Columnist: Sharing -- Not Ownership?

October 22, 2012

By Neal Peirce

SAN FRANCISCO -- Each year the world's automobile manufacturers spend a stunning half-trillion dollars advertising the vehicles they're pushing. We've all seen the ads -- new model autos floating singly over magically traffic-free landscapes. The subliminal messages are clear: possession, power.

But if that's been our pattern for three-quarters of a century, is it necessarily prologue for a crowded 21st century with planet Earth accommodating a billion more middle-class consumers?

Driven by today's youth, a radically different preference is emerging. It edged its way onto the agenda of an ambitious yearly "Meeting of the Minds" conference, organized by Gordon Feller, intellectual magnet and Cisco official, held here earlier this month.

The notion is just this: That today's young adults in their 20s and 30s, nurtured on the Internet's vast cloud of choices, are incubating a value set of sharing rather than ownership. They're networked and connected rather than focusing on individual, isolated belongings. They value choices and differing lifestyles -- a clear break with the 20th-century model of "My car-my house-my possessions are me."

Skeptics may counter: "Get real. Possession is the oxygen of self-identity." And their case is strong. Booming car sales in such countries as China and India look like predictors of more personal consumerism, not less.

Yet the transportation front itself offers strong, extraordinarily hopeful indicators of new directions. Bike-sharing experiments are attracting users faster than anyone might have predicted. There are now about 200 such programs in cities worldwide, with many cities opening up more and more protected lanes.

Likewise, car-sharing systems are expanding at a strong clip, now estimated up to one million members in North America and 22 million worldwide.

And now there's a growing trend of what's called "peer to peer" auto sharing -- a formalized system, with appropriate security checks on members, that lets a car owner rent his auto to other users for moderate, negotiated fees.

Are the new shared transportation systems a strong factor in world cities now? No. Even Zipcar, the world's largest system, still operates in just 18 major metros. The new systems are just starting to make their mark in a world of 1,000 cities with a quarter million or more people.

But just watch the rising trend, car and bike share experts told the San Francisco meeting. Zipcars, for example, are now available on 250 college campuses -- introducing the next generation to new patterns of access and connectivity.

And shared cars offer big economies for what may be very resource-strained times. One study shows a single car-sharing vehicle replaces nine to 13 owned cars, another that membership in a car-sharing group saves a typical household $9,000 a year for each vehicle it can eliminate.

The digital age is also creating brand new work (and economic) patterns -- where, when and how work gets done. The corner office, some observe, is disappearing, replaced by an open work environment that may start inside the office, then extend to coffee shops and parks in a nearby neighborhood. And almost perpetually online.

Companies cut their desk office space and register dramatic savings. Cisco has pushed the opening of broadly distributed "smart work centers" that save workers longer commutes. Each center offers computerized work stations and "TelePresence" conference rooms that enable contact with co-workers anywhere from their own downtown to other world cities. The company is behind 120 such centers in the Netherlands and is advising a rapidly growing group in South Korea.

A sharing economy is a powerful new model and especially appropriate to cities. This is the argument of SPUR, San Francisco's lead citizen planning group. It cites a host of companies -- Zipcar was one leader -- that help people share assets. "Airbnb.com" helps share rooms and apartments, "Loosecubes.com" openings for co-working, "LaCocinasf.org" commercial kitchen space -- and the list goes on and keeps expanding.

The city of San Francisco itself is encouraging sharing. Its DataSF.org website publishes real-time data sets on every area from traffic to playgrounds to public health indicators. "People then come and build their own apps based on the data," Jay Nath, the city's chief innovation officer, told Feller's conference. "We've published 280 datasets; over 60 apps have been created."

A fascinating opening emerges from such experiments: In a political era marked by vicious attacks on government as too big and controlling, quite the opposite appears -- government as partner, facilitator, collaborator.

The sharing trend could clearly use more collaborators. Some of the conference participants even hoped, perhaps wistfully, that the auto companies might one day support it. (One possibility: Toyota, a "Meeting of the Minds" co-founder.)

The big picture is clear: Sparked by youth and older imagineers, enabled by the Internet, propelled by society's need for efficiency and economy, the world of shared services will grow. It may lack trillions for advertising. But it suggests a more humanly satisfying future.

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necesssarily those of the National League of Cities.