The role of technology in building the sharing city, one open platform at a time

People-centric smart cities seem to be the focus of much industry dialogue now, as it should be. Ensuring that investments in creating technology solutions to improve liveability, workability, and sustainability outcomes is critical. Those companies that don’t do that won’t survive.

Our work in building the smart cities movement must be principles-based. And in this article, I explore how the sharing cities movement is underpinned by some deep principles focussed around openness, community-based innovation and trust.

My interview was with Darren Sharp, Director of Social Surplus, a consultancy supporting government and the private sector building the necessary conditions for sharing cities. Here’s what he had to say on both the sharing and smart cities movements.

Beck: I stayed in my first Airbnb, and took my first Lyft ride in 2013, both in San Francisco. It was certainly the buzz of the industry, and these two companies pioneered much of what we know as the sharing economy. Fast forward four years - What has happened?

Sharp: In part, the sharing economy failed to live up to its expectations – which was to provide people better ways to access city assets. Platform providers have been overly antagonistic with regulators and taken a winner-takes-all approach which amounts to corporate nullification of the law under the guise of disruptive innovation. Most cities have been totally blindsided.

When governments have embraced platforms like Uber it's usually without considering the long-term ramifications for urban governance, public transport infrastructure and universal access. Innisfil, Ontario forwent investment in public transit and put $100,000 into a partnership with Uber to move people around through a subsidized fares pilot. But what happens when prices go up, drivers get squeezed or Uber leaves town? Something has gone awry.

Beck: But it has been transformative for the good, in instances, right?

Sharp: Absolutely. What's exciting is the more collaborative approach to the sharing cities movement. A kind of new generation that is upon us right now, which is a much more bottom up, participative, and democratic movement. It's making city assets available to the public, and using the sharing economy to address urban challenges and create social and environmental value.

We are seeing governments enabling their own local sharing economy ecosystem by enhancing capacity and funding their own enterprises, whether its car share, clothing exchanges, tool sharing networks and the like. Sharing City Seoul has designed regulations to support the sharing economy, invests in local start-ups and has made 800 public buildings available for use during idle hours.

Amsterdam uses a community roundtable to help inform and shape and pilot various sharing city programs, and the City of Bologna in Italy has passed legislation to enable citizens to work directly with the city to improve their neighbourhoods, and build collaborative urban governance agreements to implement citizen-led projects. In these cities, we are seeing social equity and inclusion as a driver for the sharing economy, and a commitment to establishing the sharing economy as one that is open, avoiding vendor lock in, and involving the community more deeply.

Beck: Give me three core principles of the sharing city, without which the concept falls over?

Sharp: Collaboration between cities and citizens is the first principle. This is critical for success, and innovation. It changes the political contract on how democracy functions by saying that citizens need to be decision-makers too, rather than government always deciding what's best. It's about co-governance, and having a strong political culture.

The second principle is experimentation. This is best illustrated through examples like 3000 acres in Melbourne, where vacant land in the city is activated by the community for urban agriculture. Converting a wasted asset to community good, while improving amenity, and social capital, is a great outcome. And experimentation allows us to achieve these outcomes.