiently. We use land really efficiently in cities, we can make use of water, the air that we breathe, green spaces; everything can be used highly efficiently in cities. The opposite in the modern world tends to be a form of suburban sprawl which is both soulless and typically very environmentally damaging.

The second point I want to make is perhaps more challenging. It's that cities tend to have cosmopolitan values. They are places where, for centuries, people of different backgrounds have mixed. Not necessarily entirely as equals, but much more as equals than is typical in small rural communities. Cities have long been places where we can go to lose ourselves, to escape the strictures of rural communities, and then to find ourselves, and reinvent ourselves.

It's not that every rural community is bad or harmful in that sense. But cities have a natural capacity to be more welcoming of difference than smaller, tighter, more communitarian communities.

So the opportunity of sharing cities comes from the combination of the massive potential environmental efficiency of density, and the social cosmopolitanism of cities, and finding ways to use the sharing economy and sharing tools to enable both advantages. That's what we think comes together in what, in the book, we call the "intersection of urban space and cyberspace."

Each chapter of Sharing Cities is framed around a single municipality. How did you choose which cities to highlight?

DM: You have to remember that this was early days in the idea of sharing cities. If we were to go out today, I think there'd be two or three cities that would be on my list that just hadn't established themselves in those terms at all several years ago. There were some very natural choices in the cities where there was enough going on with the modern sharing economy to try and understand what impact it was having: San Francisco and Seoul in particular. Then we wanted to have cities that made the best efforts to become more cosmopolitan and socially inclusive: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Medellín came in from that perspective.

Our sixth city was the hardest choice, because we were looking for somewhere we hoped to see the emergence of new tech-based sharing models in a developing economy. In the end, that case study became more a discussion of the choice that Bengalaru faces between the smart city rhetoric and the sharing city idea. That has repercussions and lessons for other cities as well.

JA: We weren't trying to be systematic. We were selecting these cities precisely to illustrate particular points. That's why the cities are kind of a precursor to the chapter.

What we did want was to show that the sharing cities thing is not a Western, wealthy city kind of thing. In fact, some of the best cases might be in Latin American cities, or in Seoul. This is not something that is hipster and trendy. This is deeper.

One of the themes of the book, as Duncan mentions, is the smart city versus the sharing city. Is it a binary choice, or can the two coexist?

DM: It's absolutely not a binary in terms of the real practices. Where it seems to be a bit of a binary is, again, in this realm of discourse. The voices that are calling for cities to become smart have a particular vision, and a particular agenda, behind them. It's one that we found really clashed with our vision of cities as socially inclusive, as cosmopolitan. We cite in the book, for example, Richard Sennett, and I think his assessment of the sterility of the "smart city" agenda, the lack of genuine participation in it, is spot on.

Having said that, the technology that underlies smart cities—the Internet of Things and so forth—can be harnessed in the sharing paradigm. We're not saying that cities should dismiss ideas of app-based mobile sharing. That sort of technology for intermediation is absolutely critical. What we're saying is that the intermediaries don't always need to be commercial. And if they are commercial, then they probably need to be steered and regulated in certain ways if the maximum benefit is to be achieved.

JA: Let me give you a concrete example, here in the Boston metro area, of the clash between "smart" and "sharing." This time last year we were under feet of snow. The mayor of Boston's response—because our infrastructure just couldn't cope, whether it was tthe subway system or our road infrastructure itself—he thought, "Let's get smart, let's team up with Google and use the Waze app to help people get around the city."

Everyone thought, "Wow, this is really smart. This is the kind of thing we do around here, we've got all these great universities." It was stupid. You know why? Because it took people's attention away from infrastructure spending.

I have no problem with this app, as long as it is part of, as well, a serious program of infrastructure spending. That is what was found wanting. For the mayor to just use the rhetoric of the smart city and an app was not fit for the task ahead.

We can't find an app to stop climate change. Similarly, we're not going to get our cities better designed through an app. Some of the smart city technologies can be seen as a Band-Aid, stopping us from discussing deeper issues like funding of proper infrastructure.

This is especially a problem in the United States, much more so than, say, in Sweden, or in many European, or Asian, countries.

The end has to be the sharing city. Smart use of technologies and regulations is desirable, but we should not be seeing the smart city as an end in itself. It is a means towards the sharing city.

[Our] piece in Time magazine ["'Smart Cities' Should Mean 'Sharing Cities'"] explains more of our thinking. We welcome the idea of the smart city as a way to move towards the sharing city.

In Copenhagen, a focus on urban space has facilitated sharing. (Moyan Brenn / Flickr)

In your chapter on Copenhagen, you explore idea of sharing politics. How can sharing and democratic politics be mutually reinforcing?

DM: [We've expanded on this for a piece on Shareable, "Sharing Power: The Crucial Challenge for Sharing Cities"]. The essence of it is that sharing revitalizes human contact. It is, in our view, a challenge to the ways in which doctrines of individualism, and independence from each other or autonomy, have come to dominate political discourse and undermine collective democracy.

In countries where that's the problem—and the US I put very much in that category, and the UK as well—even the most commercial forms of the sharing economy bring people into greater person-to-person contact with other human beings in roles that go beyond the purely commercial. They help renew that degree of empathy for other individuals that is the very first block of rebuilding social capital [and] civic engagement.

If we get into the genuine potential of the sharing city, beyond the commercial intermediated apps, into things that bring people together for communal purposes, then this helps renew people's belief, in a sense, in society. I don't want to sound too much like Bernie Sanders here, but it is a sort of democratic socialism that we're talking about here.

That's not the bogeyman of communism that Sanders' opponents want to suggest he's talking about. Certainly, when he cites Denmark and Sweden—living here, I can tell you for sure, these are not communist societies. They're highly capitalist societies. But they have not lost so much of communal activity, and of communal politics—they still understand that politics is something for society as a whole.

At the heart of our idea of sharing as a means of reviving that sort of democracy is that it pushes us to think collectively rather than individually. It pushes us to provision for ourselves collectively rather than individually. It moves our identity away from the things we own for ourselves, our individual possessions, to the relationships we have that can allow us to access things. In all those ways it primes us to act more as citizens of a collective, rather than as selfish individuals.

JA: One really good example that is very doable, and is being done in cities all around the world, starting in Porto Alegre in Brazil, is this idea of participatory budgeting. Instead of you electing your representative, and then they go away and through some arcane backroom process come out with a budget, cities are starting to say, "Hey, here's a slate of projects that the community have come up with. What do you think we should be funding?"

I participated recently in [the participatory budgeting process] in Cambridge, Massachusetts, [which allotted] only $500,000—a tiny fraction of the city's annual spend. But it's symbolic, and double the number of people that participated last year participated this year. We can expect that to increase. It makes these points that Duncan's making; we are sharing.

This is what's called co-production—sharing in the production of a new urban commons in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We are invested as individuals in decisions about our public space. This is not only good for the projects that get funded, but it's good for democracy. It makes people realize that democracy is more than just voting once every four or something years. It's a more continuous process.

I was talking to my students about this: what are the real tipping points that we could work on today in any city to get the ideas of sharing forward? Participatory budgeting is absolutely one. Even cities completely politically opposed to one another could work with the notion of a participatory budget. If we look at a future when a third or half the city's budget is decided democratically, that would be an amazing thing to do. Do your essential services; but then think of, and allow funding for, other projects that could be more democratically aligned.

You mentioned co-production. Can you say more about sharing production, and how that relates to the idea of the commons?

DM: The organizing device that we use throughout the book is this set of four quadrants, or, as we call it, the "flavors" of sharing. One of the things that I struggled with initially was trying to understand what fitted in the fourth box, the simultaneously commercial but more traditional "socio-cultural" forms of sharing.

A lot of these forms of co-production are what fit there. Initiatives like Linux, and Wikipedia—they blur into the intermediated space. There is an organization there, [but] the organization has grown out of the interactions of a set of individuals and mobilized in very traditional sharing ways.

The key model of this might be barnraising: a community gets together to put up a big building that it needs. And that was for a commercial purpose—the agricultural activity of an area. The modern equivalent of barnraising—maybe it sounds a little weird to say it's Linux, a software system—but I think that, actually, it is. The products of such co-production are of forms of modern day commons, and in the book we argue that the public spaces of cities are also commons, albeit produced without commercial goals in a process of "commoning."

Commoning and co-production are things that a lot of people don't immediately think of as sharing, because they aren't about sharing a particular product or good. I was at the International Workshop on the Sharing Economy in Paris recently, and people were parading their various definitions of the sharing economy. Most focused on underutilized resources—the drill that gets used nine minutes in its life, or whatever, came up again and again. But what gets shared in co-production and commoning are skills, and experiences, and even simply our time. And here the economic framing is oddly excluding a lot of genuinely "economic" activity that is going on within the sharing paradigm.

Our quadrants aren't meant to be tightly exclusive and strictly defined. They blur into one another. But they give a sense of the richness of these different flavors. And I think that by looking at co-production in these ways, for instance, we start to understand that potential richness, and not simply see this as how do we best share the products of the modern industrial economy.

The last big idea from the book I wanted to visit here is the idea of "just sustainabilities"—and I know, Julian, that's ground you've trod on quite a bit now.

JA: Trampled.

No, no! I was hoping you could speak about why it's important to incorporate equity into sharing models, and how we go about that.

JA: Let me tell you a little about how the just sustainabilities idea came about. There are lots of different strands, and again Duncan was part of this in the early 2000s, and his work on environmental space influenced me greatly—he brought the concept to me.

Since living in the US, one of the things I've realized is that environmental justice is not necessarily something that policymakers and planners can deal with. They see it as an activist agenda, as a social movement agenda.

I was thinking: the dominant paradigm in policy and planning is sustainability, and sustainable development. How do we get the justice, environmental justice, into the sustainability discourse? How do we bring it back there? Because it was always part of it; it's just that the environmentalists seem to have nudged out equity and justice issues. Not because they're nasty people, just because they felt the priority was environment. And so Duncan and I and others have long had debates about how we reinsert this idea of justice into sustainability.

I've been investigating food justice, climate justice, all other aspects of just sustainabilities. And really, the answer has been in our face the entire time: the sharing city is the ultimate in just sustainabilities. Several reasons. One of the ideas that Duncan and I had was that if we get this sharing city right, we can decrease inequality, increase social capital and civic-ness, and decrease resource use. That is precisely just sustainabilities.

I always say to my students, and if they do my epitaph someday, they will say, "As Julian said, social justice doesn't just happen." Nobody hands us social justice on a plate. We have to take social justice.

Similarly, in the sharing economy or in sharing cities, it's not just going to happen. An example being: I got a call, a year, two years ago, from a bike share scheme saying, "Julian, we've got a bike share scheme, up and running two years, it's wildly successful, but there are very few minority and low-income riders using our bikes." So the first question is, on what are you basing the notion you're being successful?

The questions I asked them are, number one, did you involve any people from those groups in this scheme? No. Okay, why did you not do that? The point, though, [is] these schemes were dreamt up by people who wanted them for commuting or for tourist purposes. They were never built around equity and justice. So the question is, actually, what would a bike share scheme look like if it were figured primarily around equity and social justice. Now, Philly bikes [Indego] has taken on some of this critique, and they are involving different groups in configuring the Philadelphia bike share scheme.

But what Duncan and I have put out in this book is, really: how can we build models of sharing that increase social justice and equity? We don't have a lot models, certainly in Western cultures.

Sharing cities is the absolute encapsulation of the just sustainabilities idea: improving people's lives, doing it in a just and equitable manner, and doing it within the limits of ecosystems. It's a perfect thing. We don't make a huge play of it, but we think that sharing cities is the platform around which just sustainabilities can be realized.

DM: I'll add a couple of things to conclude. One of the things that struck me is that the environmental stuff can be done without thinking about justice and inclusion—and that's a problem. But on the other hand, it's very hard to do, properly, justice and inclusion without thinking about the environment, because it's one of the dimensions on which people are either fairly treated or discriminated against. That, to my mind, gives a nice hierarchy of how, practically, to engage with these things.

So one of the key issues in just sustainabilities is an ongoing process of broadening our moral community, widening our circles of inclusion. Our societies are still wrestling with how far we include ethnic minorities, how far we include subaltern groups in gender terms, how far we include people of different sexualities. Those are the frontiers at the moment. Go back 200 years and people were talking not ethnic inclusion but whether to treat slaves as human beings. Go back 150 years and there were similar questions about women.

So we're making progress. And one of the reasons is that once you include a group in your moral community, pushing them out is a much, much harder thing to do than to leave them outside if they're never a part of it. It's an irreversible, or largely irreversible, process. There's a ratchet effect.

Coming back to what I was saying earlier about sharing cities as cosmopolitan spaces: they're spaces where we're exposed to difference. It's in that exposure to difference—Julian introduced me to this great literature on contact theory—that we learn to empathize with people who are different from us, and thus widen our moral communities.

Richard Sennett writes about stranger shock, and the idea that it's within the relatively safe and secure surroundings of the well-managed city that our exposure to difference helps us, that we learn from it, that we're open enough to accept different sexualities, different ethnicities and so forth. The idea of modern sharing is that we're moving to an era of stranger sharing, in which we make contact with difference, and build our empathy further.

To put it a different way, think of David Bowie. For a lot of people, certainly in my generation, he introduced us to this idea of our identity as a narrative that we wrote for ourselves, something that we could change as we went along. But also, in doing so, he challenged people's preconceptions of what other people's identities were, and opened doors for a whole load of different identities, and for us to empathise with them all.

It's that possible richness that cities give us. And it's that possible richness that a really just society, just sustainability in cities, will embrace.

JA: I've been [in the United States] 16 years and, you know, we are [a very angry nation]. We are self-sorting, we are becoming tribal. What is the role of people like myself, as urban planners, urban designers, in designing spaces of encounter?

This cities of difference idea is being in the presence of otherness. Duncan and I see it as rich; other people see it as threatening. How do we encourage encounter? How do we think about place and space as being culturally inclusive? And when I say "culturally inclusive," I don't mean racial or ethnic cultures, but I mean, the different tribes of who we are.

Again, this idea of contact theory—it is fundamental. It's obvious, in a way: the more encounters we have with difference, the more likely we are to become more tolerant. Cities afford us that likelihood of encounter of difference. And cities have it within their powers to design places and spaces where we slow the city down, where we get people to mix and mingle.

You only have to look at Broadway, in New York: the parasols, the deck chairs, the bike lanes, there's no cars. People are just sitting out there. People who you would never think would be sitting out, are sitting out. How do we make sticky spaces, places where people will stick, and maybe just chat across difference? That's the potential of the sharing city.

DM: Of course, we're talking virtual as well as physical spaces.

JA: Absolutely.

DM: That's what's so exciting about the technology of modern intermediation, it's creating these new contact spaces—still open, but with a boundary of security around them that makes them possible—these virtual spaces where people can mix online. And it protrudes those interactions into the real world: in sharing activities we normally need to add physical contact to the virtual. Yet so much of this is being co-opted for corporate interest and profit-making. And so the potential it has for generating greater intercultural contact is being missed.

Where do we go from here?

DM: Obviously, we'd be excited if cities were taking up the idea, spreading beyond the two or three that have currently chosen to call themselves sharing cities, and putting it into practice, putting some money behind it, putting investment behind it. Setting up sharing hubs, both online and offline, in real spaces and virtual spaces, that can allow all the citizens of the city access into the benefits of the sharing paradigm, and sharing activities.

Cities should be helping their citizens share, whether they want to find opportunities for working for co-ops, or investing in credit unions, or crowdfunding in their city, whether they want to borrow drills, or ladders, or whatever, or participate as a provider of accommodation space, or lifts or rides or whatever. All of that can be facilitated by cities in ways that allows for full social inclusion. Cities are in the perfect agents to be, if you like, the "intermediary of intermediaries," a broker for all the different providers, whether they're commercial, or communal, or charitable.

Seoul was one of the first global cities to endorse the sharing economy. (Mario Sánchez Prada / Flickr)

Anna Bergren


Anna Bergren |

Twitter LinkedIn   Anna Bergren Miller is a freelance writer specializing in the built environment. Her interests include contemporary design practice, digital design and