San Francisco Sharing Economy Working Group

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David Bollier:

"How might public policy help grow the commons? San Francisco just took a major exploratory step by forming The Sharing Economy Working Group. This new task force will be charged by Mayor Ed Lee with taking “a comprehensive look at the economic benefits, innovative companies and emerging policy issues around the growing 'sharing economy’.” The task force will include numerous city departments, neighborhood and community statekholders, and sharing economy companies.

In announcing the new task force, Mayor Lee gave it a fairly conventional political gloss. He said the sharing economy could “leverage technology and innovation to generate new jobs and income for San Franciscans in every neighborhood and at every income level.” He also pledged that San Francisco would be “at the forefront of nurturing its growth [the sharing economy], modernizing our laws, and confronting emerging policy issues and concerns.”

Since San Francisco has been in the vanguard of many cultural trends, it is natural to speculate that new sorts of collective projects (car-sharing, open workspaces, tool sharing, etc.) and socially based business models and development policies may have a strong future. The Bay Area has incubated such companies as Airbnb (a business version of CouchSurfing, i.e., room rentals for travelers in people's homes); Taskrabbit (a local task and errand service),Getaround (a P2P car-sharing and local rental service) and RelayRides (car rentals from people in your community).

The “shareable city” is a more dramatic departure in development policy than the good mayor lets on. Instead of pursuing strategies based on big taxpayer subsidies for big-capital projects managed by political and corporate elites, the San Francisco “shareable cities” vision aims at decentralized participation by ordinary citizens and neighborhood groups in conjunction with nimble, socially attuned startup businesses. Viva la difference! Let us hope this project gets a head of steam behind it and acquits itself well.

A hearty congratulations to the scrappy web magazine/commons advocate Shareable for its pioneering work in advancing this initiative. Shareable held a summit on the topic, ShareSF, in May 2011, and has worked closely with key politicians and city officials to develop the vision and its specifics. It was also the catalyst for a 20-part series of policy papers called “Policies for a Shareable City,” written by lawyers at The Sustainable Economies Law Center. The series focused on new policies that could promote car sharing, parking sharing, ridesharing, housing and workspace sharing, open and green spaces, urban agriculture, and tool sharing.

The San Francisco initiative should be seen as a compelling template for other cities to emulate. In its own statement, Shareable noted:

"Cities are looking for innovative solutions to the challenging triple-crisis of economy, social division, and environment. Sharing is unique in that it can address all three at once. It's a systemic solution, one being used across the globe where the growth economy is failing to adequately serve people. This move by San Francisco may be a signal that the time is ripe for citizens to increase engagement with cities around the sharing economy, and for sharing groups and companies to work together for urban policies that broaden access to wealth through voluntary and market mechanisms.”

The shareable cities paradigm has great appeal because, as a development strategy, it is relatively inexpensive yet potentially far-reaching in its influence. It consists mostly of providing leadership as a convener of key players, a facilitator in educating people about the new paradigm, and leveraging city resources and ordinances to help social sharing take root and expand. The paradigm helps re-engage citizens in taking responsibility and applying their own new ideas, and it helps reduce inequality by making basic services more accessible to everyone." (