Sharing NYC – Episode 1

Sharing NYC – Episode 1

SHARING-ECONOMYI arrived in New York from Rome at the end of May, just before summer showed itself in all its beauty (and heat, sic!). The city is vibrant and rumours are true: it is the city that never sleeps. Lights, colours, noises, scents (and odours), everything contributes to the conflicting impressions that you are both part of and alienated from a community that is three times bigger than Rome.

This is not my first time in New York, but it seems as if it were. Living the Big Apple in all its forms and expressions and among its people is different from visiting it in one week or two. After the first month, you do not “see” anymore. You observe. You do not look the buildings, but the multitude of people that populate them.

Then, from the window of my office, high above the street, I began seeing hundreds, if not thousands of people, who everyday go to work, go to lunch, chat with friends and colleagues, and come back home (maybe after a good beer: after work Friday events are famous for a reason!). At this point, I seriously asked myself if it might ever be possible for such a big and densely populated city like this to develop effective and sincere forms of social and economic collaborations, like those we are experiencing in far smaller cities in Europe.

This is not supposed to be a naïve question but it is rather based on historical, economic and sociological factors. The United States are the motherland of the modern capitalist economy, whose basic tenets are private property, self-interest, competition, economic freedom, consumer sovereignty and laissez-faire. Can thus a form of socio-economic collaboration among citizens be feasible and rise in such a context – a collaboration that goes beyond the basic principles of capitalism?

The answer is 100 times yes[1]. This is the number of sharing economy organizations that currently make New York City a true hub in this field. As Collaborative Consumption put it, “with 8.5 million people crammed into such a small space, it really makes sense to share!” Personally, I came in contact with this brand new reality and I had the impression of entering a world that casts both light and shadow. Sharing economy organizations have the potentiality of simplifying everyday gestures by giving you access to otherwise out-of-reach services, but at the same time they often spark debate as they are perceived as outsiders and free-riders of the economic system system (see for example the debate about Uber on The New York Times).

Generalizations about the sharing economy are easy and tricky at the same time. We might be tempted to infer from these few data that, at least in New York City, the very idea of capitalism has been superseded in favour of a collective form of management of depletable resources in the name of a superior (and maybe utopic) goal, namely sustainable development for all. It might be true in part, and certainly it is for a number of people, but we should go deeper into the reasons why sharing goods and services has become so successful since the mid-2000s.

Let us have a look into the data. In New York City, people do share almost everything, in a range that goes from food (e.g. EatWith) and transport (e.g. Uber and Citibike) to accommodations (e.g. Airbnb), education (e.g. Brooklyn Brainery) and even expertise (e.g. Contently). What all these organizations have in common is the people – people who decide to trust each other to the point that mutually beneficial relationships can be established.

But is trust the real push-factor behind the rise of the sharing economy? What continues to be forgotten in almost all discussions is the socio-economic environment in which this phenomenon has developed. The term first appeared in the mid-2000s, along with reflections on the tragedy of the commons, and in particular on depletable resources. One of the first theorists of the sharing economy is Yochai Benkler, who in 2002, coined the term “commons-based peer production”[2] to describe collaborative efforts based on sharing information and in 2004, explored in depth the possibility of a sharing economy[3]. We should however recognize that, in the practice, sharing economy organizations experienced a boom only in latest years.

Probably the New York Magazine got it right when it finally highlighted that “the sharing economy has succeeded in large part because the real economy has been struggling. A huge precondition for the sharing economy has been a depressed labour market, in which lots of people are trying to fill holes in their income by monetizing their stuff and their labour in creative ways. In many cases, people join the sharing economy because they’ve recently lost a full-time job and are piecing together income from several part-time gigs to replace it. In a few cases, it’s because the pricing structure of the sharing economy made their old jobs less profitable. (Like full-time taxi drivers who have switched to Lyft or Uber.) In almost every case, what compels people to open up their homes and cars to complete strangers is money, not trust[4].

Of course this is not saying that the sharing economy in itself reneges or betrays the theoretical foundations on which it is based. At a secondary stage trust becomes indispensable and it is certainly true that it helps in better managing the dilemma of depletable resources. The case of New York City and its 100 sharing economy organizations is just the exemplification of a society that is currently struggling to find a way across an infinite series of obstacles, from reduced liveable space and limited non-renewable energy sources to economic stagnation and recession. By chance this exemplification serves not only the cause of the individual, but (luckily) also the cause of the community. Still, even if the end is clear, a deeper reflection on the means to achieve the latter is desperately needed to dispel all doubts.

Coming soon: “Sharing NYC – Episode II” to explore sharing experiences in New York City, between success stories and contradictions. STAY TUNED!

[1] List retrieved from http://letscollaboratenyc.com/

[2] “Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and The Nature of the Firm”, 112 Yale Law Journal (2002)

[3] “Sharing Nicely”: On Shareable Goods and the Emergence of Sharing as a Modality of Economic Production, 114 Yale Law Journal (2004)

[4] http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/04/sharing-economy-is-about-desperation.html